By Karl Amadeus Hartmann
Director: Polly Graham
Conductor: Timothy Redmond
Choreographer: Michael Spenceley
Lighting Designer: Ceri James
Video Designer: Will Duke
Orchestra: Britten Sinfonia
Company: Independent Opera at Sadler's Wells
Venue: Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells
Photos: Max Lacome, Robbie Jack, and Nate Gibson
This piece tells the story of the 30 years war as written by a composer about to live through WWII. As such, it is full of both the memory of the devastation of a nation and the foreboding of devastation to come. Polly and I wanted to make the connection between the 1630s and 1930s palpable, while also making a connection to today.
After playing with multiple options, we chose to represent both the 17th centutry and 1930s Germany visually, and leave the connection to the present to the viewer solely through the context of staging the piece now.
In researching for ‘Simplicius’ two key images spoke to me and held me. One was Breugal the Elder’s ‘Triumph of Death’, and the other was a photomanipulated piece by Richard Tuschman, entitled ‘Once Upon a Time’. For me, the yellow in both those images embodied the feeling of suffering, sickness, sorrow, and decay that is presented by war, and I felt very strongly that I needed to use it in my design. In the end I used the exact wallpaper from Tuschman’s piece, and followed an overall colour palette that reflected elements of both images.
With the overall structure of the set, my aim was to create a fragmented and wartorn environment that not only accommodated the orchestra on a practical level, but also embraced them as a part of the piece and celebrated them as a genesis for the story being told.
With the costumes, those of the prologue are strictly period, with heavy-handed hints at Hitler Youth just abstracted enough to remove definite identification, while the characters of the 30 Years War all take on costumes that reflect their period but also take on elements of various animal archetypes (such as a pig for the gluttonous Governor and an Owl for the wise Hermit).
A third element of the piece was video design, exquisitely realised by Will Duke. As part of the design, I created graphic shadows and animation to express some of the themes of the piece and fears of the protagonist. Part of that animation I then used to create a video trailer for the production, as seen below.
The new Sadler’s Wells production...leaves no doubt about the parallels between the 17th and 20th centuries in Hartmann’s mind. Played on a two-tier set that looks initially like a bombed-out 1940s house but is abstract enough to assume the timelessness of any wrecked environment, it casts Simplicius...as a 1940s schoolboy lost in fantasies about the past.
The New York Times
Graham goes for an eclectic period mix spiced by black-comedy stylisation, with hearty Hitler Youth-style scouts morphing easily into 17th-century marauders. What’s most impressive, however, is the resourceful way she utilises every inch of a restricted space, with performers athletically leaping around and below Nate Gibson’s derelict-gantry set.
Graham finds the physical momentum Hartmann’s vocal music lacks, and her WWII framing device – elegantly imagined in Nate Gibson’s multi-level set, takes on particular poignancy in the context of the composer’s own brave anti-Nazi stance.
The stylised violence is extreme but revealing in Independent Opera’s haunting production of a bitter meditation on tyranny