Financial Times (GB), 07. November 2001
THE ARTS: Irony mitigates the gloom: OPERA AMSTERDAM: Willy Decker has played his cards right in this worthy staging of Aribert Reimann's 'King Lear', writes David Murray

Operatic versions of Shakespeare have been legion, but King Lear has remained a no-no (except for a handful of no-account composers, wading beyond their depth and sinking without trace): too long and unremittingly bleak, too many principal roles, too many essential plot-details for an opera. Besides, as one of the great, towering tragedies it must challenge any serious composer to think, "Can I really do anything to equal the spoken drama?" Britten is said to have considered it, and eventually given up; but in the late 1970s Aribert Reimann - Berlin-born in 1936, a devotee of Berg and Webern who keeps open ears for more recent techniques - took the plunge, encouraged by Fischer-Dieskau's longing to enact the leading role.

Since then Reimann's Lear has enjoyed many productions around the world, though few of them have been revived. I missed it at the English National Opera several years ago, but I gather that it was relentlessly grim. Of the many touches of cruel-but-relieving humour in Shakespeare's text, Reimann's German librettist Claus H. Henneberg retained few but those in the spoken role of the Fool (who disappears after the first half: we missed Alexander Oliver's sad clowning very much). For the Dresden Semperoper and now for Amsterdam's Muziektheater, Willy Decker's new production compensates by starting each half at an ironic distance.

Most of the characters in the opening scene, where old Lear demands to know from each of his daughters how much she loves him, are dressed like playing cards and behave accordingly, a`la Lewis Carroll. Act Two begins with the wicked sisters and their husbands at a giant dining-table, voraciously brandishing outsize forks and knives as if their victims were already on their plates. But pure gloom soon takes over, both times - and the question is: does Reimann's music really match it in spades?

This time at least, despite doughty performances by all the singer-actors (who are reduced to mere speech too often in the second half), I thought not. Everything in Reimann's opera has been most intelligently planned, and in great detail: you could imagine him passing on all these telling formal ideas to another composer, as an exciting blueprint to develop. What Reimann himself has done with them, however, is "expressive" chiefly in terms of crashing extremes and frozen moments, hardly ever in singably lyrical music.

Even the ardent flights of his counter-tenor Edgar - beautifully executed by Cambridge-trained David Cordier -sound like formulaic inserts, as do the high-flying anxieties of Gabriele Fontana's Cordelia, amid the rest of Reimann's earnest, inflexibly sectional score. He doesn't set words dramatically, only the general ideas of their utterances; mostly his singers find too little to get their teeth into, beyond screaming and whispering.

Gloster comes off best, perhaps; at least Hermann Becht made him seem so, as articulate and wounded as could be. There were other excellent singers, with John Brocheler's fine Lear all gravity and grief. I first heard him many years ago singing the lusty Flemish-historical hero "Tyl Eulenspiegel" (purloined by Strauss) in a post-Mahler opera; even now he is rather too spry for the dying Lear, but he gives it his all.

Hartmut Haenchen conducts the Netherlands Philharmonic scrupulously, making us hear exactly how everything in this complex score works - or doesn't quite. Which is not to deny that it's eminently worth hearing, without expecting profound tragedy; and the Netherlands Opera is playing it until November 28. This Lear is undeniably worthy, and seriously interesting. I just think that it starves its voices of open-hearted operatic material, and gives them "effects" instead. I should love to eat my words, should further acquaintance convert me.