Die ersten Menschen is an opera in two acts by Rudi Stephan. As the libretto, he chose Otto Borngräber’s play of the same name, which the latter had described as an “erotic Mysterium.” The work premiered on July 1, 1920 in Frankfurt am Main, almost five years after the composer’s death.
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Adahm: Kyle Ketelsen; Kajin: Leigh Melrose; Chawa: Annette Dasch; Chabel: John Osborn; Orchestra: Royal Dutch Concertgebouworkest; Conductor: François-Xavier Roth; Direction: Calixto Bieito
While one pandemic has barely subsided, another has already reared its ugly head in the Netherlands: the CALIXTO-21 virus, imported by People of Now with its headquarters in the scummy, malodorous swamp of pettiness at the tail-end of the Amstel River in Amsterdam: The Dutch National Opera., at Waterlooplein No. 3, where the Cultural Kremlin carried out an ethnic cleansing of “traditional” (read: anti-state) opera lovers over thirty years ago, then gagged the press in 2018, and recently appointed a Diversity Investigator in the person of Freek Ossel, who closely monitors compliance with postmodern pigment requirements.
Nevertheless, there is also some time for opera. Die ersten Menschen is about the family of Adam and Eve (last name Radise). They had 2 sons, Cain and Abel, and a late addition, Seth. The family thus consisted of three sons plus Ma Radise and Pa Radise. Atheists, endowed with a certain sense of logic, are quick to ask: 4 men and 1 woman, that makes for interesting reproduction. The Bible is vague about it; so the “prepared to give account to all who ask you for the hope that is in you” of 1 Pet. 3:15 is a bit hypocritical. One of the 32,678 contradictions in the Bible is found in Genesis 5:4, which says that Adam acquired even more sons and daughters: “And the days of Adam, after he had begotten Seth, were eight hundred years, and he begot sons and daughters.” He had plenty of time for it, but there is no further explanation, so we are left with the question: how can the world’s entire offspring be traced back to 4 men and 1 woman? The inescapable answer is: inbreeding.
We are all the product of scabrous inbreeding, dear readers, which is confirmed if we simply look around us in everyday life. And inbreeding leads to blindness, hearing loss, neonatal diabetes, limb abnormalities, intersexuality and schizophrenia. Stevie Wonder, Beethoven, the Infant Jesus, Queen Elizabeth, the Elephant Man, Peter Konwitschny… they are all, like you and me, products of inbreeding. It explains a lot.
It is to the credit of the librettist of Die ersten Menschen, Otto Borngräber, that he faced the facts: both brothers Kajin and Chabel (the fancy names for Cain and Abel) are jealous, because they are both in love with the same woman. Complication alert! That woman is: their mother! A piece of rare folklore, which could still be found in the 19th century in the Deep South of America.
At the Netherlands Opera, the director transports the family (oh miracle!) to our times and stuffs the stage with phallic symbols – it is Bieito, after all. (We keep falling for it.) We are presented with a collection of trailer trash in which Kajin is the outcast. Musically, he, the bad guy, makes his appearance with soft and menacing timpani beats, while Chabel, the good guy, is introduced with sweet string sounds. There is quite a bit of bickering and squabbling among the Radise family, and by the end of this Bieito “version” the brothers are farther apart than ever, which is in stark contrast to the libretto which ends on a hopeful (score notes: “Lebhaft”) and optimistic note. “Auf in den Tag!”, which means something like “Rise and shine” or “Seize the day”.
Composer Rudi Stephan (1887-1915) was not born under a lucky star. On March 2, 1915, he was called up for military service. He was initially stationed in his hometown of Worms. On September 18, 1915, he arrived in the town of Stryy (also known as Stry, Stryjen or Stryi) in the west of what is now Ukraine. On September 29, the violence of war became too much for him, so he climbed out of the trenches, exclaiming “I can’t take it anymore”. Promptly a Russian bullet went through his head: he was the only one in his regiment to die. Sad.
In 1909, Rudi Stephan had met the dramatist and philosopher Otto Borngräber, the librettist of Die ersten Menschen. A year earlier, the latter had written his “erotic mystery play” of the same title, about horny cousin Kajin (the earthly) and the sophisticated Chabel (the spiritual). It became an opera, a co-production by Stephan and Borngräber, completed in 1914, although the latter would have preferred Richard Strauss alongside him. On July 1, 1920, Rudi’s/Borngräber’s opera Die ersten Menschen premiered posthumously. Karl Holl (1892-1972) made an adaptation in 1922-1923 that removed passages from the text deemed offensive. Die ersten Menschen was first heard in revised form in Münster in 1924. It was not until 1998 that the opera was heard again, almost intact, in concertante form at the Berlin Konzerthaus.
The music of Rudi Stephan’s Die ersten Menschen is characterized by sharp dynamic contrasts and overwhelming tempo changes. Restraint and impetuosity alternate with a frequency matched only by the rotation of personnel in the former Trump administration. It is what you call “good music” (don’t ask me what that means), somewhat akin to Schoenberg, Berg, but the excitement that has erupted at DNO and among its allies in the press seems to us somewhat exaggerated. Suddenly, the greatest musical genius since Beethoven has been reinvented. Hallelujah! Not. Nonetheless: fascinating, but one hour would have done Stephan’s opera justice.
Conductor François-Xavier Roth has an intense feel for the surprising aspects of Stephan’s score; he and the Concertgebouw Orchestra illuminate them sublimely, for example, with the alto saxophone (we actually abhor the sound of saxophones, particularly the soprano saxophone, as well as the sound of the valve trombone, but that is just by the by) that accompanies Kajin, and the modest piccolo that accompanies Chabel. It is valuable music, from haunting to radiant.
Quite a lot is asked of the singers, but they can undoubtedly boast of “a job well done”; they all punch their way through notes and decibels admirably. What doesn’t really help is that the orchestra is on the same level as the soloists. Lyrical tenor John Osborn (Chabel) is in top form as always (too bad he has to walk around with a sort of white toy bear, ©Calixto Bieito) and he sings about his faith in God in a movingly beautiful way. Annette Dasch is an excellent Chawa (Eva) vocally and in terms of acting. The way she erotically creeps up to Adahm was an unadulterated visual delight. (Adahm, the wimp, however, hides behind his Calixto laptop.) The role of the reasonably disturbed Kajin was well played by baritone Leigh Melrose. We also enjoyed Kyle Ketelsen, bass-baritone from Iowa. If the real Adam could have sung, it would have been like Ketelsen: unwavering and visionary.
We can recommend this performance. Pros: interesting music, excellent soloists, Concertgebouw Orchestra. Cons: Counterproductive placement of the orchestra. And especially: Bieito Calixto, who indulges in his hobby, raping the libretto.
Adam, Eva en de hele famielje, even in onze tijd geplaatst door de heer Bieito Calixto? Ja, kom er maar op. Daar zakt je broek wel vanaf. Vandaar die fallische symbolen. Daar waar de heilige schrift soms wat vaag is, kan de antichrist van Friedrich Nietzsche opheldering brengen.
Hulde aan de cast die er onverstoorbaar een mooie voorstelling van maakte.
Oh that there could more such entertaining and illuminating music criticism published! Just for the record, the Pfalztheater Kaiserslautern beat the RSO Berlin by one year. We did a fully staged production of the piece in 1997.