A Crisis of the Self

Jesse Simon
lunes, 15 de abril de 2019
Kratzer: Der Zwerg © Monika Rittershaus, 2019 Kratzer: Der Zwerg © Monika Rittershaus, 2019
Berlin, miércoles, 27 de marzo de 2019. Deutsche Oper Berlin. Zemlinsky: Der Zwerg. Tobias Kratzer, director. Elena Tsallagova (Dona Clara), Emily Magee (Ghita), David Butt Philip (The Dwarf, singer), Mick Morris Mehnert (The Dwarf, actor), Philipp Jekal (Don Estoban), Flurina Stucki, Amber Fasquelle, Maiju Vaahtoluoto (Three Maids), Adele Eslinger (Alma Schindler), Evgeny Nikiforov (Alexander von Zemlinsky). Women of the Deutsche Oper Choir. Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Donald Runnicles, conductor.

Over the past several seasons, the Deutsche Oper Berlin has been engaged in some impressively diverse journeys outside the standard repertoire. In addition to their Meyerbeer cycle and a series of world premières, they have also started to reappraise works from the early decades of the twentieth century that have since fallen into semi-obscurity. This season Berlin audiences were offered the chance to see a new production of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s relative rarity Der Zwerg, a musically fascinating (if thematically troubling) work by a perpetually underrated composer. While the stylish, focussed staging from Tobias Kratzer sought to find the autobiographical potential within the bleak fairy tale, a trio of excellent principals and a finely judged performance from the orchestra made a strong case for Zemlinsky’s highly individual approach to late-romanticism.

Admittedly, Der Zwerg is not without its flaws: the characters and situations add up less to a work of transformative drama than an extended examination of cruelty. The libretto, by Georg C. Klaren from an Oscar Wilde story, tells the tale of a spoiled princess who receives for her eighteenth birthday the curious gift of a dwarf who has never seen his own reflection and believes himself to be a noble knight. The ladies of the court play along for their amusement, but when the dwarf declares his love for the princess, she responds by arranging for one of her ladies-in-waiting to reveal the truth by placing the dwarf in front of a mirror. The story offers little in the way of redemption, and certainly makes no argument that inner nobility can triumph over physical deformity; instead it forces us to watch as the protagonist is taunted to death.

The stroke of brilliance in Tobias Kratzer’s staging was the decision to preface the opera with Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene by Zemlinsky’s friend and contemporary Arnold Schönberg. The piece, conceived as music for an imaginary film, features a prominent solo-piano part, and it was performed in this production by two different pianists, Evgeny Nikiforov and Adele Eslinger, costumed and made up to resemble Zemlinsky and Alma Schindler. The ten minute overture-pantomime, set in a claustrophoebic nineteenth-century drawing room, imagined the nervous Zemlinsky attempting to court the initially receptive Schindler by playing (and encouraging her to play) music he had written, only to be rejected on the grounds of his physical appearance. There was some truth to the story: Zemlinsky and Schindler did have a lengthy affair, and Schindler did apparently mock Zemlinsky for his stature before leaving him for the taller and ultimately more successful Gustav Mahler. Whether or not Zemlinsky was still bitter about it twenty years later when he sat down to compose Der Zwerg, the sting of rejection that concluded Mr Kratzer’s imaginative prologue continued to reverberate throughout the evening. 

Although the opera itself was set in a bright, minimalist concert hall lined with stone busts of the masters, and the ladies of the court had been updated to pastel bedecked party-girls with bright pink iPhone cases, the story unfolded with reasonable adherence to the libretto. Mr Kratzer’s most obvious – and most rewarding – intervention was the decision to have an appropriately scaled actor double the title role. When tenor David Butt Philip set up a music stand by the side of the stage, it appeared he would merely be providing the voice for Mick Morris Mehnert’s performance. Yet things were not so simple, and before long the tenor had been dragged into the staging as an equal participant. The schism of the title character into spiritual and corporeal selves seemed an interesting diversion at first, but Mr Kratzer put the two figures to good use in the second half, culminating in a crisis of identity in which the tenor version attempted to kill the actor version while the princess – who could only really see the actor version – watched with mocking contempt. The concluding moments, which implied that Zemlinsky himself had overcome his physical self in order to create great music was just unconvincing enough to end the opera on a pleasing note of ambiguity. 

Elena Tsallagova provided the evening with a sublimely callous and ultimately heartless Dona Clara that seemed less a performance than a complete embodiment. She twirled her way through the early scenes with capricious restlessness, but her capacity for focussed cruelty came to the fore in her cynical acceptance of the Dwarf’s declarations of love and in her wonderfully contemptuous glance at the grieving Ghita in the final scene. Vocally she was consistently dominant but rarely overbearing; she had little difficulty filling the room, but her gentle tone and the delicate clarity of her delivery commanded attention in more subtle ways.

As the vocal manifestation of the title character, David Butt Philip’s position on the sidelines of the early scenes allowed the Dwarf’s arrival at court and the blood orange song to emerge with a thoughtful lyricism. His performance, however, grew more energised as he became drawn into the action: his ecstatic intoxication from the ball was followed by a gripping encounter with his own reflection, and his final meeting with Dona Clara built to a remarkable frenzy. Emily Magee’s Ghita gave the opera a strong moral centre, rising effortlessly above her fellow ladies-in-waiting, and introducing the Dwarf to a mirror with a conscience-wracked reluctance. Zemlinsky’s score, while undoubtedly a product of the early twentieth century, has a reticence that mitigates against late-romantic excesses, and its unique blend of extrovert ardour and internal uncertainties was nicely realised by Donald Runnicles, who gave the orchestral textures a cool, modernist gloss without depriving the action of its passion and violence. 

The story of Der Zwerg moves forward with such inevitability that there are no real surprises or reversals in the course of its ninety minute length; nor does Zemlinsky’s score, for all its moments of inspiration, divert its focus from the cruelty at the core of the libretto. If this single-mindedness can result in something closer to an extended spectacle than a fully-fledged dramatic work, Tobias Kratzer’s staging added welcome psychological depth. By splitting the title character in two and rooting that divided self in the (perhaps invented) anxieties of the composer, he was able to channel some of the story’s inherent bleakness into an engaging investigation of the creative process.

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