The 1816 wreck of the French frigate Medusa, from which just a handful of passengers survived after nearly two weeks on a makeshift raft, was still very recent history when Théodore Géricault painted the scene.
Exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1819, “The Raft of the Medusa” divided those who saw it, especially because the tragedy had stirred anger at the restored Bourbon monarchy.
In 1968, when Hans Werner Henze premiered his oratorio of the same title, it was polarizing too: The performance was canceled when the police intervened after fights broke out among audience and artists over leftist posters and banners hoisted in the concert hall in Hamburg, Germany.
On Saturday, though, when the Komische Oper of Berlin staged the work in and around an enormous pool built by the company in a hangar at the disused Tempelhof Airport, “The Raft of the Medusa” seduced more than it polarized. It is an ambitiously scaled, superbly performed, conceptually clever, politically adroit yet emotionally cool spectacle.
Directed by Tobias Kratzer and conducted by Titus Engel, the show, which runs through Oct. 3, is most notable as the rare venture outside a home theater for a major opera house.
It comes at a period of transition for Berlin’s three important companies. (Yes, three — a legacy of the city’s divided era and of Germany’s commitment to culture.) The Deutsche Oper and Berlin State Opera both face changes of artistic director and chief conductor. And the Komische Oper is beginning a multiyear renovation of its base in the center of town.
While the Komische Oper will be largely spending this time at the Schiller Theater — as the State Opera did during its renovations some years ago — the company is also taking the opportunity to put on productions in less traditional spaces. Each nomadic season will open at the Tempelhof hangar, which is part of a complex built by the Nazis in the 1930s; most of the old airport is now a park and, more recently, an emergency refugee camp.
“The Raft of the Medusa,” with its sprawling orchestra and chorus, including an eclectic battery of percussion and a boys’ choir, doesn’t feel lost in the huge space, even if — with just three soloists — its storytelling is essentially intimate.
Henze dedicated the piece to Che Guevara, who had died the previous fall, and the final line, spoken to a rhythm drawn from the protest chant “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh,” foretells revolution: “But the survivors returned to the world, instructed by reality, feverish to overthrow it.” Ernst Schnabel’s text toggles between poetic and starkly journalistic.
A character named Charon, after Greek mythology’s ferryman of the underworld, narrates the wreck of the ship and the horrifying days that followed. Death is a dreamily alluring soprano; Jean-Charles, an agonized representative of those aboard the raft.
The chorus of the living, dying and dead solemnly intones and angrily cries out. Henze’s orchestra, too, is capable of explosive power, but mostly the score restrains these grand forces to a stunned, wary quiet, played by the Komische Oper’s orchestra under Engel with remarkable sensuality and subtlety given the necessity of amplification.
At Tempelhof, members of the chorus are unidentified at the start as they sit among the audience of 1,600, which is arranged in two blocks facing each other across the pool, with the orchestra on a third side of the quadrangle. The choristers, wearing black and white clothes, begin singing from their seats and eventually walk down to the pool.
As the Medusa’s voyage begins, Kratzer has the performers frolic in the calf-high water as they play with inflatable rings. (The simple, effective pool set is by Rainer Sellmaier, with Olaf Freese’s lighting conveying the harshness of both night and day.)
Rather than early-19th-century sailors, these people suggest contemporary bourgeois beachgoers, much like the oblivious leisure-seekers of the recent opera-installation “Sun & Sea,” too focused on tanning to perceive rising seas or the migrants lost in them. Jean-Charles (the forthright baritone Günter Papendell) here might be an accountant or lawyer.
Benches come together to form the raft and are occasionally detached to use as platforms around the pool. Death (the soprano Gloria Rehm, her voice never too harsh or hard) is here a glamorous diva in a sparkling, skintight black gown. As they expire, the choristers trudge out of the water and back to their seats, so we in the audience end up eerily immersed in the ghostly sound of the afterlife.
In both Gericault’s painting and Kratzer’s production, a lone Black figure is a focal point. Unlike the painting’s heroic savior, waving red fabric to get the attention of a ship on the horizon, the staging’s Charon, a Black woman (the resonant mezzo-soprano Idunnu Münch), is a pained, helpless witness: an aid worker in a rowboat too small to save anyone.
With the production already depicting the bourgeoisie transformed into desperate refugees, forced to undergo agonies they usually ignore, this casting decision furthers the sense of a reversal of the standard order of things, in which whites look on (or not) as people of color suffer.
It’s an intriguing decision. But in attempting to mix realism and stylization, Kratzer tends too naturalistic. As the shipwrecked passengers first scramble en masse toward the raft, splashing violently in the water, the sight is powerful. Later on, though, the survivors’ reaching, grasping hands and twitching bodies come off as strenuous cliché, lessening rather than increasing the intensity and depth of feeling. It’s not necessary to see an actor dressed as the Jesus that some of the poor souls hallucinate in their hunger, thirst and fear.
But near the end, the hangar’s tremendous door, near the side of the pool opposite the orchestra, slowly slides open. The temperature drops as the fresh night air pours in, and you get a tiny, terrifying glimpse of the relief that people in such a situation might find in death. The survivors emerge from the pool and walk out toward the dark, vast expanse of Tempelhof Field, led by an emergency van.
It would have been obvious, even without the van, that this forlorn procession was meant to evoke the path taken by the migrants who have been housed at Tempelhof over the past decade. But the opening of the door was a true, visceral dramatic coup, a fitting climax for a staging with the heft to feel worthy of a remarkable space.
The Raft of the Medusa
Through Oct. 3 at Tempelhof Airport, Berlin; komische-oper-berlin.de.