Life and Death
Zemlinksy's 'Der König Kandaules',
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Of the twelve major Italian opera houses, Palermo's Teatro Massimo is the only one which has closed its accounts with a positive margin for the last seven years in a row. This does not mean that it provides a season solely of staple favorites like Bohème, Trovatore and Barbiere di Siviglia. In its programs there are, every year, some innovative and non-traditional titles along with the most popular offerings. For instance, in the last few years, Teatro Massimo presented Italian premieres of Entartete Musik, German operatic and instrumental music of the twenties and the thirties forbidden by the Nazis because it was considered 'degenerate' (the literal translation of Entartete). Also, next year, Palermo will be the only Italian town offering a brand new fully-fledged Ring cycle for the bicentenary of Richard Wagner's birth.
The Entartete Musik title chosen this season is Der König Kandaules by Alexander von Zemlinsky -- the first Italian performances of an opera composed in the early nineteen forties (but initially conceived in the thirties) and not completed due to the sudden and premature death of the composer, who also wrote the libretto. It wasn't until 1989 that Zemlinsky's widow, Louise, gave the score -- which she considered only fragmentary -- to the American musicologist Antony Beaumont. A painstaking examination of the papers showed that the short score was nearly complete and that Zemlinsky had also included copious tempo markings and stage instructions and, in certain sections, added indications of the intended orchestration: for instance, he had marked solo passages for alto saxophone, E-flat clarinet, piccolo, tuba or contrabassoon as well as string solos and instrumental effects (such as pizzicati, flutter-tonguing and glissandi). Beaumont concluded that 'Zemlisky had worked on all these details with great care'. Thus, he took up the task of transcribing the entire manuscript and orchestrating some two thousand bars. The opera received its world premiere in Hamburg in 1996 with great success. It has since been shown, through different productions, in Salzburg, Vienna and elsewhere.
In his life time, Zemlinsky was above all a teacher and a conductor [see 'A Top-Notch Formation' in M&V, 19 April 2010]. He started composing operas comparatively late in life when his students, including his brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg, were already well-known around the world. After Hitler's seizure of power, and the closing of 'his' Kroll Opera in Berlin, Zemlinsky moved to Vienna and then fled, via Prague, to New York with the short score of Der König Kandaules in his luggage. He had hoped that his former students, especially Artur Bodansky, could help him by introducing him to the management of the New York Metropolitan Opera House. He relied on Der König Kandaules as the stepping stone for an American career. None of that happened; the libretto was found to be 'obscene'. He tried to compose educational music for schools through the well-meaning help of another expatrié, Hans Heinsheimier, then director of a main publishing house. But the only work he was offered was to write cabaret music under a pseudonym. This was the final blow for a musician who had been a full professor in Berlin Musikhochschule, the director of a major Berlin opera house and a conductor in the most important opera houses and concert halls of central Europe as well as the author of a few but significant operas. He suffered a stroke and died in Larchmont, near New York, in 1942, six months after his arrival in the USA.
Why did the Met consider the libretto 'obscene'? After Herodotus' short novel and André Gide's decadent play, the plot can be read at several levels: the tiresome search for the meaning of happiness, a protest against tradition, a complex sexual and psychological drama involving power and politics as well as intricate human relationships. It deals with a King showing his wife nude to a young fisherman (in order to have the youngster's friendship) by way of a magical ring (making the wearer invisible). Thus, there are many elements to upset the rather puritanical audience of the Met in the forties, not yet exposed to middle European operas of the twenties and of the thirties: adultery, slaughter and quite a variety of erotic tensions. Now the libretto seems rather tame, even though there is plenty of sex, including a bit of homo-sex [see David Wilkins' A Veritable Wonder in M&V, 28 November 2004]
The musical treatment features sonic expanses, pedal points, bi-tonal complexes, strict polyphony and harmony at times bordering the limits of tonality. Large expressive outbursts are reserved for the three protagonists -- the King (Kandaules), the Queen (Nyssia) and the fisherman (Gyges), while the minor characters express themselves primarily in recitative, yet avoiding conversational tones and giving the contrasts of mood their own dramatic substance. Also Zemlinsky's virtuoso handling of the orchestra is never an end in itself but serves to clarify the emotional strand of the drama, to seek colors and to underscore the complex ties of personal relationships.
Peter Svensson as King Kandaules and Nicole Beller Carbone as Queen Nyssia in Act I of Alexander Zemlinsky's 'Der König Kandaules' at Teatro Massimo di Palermo. Photo © 2012 Franco Lannino. Click on the image for higher resolution
Der König Kandaules is a piece of evidence of an oft-repeated point made by musicologist Herman Danuser: in the thirties there was a sudden change in how to conceive an opera, as the avant-garde and the 'desire to experiment' were replaced by 'the search of enduring values and for comprehensive artistic and social responsibility'. Within this context, Der König Kandaules belongs to the same category as Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Krenek's Karl V, Berg's Lulu and Hindemith's Mathis der Mahler. All of them metabolize the extensive use of composition techniques and innovation acquired in the previous decades.
Peter Svensson as King Kandaules and Kay Stiefermann as Gyges in Act II of Alexander Zemlinsky's 'Der König Kandaules' at Teatro Massimo di Palermo. Photo © 2012 Franco Lannino. Click on the image for higher resolution
A final point before discussing the performance. Most likely, Zemlinsky was aware that Der König Kandaules would have been his last work. In the final chord of the opera there is an affinity with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, without, however, Mahler's sense of Zen philosophy of peace. On the contrary, the opera's ending is very dark and troublesome.
Nicole Beller Carbone as Queen Nyssia, Kay Stiefermann as Gyges and Peter Svensson as King Kandaules in Act II of Alexander Zemlinsky's 'Der König Kandaules' at Teatro Massimo di Palermo. Photo © 2012 Franco Lannino. Click on the image for higher resolution
This review is based on the 13 May 2012 dress rehearsal when the first cast sang and the performance appeared ready to be unveiled on 16 May. The three Acts are divided into two parts; Act II and III make up the second half of the performance. The stage direction and the stage sets are the responsibility of Manfred Schweigkofler (with the support of Angelu Canu for the sets), whilst the costumes and the lighting are, respectively, by Mateja Benedetti and Claudio Schmid. The single set is divided into two levels, and astute lighting provides for the change in atmosphere between different sections (garden, banquet hall, bedroom). There is a strong expressionist imprint on the sets as well in the timeless costumes. The action seems to develop as in Berthold Brecht's play: a parable on the meaning of happiness, of possession, and of power. Quite skillfully, the three protagonists are at the front or in the center of the stage while the other numerous characters are a visual counterpoint of the tense action of the threesome. Overall, the expressionist approach to the staging is quite effective, even though the opera does not strictly belong to the expressionistic period or style. As a matter of fact, a neo-classical production to set the plot in Herodotus' ancient Greece would not jive with the eclectic yet extremely modern vocal and orchestral score where there is no classicism but the smell of power, possession, sex and corruption.
Nicole Beller Carbone as Queen Nyssia in Act III of Alexander Zemlinsky's 'Der König Kandaules' at Teatro Massimo di Palermo. Photo © 2012 Franco Lannino. Click on the image for higher resolution
On 13 May, a young conductor Francesco Ciluffo was in the pit; he had worked closely with Asher Fisch who would conduct most of the performances. Ciluffo handled the difficult score quite well, kept a good balance between the pit and the stage, gave emphasis to the solo parts and had an effective symphonic touch in the prelude to Act III.
The final scene of Alexander Zemlinsky's 'Der König Kandaules' at Teatro Massimo di Palermo. Photo © 2012 Franco Lannino. Click on the image for higher resolution
Peter Svensson is the King; a taxing heldentenor role on a central register and mostly based on high texture declamation. He dealt with the vocal difficulties quite well and filled the theatre with a clear and strong volume. Kay Stiefermann (the Fisherman) and Nicole Beller Carbone (the Queen) have roles where declamation intertwines with arioso and even melody in their duet. They also have the physique du rôle and give dramatic credibility to their complex parts. All the others were quite effective -- mostly retinues and courtiers ready to move easily from one master to another. It's a rather dark view of life and death.
Copyright © 16 May 2012 Giuseppe Pennisi,
<< M&V home Concert reviews Faust >>