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The Hunting Gun/Carmen review at Bregenz Festival – ‘ruminative new chamber opera and spectacular open-air staging’

The Hunting Gun at the Bregenz Festival. Photo: Anja Koehler
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The summer festival at Bregenz keeps the small Austrian city on Lake Constance full and occupied for a month of activity. Chief among this year’s highlights is The Hunting Gun, the first opera by the 54-year-old Austrian composer Thomas Larcher, a former concert pianist who has already won admiration for a growing body of original compositions in other genres.

He has chosen as his subject Yasushi Inoue’s classic Japanese novel. Its main character is a writer who, almost by chance, publishes a poem describing his silent encounter with a solitary man carrying with him the weapon of the title. Following its publication, he is contacted by the stranger, who encloses three letters – from his niece, his wife and his lover – which together explain the air of sadness the writer sensed but could not interpret.

As a subject for an opera, the material feels slow-paced and ruminative, but Larcher’s intricate and fastidiously crafted writing, with its occasional references to much older musical styles, turns some potential negatives into positives.

Baritone Andre Schuen gives a purposeful account of Josuke Misugi, the man at the centre of the events described, tenor Robin Tritschler a thoughtful interpretation of the nameless poet who receives the various letters and whose appearances frame the action.

Hitting some alarmingly high notes with total aplomb, Sarah Aristidou sings the intense role of Misugi’s niece Shoko, with her fellow soprano Giulia Peri almost painfully phlegmatic as his wife Midori and mezzo Olivia Vermeulen registering potently as Saiko, Misugi’s lover and Shoko’s mother.

Conductor Michael Boder extracts a taut performance from the expert players of the contemporary specialist group Ensemble Modern, with a beautifully realised choral contribution from Schola Heidelberg.

The well-known Austrian actor and latterly director Karl Markovics draws the threads of the piece together in his often stark but distinctly atmospheric production, given striking but rough-edged visual character by designer Katharina Woppermann.

The main show elsewhere in town is the mega-spectacular that plays on the giant open-air lakeside stage – literally positioned over the water itself. This year’s production is a revival of Kasper Holten’s Carmen, which makes a virtue of the unusual setting in a staging which, even if much cut, realises Bizet’s classic effectively on its own terms.

There are worthy performances from all the principals, among whom Martin Muehle’s anguished but increasingly violent Don Jose is the best sung, closely followed by Annalisa Stroppa’s confident, determinedly independent Carmen.

Jordan de Souza conducts a zippy account of the score with the skilled Vienna Symphony Orchestra hiding somewhere but amplified to the point of audibility; but it’s Es Devlin’s installation set – two nail-painted hands in the process of hurling a deck of cards into the air – that steals the show.

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Verdict
Bregenz launches a ruminative new chamber opera and revives a spectacular open-air staging
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