VISION OF HELL IS MUSIC THEATRE AT ITS FINEST

Earth Diver, Ruhrtriennale, Essen

Shirley Apthorp - 2016

 

A world in crisis. A Russian coal mine. In the merciless cold, an angry man faces his own demise.

 

The Ruhrtriennale’s Earth Diver is a multimedia performance of simple means and breathtaking power. David Van Bouwel’s electronic soundscapes, all grinding metal and howling wind, meet Wim Catrysse’s reductive videos, humans dwarfed by monstrous industry and frigid landscapes, in Nikolaus Brass’s wraparound choral world. Add to this Paul Verrept’s clipped, biting texts growled and spat by experimental vocalist Phil Minton, and you get an experience so visceral, so engrossing, that it is almost too much to bear. Then ChorWerk Ruhr begins to sing the music of Heinrich Schütz, an early baroque cry to God from the anguish of the Thirty Years’ War, and you feel, to borrow a cliché, as though you have died and gone to heaven.

 

Since its inception 14 years ago, the Ruhrtriennale has grown into its own industrial wastelands, increasingly embracing the unique ambience of its abandoned mining infrastructure. Earth Diver takes place in the former salt store of the Essen Zollverein’s coking plant, one of the region’s more purgatorial locations. Inside the hall’s half-decayed shell, the project’s design team has assembled a primitive stage of scaffolding and construction site lights, with multiple screens like overhead sails for Catrysse’s film projections. The performance is in the round, with members of the ChorWerk choir often behind or amid the audience.

 

We are transported to wintry Spitsbergen, a Russian mine on Norwegian ground, almost-defunct, a handful of desperate men scrabbling for a living from the last scraps of a wasted resource in a catastrophically inhospitable environment. What is humanity, and where is God? What has been advertised as a philosophical reflection on our times of crisis comes across as a far more fundamental experience of one man’s desperation. Schütz’s ethereal sacred motets, underscored by the solid continuo group of Belgium’s B’Rock orchestra, remind us that for all our technological advances, precious little has changed when it comes to the human soul. We thirst for transcendental beauty as we grapple with the agony of existence.

 

Earth Diver works because of its simplicity, because its disparate elements have been cobbled together by what looks like a process of improvised diminution, baroque opulence pared down to something of elemental vitality. It is made by Belgian music theatre group Muziektheater Transparant, a team which despite 20 years of success in the business can still make work that looks young, fresh, rebellious and urgent. If you ever wondered what the music of Henrich Schütz has to do with your life today, you will find your answers here. At its finest, this is what music theatre can achieve.