Theatre of miseries … Anselm Kiefer on stage with the cast. Photograph: Charles Duprat/Opera National de Paris

The 20th anniversary of the Opéra Bastille in Paris is marked by a spectacle of ruins: dust, more dust and the tottering towers of a city in a grey desert. In the Beginning, which premiered earlier this week, is directed and devised by the artist Anselm Kiefer, working in collaboration with the composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann.

The music rustles like dry leaves, rattles like a bag of bones. There are parched yelps, like jackals among the ruins, and crescendos and musical crises that seem to interrupt nothing at all. The atmosphere is restrained, yet full of portent. There is no singing, only declamatory recitations from the Bible, the occasional muffled wail, some low-key humming. Verses from Isaiah and Jeremiah are spoken by a disembodied voice, as if one were hearing in one’s head. It is hard to tell if the recitations are being spoken by Lilith, the first wife of Adam, played by Geneviève Motard, or by Shekhinah, Geneviève Boivin, who Kiefer uses as a representation of the wandering holy people of the diaspora.

The words hang in the air, along with the dust. There is no plot, only lamentation after lamentation. “Even the carcasses of men shall fall as refuse on the open field, like cuttings after the harvester, and no one shall gather them,” a voice says. There are images of broken vessels, of a world in ruins, of rivers turned foul, and of things that cannot be made whole again. These are desolate, homeless prophecies that might make men stop up their ears and drive them mad. As Kiefer wrote to Widmann when they were preparing this theatre of miseries, a letter that appears in the book accompanying the work, “everything has already occurred at the beginning, because the beginning is the end”. In the Beginning feels like the end of the world.

“I am against the idea of the end, that everything culminates in paradise or judgement,” Kiefer told me when we met in his studio in Le Marais the morning after the premiere. “The communists in East Germany also thought history would one day come to an end.” History is cyclical, he suggests, “but we need some illusions to survive”. He is planning a move to Portugal, where he can work with the sea on one side, a dying forest on the other. “It’s the kind of situation that interests me,” he says.

Born in 1945 and brought up a Catholic, Kiefer has never been afraid of big subjects or complex allusions. He has plenty of serious discussions when he’s at work, he says, most of them with dead poets – many of whose words find their way into his paintings – Friedrich Hölderlin, Paul Celan, Goethe. “I ask them what they think of what I’m doing. Mostly it’s not very complimentary,” he laughs.


Adrian Searle