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Küsse mich, Kathrein

Festival Hall
10/06/1999 -  
Alexander Zemlinsky Es war einmal…
Christine Brewer (Princess), Glenn Winslade (Prince), Alan Opie (Kaspar), Donald Maxwell (King), Toby Spence (Suitor), Jonathan Veira (Commander/Herald)
Andrew Davis (conductor)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Apollo Voices

Zemlinsky's Es war einmal..., first produced in 1900, is based on a Danish play somewhat after Andersen. The story is an insubstantial blend of Turandot and The Taming of the Shrew: a haughty princess spurns the Prince of Northland, who, with her dad's connivance, disguises himself as a gipsy magician, and takes her away to a pastoral hut where she scrubs floors and comes to love him.

The music in the comic-magical first act is initially Wagner-tinged operetta-ish, quite similar to Sullivan in its inventiveness. It becomes more romantic, though still vaguely Wagnerian, during the quasi-pastoral second and third acts, with a hint of Gurre-lieder to come. Zemlinsky at this point was recognisably the protege of Mahler and the buddy of the young Schoenberg. The whole work is in itself charming and enjoyable, in spite of its apparently misogynist theme. Somehow the romantic nature of the music, and the Prince's frequent insistence that he loves the princess, makes it at least no more offensive than most operettas.

The BBC Syphony Orchestra, under Andrew Davies, gave a polished performance that was sprightly rather than sparking, but which got over some of the sense of magic and most of the charm of the score. The proto-Disneyesque magic fountain and woodland scene worked particularly well. Although Zemlinsky's libretto cut out the pseudo-mediaeval pageantry of the original play, his music still seems to assume a rich staging where the music complements the stage effects rather than replacing them, which of course leaves a concert performance like this incomplete.

The singers, all spot-on vocally for their roles, were generally also more competent than exciting. Some of the smaller roles worked best. Toby Spence as an unfortunate suitor who is told to leave or have his head chopped off, sang a beautiful few bars, and Donald Maxwell as the princess's world-weary father was very funny. Alan Opie got some comic mileage out of the role of Kaspar, the prince's sidekick who adopts a range of disguises starting with his alleged old gypsy mother, with a falsetto schtick. Maxwell and Opie would have had much more fun in a staged production.

Glenn Winslade as the prince and Christine Brewer as the princess (who acquires the name Kathrein aka Kate) both have big, fluid voices right for the music, but didn't do much dramatically. Winslade in particular simply stood and sang. His voice is fine, even expressive at times, but the look on his face almost never varies. Brewer was a funny soprano/Ariadne in the ENO Ariadne auf Naxos a couple of years ago, and is quite at home as a romantic diva. Maybe again she needed a staging to get some dramatic mileage from the role.

H.E. Elsom



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