Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

Jamie Barton at the Wigmore Hall

“Hi! … I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

The Nose: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

A Venetian Double: English Touring Opera

Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s fifteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Walter Braunfels : Orchestral Songs Vol 1

New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.



Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Des Simplicius Simplicissimus Jugend
11 Apr 2010

Covert resistance to Hitler — Hartmann’s Simplicius Simplicissimus

An anti-facist, anti-war opera written in Germany while the Nazis were in power? K A Hartmann’s Des Simplicius Simplicissimus Jugend was a brave act of conscience, even though the opera wasn't publicly performed until 1948.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Des Simplicius Simplicissimus Jugend

Camilla Nylund (Simplicius); Christian Gerhaher (Landsknecht/Sprecher); Will Hartmann (Einsiedel/Gouverneur); Michael Volle (Bauer/Feldwebel/Hauptmann). Die Singphoniker. Münchner Rundfunkorchester. Ulf Schirmer, conducting.

BR-Klassik 403571900301 [2CDs]

$29.99  Click to buy

Simplicius Simplicissimus is loosely based on H J Chr Grimmelshausen’s 1669 allegory. This was set in the Thirty Years War, a defining trauma in German history, barely appreciated in the English-speaking world. “Anno Domini 1618 wohnten 12 millionen in Deutschland” goes Hartmann’s introduction. “Da kam der grosse Kreig”. Thirty years later, only 4 million remained. Hartmann uses an alt Deutsch idiom but it’s obvious what he really means.

There’s a new edition, recently recorded by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. The singing too is way above average, which in itself makes this a top recommendation : Michael Volle, Christian Gerhaher, Camilla Nylund and Will Hartmann. It’s live, too, recorded in a small theatre, which adds to the atmosphere. This performance is vividly dramatic. Even if you don’t understand a word of German, the impact is clear.

Like the 1669 original, Hartmann sets the opera in tableaux, each act divided into different Bild or Speil subsections, like a series of stylized woodcuts. This formality creates an otherworldly edge to the horrific tale within. A thundering, brooding overture sets the mood of overwhelming chaos. Hartmann’s orchestration is spartan: simple trumpets, drums, pipes, a modernist battaglia. From this the male voices develop, chanting in goose-step rhythms.

Simplicius appears. “Ein kleiner Bub bei den Schafen, kannte weder Gott noch Menschen, weder Himmel noch Hölle, weder Engel noch Teufel”. Notice the pattern of opposite images, which flows throughout the opera. The text is set in rhyming couplets, typical of German tradition, and the music moves in a similar grave two-step.

Simplicius is a “Holy Innocent”, so pure he knows nothing of heaven or hell. In Tarot the Fool signifies someone who goes forth into the world without fear, facing danger but protected by his purity. Siegfried without the selfishness. Hartmann sets the part for high soprano though the role is male: Nylund’s lucid, clear tones are perfect.

“Beware of the Wolf” warns the farmer (Michael Volle, with solemn bucolic gravity). Wolf of course was Hitler’s nickname. Simplicius doesn’t know what a wolf is. so when the Landknecht (Gerhaher) appears he thinks the Horseman is the vierbeiniger Schelm und Dieb the farmer warned about. “Weiss nit, Herr Wolf” cries Simplicius but the Landknecht attacks the farm and kills the “!Knän, die Meuder und das kleine Ursele” (these archaic words give the piece a deliberate old world air). Nylund sings a long passage describing the horrors of war, which ends with !”O armes geknechtetes Deutschland”.

Now Simplicius has wised up and heads into the forest where he meets a Hermit (another Tarot figure). The Hermit (Will Hartmann) sings music like stylized monastic chant, wavering weirdly. He teaches Simplicius to sing Unser Vater (Our Father). Give us our daily bread”. Simplicius, incorrigibly naive, asks “auch Käs dazu?” (and cheese, too?) Eventually the Hermit dies, leaving Simplicius to face the world alone. Provocatively, Hartmann writes into the death music an echo of the Kaddish.

Another powerful intermezzo, swirling strings, plunging brass, depicting storm clouds perhaps, as Simplicismus is flown into the Governor’s mansion. The soldiers boast of their tyranny and blaspheme. This chorus sound like drunken communal singing in a beer cellar, also a reference perhaps to the Nazis. This time Simplicius pipes up “that’s no way to speak”. “Can you hear the Mauskopf piepsen?” shouts the Governor. And of course, Simplicius’s music is flute and clarinet. The Governer (Volle) recites rather than sings, not Sprechstimme, but oddly discordant. He can’t figure the simpleton out.

Then Nylund’s tour de force. Words pour out of her at a shrill rapid pace, almost no time to take a breath. Using speech instead of song was a deliberate device by Hartmann to confront the audience. Simplicius harangues the listeners, without music to soften the effect. As she finds her strength her words are supported by drums. A militant but not military march? Then suddenly her voice rises in song. Es dröhnt die Stadt, es stapft daher, schäumende bitt’re Jammersg’walt. She’s joined by the chorus now representing farmers, the victims of the Thirty Years War. “Gepriesen sei der Richter der Wahrheit!” (Blessed be the Truth) sings Simplicius, now transformed into a symbol of hope. Behind her muffled drums and cymbals, the choir now softly humming, and the Sprecher reminds us that by 1648, 8 million Germans were killed.

Significantly, Hartmann dedicated the 1955/6 revision to Carl Orff whose Carmina Burana used a similar fake medieval context, which the Nazis loved, though they missed the subversive undercurrents. Hartmann knew what it was like living in a police state. More double-edged meaning. Simplicissimus is also the title of a magazine that satirized all abuses of power, military, political and religious. It was based in Munich, where Hartmann lived. While the stylized formality presages Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Hartmann’s Simplicius Simplicissimus stems from the Weimar tradition of political theatre.

As a plus,there’s a half hour discussion with recordings of Hartmann’s voice on the second CD in this set. As a minus, this set falls down as there’s no translation. One might think that an opera where German-language speech rhythms are so important won’t need translation because anyone listening will be fluent. But many of the words are archaic, not that easy for non-native speakers to follow. And non-Germans need to know this opera, to better understand Germany, the experience of war and the role of modern music.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):