The Swiss composer Rolf Liebermann (14 September 1910 – 2 January 1999) is nowadays seen as the father of Regietheater, although he meant something different from the current conceptualism in which the boundary between the permissible and the ridiculous is explored and often crossed.
Under his leadership, the Hamburg State Opera, where he ruled for fourteen years between 1959 and 1973, grew into one of the best and most talked-about opera houses in the world. Liebermann created a good, solid and varied repertoire with special attention to contemporary works, built a fantastic artists’ ensemble and attracted foreign stars and would-be stars (Plácido Domingo’s world career began in Hamburg). Arlene Saunders, William Workman, Raymond Wolansky, Franz Grundhebber, Tom Krause, Hans Sotin, Toni Blankenheim – they all formed a solid and close-knit ensemble, with the occasional addition of a bigger (read: more familiar to the general public) name: Lucia Popp in Fidelio and Zar und Zimmerman, Cristina Deutekom, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Nicolai Gedda in Die Zauberflöte, Sena Jurinac in Wozzeck.
Liebermann also regularly commissioned compositions. In the years of his management no less than 28 operas and ballets had their world premiere, a number many an opera house should be jealous of. Later, in his autobiographical book ‘Opernjahre’, Liebermann described his time at the Hamburg State Opera as the happiest time of his life. I can imagine that. If you were able to realise so much beauty at such a high level, you can only be intensely happy.
Luckily for us, who have not (consciously) experienced those years, Liebermann was also thinking about the future and had director Joachim Hess record thirteen productions for television. Most of the recordings took place in a studio. With the means available at the time, it was impossible to record sound and images at the same time. This meant that first a musical soundtrack had to be pre- recorded, after which the singers could mime to it in the studio very precisely, so everything was in sync.
About ten years ago, Arthaus Musik released these operas on DVD. Of course, by today’s technical standards, it’s all far from perfect. The sound is mono and the camera is rather static, but for the enthusiast there is a lot to enjoy, not in the least because of the repertoire.
PENDERECKI: DIE TEUFEL VON LOUDUN
In 1967 Liebermann approached Krzysztof Penderecki with the request to compose an opera for Hamburg. The result was Die Teufel von Loudun, for which the composer himself had written the libretto. The story is based on a true event: in Loudun (France) in 1634, a Prioress of the Ursuline Order accused a priest of diabolical practices for which he was sentenced to be burned at the stake.
The opera had its world premiere on 20 June 1969 and shortly afterwards it was filmed. The leading role of mother Jeanne was performed in a very impressive way by Tatiana Troyanos, another great star whose career began in Hamburg (after she had received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to further her education in Europe, she auditioned in Hamburg where Liebermann immediately offered her a contract). Her portrait of the hunchbacked demonically possessed nun with sexual visions is breathtaking. Everything about her, from head to toe, acts. Her facial expression changes with every phrase she sings and her voice chills you to the bone.
The horror-like music with its many glissandi and octave leaps evokes a feeling of unease and makes the opera, despite the immense tension, rather uncomfortable to watch. The staging, with a lot of nudity and explicit sex scenes, is very progressive for that time and I can imagine it was experienced as shocking!
First act of DIE TEUFEL VON LOUDUN:
Speaking of music: did you know that William Friedkin used music by Penderecki for his film The Exorcist?
GIAN CARLO MENOTTI: HILFE, HILFE DIE GLOBOLINKS!
Especially for Hamburg, the Italian-American composer and director Gian Carlo Menotti composed Hilfe, Hilfe Die Globolinks!, an opera ‘for children and for those who love children’. The premiere took place in 1968 and a year later it was filmed in the studio.
I must confess that I’m not a big fan of children’s operas, but I’ve been shamelessly enjoying this one. It is an irresistible fairy tale about aliens (Globolinks) who are allergic to music and can only be defeated by means of music.
The images are very sensational for that period, full of colour and movement and the forest little Emily (the irresistible Edith Mathis) has to go through with her violet to get help is really frightening. The aliens are a bit of a let-down according to modern standards, but that doesn’t matter, it gives the whole a cuddly shine. The work is bursting with humour and irony; musical barbarians are lashed out at: the school principal who doesn’t like music turns into an alien himself.
There are also a lot of one-liners (“music leads you to the right path” or “when music dies, the end of the world is near”). It is incomprehensible a work like this is not performed all the time in every school (and I don’t mean just for the children), the subject is (and remains) very topical.
None of the roles, including the children, could be better cast, and this once again proves the high standard of the Hamburg ensemble. In which other city would you find so many great singers/actors who can perform so many different roles on such a high level?
Translated with the http://www.DeepL.com/Translator
In Dutch: Rolf Liebermann In Memoriam
Thank you, Basiu, for introducing me yet to another composer and conductor whose name deserves to be known and who, prior to your essay, I was completely unfamiliar with.
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