, March 2011
BRAUNFELS, W.: Vögel (Die) (Los Angeles Opera, 2009) (NTSC) 101529
BRAUNFELS, W.: Vögel (Die) (Los Angeles Opera, 2009) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101530
There have been just two recordings of this Walter Braunfels opera to date, the 1996 Decca CD set (recorded December, 1994), led by Lothar Zagrosek, with Helen Kwon as Nightingale and Endrik Wottrich as Good Hope, and this effort, a production of the Los Angeles Opera. Because this new one is the only video release of the opera and is as good or better a performance as the Decca, it is quite an essential acquisition for those interested in the byways of early-20th century opera.
Braunfels was a talented composer, particularly of opera, one of the most prominent in Germany in the 1920s. He actually became a rival of Richard Strauss and, along with Schreker, was the most highly regarded young composer of opera at the time. The Birds (1920), based on the Aristophanes comedy of the same title, was Braunfels’ third opera and achieved wide popularity in Germany.
Why did the opera and the composer fade? Braunfels, a practising Roman Catholic, was half-Jewish, but still had a chance to curry favor with the fledgling Nazi party in 1923 when he was asked to write an anthem for their movement. He refused, cognizant of their political extremism and evil. One reliable account, by the composer’s grandson, the architect Stephan Braunfels, has it that Braunfels threw Hitler out when he asked the composer for the anthem.
Many German citizens with partial Jewish ancestry were arrested and deported to death camps, but Braunfels survived in exile in Switzerland, having been dismissed by the Nazis from his post as director of the Cologne Academy of Music in 1933, with all performances of his works banned in Germany. He was a talented concert pianist and continued to compose throughout the 1930s and war years. He regained his post at the Cologne Academy in 1945, but in the post-war years his music was largely ignored because he was a conservative at a time when Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage and members of the Darmstadt School were coming into vogue.
The Birds was revived in Karlsruhe in 1971 and finally recorded by Decca in 1994, based on a Berlin production. But it still remains an obscure work. The story is fairly simple, if a little silly. Good Hope, a man feeling betrayed in love by women, and Loyal Friend, disappointed by declining art, abandon civilization for the place of their dreams—the domain of the birds, ruled by Hoopoe, who was once a man. The birds are initially suspicious of the men—as they are of all mankind—but are eventually convinced by the two to build a fortress around their world against the wishes of the gods. In the end, Zeus becomes displeased and summons a powerful storm that destroys the birds’ fortress. The two men return to civilization, but with the enamored Good Hope feeling transformed by a kiss he had shared with the captivating Nightingale.
What is remarkable about this production of The Birds are its visual aspects, from the resplendent costumes (including lavish headwear for the birds) and imaginative sets to the brilliant lighting effects and dancing. For once, we have a modern production not visually barren or anachronistically annoying. In the Second Act the lighting effects are spectacular: shortly after Good Hope kisses the Nightingale luminescent images of flowers appear on the stage floor, eventually covering the entire surface. The birds’ costumes are brilliantly and colorfully designed, and when the singers flap their arms a waving and fluttering of the fabric makes them seem almost airborne. Often the colors on stage from the lighting, costumes and sets combine to create delightfully colorful images and befitting atmosphere to deftly complement the highly imaginative music. Stage director Darko Tresnjak and staff have lavished the greatest care and artistic insight on this effort. Bravo to them!
But what about the singing? Désirée Rancatore is charming throughout as the Nightingale. Her Second Act number Ah! Ah! Narzissus…is really a sort of challenging vocal cadenza, wherein she delivers the twittering notes beautifully and accurately. Brandon Jovanovich soon joins in and the two offer some of the finest singing here in this production. Some of Rancatore’s high notes in the opera are a bit weak, but overall her voice, a beautiful lyric coloratura soprano, is attractive and ample in volume. Stacey Tappan, as the Wren, sings with equal charm, and Martin Gantner makes a fine Hoopoe. In the brief role of Prometheus Brian Mulligan is brilliant in his dire demeanor: he gives the character a Wagnerian depth and offers a much needed contrast to the often lighthearted atmosphere. The ballet sequence in the opera, a dance to celebrate the marriage of two doves, is brilliantly executed, and features good though not particularly imaginative choreography.
James Conlon conducts with a real sense for Braunfels’ style, a style which, while exhibiting the influence of Richard Strauss and Wagner, is less saccharine than the former’s can sometimes be and more colorful and varied than the latter’s. Conlon’s tempos are brisker than Zagrosek’s: although the opera’s overall timing is given as 138:54 (as compared with Zagrosek’s nearly identical 138:46!), Conlon’s is padded by ten minutes of curtain calls and opening and closing credits. The Los Angeles opera orchestra and chorus turn in fine work, though I must comment that the French horn is perhaps too closely miked in some softer passages. It could be, however, that Braunfels’ orchestral writing often featured slightly more prominent horn writing in quieter passages. It’s a minor matter in any event, and does not detract from the overall success of this wonderful production. Although Zagrosek’s CD set is worthwhile, this Blu-ray DVD is certainly the way to enjoy this still neglected opera. In sum, this is a superb recording that merits the highest praise!