Photo: Michael Trippel

Chaya Czernowin

Heart Chamber

Naxos DVD

Patrizia Ciofi, soprano; Dietrich Henschel, baritone; Noa Frenkel, contralto; Terry Wey, countertenor; Frauke Aulbert, vocal artist 

Deutsche Oper Berlin, Johannes Kalitzke, conductor


Chaya Czernowin’s opera Heart Chamber deals with the emotional journey involved in navigating a relationship. It does so with large-scale forces; in addition to vocal soloists, a substantial orchestra, a chorus and chamber ensemble placed on the sides of the stage, and surround electronics. Because this is a love story that is not without its travails, and the interior lives and subconscious feelings and fears of the characters are so potent, the use of all of these resources seems fitting. 


The involved couple, played by soprano Patrizia Ciofi and baritone Dietrich Henschel, are paired with two additional singers, Ciofo with alto Noa Frenkel and Henchel with countertenor Terry Wey. They serve as reflections of the deep unconscious of the protagonists, sometimes revealing hidden truths that contradict what is overtly stated. Czernowin crafted the libretto, which is non-linear in its narrative but touches on many essential themes: courtship, commitment, conflict, and parenting among them. The viewer is often invited to see the distortions of memory playing a formative dramatic role. The meeting scene, which takes place on a staircase where Ciofi drops a jar of honey and Henschel retrieves it for her, is replayed a number of times with variations, suggesting that memories are pliable and renewable dependent on a person’s current mindset. 


All four of the soloists display superb control, detailed musicality, and considerable acting abilities. Vocalization moves from hushed whispers to full-throated cries, with glissandos prominent in the declamation. When the vocalists are enacting the plot, Czernowin likens the sections to close-ups in a film. The electronics incorporate vocal samples, which allows for elaborations of the singing that at times take on a prismatic cast, particularly when coupled with additional layers of singing from the chorus. Some of these can be quite delicate breath and mouth noises. The opera’s dream sequences all feature interactions between the singers and chorus, some of the best music in Heart Chamber.

Photo: Michael Trippel

The relationship between the chamber group – the Ensemble Nikel – and the Deutsche Oper Berlin is similarly multifaceted, sometimes cooperative and at others acting independently. Bassist Uli Fussenegger joins Ensemble Nikel and serves a featured role; the weight of the double bass is used in what Czernowin calls “sound floods/surges,” and it often announces and depicts pivotal dramatic sequences. Different fractals of the ensemble play “Forest” segments. Conductor Johannes Kalitzke has been set a formidable task, and he rises to the occasion, eliciting a detailed and vivid rendering from the performers. The production values of the DVD are strong, capturing arresting visuals and many vantage points of the performers that allow for the viewer to get a sense of the enveloping live experience. Heart Chamber is a potent work ripe for additional productions. 


-Christian Carey