To transcend the human by aesthetic means is an ambition the American director Robert Wilson has in common with the late Andy Warhol. Never has this been more apparent than in Wilson’s opera adaptation of The Sandman, which debuted in Düsseldorf over the weekend, following its world premiere at the Ruhr Festival in Recklinghausen.

Oh, Olimpia! It is this spellbinding android that Nathanael falls for and soon feels a connection with, greater than with his flesh-and-blood fiancée. But it’s not only the protagonist in The Sandman who navigates a fine line between desire and delusion; Wilson admits to sharing a fascination with the mechanical masterpiece. And you believe him immediately: each one of his productions features a character resembling Olimpia. Wilson imbues her perfectly cool and elegant exterior with the shimmering breath of life with his highly visual theatre.

Another leitmotif of the black-romantic gothic tale is also firmly rooted in the director’s work: the eyes. Nathanael is traumatised by the tragic death of his father, as he is by the grisly bedtime story of the Sandman, which his mother used to tell him often. As the story goes, the Sandman would scatter grains of sand into the eyes of children who would not sleep, until their eyes fell bloody from their heads.

Wilson has staged ETA Hoffmann’s ambiguous play as a tragi-comic Grusical (horror musical), in which the aesthetics of the multi-tasking Wilson (director, lighting, stage) once again prove that he truly is a visual pioneer. Critics accuse him of superficiality, but the 75-year-old counters, ‘The horror may well be lurking behind a smooth façade. And is all the more sinister for it.’

The perfection for which Wilson is known makes his The Sandman a sensual experience as well. His lighting design, as well as his deft handling of space and time transcend reality. ‘Without light there is no space,’ he says, quoting Einstein. The stage design developed by him for the Düsseldorf production has only minimal props, but the exceptional lighting design fully makes up for it.

Robert Wilson admits to being fascinated by Olimpia, a lifelike doll. Photography: Lucie Jansch

Wilson starts by rehearsing his plays as though they were silent films, whose gestures appeal to him. ‘I reject naturalistic representation. The mimetics – and gesture-laden staging of Asian mask theatre like [Chinese] Bian Lian and Japanese Noh is much more to my liking.’

No wonder that it isn’t the script in Wilson’s production that plays the main role. Repetitions of individual passages reinforce the surrealism of the key scenes, the precise body language of the actors is almost staccato-like. Outstanding performances come from the actors who play Nathanael (a silly and mysterious Christian Friedel) and his mother (Rosa Enskat, funny); they beguile with their entrancingly doll-like performances while surprising with their vocal power.

The music has been composed specially for The Sandman by young British singer-songwriter Anna Calvi. Ranging from new wave to new romantic, it is a stark contrast to the stiff Biedermeier look of the costumes. In combination with the exalted movements of the actors and their mask-like make-up, it evokes memories of voguing, a dance style from 1980s New York that is the embodiment of all that is superficial and narcissistic. 

ETA Hoffmann’s play has certainly not lost any of its topicality. In the age of virtual reality, of Second Life, avatars, cyborgs and bots, the play is surprisingly relevant – despite having been written 200 years ago.

The public voiced their opinions in the form of standing ovations – and in return they were offered a rendition of the secret title song of the evening, There Will Be a Horror, by the ensemble. The composer Calvi, who was present at the premiere, pitched in, while Wilson himself joined the choir. Bravo!

RELATED TOPICS: ROBERT WILSON, PERFORMANCE ART