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Recordings

Alexander Zemlinsky: Der Zwerg; Viktor Ullmann: Der zerbrochene Krug
21 Feb 2011

Der zerbrochene Krug / Der Zwerg

Der zerbrochene Krug is a very short opera by Viktor Ullmann, based on a comedy by Kleist, concerning the fall of man.

Alexander Zemlinsky: Der Zwerg; Viktor Ullmann: Der zerbrochene Krug

DerZwerg — The Dwarf: Rodrick Dixon; Donna Clara: Mary Dunleavy; Ghita: Susan B. Anthony; Don Estoban: James Johnson; First Maid: Melody Moore; Second Maid: Lauren McNeese; Third Maid: Elizabeth Bishop; First Playmate: Karen Vuong; Second Playmate: Rena Harms.

Der zerbrochene Krug — Adam: James Johnson; Licht: Bonaventura Bottone; Walter: Steven Humes; Frau Marthe Rull: Elizabeth Bishop; Eve: Melody Moore; Veit Tümpel: Jason Stearns; Ruprecht: Richard Cox; Frau Brigitte: Natasha Flores; First Maid: Rena Harms; Second Maid: Lauren McNeese; A Servant: Ryan McKinny.

Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus. James Conlon, conductor. Darko Tresnjak, stage director. Ralph Funicello, set designer. Linda Cho, costume designer. David Weiner, lighting designer. Peggy Hickey, choreographer. Recorded live at the Los Angeles Opera, 2008.

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It is set in the Netherlands: a woman sues the fiancé of her daughter Eve for having broken a precious jug, in a court presided over by Judge Adam; as it happens Judge Adam himself broke the jug while sneaking into Eve’s room in an attempt to seduce her, and was severely injured trying to escape. As the (excellent) conductor, James Conlon, says in the liner notes, the jug represents Eve’s virginity. One might think of Pope’s famous couplet: “Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law, / Or some frail China jar receive a flaw…” But the jug has far greater symbolic import, too: Eve’s mother points out that famous figures from Dutch history were depicted on the jug, and to Kleist the jug represents history itself, a tale shattered by human vice. As Kafka says, the Last Judgment in a court in perpetual session.

The staging of the opera (directed by Darko Tresnjak, with sets by Ralph Funicello) is good. The sky and the background windmills are colored like sin, ranging from lurid red to livid blue; during the overture, in an especially nice touch, dancers in silhouette, framed by a huge jug-arch, pantomime the events preliminary to the action. It is as if the drama were itself taking place on a great delft vase. The singing and the acting are enjoyably competent, but not more.

Ullmann’s opera is not one of his better works. In places there is rhythmic pungency, sometimes in a finely Prokofiev-like manner, but much of the music is generally peppy or generally mock-serious—there is none of blackness found in his other operas, Der Sturz des Antichrist and Der Kaiser von Atlantis. It would have better if the music had cut deeper, as Kleist’s play does, despite its cheerfulness. On the other hand, Kleist once wrote that we need to eat the apple of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil a second time, to recover our lost innocence, to become pure, as a puppet or a god is pure; and maybe Ullmann has tried to restore something of the innocence that was lost in the fall of man.

Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg is on an altogether different plane of achievement. The plot, derived from an Oscar Wilde fairy tale, is simple: on the Infantin’s eighteenth birthday her playmates frolic about her, and she receives many gorgeous gifts; the chamberlain tells us that the most beautiful of all is also the most abominable, a dwarf whose hideousness has been concealed from him all his life, for he has never been allowed to see a mirror; for sport the Infantin pretends to fall in love with him, but comes to think it would be still better sport to show him what he looks like; he peers into a mirror, and shrieks; the Infantin tells him that she never loved him—who could love a grotesque little hunchback?—and he dies of a broken heart; the Infanta notes that a favorite toy is broken, and returns to the land of tra-la-la.

The plot sounds like a version or perversion of the first scene of Das Rheingold: here, when the ugly dwarf falls in love with the beautiful maiden, we feel pity for the dwarf and contempt for the maiden. And there is even a moment of musical resemblance, when the orchestra plays limping figures as the chamberlain describes the dwarf, similar to those we hear in the earlier opera at Alberich’s entrance. But what Zemlinsky’s music tells us is that his opera is a version or perversion of the Olympia act in Les contes d’Hoffmann, for the Infantin is like a mechanical doll, and the dwarf is a poet who considers her a creature straight from a romantic poem.

This performance (also designed by Tresnjak and Funicello) is somewhat unsatisfactory. The set is handsome, with its black marble walls and golden stairs. But this very dark, spare set isn’t right for an opera where, especially at the beginning, all should be bejeweled, glittery, full of sunlight. It would have been better to look to Velázquez for inspiration, not Zurbarán. Mary Dunleavy, the Infantin, has a potent voice, a little shrill at times; she makes her character less a spoiled horror in a pretty dress than a playfully self-indulgent girl, caught up in a game whose consequences she doesn’t understand. I wouldn’t have guess that a production could go a ways toward exculpating the Infantin, but I was intrigued by this idea. What seemed wrong to me was Dunleavy’s naturalness, her smiling ease as she played her game: she might have been Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier talking demurely with Octavian.

I understand the Infantin (as I believe Wilde understood her) as pure artifice—better to have her move jerkily like a robot than to make her a character with an interesting personality. As the dwarf, Rodrick Dixon was superb, a figure of energy and a sort of supple pathos, ready to accommodate himself to the shifting viciousnesses around him.

But still, this is an opera that I find intensely moving. I have loved it for many years, and my life would have been poorer without it.

Daniel Albright

 

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