Der König Kandaules [opera in three acts; unfinished edited and orchestrated by Antony Beaumont]
Kandaules Robert Brubaker
Gyges Wolfgang Schöne
Nyssia Nina Stemme
Phedros Mel Ulrich
Syphax John Nuzzo
Nicomedes Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Pharnaces Randall Jakobsch
Philebos Georg Zeppenfeld
Simias Jürgen Sacher
Sebas John Dickie
Archelaos Almas Svilpa
Cook Peter Loehle
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg (on-stage music)
Recorded live at the Salzburg Festival on 28 July 2002
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: March 2005
CD No: ANDANTE
AN 3070 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 11 minutes
Although the rediscovery of Alexander Zemlinsky has been underway for the last quarter-century, his music remains considerably more likely to be encountered on disc than in live performance – with the eight operas that constitute the core of his output still infrequent visitors to the stage outside of German-speaking territories. All credit, even so, to the Salzburg Festival for mounting, as part of a five-year project to include stage-works by Austrian composers forced into exile by the events of the late 1930s, a new production of his last and, as it now seems, finest opera – “Der König Kandaules”.
The genesis and debacle surrounding the work is worth repeating. Working to a translation, prepared in 1905 by the German librettist and editor Franz Blei, of André Gide’s play, Zemlinsky had composed the short score during the course of 1935-36 and then partially orchestrated the first act when he was overtaken by the crisis unleashed by the Anschluss between Austria and Germany in the spring of 1938. Forced to flee, with his wife and daughter, to the United States, he took the operatic torso with him. Initial hopes that Artur Bodanzky, a former pupil and at that time a staff conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, would be able to secure a staging soon came to nothing; the latter pointing out that the nude scene in Act Two, coupled with what the composer had described as its “ultra-modern” musical language, would not endear it to the operatic powers-that-be. Zemlinsky died in 1942, without returning to the opera that he clearly intended to be his summative statement.
And there matters rested until 1989, when musicologist and Zemlinsky authority Antony Beaumont began the painstaking process of researching the manuscript and related sketches in the preparation of a performing edition. In his authoritative realisation, the opera was premiered in Hamburg during October 1996 – in a production conducted by Georg Albrecht and duly released on the Capriccio label (60 071/2) – with further productions prior to the Salzburg production of 2002. Its emotional power and– then as now – topical relevance have been much remarked upon, to the extent that ‘Kandaules’ looks set to join a select handful of operas which directly and pointedly underscore the most significant European social and artistic developments to take place over the first half of the twentieth century.
As heard on this recording of the first night from the Salzburg production, the cast is a strong but not uniformly convincing one. Robert Brubaker is a forceful though not always subtle Kandaules – his often baritonal tenor amply conveying a desire to share wealth and ostensible happiness with his courtiers, as exemplified by the fulsome presentation of his wife Nyssia to the assembled sycophants (CD 1/track 4). Yet the irreversible disillusion as he begins to comprehend the fatuousness of his contentment is only intermittently conveyed; Brubaker often forcing the tone of his inquiry into the nature of Gyges’s material and emotional self-sufficiency during their lengthy exchange in the first scene of Act Two (1/13), and with a hectoring rather than despairing demeanour as his essential folly is laid bare (2/8). Whether by accident or design, he adopts a widely differing manner for those passages of spoken dialogue that heighten dramatic tension in the later stages – the edgy timbre evoking an ambience more Expressionist than Zemlinsky can surely have intended. Yet, as his dying admonishment of Gyges confirms, his identity with the character’s misplaced goodness is undoubted.
Even so, it is in the portrayals of the two other main protagonists that this recording really scores over its predecessor. As the fisherman who values the integrity of his meagre possessions to the extent that he murders his wife after her humiliation by a courtier, Wolfgang Schöne gives one of his most trenchant stage performances – amply conveying the bemusement of one who finds himself a pawn, albeit one highly valued, in Kandaules’s tortuous journey of self-realisation, and whose Act Threemonologue (2/7) articulates an abasement and self-loathing without equal in the operatic literature of its period. Nina Stemme’s burnished soprano is ideally suited to the expanding expressive range embodied in the role of Nyssia, the queen whose unveiling to the social gathering in Act One sets the fateful chain of events in motion. Impressively as she conveys sensual allure in the love scene manqué (2/5), it is her all-consuming horror at the parallel deception and her consequent humiliation (2/8) that clinches the emotional thrust of the opera in such uninhibited and unequivocal terms.
The remaining solo roles are vividly undertaken, if not always with the vocal security that one might expect of a Salzburg production – though John Nuzzo’s dryly ironic Syphax and Peter Loehle’s boorish Cook would be pertinent portrayals regardless of context. The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra acquits itself ably in the onstage music – with its appealing combination of modal and whole-tone harmonies – at the start of Act Two (1/12), enhanced by the close but realistic sound balance conveyed in this Austrian Radio broadcast. Unlike the Capriccio set, Act Two is split between discs, though the break – at the pause after Kandaules’s “So schlimmer, lassen wir’s” – has been adroitly made. Stage noise is intrusive only in passing, and the 30 seconds or so of applause retained after each act reinforces the immediacy of the occasion without undermining the continuity of the performance as a whole.
The full German libretto is provided, as are translations in English (that for the 1996 production and which featured on the Capriccio set by Lionel Salter, “plus revisions”) and French. The accompanying ‘essays’ are not, in truth, up to Andante’s highest standard. In particular, Beaumont’s contribution is all but passed over, meriting cursory mention in Gottfried Kraus’s introductory article – largely taken up with a counter-revisionist consideration of the Salzburg Festival’s commitment to new music, whichis essentially irrelevant in context – and nothing at all in Uwe Sommer’s main article. The latter does, however, go into highly plausible speculation as to Zemlinsky’s relationship to his opera in terms of its inner (personal) and outer (cultural) significance: speculation that will be profitably borne in mind the more that one comes to know this most wide-ranging yet unified statement of his final years.
As released on Capriccio, the premiere production adopted various formal and textual liberties with Beaumont’s completion – such as undermined the dramatic continuity and intensification of the opera as a whole. These have been avoided in the present production, which has the advantage of Berlin’s Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester – schooled in Zemlinsky’s complex but supremely assured thinking since the time of its association with Riccardo Chailly – in the pit. Kent Nagano is no stranger to the ethos of this music; combining as it does the primary strands in German music-drama – from Wagner, via Strauss, to Berg (with whose “Lulu” Zemlinsky was evidently acquainted) and Hindemith – in powerful if valedictory accord. Throughout its dark and disturbing soundworld, as exemplified by the viscerally intense Prelude to Act Three, Nagano secures playing of a discipline and finesse that amply reaffirms Zemlinsky’s claim to be the most all-embracing dramatic composer of his era: one whose painstaking integration of voices and instruments underlies the tonal richness and flexibility of his mature idiom.
Of course, “Der König Kandaules” is an opera whose performance tradition is still in its infancy. The present production marks an advance on the Hamburg staging in so far as it presents the opera as a living, breathing continuity. Further productions will undoubtedly uncover many more subtleties and shades of meaning, as the nature of Zemlinsky’s musical and dramatic preoccupations are found to be as relevant to our time as to his own. Hopefully, Covent Garden or English National Opera will see fit to mount a production. In the meantime, this engrossing and assured recording, emphatically more than a souvenir of its associated production, urgently requires investigation.