Czernowin: Heart Chamber review

Though her works are still hardly known in Britain, Chaya Czernowin is a major, distinctive voice in new music on both sides of the Atlantic. Heart Chamber, first performed in Berlin in November 2019, is her fourth opera, composed to her own original text, subtitled An Inquiry About Love.

There’s very little in the way of a conventional plot – the 90-minute piece maps the intricate emotional course of an affair between a middle-aged couple, who meet by accident in a city street; the ending is ambiguous, but probably optimistic. It’s a two-hander, but one that requires four soloists; the two protagonists, a soprano and a baritone, only identified as She and He, have alter-egos – “internal voices” Czernowin calls them – sung by a mezzo and a countertenor respectively.

The text is spare. It’s sometimes banal – “My bathroom is long and endless”, says the woman at one point – and sometimes awkward – “Will you wrap me with your flesh?” she asks at another – while the narrative thread through it is a very tenuous one. The individual characters of the lovers seem scarcely defined, except through their relationship to each other. Claus Guth’s production for the Deutsche Oper premiere obviously tried hard to put some more flesh on these bare dramatic bones, with lavish video projections and lots of extras moving in slow motion, and the performances, van Patrizia Ciofi en Dietrich Henschel as the couple, met Noa Frenkel en Terry Wey as their other selves, are wonderfully committed. The vocal lines are mostly functional, but in the end it’s Czernowin’s luminous orchestral writing, with its ravishing electronic enhancements and a small chorus of voices in the pit, that compels attention and binds the work together, creating an aural world that’s far more involving than the one depicted on stage.

After the ellipses of Czernowin’s drama, the bold colours and vivid narrative of La Fanciulla del West come as a bit of a relief. Yet this Romanian-sourced recording for Pentatone, met Lawrence Foster conducting the Transylvania State Philharmonic, isn’t the usual, no-holds-barred account of a score that is the closest Puccini ever came to modernism.

For Foster’s approach is more contained than most; he never lets the orchestra rip for its own sake, so that the effect is much more intimate than we’re used to, especially in the scenes between Melody Moore as Minnie and Marius Vlad as Dick Johnson. Not everything is totally convincing, wel, and the orchestral playing isn’t always secure, but Moore’s performance especially is well worth catching.

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