Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Email Password  
Not a subscriber yet?  
Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, November 2011

the two short operas…are quite lovely…certainly of historical interest and curiosity.

Dixon strives well with the ghastly vocal demands of Der Zwerg. And Dixon’s acting is so intense, so sympathetic one can not help but love the poor creature…Dunleavy not only looks stunningly beautiful, but sings beautifully as well.

The Ullmann opera[’s]…imaginative use of silhouettes is quite fascinating. Johnson performs a masterpiece of comedy, quietly confident, strong of voice, realistic without excess buffoonery…Moore is a coming talent that needs to be seen and heard. Both operas are conducted by Conlon with plenty of love, attention to detail, and movement.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Paul Pelkonen
Superconductor, February 2011

This DVD from the Los Angeles Opera presents a compelling double bill by two composers whose voices were silenced by the so-called cultural policies of the Third Reich. Viktor Ullmann’s Der zerbrichene Krug (“The Broken Jug”) leads off, a frothy 40-minute comedy about judicial corruption. It is paired here with Der Zwerg, a tragic one-act opera by Alexander von Zemlinsky.

L.A. Opera music director James Conlon staged these works as the first installment in Recovered Voices, an admirable initiative to explore and perform the stage works of composers whose works were declared “Entartete”, or “decadent” by the Nazis. (This DVD is the first recording of the Ullmann opera.) Krug was completed in 1942, just before the composer was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. (Ullmann’s most famous opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis was written there in the year before the composer’s death.)

Considering the heavy-handed satire of Der Kaiser, it is almost a relief to learn that Krug is full of warmth and life. It is the tale of a civil case brought forth in a tiny Dutch court, in order to determine who broke a large jug. This is a microcosmic small-town comedy, and the ensemble cast (led by James Johnson in the role of the jug-breaking Judge Adam) makes it spin.

This work gives listeners the chance to hear Ullmann at his most melodic and inventive, writing for a full orchestra instead of the tiny forces used for Kaiser. The orchestration is rich, the melodies memorable, and the comedy compelling. If history had been different, this work would be a repertory piece, at least earning its keep as a light curtain-raiser.

Der Zwerg is based on The Infanta’s Birthday by Oscar Wilde, and retells the story of a Spanish princess who is given a hunchbacked dwarf as a present for her 18th birthday. The dwarf falls in love with the princess, only to have his heart broken. The work had deep meaning for Zemlinsky, and reflects the composer’s insecurities through a poetic mirror.

Part of the reason for the work’s obscurity is the title role: a demanding tenor part. Playing a hunchbacked dwarf takes the same acting chops as the title role in Rigoletto. Add a voice designed to singin a heroic tenor—the fach is about the same as Wagner’s Lohengrin—and you’ll get an idea of the demands. Roderick Dixon handles the high tessitura with skill and a golden tone, although he pushes in the final scene. His acting brings forth the naiveté and pathetique characteristics, which undermine the noble core of the nameless dwarf. This is a major performance.

He is aptly paired with Mary Dunleavy as the cold-hearted Infanta, a spoiled brat who does not understand that her “birthday present” is a human being who has fallen in love with her. Her shimmering soprano skates above the orchestra, reaching heights that recall the best vocal writing of Richard Strauss. Susan B. Anthony is also impressive in the role of Ghita, a compassionate maid who is taken aback at the Princess’ cruel treatment of the dwarf. And James Johnson doubles in this opera as Don Estoban, the court chamberlain.

Part of the reason these works are forgotten lies in the actions of artists following the war. Conductors, orchestras and record companies wanted to forget the atrocities of the Nazi censors and thugs. They plumbed the 18th and 19th century catalogues. Millions were spent, and countless “complete cycles” of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner were recorded in analog (and later, digital) versions. A few “modern” 20th century composers: (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich, to name three) were “legitimized.” It is largely due to the efforts of artists like Mr. Conlon, and initiatives like Recovered Voices, that this lost music has been found once more.

Parterre Box, January 2011

In the process of unearthing forgotten musical works, sometimes we stumble across a gem. World War II saw an entire generation of European composers forced into internment or diaspora, and their works are only slowly being rescued from obscurity.

In a recent DVD release from the LA Opera, a part their Recovered Voices series, we are treated to a double bill of short operas by Viktor Ullmann and Alexander Zemlinsky, two composers unjustly thrust aside by the rise of fascism. James Conlon conducts both with great tenderness and care, explaining his commitment to the works in an accompanying essay.

Ullmann composed Der Zerbrochene Krug in during a period of great political and personal uncertainty, only shortly before his deportation to Theresienstadt (he would be killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944). The tone is remarkably light and funny, but explicitly satires the hypocrisy of authority. He takes his libretto from a play by Heinrich von Kleist, condensing the action into one act. Darko Tresnjak’s production begins with a shadow play depicting the demise of the jug, giving the audience the facts to the legal comedy to follow.

The curtain rises on a sleepy Dutch village, a pastel-colored confection of windmills by Ralph Funicello. A hard-partying judge (James Johnson) wakes up wigless and in need of a mimosa, but is rushed to court where an insistent widow (Elizabeth Bishop) demands justice for her broken jug—an awkward double entendre in the subtitles. After a bit of courtroom confusion, the culprit turns out to be the Judge, who had been drunkenly chasing after the widow’s sexy daughter (Melody Moore).

The work comes across as a lively start to the evening, yet not particularly memorable. The culprit here is not the charming production nor the witty music, but an overly efficient libretto that treats the characters as cogs in the wheels of the plot. As a result, nobody in the ensemble cast has much of an opportunity to stand out, and we are left waiting for the main course to arrive.

The second offering on the DVD, Der Zwerg, is happily more substantial. Zemlinksy was an important musical figure in Europe before the rise of fascism; after immigrating to the United States to avoid Nazi persecution, he died in complete obscurity. His orchestral music has gradually regained deserved attention, but his operas remain relatively neglected. From the first notes, the score drips with post-romantic passion and longing—something like the harmonies of Strauss with the accessibility of Rachmaninov, colored with Germanic touches of sunny Spain. George Klaren’s libretto compresses the action into one scene, wisely eliminating the talking animals that pervade much of the Oscar Wilde source material, “The Birthday of the Infanta.”

On the morning of her birthday, the Infanta (Mary Dunleavy) gleefully peeks through the loot she is going to receive. But the best gift of all is a dwarf (Rodrick Dixon), who promptly falls in love with the princess. Despite the pleas of her maid Ghita (Susan B. Anthony), the Infanta decides that the Dwarf should see his own reflection—he has always lived with the illusion that he is extremely handsome. When the poor dwarf finally sees himself in a mirror, it breaks his heart and he dies.

The Infanta of the short story is a neglected girl stuck in a gloomy castle, but the opera develops her closer to Wilde’s notorious mean girl, Salomé. Dunleavy looks every bit the powerpuff (in some Shirley Templesque creations by Linda Cho) but packs a mean punch. An athletic vocalist, she hops up and down the staff without ruffling her petticoats, and lets the long phrases drip with just a touch of sweetness. Conlon writes that the role was based on Zemlinsky’s affair with a student named Alma Schindler, who had left him years earlier for Gustav Mahler. The role is hardly sympathetic, and as in her recent triumph in City Opera’s Intermezzo, Dunleavy is able to create a complex portrait of a flawed human.

Zemlinsky identified strongly with the Dwarf, both physically and emotionally. While Wilde wrote the character as a rather standard holy fool, the opera envisions him as the focal point of the action, crafting an Oedipal hero that is destroyed when he discovers his own flaws. Dixon brings a supple voice that is able to carry over the dense orchestration; this is someone to watch out for. He creates the visual illusion of the deformed body, but more importantly, he conveys the universal insecurity of seeing our faults magnified.

Tresnjak uses Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” as inspiration (as did Wilde for the story), giving us an attractive if traditional production. He handles the chorus with a deft touch, shaping them into some lovely tableaux. But most importantly, he wisely minimizes his regie, allowing the cast to find the characters already written in Zemlinsky’s score.

Robert Benson, December 2010

ZEMLINSKY, A.: Zwerg (Der) / ULLMANN, V.: Der zerbrochene Krug (Los Angeles Opera, 2008) (NTSC) 101527
ZEMLINSKY, A.: Zwerg (Der) / ULLMANN, V.: Der zerbrochene Krug (Los Angeles Opera, 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101528

Los Angeles Opera has a series called Recovered Voices that features relatively unknown works by composers restricted by the rise of the Third Reich. Record collectors will remember the London/Decca series about a decade ago called Entartete Musik which served the same purpose. This DVD was recorded March 1 and 8, 2008 in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and contains two widely contrasting works, Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug) by Viktor Ullmann, and Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) by Alexander Zemlinsky. The Broken Jug, the second of Ullmann’s three operas, is a comedy about a small-town judge who must rule on a case involving a broken jug which was broken by the judge when he was attempting to seduce the daughter of the plaintiff. All this takes place on a simple set, often in silhouette. It is a charming miniature, very different from The Dwarf which in a way depicts Zemlinsky who was very short and not very attractive. He had an affair with Alma Schindler who left him for Mahler, and this had a devastating effect on the composer. Zemlinsky asked composer Franz Schreker to write a libretto on “the tragedy of an ugly man,” but Schreker, intrigued by the story, instead wrote his own opera, Die Gezeichneten (The Branded). Zemlinsky’s opera is based on Oscar Wilde’s tragedy The Birthday of the Infanta. This is about a sensitive dwarf who has been sheltered from mirrors and is given as a birthday present to the beautiful young Spanish infanta. At first she is intrigued by him, but then rejects him. When the dwarf eventually sees his reflection, he dies brokenhearted. The Los Angeles Opera has gone all out to make a strong case for both of these operas. Singers could not be bettered. Video and audio are state-of-the-art; the Blu Ray version is somewhat superior. Already announced for DVD release is another LA Opera production, Walter Braunfels’ The Birds. I look forward to it.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group