Alexander Zemlinsky. Part 3: dreams and the happiness that needs to be hidden


Zemlinsky Zwerg dvd

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.

Zemlinsky James Conlon

James Conlon

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.

Zemlinsky zwerg kostuum

Costume design for ‘Der Zwerg’ by August Haag, Cologne 1922.

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.

Zemlinksy velazquez.meninas

Diego Velázques: Las Meninas

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:


Zemlinsky Traumgorge

“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.

Zemlinsky Traumgorge decor

Set design by Alfred Roller for ‘Der Traumgörge’. Vienna Court Opera 1907

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.


Zemlinsky KK Gerome

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904): ‘King Candaules’.

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.

Zemlinsky Andre Gide

André Gide

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.

Zemlinsky Beaumont

Antony Beaumont

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).

Zemlinsky KK Capriccio

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.

Zemlinsky KK Nagano

In 2002 Salzburg programmed the opera and the performance was recorded live – phenomenally cast – and released on 2 CD’s (Naïve 3070) in a very elaborate edition. The role of Kandaules was sung with dedication by Robert Brubacker and Wolfgang Schöne was an excellent Gyges. The Swedish Nina Stemme, who was then still in the lyrical ‘fach’, sang a beautiful Nyssia. The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano sounds very exciting.

Our unsurpassed Saturday Matinee performed the opera in November 2007 as a concert performance, unfortunately there is no recording of it. Too bad, because the conductor Bernhard Kontarsky conducted with great dedication and Stuart Skelton and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet were unforgettable as the royal couple.

Gyges (or was it Zemlinsky himself?): „Der, der ein Glück hält, soll sich gut verstecken! Und besser noch, sein Glück vor Andern“.


Alexander Zemlinsky. Part 2: ‘Du bist mein Eigen.’

Alexander Zemlinsky. Part 4: ‘Warum hast du mir nicht gesagt…’

in Dutch:
EINE (AUTO)BIOGRAFISCHE TRAGÖDIE: ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY. Deel 3: dromen en het geluk dat verborgen dient te worden


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