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Viktor Ullmanns Der zerbrochene Krug and Alexander Zemlinskys Der Zwerg Los Angeles Opera, February 17 and

March 1, 2008 Kenneth Reinhard When James Conlon accepted the position of Music Director of the LA Opera two years ago, he insisted on two conditions: that the opera agree to stage all of Wagners major operas as soon as feasible; and that they make a major commitment to the 20th century music suppressed, directly or indirectly, by the Nazis as degenerate. This has turned out to be an exceptionally canny conjunction, and part of a welcome enrichment of LA Operas repertoire as it enters into a new phase of rapid growth. Patrons who might object for ideological reasons to the staging of so much Wagner have been reassured by the inclusion of operas by composers, mainly Jewish, who had suffered at the hands of Wagners champions in the Third Reich. And those who may be suspicious of composers they may never have heard of are often pleased to discover harmonic continuities between these operas and their Wagnerian precedents. There is indeed a kind of dialectical logic to these projects, which began unfolding in tandem last year. The long-anticipated LA Opera Ring, directed by Achem Freyer, will begin in 2009, and last winter a renewed version of David Hockneys Tristan und Isolde was followed by a double bill of a new production of Alexander Zemlinskys Der Zwerg and the U.S. premiere of Viktor Ullmanns Der zerbrochene Krug, as the first installment of a multiyear Recovered Voices project. Both The Dwarf and The Broken Jug were directed by Darko Tresnjak, the Co-Artistic Director of San Diegos Old Globe Theater, and conducted by Conlon. Conlon has tirelessly promoted this period of Germanic music, and has made an enormous contribution to its rediscovery, performing it frequently and making important recordings of Schreker, Ullmann, Schulhoff, as well as nearly a dozen discs of music by Zemlinsky. In its 2006-2007 season the opera presented a Vorspeise of the Recovered Voices project in the form of an unstaged suite of pieces from Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, Braunfels's Die Vgel, Krenek's Jonny spielt auf, Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis, Schulhoff's Flammen, Korngold's Die tote Stadt, along with a complete (also unstaged) performance of Zemlinskys Eine florentinische Tragdie. This performance was assembled and promoted with impressive rapidity after Conlons appointment, but it did not give a sense of how he would approach these works as fully staged productions. It did, however, give Conlon an occasion to introduce and explain his three linked motivations in Recovered Voices. First, the project is historical, meant to expand the publics account of 20th century Germanic opera, introducing works by composers who were widely admired in their time, but fell into relative obscurity because of the catastrophic circumstances of history. Secondly, Conlons intention is ethical, meant to right a wrong, at least to some small degree, by counteracting the Nazis attempt to suppress this music and to destroy the people who made it. And finally Conlons

motivation is aesthetic, to bring to the stage some astonishingly good but rarely performed operas, works, he argues, that deserve to be part of the standard repertoire and which will be recognized as such once they have become more familiar. In some ways, this last goal stands in tension with the other two, since it is based on the belief that this music is outstanding in purely musical and dramatic terms. We must, at least for a moment, forget that Ullmann perished in Auschwitz and that Zemlinsky was emotionally destroyed by exile, if this music is to find a place in the canon, and not simply remain an historical curiosity or an ethical obligation. And ultimately, it is only by succeeding in convincing us of the living urgency of these works that either of the other goals can be fully achieved. Conlons task is not an easy one, but the first step has been taken with this inaugural program of the Recovered Voices project. Ullmanns Der zerbrochene Krug was, in Conlons terms, a curtain raiser for Der Zwerg, which by itself is somewhat brief for a full evening (the complete version comes in at less than an hour and a half; in LA it was even shorter, cut for performance according to Zemlinskys instructions). Der Zwerg is frequently paired with Zemlinskys Eine Florentinische Tragdie, but Conlon argues that to present two such strong works together is to risk reducing the impact of each. Hence his decision to begin with Ullmanns extremely light village comedy, as an amuse oreille before the main event. Ullmann wrote the libretto himself, based on a story by Kleist, and completed the opera in Prague in 1942, soon before being deported for Theresienstadt. There, he led a remarkably productive artistic life, and co-directed the camps famous cultural activities, before being sent to his death in Auschwitz in 1944. The Broken Jug is a gentle parable of the frailties of justice, in which a village judge, Adam, presides over the trial where he himself is ultimately revealed to be responsible for breaking the titular jug while attempting to ravish the village maiden, Eve. One might conceivably construe the concluding moral, None shall play a judges part if he be not pure in heart, as a commentary on the Third Reichs perversions of justice; but the opera cannot support this weight, and in these terms it would come across as grotesque understatement. In fact, what is remarkable about Ullmanns fabliau of Dutch village life is its extraordinary remove from its historical situation: it seems to float in a timeless bubble of Late Romantic color and harmonies, where declamatory brass and rhetorical percussion are cushioned in a light Straussian bed of strings. How does one compose such sweet trifles one day, and report for deportation to a concentration camp the next? We may take it as diversion, an escape, perhaps the fulfillment of the mildest wish for the textures of fictional life, but hardly as political critique. Rather than arguing for The Broken Jugs critical significance or trying to find tenuous connections between it and Ullmanns tragic situation, Conlon and Tresnjaks production accentuates the operas unreality, presenting it, one imagines, in a way that Ullmann would have approved of, as a fleeting chimera of sound and light. The lengthy cinematic overture, with its jangly sequence of fourths rising like a ladder to a maidens window, is accompanied by a balletic dumb show in silhouette, where the primal crime (the breaking of the jug) is acted out in pantomime behind a large jug-shaped cutout on a black scrim, illuminated in slowly shifting pastels. The overture establishes the tone of the rest of the production, in which the flat, frankly clap-board sets in pretty shades of blue and pink

suspend the singers overdrawn gestures and exaggerated movements from any earthly reality. Baritone James Johnson in the role of Judge Adam, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Frau Marthe Rull (the owner of the jug), and soprano Melody Moore as her daughter Eve all sounded rather thin and separated in the often unforgiving acoustics of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Indeed, the real star of the show was Darko Tresnjak, whose remarkable and precise direction gave the farce a stylized, choreographic sensibility. The singers moved together as if pulled by invisible strings, joining for a group portrait, and then falling apart into scattered pairs. Gestures were coordinated, entrances and exits synchronized with comic precision. As judge Adam, his hypocrisy revealed, tries to make his escape with the incensed townspeople in hot pursuit, the proper couple of Eve and her righteous fianc Ruprecht are reunited, and the legal order reconstituted by the intervention of higher authority in the person of the regional judge from Utrecht. Fiat justitia is proclaimed in cheerful choral certainty, although it is unclear how a jug once broken can ever be repaired again as Frau Marthe remarks, Ich, entschdigt! Meint er, da die Justiz ein Tpfer ist? Und kmen die Hochmgenden und trgen ihn zum Ofen, die knnten sonst was in den Krug mir tun, als ihn entschdigen. Entschdigen! [Me, compensated! Dyou think that justice is a potter? And if these clever-dicks came and took it to the kiln, they might put something for me in the jug other than compensation. Compensation indeed!] Ullmann seems to suggest that it is womens fate to have their jugs broken by men, their compensation monetary or otherwise forever to be inadequate. Indeed, finally, woman herself is blamed not only for her own loss, but for mans downfall too, according to the final chorus: Had Eve not picked the apple, today Adam wouldnt have declared an injustice! But what exactly is Ullmanns attitude towards all this? The opera runs for less than forty minutes, wisely ending before it can become tedious, or tempt us to look too closely for answers. Der Zwerg, however, does not let us doubt for a moment that its allegories are both complex and coherent, and Tresnjak and Conlons production allows them to resonate and multiply. The story behind the birth of The Dwarf is that Zemlinsky asked his friend Franz Schreker to write a libretto for him, the tragedy of an ugly man, presumably in order to dramatize his failed relationship with Alma Schindler; but having written it, Schreker pleaded to be allowed to keep it for his own composition (which became Die Gezeichneten, to be staged by LA Opera in 2010). Schreker had already written a dance pantomime based on Wildes story, The Birthday of the Infanta, for a multimedia event involving literature, dance, stage and garden design, organized by Gustav Klimt for the 1908 Kunstschau Wien exhibition, and this is likely where Zemlinsky first encountered the narrative. Finally it was Georg Klaren who wrote the libretto for Zemlinsky. Under the influence of Otto Weiningers strange book of cultural sexology, Geschlecht und Charakter, Klaren eroticized the relationship between the Infanta and the Dwarf, and allegorized it, in Klarens own account, as the confrontation of every man with every woman.1 Zemlinsky composed the score in 1919 and orchestrated it in 1921; it premiered later that year in Cologne under the baton of Otto Klemperer.
1

Quoted in Antony Beaumonts biography, Zemlinsky (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 301.

The LA Opera production and set designs were lovely and traditional, all the action taking place in an ornate Moorish loggia, the costumes vaguely Spanish Baroque, the lighting clear and warm, with a tendency to blush red in more tempestuous moments. Oscar Wilde found inspiration for his story in Velazquezs Las Menias, and Tresnjak and Conlon followed this visual lead. An image of the painting served as a preperformance curtain that extended onto the stage, the painterly plane spilling into theatrical space. The sets high ceilings and dark panels seem to be inspired by Velazquezs painting, especially its two striking deep field rectangular figures the mirror reflecting the Infantas parents and the doorway framing the image of the queen's chamberlain both of which become key visual motifs in Ralph Funicellos set. The Infanta first appears in a doorway leading to the garden at the back of the stage, before the action begins, frozen and silent, in striking contrast to the madcap pantomime that opens The Broken Jug. Her wedding cake gown is closely modeled on that of Velazquezs Infanta, but glitters as if with shards of a shattered mirror; if she is ostended for our gaze, it is gaze itself that we see in her dispassionate reflection without subject. Large doorways line either side of the set, leading to the ballroom and other imagined rooms in the palace beyond, and promising some escape from the geometrically formal space of the throne room where the action is set. The doors will rotate into mirrors when the dwarfs world begins to collapse, and mirrors are the key image linking Velazquezs painting, Klarens text, Zemlinskys score, and the LA Opera production. So much depends in Zemlinskys opera on the conceit that the Dwarf has never seen his image in a mirror the tragedy of the ugly man is ironized by his self-ignorance. But Klarens libretto suggests that such ignorance is in fact endemic to this decadent world. The first of the Infantas birthday presents, and, according to her maid, Ghita, the most beautiful, is a prayer book with a Beichtspiegel, a confessional mirror, which, in Medieval Christianity, was not a literal mirror but a literary one: a mediational prayer for self-reflection based on the Ten Commandments. The Infantas Beichtspiegel, however, is blinden, blind or obscured clouded in Roger Clments translation of the libretto. The notion of a blinden Beichtspiegel is apparently Klarens invention, and it is not at all clear what such a thing might be, but it suggests that the failure of self-reflection is not unique to the Dwarf. In the LA Opera production, the prayer book was outfitted with a real mirror, and although I could not tell if it was clouded or not, it was an intriguing literalization of the allegorical device, and one that returned later in the opera in the Dwarfs climactic recognition scene. Rather than seeing himself in a large mirror behind the Infantas throne, as indicated in the libretto, the Dwarf picks up a mirror lying on her cushion, where the blinden Beichtspiegel had been left, and so begins his frenzied descent into self-recognition and death. But is it recognition that kills him? The LA Opera production, in superimposing this mirror with the clouded mirror of the prayer book, suggests, on the contrary, that this is a scene of misrecognition, or better, of the recognition of misrecognition. To see himself in the Infantas distorting, blind, mirror is not to see himself as he really is, but to see himself the way that others see him, through their superficial eyes and values. Their mirrors are blind, they cant show the depths of his soul, and he will forever be seen merely as a dwarf, not the romantic poet and musician that he really is. This is a subtle

point, but a key one, insofar as it makes sense out of a mysterious detail in Klarens libretto one that is underlined in the score, where the maids immediately echo in mock admiration Ghitas praise for the Beichtspiegel. In this reading, the Dwarf is neither really a knight, as he imagines, nor a miserable dwarf, but something else altogether perhaps the last truly romantic poet and lover. It is not the truth about himself that kills him, but the impoverished vision of the truth accepted by the world. Indeed, probably the central question facing the director of a production of Der Zwerg is the nature of the dwarf himself. In Oscar Wildes original story, the dwarf is discovered running wild in the forest, and although he is loved by the birds and lizards, he is mocked and scorned by the cultivated flowers in the royal garden. For Wilde he is a freak of nature, apparently non-verbal, absolutely primitive. For Zemlinsky and Klaren, however, the dwarf is a bundle of contradictions: insightful and blind, dignified and grotesque, a poet and a fool. Zemlinsky and Klaren present a range of possibilities, condensed in the Haushofmeisters first account of the dwarf as both the most wonderful [das Schnste] and repulsive [Scheulich] of the Infantas birthday gifts. He is, of course, a poet and musician, but how are we supposed to take his music? His first, merry song seems to allude to Tannhuser, and would grant him the dignity of the Minnesinger tradition; but it breaks off almost immediately clearly it is too sunny to express his emotional complexity. And the traueriges Lied that he goes on to sing for the Infanta is it poetry or parody? It is knowing, even prophetic, with its central conceit of his heart as a blood orange, scorned by the proud maiden who stabs it with her hair pin; but it is also overwrought and melodramatic, and concludes with what Zemlinsky calls a grating chord. The Haushofmeister, who also seems unsure how to respond to it, comments, He knows how to pull out all the stops [Er kennt die Register]. The text isnt bad. A little stunted, like himself. Haha! Zemlinsky and Klarens dwarf is no mere wild child, but a mass of contradictions and complexity. We are likely to feel both sympathetic towards him and repelled; we identify with him (as Zemlinsky clearly did), but we also pity him for his delusions. Some directors choose to emphasize his pathetic monstrosity, relying for dramatic tension on the slender thread of self-ignorance; in this case, there is something horrible about the opera, which unfolds like a bad practical joke to its bitter end. Adolf Dresen and Gerd Albrechts production for the Hamburg opera in the 1980s, with its ill-dressed, cringing dwarf, who actually bites the Chamberlin at one point, tends in this direction. Other productions emphasize the humanity of the dwarf, making the Infanta and her entourage into the real monsters; David Pountneys 2003 staging for Opera North had the dwarf as the only normal looking character in a court of bizarrely attired and gaudily made up beautiful people. Conlon and Tresnjaks production for LA Opera -- and especially Roderick Dixons superb realization of the character of the Dwarf -- takes a more interesting path, and brings out the ambivalence that is written into the text. When Dixon first appears as the Dwarf, in a large box brought into the court, he gapes and moons at the splendor around him, wagging and bowing like a broken jack-in-the-box. When he asks Wo ist die Prinzessin? rather than implying with courtly hyperbole that, among the many beautiful women of the court, she is the one who is more than beautiful, he seems truly not to know. But as the single act of Der Zwerg unfolds,

Dixon seems to grow in dignity, finally transformed into an almost believable courtly lover. His hunched, halting Igor limp gives way to an upright posture and more confident strides; he seems to grow in his own estimation as his delusion comes closer to the point of crisis where it can no longer hold. But when he breaks, it is not the fall of a pathetic wretch, but of a man more sinned against than sinning. He has become noble, he has gained poise, and his death is indeed tragic. Zemlinskys sultry Andalusian melodies and intoxicating Wagnerian harmonies are seductive, perhaps disturbingly so, in an opera where beauty is so cruel. When the Infantas playmates dance around her with armfuls of flowers, exalting in her radiant beauty, we hear echoes of Parsifals Blumenmdchen in the orchestration, which suggests that something poisonous has infiltrated the atmosphere. Something of Weiningers misogyny pervades the sonic and thematic link between these moments in the two operas, where women are presented as pure appearance, soulless, destructive, self-absorbed. Conlon suggested the Wagnerian undercurrents in Zemlinskys score, in this scene and elsewhere, by bringing out the longer phrases that are easily overlooked amidst the operas recurrent intervals (mainly fourths and seconds) and small melodic fragments. This sustained, even suspended, Wagnerian sense of period was apparent too in Conlons striking crescendi, which would at times slowly build before suddenly spilling into a rather overwhelming fortissimo. The lead singing throughout was notably strong: Mary Dunleavy was light and sweet as the Infanta, with touches of disturbing ice; and Rodrick Dixon matched his progressive nobilization of the character of the Dwarf with an increasingly confident, even heroic, vocal performance. The ovations were enthusiastic and sustained at both performances I attended, and everyone I spoke with afterwards operatic professionals, academics, and civilians was deeply impressed. Conlon and Tresnjaks presentation is not radical, does not push the opera beyond its period or reinterpret it in unexpected ways. Rather, they allow The Dwarf to speak for itself, offering the audience suggestions for interpretation, but allowing for non-critical appreciation as well. And this is a great service both to Zemlinsky and to the opera-going public, which now recognizes his name and the greatness of his music. If the ethical and historical goals of the Recovered Voices project rest on the success of the operas as works of art, the LA Opera production of Der Zwerg is a very promising beginning. James Conlons Recovered Voices project is currently scheduled to continue for the next two years at LA Opera, but it is not limited to that run; we can only hope that money will be found to stage more of the many rarely heard operas from that terrible time in modern European history. Justice may not be a potter, and history cannot restore shattered lives; but Zemlinskys Dwarf lives and breathes again.