In the beginning was the picture.
Book and film followed later.
Now the “Girl with the Pearl Earring” has also conquered the opera stage: the “Mona Lisa of the North”, as that mysterious portrait of a woman by the Dutchman Jan Vermeer is marketed.
American author Tracy Chevalier has given the face a name and a story - Griet, an artistically receptive maid in the Vermeer home in Delft.
Philip Littell - not related to Jonathan Littell, the author of the novel "Die Wohlgesinnten" (which has also become an opera - has adapted the novel into a coherent libretto for the Swiss composer and pianist Stefan Wirth: "Girl with a pearl earring" is the name of the composition commissioned by the Zurich Opera House, which has now celebrated its highly acclaimed world premiere in English.
As humanity recently had to learn in a painful way, theaters are not secure buildings, but this is exactly what the Zurich production conveyed: a protective space for art, free from any actualization, also free from the temptation to recreate the film.
The plot has a cinematic component anyway through the flashbacks in which Griet tells her story.
If one might have dismissed this existence as a servant in the historicizing costumes of Annemarie Woods as trivial before the "turn of the era", one was now all the more willing to expose oneself to a snapshot of imagined art history, which did not culminate in murder and manslaughter, but was composed of genre scenes and left most of it in limbo.
After all, the piece is about seeing and the continuous change of perspective.
In the second act (Wirth speaks of the second movement), Vermeer gives Griet a lesson in vision by letting her look through his camera obscura.
And at the same time he sees things anew when he sees in Griet's astonished face: "Your eyes are very round." The music becomes very gentle, before it revs up powerfully as soon as Griet looks through the camera a second time and the orchestra under Peter Rundel's tight management offers everything in terms of colors and emotions that may be going on in Griet's inner eye.
The highly concentrated, perfectly crafted staging by Ted Huffmann (director), Andrew Lieberman (set design) and Franck Evin (light design) derives from this central scene.
The abstract, dark space of the stage is the walk-in camera obscura, for the protagonists, but also for the audience, who have to find their way around this space as soon as the revolving stage and light panel shift the perspective.
This often results in domestic scenes that appeal to Vermeer's paintings, such as the "Servant with Milk Jug" or "The Concert" in honor of the patron Van Ruijven (Iain Milne), who later tries to rape Griet.
Wirth himself speaks of the "black box" and means above all the figure of Vermeer himself, about whose life little is known.
With the baritonal eminence of Thomas Hampson, of course, he receives the stage life of a visionary painter who is solely concerned with his work.
However, Wirth's first major musical theater is not an artist's opera, as the story is told exclusively from Griet's perspective.
The young American Lauren Snouffer masterfully fulfills this role, between inner and outer world, maid and muse, erotic attraction and sense of duty, memory of the past and self-assertion in the present life.
In the end she secretly sells the pearl earrings for thirty guilders - in the book it was twenty.
Griet's opponent, Vermeer's jealous wife Catharina,
The Anglophile-oriented Swiss Stefan Wirth, born in 1975, is a real theater fox who masters his craft on the orchestral and vocal sound palette like a painter, stylistically up to date, but without method constraints.
Wirth demonstrates how important it is to understand the text with his vocal parts, which apart from a few short ensembles are dialogical.
The orchestral perspective also often changes between inside and outside when the church bells of Delft ring in again and again.
In the studio, where Griet is not allowed to change anything, her melody stretches out, the music turns into the wiping noise of her cleaning.
Sometimes the music really crashes, for example from the high, nocturnal interlude into the lowlands of the butcher's shop.
Orchestral force, dramatic tremolos in the double bass when the ears are pierced, and chamber music compression follow the individual scenes in a well-organized manner, even a seventeenth-century Dutch master is summoned once at the harpsichord.
The flutes play a leitmotif role, and their lip work is taken literally when Griet tells of her lover Pieter, the butcher's son (Yannick Debus), that he bit her lip.