|Ales Briscein in and as "Der Zwerg"|
(photo: Kathy Wittman)
Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), a one-act opera by composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, freely adapted by librettist Georg Klaren from Oscar Wilde's short story The Birthday of the Infanta, is the third production in Odyssey Opera's “Wilde Opera Nights”. It premiered in 1922 in Cologne, just as Zemlinksy had ended his relationship with Alma Mahler (future wife of Gustav, as well as subsequent spouse of architect Walter Gropius and of novelist Franz Werfel). Artistic Director and Conductor Gil Rose refers to Zemlinsky as “a brother of Korngold”, whose Die Tote Stadt was presented so memorably by the company last season. Korngold was the last great prodigy of the romantic era, whose voluptuous music with its highly melodic and expressive nature was one of two influences that inspired Zemlinky. The other was the highly psychological and complex work of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Rose speaks of Zemlinsky's opera as a rather “bizarre hybrid...a cocktail” that echoes Richard Strauss. It was no wonder that Zemlinsky would respond to the kind of scandalous Oscar Wilde story reminiscent of Strauss' own opera Salome, which Der Zwerg frequently sounds like. It's in fact a tragic fairy tale, which, as so many such stories do, ends grimly.
A sultan sends a dwarf (tenor Ales Briscein) as a present to the royal eighteenth birthday celebration of the Infanta, the Spanish princess Donna Clara (soprano Kirsten Chambers). The dwarf falls in love with the Infanta, singing a love song to her in which he imagines himself as her brave knight, all this while he is described by others as a jest of cruel nature with his notable hump. She toys with him, knowing he is unaware of his own physical deformity, giving him a white rose as a present. He finds a mirror when he is on his own, seeing his reflection (and his deformity) for the first time in his life. When he tries to get her to kiss him, she spurns him, calling him a monster. Heartbroken, he dies clutching the rose, while the Infanta rejoins her party, which includes Ghita, her attendant (soprano Michelle Trainor), Don Estoban, her chamberlain, (bass James Johnson), her First Maid (soprano Erica Petrocelli), her Second Maid (soprano Dana Varga), and her Third Maid (mezzo soprano Vera Savage) as well as Friends of the Infanta (the sopranos and altos of the Odyssey Opera Chorus). Don Estoban had warned that truth could be the death of the dwarf, as God has created us all blind to ourselves. For her part, the Infanta declares that “for the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts”.
The performance was, as noted above, conducted by Gil Rose, with his typical sensitivity, and superbly played by the Opera Odyssey Orchestra. It was beautifully sung in German with English titles by the cast of seven principals who seemed to revel in the acoustically wondrous venue that is Jordan Hall. A standout was the titular little person, sung and acted by Briscein (who was a hit at the Boston premiere of Dvorak's Dimitrij last year), with his stunningly impressive voice and facial expressions that convincingly conveyed his character. Equally memorable were Chambers as the almost mechanical Princess (a la Olympia in Tales of Hoffman) and Trainor, who seemed genuinely surprised at the audience's enthusiastic reception. In a city where people give standing ovations to the openings of supermarkets, this one was indisputably deserved. All of the soloists and chorus shone. The sound of a hundred musicians on stage (the orchestra of seventy, chorus of thirty, seven soloists and conductor) was extraordinarily thrilling. It was, in the end, ninety minutes of lush post-Romantic music with a story that was dark and compelling, with what the program notes rightly state as a “score that magnified the text and educed the drama's extremes of emotions” with “vocal leaps and bold harmonies, horror and hysteria”. It was an apt production for Good Friday from a company whose local presence every season can only be described as.....gigantic.