The concept of resurrection presupposes a well-established order of things: life, death, burial, remembrance, and then finally the call to rise again, this time unto eternity. The structure of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 mostly follows that order. But what happens when there’s a fundamental disturbance, even breakdown in this arrangement? When a decent death and burial are rendered impossible because the body is depersonalized, even dehumanized, reduced to a putrid pile of cadavers impiously dumped into a hole? 

This is the main question that seems to be suggested in the latest production (not performance) of the “Resurrection” at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, staged by Romeo Castellucci and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The question comes through even if you watch it (rather than just listen) online, as I did. In Castellucci’s view, the resurrection of the dead seems to be preceded, even preconditioned, by the redemption of the living. His concept turns resurrection on its head and ties it to death’s corporeality rather than its purer, nobler, more transcendent facets.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts a staged performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

In other words, the order leading from earthly to eternal life is inverted: Bodies need to be dug out of the ground so that they can be re-labeled with their earthly identities (or at least, for lack of a better solution, tagged with serial numbers) and then laid back to earth, this time to finally rest. It’s a sort of backward transfiguration: from a black, faceless corpse back to a human; from it to her, him, them; from dead to deceased, if you will.

Castellucci achieves this by laying out a stage of thick, black clay in front of our eyes. In complete silence, an elegant white horse rummages through the stage as its human companion notices a hand sticking out of the mud. Soon enough, a couple of UNHCR-labeled vans drive in, bringing a dozen or so people wearing protective equipment. They start digging, only to find out that this corpse is not the only one. As the first movement progresses along with the diggers’ macabre business, corpses multiply and even diversify in a particularly uncomfortable way: You can’t really tell many of their former physical traits, but their sizes tell you that some of them were children.

 I expected this nerve-racking work to last all through the first movement and then stop, as if to mark off a thematic whole. But the digging carries on all the way through the next two sections, undermining the serene simplicity of the second movement as well as the shallow, near-absurd triviality of the scherzo. This, of course, happens on purpose: You don’t get to look back at the joys and even pettiness of life when both life and death have been so radically desecrated and therefore invalidated. If anything, the scherzo adds even more weight to the staging. Just as all begin to hope that the diggers’ ghastly business might be nearing its end, one of them unearths a gigantic black cloth concealing even more cadavers. The whole stage, it turns out, is one giant grave. (Only it isn’t a true grave.) The diggers have been trampling the dead.

The digging finally stops with Marianne Crebassa’s “Urlicht,” as is only natural. It will resume shortly, right after “O Röschen rot,” but this time in a calmer manner. The task is finally exhausted, and the beginning of the fifth movement only sees a solitary female restlessly turning over the ground as the rest of diggers lift the orderly arranged body bags and carry them into the vans. Finally, a couple of them sympathetically stop their most persistent colleague from her futile search, leaving the stage just as the call of the last trumpet is heard. Their comrade goes out too, removing her white protective suit and leaving it on the ground.

Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

And there it is—the earth is finally sanitized. It can be consecrated again. Is it fertile, though? As the chorus reassures us that dust can rise, that the dead are sown to bloom again and death is just a path to life, the only thing we see on stage is the pitch-black soil. Even if tainted with the piece of white cloth, it is now relieved of its (in)human(e) sustenance. As resurrection rings fortissimo and the soloists enthuse about conquering sorrow and death, rain starts falling. Life continues no matter what, in one form or another, the staging argues. For humans, however, the outcome is not so simple.

Let everyone sing their lungs and souls out, but who is left to listen, with the stage being emptied out of both the dead and the living? Us spectators, of course. We are almost back to the good old form of a symphony. Even with graffiti all around and simple wooden chairs and plain black T-shirts, the arrangement still comes close to the classic form: I sit and listen, the performers face me and play or sing, without any third parties in front of me to mediate the meaning.

The key, of course, lies in the “almost.” After all, the ground is still there, as if to impose itself as the real protagonist of the drama. Resurrection may be amplified through the ecstasy of sound—our gaze remains pinned down to the dirt. When we look back to the story as a whole, this Regiesymphonie does resolve the conflict between suffering and (eternal) life, but the ending is nowhere near as celestial as in the symphony on its own.

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The white horse at the beginning could have been a vehicle for metaphysics. But the moment he sniffed out the flesh, the metaphysics collapsed in on itself even before the forceful tremolo burst opened the symphony. As the long first movement begins to unravel, we, the witnesses, found ourselves faced with a performative dilemma: in a world of mass death and violence, are we to get our hands dirty or sit back and enjoy a musical piece about it? We can either dig up the dead that we’ve sown so that we can re-bury them decently and earn our right to question the sense and purpose of life again, or we can listen to this process rendered through a symphony as it resounds through a bare, desolate palace made of concrete. This production does not give us the answer. But it does hang a dictum over our heads: whether we choose one or the other (or both), this time we can’t just close our eyes in an act of reverence. We have to watch too.

The ground of Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting from the pit (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Thanks to its theatricality, the staging leaves no room for pure contemplation or emotions. In the hourlong dealing with decomposed bodies on stage (and pushing our gaze into the dirt so that we can’t miss any detail as the dramatis personae burrow through dead limbs), Castellucci also creates a stark contrast between this staging and what we’re used to experiencing in classical concerts. Remember the feeling of your eyes sailing across the well-arranged structure of an orchestra with their polished instruments and concert clothes as you listen to the music? Well, now you have to skip that part and jump straight into the hole of human existence: the dirt that bars us from resurrection and makes it possible at the same time. The director seems to ask: You wanted metaphysics? Here, let me shove some bones down your throat. Because, paradoxically, bones are where metaphysics begins and where it ends.

This view uncannily both subverts and matches the form and content of Mahler’s music, which contains the countless, inexhaustible ways in which this world disturbs the one that hovers above. Too much escapistic talk about redemption? A sassy little tune or a bizarre image will make it right. (Remember the ape skulking over the graves in “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde”?) Despite his yearning for the beyond, Mahler hardly ever seems to stop clinging to the here and now of life. Isn’t it obvious even in “Der Abschied,” where this poet of doom and bloom waxes lyrical about the earth’s greenery up until the very end? Even then, with the end being nigh, it’s about settling down and, ultimately, to use Castellucci’s own words, accepting the pain. Having disturbed and inverted the concept of resurrection to question its very possibility, the stage director meets the composer to arrive at a similar conclusion. ¶

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Jelena Ćirić is a run-of-the-mill digital worker trapped in the rat race of the global precariat. At night, she is an opera and classical music freak with a background in literary studies. She’s based...