Like no other renowned conductor, James Conlon has been an ardent advocate of the ‘Entartet composers’ for years. In his Cologne years (between 1989 and 2002 he was chief conductor of the Gürzenich-Orchester and artistic director of the opera) he performed and recorded almost all of Zemlinski’s orchestral and vocal works. I cherish his recordings on EMI (unfortunately most of them are no longer on the market) as the greatest treasures, which they probably are.
In 2006, Conlon was appointed musical director of the Los Angeles opera and one of his first projects was a series of ‘Recovered Voices: A Lost Generation’s Long-Fortgotten Masterpieces.’ The series started in 2008 with a double-bill of Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug and Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg. (Arthaus Music 101 528)
The idea of composing an opera about an ugly man who is in love with a beauty has haunted Zemlinsky all his life, and that’s how he ended up with Oscar Wilde and his The Birthday of the Infanta.
On her eighteenth birthday Donna Clara receives a remarkable gift: a dwarf, who is also hideously ugly. A delightful toy for the infante, especially since the dwarf does not know he is ugly himself – he has never seen his own reflection… Donna Clara makes him fall in love with her and makes him think that she loves him too, after which she puts him in front of mirrors. He doesn’t survive, but that doesn’t interest the spoiled princess.
The very traditional and naturalistic setting is exceptionally beautiful and the costumes are dazzling. You really think you’re at the Spanish court. The whole thing looks like a painting of Velazques, breathtaking.
The execution is also breathtaking. James Johnson sings and acts an excellent Don Esteban. Mary Dunleavy has everything it takes to perform the conceited infante: she is beautiful and capricious. Her voice is silvery and childishly light. As an actress she also knows how to convince.
Rodrick Dixon sings the leading role here in an inimitable way. The only singer I ever liked better in this part was Douglas Nasrawi, whom I heard singing it during a Saturday Matinee at the Concertgebouw.
James Conlon on Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug conducted by him, coupled with Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg:
“The fairy tales must become reality,” sings Görge, after his dream has been laughed at by the farmers and his fiancée Grete. And so it happens: Görge finds his dreamed princess in the form of Gertraud, cast out by the farmers, and his dream comes true.
Zemlinski has provided the story of Görge the dreamer and his search for the unattainable ideal with music of touching beauty. Sehnsucht, shimmering eroticism, symbolism …. You name it and you’ll find it. The work reminds me strongly of Szymanowski’s Król Roger, the same long, spun-out lines in the soprano aria, the same overwhelming choral parts, swelling orchestra. I love it.
Der Traumgörge (Leo Feld’s libretto after Richard von Volkmann-Leander’s fairytale ‘Vom unsichtbaren Königreich’ and Heine’s poem ‘Der arme Peter’) was meant by Zemlinsky as a tribute to his then beloved Alma. Due to circumstances, the opera was never performed during his lifetime; the first – considerably shortened – performance only took place in 1980.
The first complete recording from 1999 proves that the music is not to blame. The Cologne orchestra conducted by James Conlon alone deserves an A-plus and the soloists are absolutely sublime.
David Kuebler plays a beautiful Görge with a radiant height. His voice mixes the right amount of metal with sottovoce, which is necessary for this role.
Patricia Racette, then still a great unknown, is unearthly beautiful as Gertraud (her velvet tones in ‘Oh! Ich wil zu dir in die Welt’ are of a Korgoldian beauty) and Andreas Schmidt has enough of a peasant to be a convincing Hans. The live recording sounds excellent.
DER KÖNIG KANDAULES
In 1938, Zemlinsky fled to New York. His suitcase contained the unfinished opera Der könig Kandaules. Once in New York, he hoped for a performance at the Metropolitan Opera.
Unfortunately for him the libretto based on the play by André Gide (King Kandaules wants to share his happiness and [the beauty of] his wife with everyone. Encouraged by the king and helped by a ring that makes him invisible, Gyges spends one night with the queen. When she finds out what happened, she urges Gyges to kill the king, after which he himself is crowned king) was too risky for the American public. When Zemlinsky died in 1942, his opera was still unfinished.
It was only the English musicologist and Zemlinsky biographer Antony Beaumont who completed the score. In October 1996 the opera was performed in Hamburg, with enormous success. The performance was recorded live and released on the label Capriccio (600712).
The performance, conducted by Gerd Albrecht, is without a doubt excellent and the leading roles of James O’Neal (Kandaules), Monte Pederson (Gyges) and Nina Warren (Nyssia) are very adequately cast. In the small role of Nicomedes we hear a young debutant, Mariusz Kwiecień.