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Heinrich Marschner: Hans Heiling
14 Oct 2005

MARSCHNER: Hans Heiling

This Dynamic set spills over with rewards for opera lovers, especially those looking for something a little (or a lot) off the beaten path.

Heinrich Marschner: Hans Heiling.
Libretto by Eduard Devrient.

Marcus Werba, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Herbert Lippert. Orchestra, Coro e Coro di voci bianche del Teatro Lirico di Caligari, Renato Palumbo (cond.).

Dynamic 33467 [2DVDs]


First is the repertory item itself. Heinrich Marschner’s career bloomed in the years between Beethoven and Wagner. Mendelssohn dominated this time; in fact, the libretto for Hans Heiling was offered to Mendelssohn before it came to Marschner. Premiered in 1833, the opera succeeded, but Marschner’s career dimmed afterward, and this and Das Vampyr remain beguiling curiosities.

Pier Luigi Pizzi designed and directed this production for the Teatro Lirico di Caligari. As captured by Dynamic’s cameras, the sets most effectively capture the underworld origin of the title character, a half-human, half-supernatural being who lives with his mother, the Queen of the Gnomes. Painted backdrops serve to both establish the geographical reference and to place the work in a romantic, non-naturalistic frame, entirely appropriate for the work. The main physical setting looks like a cooled lava-overflow; later scenes, set in the human world, rely more on the backdrops than on props.

Heiling opens the opera bored with his underworld existence and pining for a woman. His mother warns him to stay with his own kind, but Heiling leaves to romance Anna, a young woman whose mother is most impressed by Heiling’s wealth. Unfortunately, Anna already loves a local boy, Konrad. Pressed by her mother, she agrees to marry Heiling, but when the gnome realizes that her heart belongs to another, he lashes out at his rival. Finally he realizes that he could never be accepted into the human world and descends to his home and mother, leaving Anna and Konrad to temporal bliss.

How the opening scene must have struck Wagner, who surely saw the opera. A sort of funhouse mirror reflection of Alberich in Rheingold, Heiling is bored with the treasures of the gnomes and feels that only an amorous connection with a human female can make him happy. Eduard Devrient’s libretto prefers long monologues delineating states of mind to conventional story telling, and a static, even awkward narrative probably presents the real stumbling block to Marschner’s opera finding a home in today’s opera houses. Brief spoken dialogue links some of the set pieces.

But the music! The opening scene’s eerie children’s chorus of gnomes establishes Marschner’s command of mood, and though none of the melodies remain long in one’s head, they have an originality and complexity of development that more than compensates.

And Dynamic has assembled a worthy cast to give the music the performance it deserves. Markus Werba is youthful and attractive both in appearance and voice, and his Heiling presents a charismatic figure in the depressed-bad-boy mode. In fact, many a viewer may wonder what Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Anna sees in the bland, chubby Konrad of Herbert Lippert. However, Werba is done no favors by the red tights of the opening scene. He makes a more impressive figure in a white suit donned for his visit to the surface world.

Anna Caterina Antonacci’s career appears to be taking off, and here is great evidence for why. A truly striking woman, she sings with great precision and control, although the top can be tentative. Her long scene that opens act two is almost worth acquiring this set by itself, as Antonacci delineates the confused emotions of Anna. The character, unfortunately, grows more conventional as the opera proceeds, but Antonacci has the ability to hold our interest even when she is not singing.

The rest of the cast do well enough, though Gabriele Fontana’s Konigin suggests that immortality inflicts some wear and tear on the voice.

The final reward of this set is the strong leadership of Renato Palumbo. He infuses the score with passion and color, indicating the strengths that have just led to his appointment as replacement to Christian Thielmann at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Still relatively youthful, this conductor looks to be set on a remarkable career.

So for the opera itself, the two leads, and the conductor, Dynamic deserves our thanks for this Hans Heiling. Now how about Das Vampyr?

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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