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8.225312-13 - BRAUNFELS: Prinzessin Brambilla
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Walter Braunfels (1882-1954): Prinzessin Brambilla
Through blue-tinted spectacles: Les Contes de Braunfels

‘A timeless, an untimely opera,’ enthused the influential musicologist Alfred Einstein in 1931 after he heard the revised version of Walter Braunfels’ Prinzessin Brambilla. At the time this verdict might have raised a few eyebrows, given that musical stage-works based on commedia dell’arte themes, as Prinzessin Brambilla was, were all the rage, and very timely indeed, as the venerable Italian dramatic tradition had enjoyed a surprising revival in Germany and elsewhere over the previous two decades. In Prinzessin Brambilla, however, commedia dell’arte was only one element in a complex operatic work whose many strata cut across different levels, the ostensible historical incongruence of which might have led Einstein to his verdict that Prinzessin Brambilla was timelessly untimely. The libretto is based on a novella by the Romantic poet E.T.A. Hoffmann, which is in turn based on a number of copper engravings by the seventeenth-century artist Jacques Callot. While Callot’s engravings depicted characters from the commedia dell’arte tradition, Hoffmann locates the novella in the festival of Roman Carnival, and Braunfels further specifies the time of the action in the eighteenth century. Drawing on all these diverse sources, the material of Prinzessin Brambilla is a mélange of different art forms, styles, traditions, and historical periods.

The festival of Roman Carnival, during which Prinzessin Brambilla is set, is not mere local colour; it is also constitutive of the topsy-turvy events that take place in the opera. This ‘carnivalesque inversion’ turns everything on its head, transforms it so as comically to reveal its own undoing. But it is not only the carnival that causes confusion, for Braunfels offers a whole range of devices that go beyond the perceptual world of our everyday reality: Princess Brambilla first becomes visible (or rather audible) through blue-tinted spectacles, fairy-tales spill into reality, dreams become the basis of major life decisions, drunken tavern talk reveals more wisdom than sober analysis, the strange moccoli (candle stumps) game, described in detail in Goethe’s Italian Journey, is a playful double of the potentially fatal highpoint of the drama.

This carnivalesque confusion allows all characters to play with, and gradually change, their identities. When stripped of all its complex digressions, subplots and dramatic conceits, the basic plot is a simple love story, complicated only by the interference of carnival: the actor Claudio is led, in a prank, to believe that he is an Assyrian Prince and that he has been promised the hand of Princess Brambilla. This mysterious princess, whom Claudio is in search of for most of the opera but who is nothing but a figment of his imagination, finally materialises as his erstwhile lover, the seamstress Giazinta, who is in turn in search of her Prince Charming. Both finally find their way back to each other, though the transformation each has undergone behind their respective masks has lasting effects on their characters. In fact no character stays the same in the opera, save for old Barbara, who retains a keen sense of distinction between fiction and reality throughout.

Until the happy revelations at the end of the opera, identity itself is under threat, and that is also true for Braunfels’ approach to opera. With Prinzessin Brambilla he professed to have written an anti- Wagnerian opera; sure enough, it is easy enough to make out in this fast-paced, light-hearted work the antithesis to Wagnerian metaphysical portentousness. In 1909 Braunfels himself wrote, explaining the significance of Prinzessin Brambilla, that in it ‘for the first time, the attempt was made to withdraw from the coercive power of Wagner’s overwhelming genius, by thumbing its nose, in grotesque tone, against anything that smacks of pathos or tragedy’. But in fact, the relation to Wagner is at best ambiguous: especially with the important notion of Wahn (illusion), elements of the opera are clearly indebted to Wagner’s Meistersinger. Meanwhile, Braunfels’ music does seem to owe more to Hector Berlioz, whose skilful orchestration he greatly admired, than to Wagner himself. We can only speculate to what extent Berlioz’s own ‘Roman Carnival’ from Benvenuto Cellini stood model for Braunfels’ musical impression of this colourful festival. At any rate, some of the orchestral effects that Braunfels achieves, such as the magical ‘blue-tinted glasses’ music, are no less spectacular than those of Berlioz himself. And yet, the Wagnerian question was of crucial importance to the significance of the opera in its early years, as it seemed to offer a way out of the impasse that the overpowering Wagnerian legacy had left for the generation of German composers at the turn of the century. A critic wondered whether Braunfels was ‘the man who could write the comic opera of the future’, no mean praise for the work of a 27-year-old. From our perspective, with the benefit of almost a century’s hindsight, it might seem odd that Braunfels should be considered a figure of the avant-garde, certainly when compared with some of his contemporaries, such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartók. Braunfels would seem, by comparison, more like a figure of restoration or of continued tradition.

The main challenge that Braunfels’ early opera posed to the Wagnerian paradigm was its emphatically musical conception, which was at the time felt to be in stark contrast to Wagner’s interest in the dramatic element of opera. This trait also characterizes his other operas, above all his widely popular Die Vögel. In a context that leant more and more towards the concept of Literaturoper as a further development from Wagner’s music dramas, such a musically driven, at times predominantly symphonic, idea of opera would have seemed like a radical departure. If we rehear Prinzessin Brambilla almost a century after its first performance (and half a century after its last performance before being produced at Wexford) our interest might not be quite the same as it was for early-twentieth-century audiences and critics. Where they found departures and revolutions, we might be more inclined to detect continuity and tradition, in a repertoire that has experienced comparative neglect in light of the predominance of the generation of composers preceding it. We might be fascinated by the bricolage of heterogeneous sources that Prinzessin Brambilla is based on, drawing diversely on the visual arts, dramatic improvisation, and prose fiction, and notably not on pre-existing music, that would seem to be more characteristic of our own age, and by Braunfels’ expansions of the tonal idiom that never overstep the boundaries of tonality. Perhaps it is in this sense, evolving gradually as we move further away in time from its inception, that Einstein’s enthusiastic verdict, ‘a timeless, an untimely opera’, unfolds its full meaning.

Alexander Rehding


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