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Daniel Albright
Opera Today, February 2011

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.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, December 2010

These one-act operas by Alexander Zemlinsky and Victor Ullmann—two composers whose careers were destroyed by the Nazis—have been resurrected thanks to L.A. Opera’s “Recovered Voices,” conductor James Conlon’s initiative. Ullmann’s charming Broken Jug opens the double bill, followed by Zemlinsky’s twisted, dramatic The Dwarf. Both composers’ originality and accessibility shine throughout; on Blu-ray, the productions look ravishing, and the singing and playing are first-rate. That there’s no interview with Conlon, an endlessly articulate advocate for this music, is a missed chance for insightful bonus material (the booklet’s Conlon essay is adequate).

Jeffrey Kauffman, December 2010

Longtime opera attendees have become used to the pairing of two one acts to make an evening’s entertainment. Most typically in the standard repertoire that pairing has ended up being a double bill of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, two shorter pieces that are somewhat—tangentially, truth be told—thematically linked. Recently there’s been a fair amount of critical reassessment that Cav/Pag, as the pairing is colloquially labeled, should revert to either Cav or Pag. At the same time, some companies have been trying out a new, even less related, pairing, that of Pagliacci with Carmina Burana, such as was attempted by my hometown’s company, Portland Opera. Sticking two pieces together to fill out a full evening’s time may seem like the oddest of reasons to join two disparate elements together, but after all, people are shelling out sometimes considerable amounts of money to attend a live performance, and who knows what might happen if that ended after less than an hour? L.A. Opera started an interesting journey a few years ago with its “Recovered Voices” series, which was inaugurated in 2007. Though some of the composers featured in the series aren’t exactly in need of “recovering,” the series has presented little known pieces by a wide variety of composers, including Walter Braunfels, Erich Korngold, Ernst Krenek, Franz Schreker, and Erwin Schulhoff. In 2008 the company premiered a double bill of two composers whose work had fallen victim to the excesses of Nazism, though in completely different ways. Viktor Ullmann perished in Auschwitz while Alexander Zemlinsky escaped to the United States, where his career languished and he ultimately died of pneumonia. While it’s perhaps understandable why L.A. Opera would group these composers together, this pairing is on its face even odder than Cav/Pag or Pag/Bur (I just coined that one and expect royalties, thank you very much). In fact Zemlinsky has recently been the subject of his own double bill, with this program’s Der Zwerg paired with another Zemlinsky opera based upon Oscar Wilde, A Florentine Tragedy. If you treat these two very different pieces as simply odd bedfellows, there’s an incredible chance to hear some very rare music here. Just don’t go looking for any linkage between the two.

Zemlinsky is undoubtedly the better known of this particular pair of composers. A well known conductor and composer in his native Vienna, Zemlinsky became known later in life as much for his personal relationships as for his musical accomplishments. The composer ultimately became the brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg, and in fact was Schoenberg’s only official composition teacher, but Zemlinsky is perhaps just as remembered today for his failed love affair with one of the most famous women of late 19th and early 20th century music, Alma Schindler, who would go on to marry Gustav Mahler and help guide that composer’s sometimes rocky career. Alma wasn’t exactly the shy, retiring type, and both she and her family made no secret of their ambitions that Alma marry well, perhaps to further her own hoped for music career. Zemlinsky was ultimately seen as not important enough for Alma, and, perhaps more devastatingly, his short stature and less than comely appearance came in for direct complaints from Alma herself. This was a life changing event for Zemlinsky, something from which he never fully recovered emotionally, and he poured all of that anguish into Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), an intense one act opera about a vain Princess, Donna Clara (Mary Dunleavy), known as The Infanta, who on her eighteenth birthday is given the rather unusual present of a captured Dwarf (Rodrick Dixon). The Dwarf mistakes the Infanta’s fascination with this deformed “present” for romantic infatuation, and he quickly falls in love with Donna Clara.

The Dwarf is an exercise in perhaps unwitting—at least initially—cruelty, as Donna Clara can’t quite believe that this “object” (for surely that’s how she sees The Dwarf) would even think he was of the station, not to mention the appearance, to appeal to her. What ensues is a jaundiced study in pretension, class distinction and heartbreak, set to alternately stringent and gloriously lyrical music. It’s in fact a little noteworthy (pun intended) to hear an almost Russian influence in both of the composers featured in this program. If Ullmann occasionally has the pungency of Prokofiev, Zemlinsky has the odd proclivities of Shostakovich, where long, langorous lines suddenly erupt into shattering dissonances.

The evening actually opens with the other one act opera on the bill, Ullmann’s decidedly more comic Der zerborchene Krug (The Broken Jug). This is a relatively brief piece which is a comedy of manners and morés, as Judge Adam (James Johnson) finds himself presiding over a case of a broken jug (as you may have guessed from the title), a jug he himself has broken during his amorous adventures with Eve (Melody Moore). Adam and Eve, get it? Ullmann works the comedic material here very well, painting Judge Adam as a harried buffoon who finds himself inextricably tangled in a web of his own making. The Broken Jug was finished in a mad dash shortly before Ullmann was imprisioned at Terezin (he would ultimately be transferred to Auschwitz, where he died). The fact that this ebullient and often very funny piece was written under such trying circumstances is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit under very stressful circumstances. While some may see, as the liner notes to this release suggest, that Ullmann is engaging in a thinly veiled excoriation of the Nazi justice system, The Broken Jug is not a screed by any stretch. It’s a brisk and enjoyable romp through village life, set to some delicious music.

Both of these pieces are given wonderful physical productions here by the L.A. Opera. The Dwarf is considerably more sumptuous, with a gorgeous palace set, but The Broken Jug does very well with its more minimalist approach, and it features a wonderful shadow pantomime at its opening. Conductor James Conlon commands very fine work from the Los Angeles Opera and Chorus, and the leads in both pieces are brilliant. Rodrick Dixon is astoundingly effective as The Dwarf, singing mellifluously but also managing to convey the horror and hearbreak of this doomed character.

Video Quality

The double bill of The Dwarf and The Broken Judge arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of ArtHaus Musik, with an AVC encode in 1080i and 1.78:1. This is a decently sharp looking Blu-ray which nonetheless doesn’t quite rise to the sharpness levels of some other ArtHaus releases. Colors here are wonderfully robust and beautifully saturated. The purple scrim that covers the shadow pantomime at the opening of The Broken Jug is nicely colored, and detail is sharp enough you can make out a small fold on the stage right side. The Broken Jug features a more restrained palette than does The Dwarf. The Dwarf’s costumes and sets are absolutely gorgeous. Donna Clara’s white brocaded gown is a sight to behold, and The Dwarf’s bejeweled purple outfit glistens in the stage lighting. Contrast is very good here, though the stage lighting sometimes adds to the slight softness of the image.

Audio Quality

Both of the lossless audio options on this Blu-ray, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and an LPCM 2.0, sound magnificent. Conlon and the L.A. Opera have assembled a stellar orchestra, chorus and leading singers for these productions, and the lossless tracks support the able performances with excellent clarity and brilliant fidelity. These scores are both rather interesting mélanges of late 19th century Romanticism with early to mid-20th century modernism. Both composers shy away from neither tonality nor serialism, and the music is suitably bracing and often unexpected as a result. The surround track here is well modulated, with very nice and natural hall ambience. The mix here is also superb, with excellent balance between the singers, ensemble and orchestra. The recording is exceptionally transparent, letting the listener into the music easily, even in the more discordant, massed passages.

Special Features and Extras

No supplements other than trailers for other ArtHaus product are included.

Overall Score and Recommendation

This odd double bill is an important release. The pairing itself leaves more than a little to be desired, and I frankly strongly recommend you take these pieces separately, with a break in between. When taken that way, these are not only important historical documents but very strong and vibrant performances in and of themselves. “Recovered Voices” deserves kudos for bringing these lesser known composers to a larger audience, and hopefully this nice Blu-ray will help to spread the word even further. Highly recommended.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, December 2010

First comes a rare double feature Classical Blu-ray of Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf (Der Zwerg) and Viktor Ullmann’s The Broken Jug (Der Zerbrochene Krug), which are good and makes an interesting pair, both conducted by James Conlon. However, the results are mixed and I can see why they are on one Blu-ray. They are worth seeing, but I would like to see other performances to compare to, though these are rarely performed and the first time we have seen either. The LA Opera does a good job, but both seemed a little out of the element.

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.

Rick Anderson
Music Media Monthly, November 2010

This disc includes two rarely-produced and rarely-recorded one-act operas, both performed in 2008 as part of the Los Angeles Opera’s Recovered Voices series. The series—started in 2006 but now currently on hiatus due to budget constraints—highlights operatic works by composers whose careers fell victim to the Third Reich. Der Zwerg is written by Alexander Zemlinsky, with a libretto based on an Oscar Wilde short story. The depressing and decidedly heart-sinking plot was born of Zemlinsky’s request for a “text on the tragedy of an ugly man” from fellow composer Franz Schreker, though the libretto was ultimately written by Georg C. Klaren. Der Zwerg was premiered in 1922 at the Cologne Opera, under the baton of Otto Klemperer. (Fun fact: Conlon, the conductor on this disc, also conducted this show in Cologne in 1996.) It’s thought that Zemlinsky’s motivation for requesting such a downer plot comes from his romantic rejection by one of his students—known then as Alma Schindler—who married Gustav Mahler one year later. Her memoirs describe Zemlinsky as “a horrible dwarf,” and include her comments on his unattractive appearance and small stature. Mary Dunleavy, who is most often seen on stage as Violetta in La traviata, plays a very convincing spoiled twelve-year-old princess, and tenor Roderick Dixon performs the Dwarf’s soaring lines with ease.

Der Zerbrochene Krug was written in 1942 by Viktor Ullmann, who had worked many years prior under Zemlinsky at the Neues Deutsches Theater in Prague. Ullmann finished this composition just before his internment at Terezin, where he composed over twenty works in the two years before his life ended at Auschwitz in 1944. The second of three operas written by Ullmann, The Broken Jug is a comical commentary on injustice and corruption. The overture is lengthy and played with crisp precision that is matched by smartly-choreographed silhouettes pantomiming within the outline of a stage-sized jug; the staging only gets more Dutch after that. James Johnson’s portrayal of Judge Adam is so entertaining that it’s easy to forget the character’s true representative purpose of critiquing the Nazi judicial system. Overall, this is a tight, fast-paced, and beautifully-crafted production.

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