Höller (Der) Meister und Margarita
As a 20th-century fable of disillusion, Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita has few peers. Its piercing insights into human failing and cultural paralysis, laced with flights of amoral fancy, positively demand dramatic realisation – a challenge met by York Holler’s opera, premiered in Paris in 1989 and heard here in the Cologne staging of two years later. A British premiere shows no sign of materialising.
A treat for the emotions as well as the intellect, Bulgakov’s novel draws parallels between the immobilising fear of Stalin’s ‘reign of terror’, its culture of denial, born of fear, and the fateful meeting of Jesus (here Jeschua) and Pontius Pilate, with Matthew an unreliable mediator and personifier of the disinformation which crosses time and epochs. Serious and troubling subject matter, tempered with an imaginative dimension that Holler has captured unequivocally.
Now in his 57th year, Holler has long been a composer whose modernism is open to resonances from the recent past. The actual feel of his idiom derives from Mahler, via Berg, and the under-appreciated Bernd Alois Zimmermann, from whose opera Die Soldaten Holler has drawn crucial lessons regarding formal coherence and dramatic impact.
The two acts chart a complex scenic and temporal trajectory. Act 1 pursues a headlong course between crises, culminating in the obliquely humorous scene in the Variety Theatre (CD 1, track 7), with its ridiculing of ‘official’ pronouncements and expose of human conformity. Act 2 has an emotional sweep rarely equalled on stage over the past quarter-century. Highpoints include the interlude (CD 2, track 2), with its veiled Mussorgskian reference; Satan’s Grand Ball (track 4), with its biting juxtaposition of Renaissance and rock; and the luminously expressive final two scenes (CD 3), where the ‘reborn’ Master and his muse realise that, unlike the repentant Pilate, their utopia can only be found through an other-worldly escape.
A strong cast is headed by the authority of Richard Salter’s Master and Marilyn Schmiege’s passionate Margarita. Franz Mazura’s Voland is a devil-figure of disturbing integrity, while Etsuko Katagiri makes the most of the characterful, feline Behemoth. Lothar Zagrosek keeps a tight control on momentum, while the closely balanced recording conveys the music’s sonic density and allure, and gives the extensive electronic component rightful prominence. A gripping, thought-provoking opera – and most definitely required listening.'