Viktor Ullmann: Der zerbrochene Krug
Alexander Zemlinsky: Der Zwerg
James Johnson (Judge Adam/Don Estoban), Steven Humes (Judge Walter), Bonaventura Bottone (Licht), Elizabeth Bishop (Frau Marthe Rull/Third Maid), Melody Moore (Eve/First Maid), Richard Cox (Ruprecht), Jason Stearns (Veit Tümpel), Natasha Flores (Frau Brigitte), Rena Harms (First Maid/Second Playmate), Lauren McNeese (Second Maid), Ryan McKinny (Servant), Rodrick Dixon (The Dwarf), Mary Dunleavy (The Infanta), Susan B. Anthony (Ghita), Karen Vuong (First Playmate), The Los Angeles Opera and Chorus, James Conlon (Conductor), Darko Tresnjak (Director), Ralph Funicello (Set Designer), Linda Cho (Costume Designer), David Weiner (Lighting Designer), Peggy Hickey (Choreographer), Kenneth Shapiro (DVD Director)
Filmed live at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, California (February 2008) – 122 ’
Arthaus Musik #: 101 527 – 16/9 Anamorphic – Dolby digital stereo/5.1 – Booklet in German (original language), English, French, Spanish and Italian – Subtitles available in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian
Any project James Conlon undertakes is filled with a focused, fervent passion, particularly in the establishment of the multi-year project, Recovered Voices, dedicated to a select group of German and Eastern European composers whose operas virtually disappeared under the Nazi regime and the atrocities committed during World War II. Lest mainstream and broadly recognizable, these operas, nonetheless, deserve greater attention. Conlon chooses to include a double bill including Viktor Ullmann’s The Broken Jug (1942) and Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf (1921). Having personally seen the live performance, it’s exceptional.
The Broken Jug (Der zerbrochene Krug) is a pithy fifty-five minute satirical comedy best summarized by the quotation: “None shall play the judge’s part if he be not of purest heart.” Ullmann’s music begins with a quirky, light-hearted five-minute overture partnered by Ralph Funicello’s craftily silhouetted pantomime within a contoured jug to summarize the ensuing plot. Behind the scrim we see a whimsical Dutch village replete with windmills and tilted eighteenth century buildings to signify the subject’s absurdity while a dozen-plus characters, charmingly dressed in colorful period garb designed by Linda Cho, maintain a coalesced storyline.
The subject focuses on Judge Adam, played by American baritone James Johnson whose anchored voice and blundering antics fit the bill as the hypocritical man and culprit in the provincial village of Huisum, Holland. The Czech-born composer’s orchestration delivers a “punch” to Heinrich von Kleist’s libretto. Strongly associated with the quarter-tone department during Schoenberg’s tenure in Prague, Ullmann’s score contains reminiscent qualities of Gershwin and Richard Strauss yet providing a distinct approach that’s invigorating, fresh, and spiritually uplifting.
In contrast we find Alexander Zemlinsky’s, The Dwarf (Der Zwerg), a tragic folk tale based on Oscar Wilde’s literary work, The Birthday of the Infanta (1888). Given top billing on this Arthaus Musik DVD, the opera centers around Donna Clara, Infanta of Spain who is presented a dwarf as the ultimate gift of entertainment for her eighteenth birthday. She falsely leads the protagonist into believing he’s handsome and that she loves him (which is reciprocated), but quickly shatters when the dwarf sees himself in a mirror only to find his true deformities, all to the delight of the frivolous, aloof Infanta and her entourage.
The curtain, displaying the famed Las Meninas masterpiece, opens with the Infanta’s back turned to the audience, amidst a thematic four note punctuation of royal brass orchestration. This grabs one’s attention immediately. Lyrical soprano Mary Dunleavy shines in every aspect, attaining fitting, subtle nuances while dressed in a ravishing royal white dress, harkening back to Diego Velázquez’s painting. Peggy Hickey’s choreography smartly transmogrifies the painting on stage. A retinue of the Infanta’s playmates, adorned in bluish-grey patterned taffeta dresses and swept up hair, gracefully float into the room through a series of moveable mirrored doors, just a part of Funicello’s majestic interior, and bathed in the luscious and striking lighting provided by David Weiner.
Rodrick Dixon’s portrayal as the dwarf is first-class in acting and vocal fireworks that dovetails alongside Conlon’s superb orchestration. Susan B. Anthony, a Zemlinsky veteran, is the empathetic Ghita, who holds the broken-hearted dead dwarf as the curtain falls. It’s fascinating to watch her emotions unfold over 90 minutes.
Zemlinsky’s score has a deft quality, filled with riveting emotion. He’s masterful with Spanish coloration, both chromatic and harmonic. To the discernable ear one can hear a lightened pattern of verismo Puccini.
These two one-act operas are unparalleled in content and form, all to the credit of director, Darko Tresnjak. Kenneth Shapiro’s video is excellent in sonorous and visual qualities.