Viktor Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug and Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg Los Angeles Opera, February 17 and

March 1, 2008 Kenneth Reinhard When James Conlon accepted the position of Music Director of the LA Opera two years ago, he insisted on two conditions: that the opera agree to stage all of Wagner’s major operas as soon as feasible; and that they make a major commitment to the 20th century music suppressed, directly or indirectly, by the Nazis as “degenerate.” This has turned out to be an exceptionally canny conjunction, and part of a welcome enrichment of LA Opera’s repertoire as it enters into a new phase of rapid growth. Patrons who might object for ideological reasons to the staging of so much Wagner have been reassured by the inclusion of operas by composers, mainly Jewish, who had suffered at the hands of Wagner’s champions in the Third Reich. And those who may be suspicious of composers they may never have heard of are often pleased to discover harmonic continuities between these operas and their Wagnerian precedents. There is indeed a kind of dialectical logic to these projects, which began unfolding in tandem last year. The long-anticipated LA Opera Ring, directed by Achem Freyer, will begin in 2009, and last winter a renewed version of David Hockney’s Tristan und Isolde was followed by a double bill of a new production of Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg and the U.S. premiere of Viktor Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug, as the first installment of a multiyear “Recovered Voices” project. Both The Dwarf and The Broken Jug were directed by Darko Tresnjak, the Co-Artistic Director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theater, and conducted by Conlon. Conlon has tirelessly promoted this period of Germanic music, and has made an enormous contribution to its rediscovery, performing it frequently and making important recordings of Schreker, Ullmann, Schulhoff, as well as nearly a dozen discs of music by Zemlinsky. In its 2006-2007 season the opera presented a Vorspeise of the Recovered Voices project in the form of an unstaged suite of pieces from Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, Braunfels's Die Vögel, Krenek's Jonny spielt auf, Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis, Schulhoff's Flammen, Korngold's Die tote Stadt, along with a complete (also unstaged) performance of Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie. This performance was assembled and promoted with impressive rapidity after Conlon’s appointment, but it did not give a sense of how he would approach these works as fully staged productions. It did, however, give Conlon an occasion to introduce and explain his three linked motivations in Recovered Voices. First, the project is historical, meant to expand the public’s account of 20th century Germanic opera, introducing works by composers who were widely admired in their time, but fell into relative obscurity because of the catastrophic circumstances of history. Secondly, Conlon’s intention is ethical, meant to right a wrong, at least to some small degree, by counteracting the Nazis’ attempt to suppress this music and to destroy the people who made it. And finally Conlon’s

what is remarkable about Ullmann’s fabliau of Dutch village life is its extraordinary remove from its historical situation: it seems to float in a timeless bubble of Late Romantic color and harmonies. forget that Ullmann perished in Auschwitz and that Zemlinsky was emotionally destroyed by exile. And ultimately. Hence his decision to begin with Ullmann’s extremely light village comedy. Adam. that deserve to be part of the standard repertoire and which will be recognized as such once they have become more familiar. it is only by succeeding in convincing us of the living urgency of these works that either of the other goals can be fully achieved. but the first step has been taken with this inaugural program of the Recovered Voices project. as a fleeting chimera of sound and light. presides over the trial where he himself is ultimately revealed to be responsible for breaking the titular jug while attempting to ravish the village maiden. The overture establishes the tone of the rest of the production. a “curtain raiser” for Der Zwerg. at least for a moment. in Conlon’s terms. “None shall play a judge’s part if he be not pure in heart. is accompanied by a balletic dumb show in silhouette. but Conlon argues that to present two such strong works together is to risk reducing the impact of each.” as a commentary on the Third Reich’s perversions of justice. Conlon and Tresnjak’s production accentuates the opera’s unreality. as an amuse oreille before the main event. where the primal crime (the breaking of the jug) is acted out in pantomime behind a large jug-shaped cutout on a black scrim. works. and not simply remain an historical curiosity or an ethical obligation. before being sent to his death in Auschwitz in 1944. We must. Conlon’s task is not an easy one. soon before being deported for Theresienstadt. if this music is to find a place in the canon. How does one compose such sweet trifles one day. one imagines. in which a village judge. but the opera cannot support this weight. he argues. In fact. Eve. The Broken Jug is a gentle parable of the frailties of justice. to bring to the stage some astonishingly good but rarely performed operas. frankly clap-board sets in pretty shades of blue and pink 2 . The lengthy cinematic overture. cut for performance according to Zemlinsky’s instructions). in a way that Ullmann would have approved of. in which the flat. and completed the opera in Prague in 1942. Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug was. he led a remarkably productive artistic life. Rather than arguing for The Broken Jug’s critical significance or trying to find tenuous connections between it and Ullmann’s tragic situation. Der Zwerg is frequently paired with Zemlinsky’s Eine Florentinische Tragödie. and report for deportation to a concentration camp the next? We may take it as diversion. and in these terms it would come across as grotesque understatement.motivation is aesthetic. illuminated in slowly shifting pastels. One might conceivably construe the concluding moral. but hardly as political critique. an escape. since it is based on the belief that this music is outstanding in purely musical and dramatic terms. In some ways. where declamatory brass and rhetorical percussion are cushioned in a light Straussian bed of strings. Ullmann wrote the libretto himself. perhaps the fulfillment of the mildest wish for the textures of fictional life. presenting it. There. and co-directed the camp’s famous cultural activities. which by itself is somewhat brief for a full evening (the complete version comes in at less than an hour and a half. in LA it was even shorter. this last goal stands in tension with the other two. based on a story by Kleist. with its jangly sequence of fourths rising like a ladder to a maiden’s window.

the proper couple of Eve and her righteous fiancé Ruprecht are reunited. 3 . today Adam wouldn’t have declared an injustice!” But what exactly is Ullmann’s attitude towards all this? The opera runs for less than forty minutes. entrances and exits synchronized with comic precision. their “compensation” – monetary or otherwise – forever to be inadequate. compensated! D’you think that justice is a potter? And if these clever-dicks came and took it to the kiln. and the legal order reconstituted by the intervention of higher authority in the person of the regional judge from Utrecht. woman herself is blamed not only for her own loss. Schreker had already written a dance pantomime based on Wilde’s story. in Klaren’s own account. dance. “The Birthday of the Infanta. or tempt us to look too closely for answers. although it is unclear how a jug once broken can ever be repaired again – as Frau Marthe remarks. does not let us doubt for a moment that its allegories are both complex and coherent. and this is likely where Zemlinsky first encountered the narrative. Zemlinsky (Ithaca: Cornell University Press. organized by Gustav Klimt for the 1908 Kunstschau Wien exhibition. Schreker pleaded to be allowed to keep it for his own composition (which became Die Gezeichneten. and soprano Melody Moore as her daughter Eve all sounded rather thin and separated in the often unforgiving acoustics of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Entschädigen! [Me. entschädigt! Meint er. according to the final chorus: “Had Eve not picked the apple. Finally it was Georg Klaren who wrote the libretto for Zemlinsky.”1 Zemlinsky composed the score in 1919 and orchestrated it in 1921. Indeed. Fiat justitia is proclaimed in cheerful choral certainty. wisely ending before it can become tedious. als ihn entschädigen. Compensation indeed!]” Ullmann seems to suggest that it is women’s fate to have their jugs broken by men. joining for a group portrait. Baritone James Johnson in the role of Judge Adam. and allegorized it.” presumably in order to dramatize his failed relationship with Alma Schindler. mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Frau Marthe Rull (the owner of the jug). 301. and Tresnjak and Conlon’s production allows them to resonate and multiply. and then falling apart into scattered pairs. finally. Klaren eroticized the relationship between the Infanta and the Dwarf. but for man’s downfall too. die könnten sonst was in den Krug mir tun. Der Zwerg. the “tragedy of an ugly man. whose remarkable and precise direction gave the farce a stylized. Indeed. choreographic sensibility. Gestures were coordinated.” for a multimedia event involving literature. 1 Quoted in Antony Beaumont’s biography. the real star of the show was Darko Tresnjak. p. The story behind the birth of The Dwarf is that Zemlinsky asked his friend Franz Schreker to write a libretto for him. his hypocrisy revealed. The singers moved together as if pulled by invisible strings. it premiered later that year in Cologne under the baton of Otto Klemperer. to be staged by LA Opera in 2010). but having written it. “Ich. they might put something for me in the jug other than compensation.suspend the singers’ overdrawn gestures and exaggerated movements from any earthly reality. As judge Adam. however. tries to make his escape with the incensed townspeople in hot pursuit. daß die Justiz ein Töpfer ist? Und kämen die Hochmögenden und trügen ihn zum Ofen. Under the influence of Otto Weininger’s strange book of cultural sexology. stage and garden design. Geschlecht und Charakter. as “the confrontation of every man with every woman. 2000).

especially its two striking deep field rectangular figures – the mirror reflecting the Infanta’s parents and the doorway framing the image of the queen's chamberlain – both of which become key visual motifs in Ralph Funicello’s set. In the LA Opera production. with a tendency to blush red in more tempestuous moments. Ghita. and the LA Opera production. Zemlinsky’s score. is blinden. the lighting clear and warm. and one that returned later in the opera in the Dwarf’s climactic “recognition” scene. as indicated in the libretto. So much depends in Zemlinsky’s opera on the conceit that the Dwarf has never seen his image in a mirror – the “tragedy of the ugly man” is ironized by his self-ignorance. The Infanta first appears in a doorway leading to the garden at the back of the stage. But Klaren’s libretto suggests that such ignorance is in fact endemic to this decadent world. before the action begins. “blind” or obscured – “clouded” in Roger Clément’s translation of the libretto.” they can’t show the depths of his soul. all the action taking place in an ornate Moorish loggia. and he will forever be seen merely as a dwarf. “blind. however. leading to the ballroom and other imagined rooms in the palace beyond.The LA Opera production and set designs were lovely and traditional. not the romantic poet and musician that he really is. a “confessional mirror. Their mirrors are “blind. the costumes vaguely Spanish Baroque. The set’s high ceilings and dark panels seem to be inspired by Velazquez’s painting. and. frozen and silent.” mirror is not to see himself as he really is. This is a subtle 4 . on the contrary. it is gaze itself that we see in her – dispassionate reflection without subject. and Tresnjak and Conlon followed this visual lead. where the blinden Beichtspiegel had been left. The first of the Infanta’s birthday presents. through their superficial eyes and values. But is it “recognition” that kills him? The LA Opera production. The Infanta’s Beichtspiegel. An image of the painting served as a preperformance curtain that extended onto the stage. of the recognition of misrecognition.” is a prayer book with a Beichtspiegel. and it is not at all clear what such a thing might be. the prayer book was outfitted with a real mirror. The notion of a blinden Beichtspiegel is apparently Klaren’s invention. “the most beautiful. it was an intriguing literalization of the allegorical device. but to see himself the way that others see him.” Her wedding cake gown is closely modeled on that of Velazquez’s Infanta. Rather than seeing himself in a large mirror behind the Infanta’s throne. that this is a scene of misrecognition. but glitters as if with shards of a shattered mirror. To see himself in the Infanta’s distorting. the Dwarf picks up a mirror lying on her cushion. Oscar Wilde found inspiration for his story in Velazquez’s Las Meniñas. and so begins his frenzied descent into self-recognition and death. Klaren’s text. according to her maid. and although I could not tell if it was clouded or not. if she is ostended for our gaze. and mirrors are the key image linking Velazquez’s painting. or better. in striking contrast to the madcap pantomime that opens “The Broken Jug. the painterly plane spilling into theatrical space. in superimposing this mirror with the clouded mirror of the prayer book. but it suggests that the failure of self-reflection is not unique to the Dwarf.” which. suggests. and promising some escape from the geometrically formal space of the throne room where the action is set. in Medieval Christianity. Large doorways line either side of the set. was not a literal mirror but a literary one: a mediational prayer for self-reflection based on the Ten Commandments. The doors will rotate into mirrors when the dwarf’s world begins to collapse.

“merry” song seems to allude to Tannhäuser. with its central conceit of his heart as a “blood orange. We are likely to feel both sympathetic towards him and repelled. Other productions emphasize the humanity of the dwarf. but something else altogether – perhaps the last truly romantic poet and lover. where the maids immediately echo in mock admiration Ghita’s praise for the Beichtspiegel. comments. Adolf Dresen and Gerd Albrecht’s production for the Hamburg opera in the 1980s. which unfolds like a bad practical joke to its bitter end. but a key one. the dwarf is a bundle of contradictions: insightful and blind. 5 . tends in this direction. and brings out the ambivalence that is written into the text. And the “traueriges Lied” that he goes on to sing for the Infanta – is it poetry or parody? It is knowing. but it breaks off almost immediately – clearly it is too sunny to express his emotional complexity. Haha!” Zemlinsky and Klaren’s dwarf is no mere wild child. he is mocked and scorned by the “cultivated” flowers in the royal garden. The text isn’t bad. as he imagines. But as the single act of Der Zwerg unfolds. with its ill-dressed. condensed in the Haushofmeister’s first account of the dwarf as both the “most wonderful” [das Schönste] and “repulsive” [Scheußlich] of the Infanta’s birthday gifts. For Zemlinsky and Klaren. probably the central question facing the director of a production of Der Zwerg is the nature of the dwarf himself. the Dwarf is neither really a knight. Conlon and Tresnjak’s production for LA Opera -.and especially Roderick Dixon’s superb realization of the character of the Dwarf -. When he asks “Wo ist die Prinzessin?” rather than implying with courtly hyperbole that. however. a poet and a fool. A little stunted. there is something horrible about the opera. nor a miserable dwarf. among the many beautiful women of the court. Some directors choose to emphasize his pathetic monstrosity.point. who also seems unsure how to respond to it. apparently non-verbal. a poet and musician. and concludes with what Zemlinsky calls “a grating chord.” he seems truly not to know. the dwarf is discovered running wild in the forest. Zemlinsky and Klaren present a range of possibilities. He is. but we also pity him for his delusions.takes a more interesting path. “He knows how to pull out all the stops [Er kennt die Register]. insofar as it makes sense out of a mysterious detail in Klaren’s libretto – one that is underlined in the score. making the Infanta and her entourage into the real monsters. but it is also overwrought and melodramatic. like himself. and would grant him the dignity of the Minnesinger tradition. David Pountney’s 2003 staging for Opera North had the dwarf as the only normal looking character in a court of bizarrely attired and gaudily made up “beautiful” people. but a mass of contradictions and complexity. and although he is loved by the birds and lizards. For Wilde he is a freak of nature. Indeed. but the impoverished vision of the truth accepted by the world.” scorned by the proud maiden who stabs it with her hair pin. in a large box brought into the court. In Oscar Wilde’s original story. we identify with him (as Zemlinsky clearly did). she is the “one who is more than beautiful. wagging and bowing like a broken jack-in-the-box. dignified and grotesque. even prophetic.” The Haushofmeister. cringing dwarf. who actually bites the Chamberlin at one point. absolutely primitive. It is not “the truth” about himself that kills him. he gapes and moons at the splendor around him. relying for dramatic tension on the slender thread of self-ignorance. but how are we supposed to take his music? His first. of course. When Dixon first appears as the Dwarf. in this case. In this reading.

where women are presented as pure appearance. which now recognizes his name and the greatness of his music. destructive. Rather. in this scene and elsewhere. The lead singing throughout was notably strong: Mary Dunleavy was light and sweet as the Infanta. His hunched. perhaps disturbingly so. in an opera where beauty is so cruel. we hear echoes of Parsifal’s Blumenmädchen in the orchestration. And this is a great service both to Zemlinsky and to the opera-going public. offering the audience suggestions for interpretation. But when he breaks. If the ethical and historical goals of the Recovered Voices project rest on the success of the operas as works of art. Wagnerian sense of period was apparent too in Conlon’s striking crescendi. the LA Opera production of Der Zwerg is a very promising beginning. by bringing out the longer phrases that are easily overlooked amidst the opera’s recurrent intervals (mainly fourths and seconds) and small melodic fragments. finally transformed into an almost believable courtly lover. he has gained poise. Something of Weininger’s misogyny pervades the sonic and thematic link between these moments in the two operas. academics. 6 . he seems to grow in his own estimation as his delusion comes closer to the point of crisis where it can no longer hold. and everyone I spoke with afterwards – operatic professionals. halting “Igor” limp gives way to an upright posture and more confident strides. and civilians – was deeply impressed. and his death is indeed tragic. which suggests that something poisonous has infiltrated the atmosphere. even heroic. and Rodrick Dixon matched his progressive nobilization of the character of the Dwarf with an increasingly confident. it is not the fall of a pathetic wretch. Justice may not be a potter. James Conlon’s Recovered Voices project is currently scheduled to continue for the next two years at LA Opera. but allowing for non-critical appreciation as well. Zemlinsky’s sultry Andalusian melodies and intoxicating Wagnerian harmonies are seductive. Conlon and Tresnjak’s presentation is not radical. This sustained. Conlon suggested the Wagnerian undercurrents in Zemlinsky’s score. we can only hope that money will be found to stage more of the many rarely heard operas from that terrible time in modern European history.Dixon seems to grow in dignity. and history cannot restore shattered lives. When the Infanta’s playmates dance around her with armfuls of flowers. He has become noble. but of a man more sinned against than sinning. self-absorbed. exalting in her radiant beauty. but Zemlinsky’s Dwarf lives and breathes again. The ovations were enthusiastic and sustained at both performances I attended. but it is not limited to that run. which would at times slowly build before suddenly spilling into a rather overwhelming fortissimo. even suspended. vocal performance. does not push the opera beyond its period or reinterpret it in unexpected ways. soulless. with touches of disturbing ice. they allow The Dwarf to speak for itself.

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