Mainz is the logical place for an opera on its most famous son, Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing process in the late fifteenth century.
The English composer Gavin Bryars and English poet Blake Morrison as librettist are a less logical choice to be commissioned for an opera to celebrate the reopening of the renovated Staatstheater - particularly so,
as the libretto was translated into German anyway. (An English spinoff has been Morrison's novel, The Justification of Johann Gutenberg.)
This is the second opera collaboration between Bryars and Morrison, the first being Dr Ox's Experiment.
In spite of its hybrid origins, 'G' is largely successful, thanks too to director Georges Delnon and set and costume designer rosalie (sic), who created a late medieval/modern style and some clever visual inventions: the clerks whose livelihood is threatened by Gutenberg's invention protest carrying huge pens like spears.
There are a lot of long monologues, beginning with Gutenberg (Elmar Andree) suspended high up, at first alone. Little is known of Gutenberg's life, so Morrison in novel and libretto used his imagination to flesh out
the characters. In the opera there are also a good and a bad angel, who speak to Gutenberg, and heighten the drama, as they underline Gutenberg's
personal dilemma of choosing between God and Mammon, and cleverly indicate the inconceivable and uncontrollable revolution unleashed by his invention.
It also raises the opera above the level of just another dramadoc with music, a present fashion largely to be deplored.
Given that this is a remote and unfamiliar world, the characters are dressed as bizarrely as creatures from another planet: bald, with white masks (with the exception of the two singers - Elmar Andree and Hans-Otto Weiss - who play Gutenberg). The music is in those long, languid lines those familiar with Bryars' work will recognize. There are allusions to the musical styles of Gutenberg's time, at times discretely underpinned by
minimalism. There is one perfect moment, musically and dramatically, when Ennelina (Kerrie Sheppard), Gutenberg's jilted fiancée, now a nun, returns.
She is slowly drawn across the stage on a 'paper' boat. Her vocal line dominates; the orchestra supports it, so that the voice is always clearly audible. Those composers who spent their years in the galleys did this
automatically. Today, the poor voice, which should be king in the opera house, is left mostly to fend for itself, in spite of what the orchestra is doing. You've proved you can do it once, Mr Bryars; in your next opera,
please do it all the time. But all in all, this is a work that, like Gutenberg's, deserves to travel well beyond Mainz.