In 1820 Franz Schubert turned his attention to a libretto for an oratorio written by August Hermann Niemeyer in 1778: Lazarus oder Die Feier der Auferstehung. The work, described by its librettist as a “religious drama”, survives only as a fragment. The first act is fully extant, but the second breaks off in the middle of an aria. The remainder of the manuscript is lost; how much more Schubert composed is uncertain. It was not until 1863, thirty-five years after his death, that the fragment was first performed in Vienna. Nevertheless, Lazarus is one of the most moving vocal works and has a special place in Schubert’s oeuvre.
The raising of Lazarus from the dead is only recounted in the Gospel of John in which it precedes the Passion of Christ. Along with his sisters Mary and Martha, Lazarus is a fervent devotee of the Messiah. He dies in the firm belief in the resurrection on the Day of Judgement. However, Jesus gives a sign by bringing the dead man, who has already been buried in his tomb for several days, back to life. In Niemeyer’s Lazarus, this event becomes a turning point in the life of Simon, who has lost his faith as a result of a series of misfortunes. In Act III (for which no known score by Schubert exists) he is converted after meeting the resurrected Lazarus.
Following on from his staged performance of Handel’s Messiah (2008), Claus Guth continues his focus on the subjects of death and redemption with Schubert’s oratorio. He makes use of the fact that the extant score breaks off in the middle of the burial of Lazarus, which means that the miracle of Lazarus’s restoration to life remains untold. With instrumental compositions by Charles Ives (e. g. The Unanswered Question) and other vocal works by Franz Schubert he creates an evening of theatre that centres on death and what might come after it. A performance that deals with questions to which there are no definite answers.