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Monday, February 7, 2011

DVD Review: Recovered Voices, Heard Once More

James Johnson (left) and Bonaventura Bottone in Der zerbrichne Krug.
Photo by Robert Millard © 2008 Los Angeles Opera
This DVD from the Los Angeles Opera presents a compelling double bill by two composers whose voices were silenced by the so-called cultural policies of the Third Reich. Viktor Ullmann's Der zerbrichene Krug ("The Broken Jug") leads off, a frothy 40-minute comedy about judicial corruption. It is paired here with Der Zwerg, a tragic one-act opera by Alexander von Zemlinksy.

L.A. Opera music director James Conlon staged these works as the first installemtn in Recovered Voices, an admirable initiative to explore and perform the stage works of composers whose works were declared "Entartete", or "decadent" by the Nazis. (This DVD is the first recording of the Ullmann opera.) Krug was completed in 1942, just before the composer was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. (Ullmann's most famous opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis was written there in the year before the composer's death.)

Considering the heavy-handed satire of Der Kaiser, it is almost a relief to learn that Krug is full of warmth and life. It is the tale of a civil case brought forth in a tiny Dutch court, in order to determine who broke a large jug. This is a microcosmic small-town comedy, and the ensemble cast (led by James Johnson in the role of the jug-breaking Judge Adam) makes it spin.

This work gives listeners the chance to hear Ullmann at his most melodic and inventive, writing for a full orchestra instead of the tiny forces used for Kaiser. The orchestration is rich, the melodies memorable, and the comedy compelling. If history had been different, this work would be a repertory piece, at least earning its keep as a light curtain-raiser.

Roderick Dixon in the title role of Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg.
Photo by Robert Millard © 2008 Los Angeles Opera
Der Zwerg is based on The Infanta's Birthday by Oscar Wilde, and retells the story of a Spanish princess who is given a hunchbacked dwarf as a present for her 18th birthday. The dwarf falls in love with the princess, only to have his heart broken. The work had deep meaning for Zemlinsky, and reflects the composer's insecurities through a poetic mirror.

Part of the reason for the work's obscurity is the title role: a demanding tenor part. Playing a  hunchbacked dwarf takes the same acting  chops as the title role in Rigoletto. Add a voice designed to sing in a heroic tenor--the fach is about the same as Wagner's Lohengrin--and you'll get an idea of the demands. Roderick Dixon handles the high tessitura with skill and a golden tone, although he pushes in the final scene. His acting brings forth the naiveté and pathetique characteristics, which undermine the noble core of the nameless dwarf. This is a major performance.

He is aptly paired with Mary Dunleavy as the cold-hearted Infanta, a spoiled brat who does not understand that her "birthday present" is a human being who has fallen in love with her. Her shimmering soprano skates above the orchestra, reaching heights that recall the best vocal writing of Richard Strauss. Susan B. Anthony is also impressive in the role of Ghita, a compassionate maid who is taken aback at the Princess' cruel treatment of the dwarf. And James Johnson doubles in this opera as Don Estoban, the court chamberlain.

Part of the reason these works are forgotten lies in the actions of artists following the war. Conductors, orchestras and record companies wanted to forget the atrocities of the Nazi censors and thugs. They plumbed the 18th and 19th century catalogues. Millions were spent, and countless "complete cycles" of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner were recorded in analog (and later, digital) versions. A few "modern" 20th century composers: (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich, to name three) were "legitimized." It is largely due to the efforts of artists like Mr. Conlon, and initiatives like  Recovered Voices, that this lost music has been found once more.

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