Banned by the Nazis

Both Viktor Ullmann and Alexander Zemlinsky were among the group of composers persecuted by the Nazi regime. Ullman would die in Auschwitz, Zemlinsky in exile and obscurity.  This 2008 recording from Los Angeles Opera’s “Recovered Voices” series brings together two one act operas; Ullman’s Der zerbrochene Krug and Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg.  in productions directed by Darko Tresnjak and conducted by James Conlon.

The Ullmann is quite a short piece at about forty minutes of which six are overture.  It’s a farce with a message, not unlike some of Dario Fo’s work in some ways.  The story is set in a village in the United Provinces around the time of the Eighty Years War.  The village magistrate wakes up, obviously having been beaten up, to find that he’s facing an inspection by the District Judge.  The case concerns a valuable jug which a farmer’s wife claims was broken by her daughter’s fiancé.  He claims that he found another man with her and bashed him with a door handle and that he broke the jug while escaping.  All the evidence supports the young man’s story and it’s quite obvious who the other man was.  Despite this, the magistrate, with the support of the District Judge finds against the young man.  The dignity of the judiciary is more important  than justice.  The piece ends with an ironic chorus “let there be justice”.  There wasn’t any for Ullman.  A short time after composing Der serbrochene Krug he was imprisoned in Terezin concentration camp, where he composed Der Kaiser von Atlantis.  He was killed at Auschwitz two years later.

The music is interesting.  Ullmann, like Zemlinsky and others, was striving for a modern idiom that rejected the formalisms of serialism.  What we get is a mix of very lush Romanticism, some jazz elements, cautious experiments with atonality and spiky rhythms à la Weill.  It’s definitely individual and worth listening to.  The production is effective..  We open, during the overture, with a shadow play of the story of the jug before moving into a sort of exaggerated and Expressionist rendering of a Dutch village at the appropriate period.  It’s quite straightforward with broadly comic acting.  None of the singers are particularly challenged by the music and the acting is crucial.  In this department James Johnson as the rather grotesque magistrate stands out.  Conlon seems to have the measure of the score and the whole thing moves along nicely.  Ultimately it’s a bit slight but definitely worth a look.

The Zemlinsky is a longer and more substantial piece.  Like Salome and The Florentine Tragedy it’s based on a rather twisted piece by Oscar Wilde; in this case his The Birthday of the Infanta.  The basic plot is that a spoiled Spanish princess receives, as a birthday gift from the Sultan, a dwarf.  The dwarf is hideously deformed but doesn’t realise it.  On the odd occasions he has seen his own reflection he has believed it to be some malignant spirit haunting him.  The Infanta treats him as a grotesque toy while he yearns for love and to be accepted as fully human.  When he learns the truth, he dies.  The irony here is that Zemlinsky was small and ugly and was rejected by the love of his life, Alma Schindler, who went on to marry Mahler.  Curiously, given the context and rationale for this coupling and the fact that Der Zwerg premiered in 1922, a white rose features prominently in the piece.  Even more coincidentally I was watching it on a screen with a Meirowsky lithograph just above and to the left of it.

The music here is typical Zemlinsky.  One hears Strauss like elements with a touch of Mahler but there’s also a certain hardness, especially in the very difficult vocal lines give to the dwarf.  It’s definitely meatier and harder to sing than the Ullmann.  There are some really good performances here most notably Rodrick Dixon as the dwarf who manages the cruelly high tessitura admirably.  James Johnson crops up again as the chamberlain and sings and acts as well as in the first piece in an entirely different acting style.  Mr. Johnson is clearly versatile.  Good performances too from Mary Dunleavy as the Infanta and Susan B. Anthony as her much more sympathetic maid, Ghita.  The production and design here is pretty conventional and unremarkable though the dwarf is curiously unhideous.    He has a hump and that’s about it!  Mood is effectively conveyed by the lighting plot though.  Once again, Conlon is well on top of things musically.

Technically the disk is pretty good.  The DTS 5.1 sound is well balanced and realistic.  (There also PCM stereo and Dolby 5.1 though why anybody bothers to include Dolby and DTS surround tracks these days is a mystery to me.)  The picture is reasonably high resolution 16:9 and is as good as DVD gets short of a true HD master.  The video direction by Kenneth Shapiro is decidedly small screen oriented and could have used a lot more full stage shots.  The Ullmann seemed to suffer particularly badly in that respect. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles.  There are no extras on the disk but the documentation contains a good essay by James Conlon.

All in all this is a pretty good way to see two worthwhile but rarely performed works.

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