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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, August 2006

Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) himself called Prinzessin Brambilla an anti-Wagnerian opera, and averred in later years that "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." This is both self-serving and inaccurate, for numerous foreign composers had achieved international success through high-spirited comic operas that completely ignored Wagner. Within the German sphere of musical influence, however, Prinzessin Brambilla was probably the first performed opera since Cornelius's delightful Der Barbier van Baghdad (1858) to buck not just Wagner but the grand Romantic sensibility. The plot of the work comes from E. T. A. Hoffmann, though I find elements of it suggestive of both Carlo Gozzi and Ben Jonson. On the eve of the Roman Carnival at the turn of the 18th century, the fantastical Prince Bastianello (who mayor may not possess magical powers; it's never clear) and his sly servant Pantalone decide to have fun at the expense of the populace. They fasten upon an actor, Claudio, who daydreams about having a noble background and wife. Under the influence of Bastianello, Claudio comes to believe he is a prince looking for his lost love, Princess Brambilla. He repeatedly rejects his fiancee, the seamstress Giazinta, only to come to his senses during the unmasking that follows the Carnival-when it's revealed that the Carnival Princess he's danced with, his supposed Brambilla, is actually Giazinta. There's a good deal more to matters, including a subplot involving Pantalone's recurrent spurning of his wife Barbara, but that's the gist of it. Musically, the opera shows great similarity to the mature works of Ferruccio Busoni. Prinzessin Brambilla possesses the same enormous energy, hard-edged satire, frequent recourse to counterpoint, and willingness to treat late Romantic, Baroque, and Classical styles as grist for quick juxtaposition that were Busoni hallmarks. Unlike Busoni, however, Braunfels supplies a potent core of lyricism in his opera; and the cruel manipulation of Bastianello is a corrective that ultimately helps anchor the all-too­easily obsessed Claudio in reality. Prinzessin Brambilla is an inventive, sparkling work, not on the level of the composer's delightful Die Vogel (London 488679), but definitely worthy of revival. This live, 2003 performance is middling, but on the whole, competent. Shaw's light, soaring tenor is its greatest asset, followed by Paul's high baritone. Enrico Marabelli's baritone is dry though effective. Lo Forte's voice is too thick, monochromatic and ungainly (with a wobble whenever she presses for volume) to make much of Giazinta, the female lead. Her juxtaposition to mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova is unfortunate, since the latter has that vocal control and focus the former lacks. All the artists with the exception of Shaw could have done far more dramatically with their lines; though as the performance was live, it's probable more of their energies were put into movement than dramatic interpretation of this unfamiliar work. (A lot of movement can be heard on stage, but the sound quality is good, if perhaps balanced a shade too much in favor of the orchestra.) Finally, the Cracow instrumental forces are barely equal to the effort, even at Belardinelli's overly relaxed tempos. The liner notes focus on the opera, but are decent of their kind. A synopsis is provided with CD points, but neither original text nor translation is included. This last is especially missed. But despite this and the album's short timings, Prinzessin Brambilla is truly worth knowing. We can hope for a more vigorous performance with a stronger cast at some time in the future, but in lieu of that, we have this quite decent one, now.

Calum Macdonald
BBC Music Magazine, May 2006

Celebrated in the early decades of the 20th century as a leading opera composer who took his place in the German-speaking world only just behind Strauss, Pfitzner and Schreker, Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) became an important teacher in Cologne and was posthumously respected as a principled opponent of the Nazis who endured dismissal from his posts, the banning of his works, and' inner emigration' . Over the past decade he has begun to make a shy and slow reappearance on the stage and on CD. Useful recordings a decade ago of his late 'mystery' Verkundigung and the fantasy opera Die Vogel were partly marketed under the convenient, if not entirely accurate, rubric of 'Entartete Musik', and the latter work (very loosely y based on Aristophanes) has begun to flourish with recent productions in Geneva and Vienna. Here now is the piece with which Braunfels made his name-Prinzessin Brambilla, premiered in Stuttgart in 1909 under the baton of Max von Schillings and hailed at the time as a glimpse of 'the comic opera of the future' . Braunfels composed the work in 1906, but partly reworked it in the 1920s. He claimed at the time of the first performance that his intention was to write an 'anti-Wagnerian' opera, which he termed the first attempt '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'. The result is fast-paced, light-hearted, melodious if not especially memorable melodically, and -drawing as it does on the conventions and characters of the commedia dell'arte-everywhere infused with Italianate rhythms and idioms. Of course it was not the first example: the 'withdrawal from Wagner' had started in Wagner's lifetime, and gaiezza latina had ever been the mode espoused as counterpoise to him. (Nietzsche's friend Heinrich Koselitz, who composed as Peter Gast, and whom the philosopher cried up in opposition to Wagner when he fell out of love with Wagner's music, was apparently an early harbinger of the trend, and it would be interesting in this respect at least to hear a production or recording of his Der Lowe van Venedig.) But Prinzessin Brambilla, though it doesn't wholly avoid the odd Wagnerian moment, succeeds well enough in cleaving to its purely musical, tender and fantastic conception. Based as it is on a novella by ETA. Hoffmann, it's easy enough to see why Busoni - himself engaged on his Hoffmann opera Die Brautwahl at the time-admired Braunfels's work, which might even be said to anticipate Arlecchino. Certainly the idiom intermittently brings Busoni to mind. The action is set at a Roman Carnival of the 17th century (and yes, Berlioz is a palpable 'anti-Wagnerian' influence here) and involves masks, reversals, impersonations, dreams and topsy­turveydom of such complication that a dreadful weariness must overcome any writer faced with the necessity of summarizing the plot. It must suffice to say that over a prologue and five scenes the wizard-prince Bastianello and his faithful retainer Pantalone play an elaborate charade involving a non­existent (but, in certain circumstances, magically visible) Princess Brambilla from Assyria, with whom the actor Claudio becomes so infatuated that he abandons his lover, the faithful seamstress Giazinta. Bastianello, however, arranges for Giazinta to step into the semblance of Brambilla to humble Claudio and win him back. There is a sub-plot involving Pantalone and his abandoned wife Barbara, who is pursuing him-vainly, it turns out. Interwoven are carnival events, dances, processions and the wedding of Claudio and Giazinta as a finale. Rather than following the twists of the plot, it is more satisfying to allow the music, the colour and general mayhem to flow around one. This recording enshrines the live performance at the 2004 Wexford Festival, given a quasi-modern setting by the director Rosetta Cucchi, which was generally favourably received. For all the stage business, there are not very many intrusive noises, and though I found the singing and playing a bit lacklustre in the first 20 minutes or so (of a total of 95), the performance gathers life and conviction as it proceeds-as does Braunfels's music. Daniele Belardinelli coaxes generally crisp and colourful playing from the band, and tempos are always well judged. As the irrepressible Pantalone, Enrico Marabelli brings real charisma to his performance, somewhat upstaging Eric Shaw as the romantic lead, Claudio. Likewise the Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, in the soubrette role of Barbara, scores in characterfulness over Elena Lo Forte's rather colourless Giazinta, while the minor figures have plenty of vitality, as do the well-written choral parts.

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