Eight Little Greats – No.8: The Dwarf

The Dwarf [Sung in an English translation by David Pountney]

Donna Clara – Stefanie Krahnenfeld
Ghita – Majella Cullagh
The Dwarf – Paul Nilon
Don Estoban – Graeme Broadbent
Playmates – Anna Brittain, Claire Williams, Irene Evans, Joanna Burton, Kim-Marie Woodhouse, Miranda Bevin, Nicola Unwin & Sarah Redgewick
Maids – Susan Lees, Lesley Roberts & Gladwyn Taylor

Orchestra of Opera North
David Parry

Director – David Pountney
Designer – Johan Engels
Costumes – Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting – Adam Silverman

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 26 June, 2004
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

The Dwarf (Der Zwerg) is a stunning little piece based on one of Oscar Wilde’s rather discomforting short stories, about a dwarf that a Sultan gives to a spoilt Spanish Infanta. The Dwarf does not know of his deformity and believes his popularity is based on true affection and admiration. The thoughtless child shatters this self-delusion by ordering her servants to show him his true image in a mirror. They refuse to do this, but the inevitable happens. Refusing to disbelieve that his celebrity is based on anything other than true affection she rejects him and he dies broken-hearted.

The piece has been seen in London before, in an alternative orchestral guise, as The Birthday of the Infanta, which was staged in a double bill with Zemlinsky’s Florentine Tragedy by the Royal Opera in the mid 1980s. That production was staged rather traditionally. David Pountney’s production chose, interestingly, to reverse the visual images. All the court characters are presented as grotesques, dressed in garish, outlandish costumes and make-up whilst the Dwarf is introduced in black tie and tails – the epitome of ‘normality’.

This worked extremely well as the Infanta and her companions could be presented as the vacuous, unfeeling followers of wealth and fashion and as a warning to us all.

In the midst of this the short and sympathetic figure of Paul Nilon stood out as a solitary outsider. He is a wonderful stage performer and one really believed his innocence and felt for the dwarf’s predicament. Wisely, he did not overplay the opera’s earlier scenes where the dwarf entertains the court and declares his love for the Infanta – thus his moment of revelation by the mirror was heightened. He sang lyrically and strongly as the role requires, only occasionally swamped by Zemlinsky’s dense, romantic and chromatic orchestral score. His howl on seeing his reflection was stomach-churning.

The Infanta herself was sung by Stefanie Krahnenfeld, who managed vocally and physically to bring out all the petulance and selfish immaturity of her character. The slight coolness of her voice really helped in this regard. Her confidante, Ghita, is the only character to truly feel for the dwarf and is necessary as a dramatic foil for the excess elsewhere. Majella Cullagh portrayed her most sympathetically with warm, velvety tone; and her short lines as she tends the dying dwarf were simply and affectingly delivered.

The slightly sinister and Machiavellian Don Estoban, the master of ceremonies presiding over the Infanta’s birthday celebrations, was sonorously sung by Graeme Broadbent. David Parry and the orchestra unleashed a storm in the pit; the drama had appropriate pace led from there.

One should also make mention of John Engels’s stunning stage designs – the stage being dominated by a walkway running from back to front of the stage which became a cat-walk, a dining table, and finally, when raised, the mirror that propels the final tragedy. It was beautifully lit as well. This was a stunning end to a provocative week.

So how is one to summarise the whole “Eight Little Greats” experience? First and foremost it was an inspiring piece of creative planning and one that was very well executed. Each opera and production had something to offer even the most seasoned opera-goer or the adventurous first-timer. There were more hits than misses. For me, Il Tabarro was the best of the eight; it was so fabulously staged, played and sung, but I derived huge pleasure from La vida breve, The Dwarf and The Seven Deadly Sins. I was less than enamoured of Pagliacci and Djamileh, and the others steered a path in between.

The star of the week was the orchestra, its versatility was extraordinary and seemingly tireless. Among the conductors I would single out Martin André’s contributions in the Puccini, Falla and Rachmaninov.

Some singers deserve mention for their large and vital contributions – especially the baritones Jonathan Summers and Mark Stone, and Mary Plazas in the Falla.

How about another eight? Here’s my wish list: Les mamelles de tiresias (Poulenc), Friedenstag (Richard Strauss), Sancta Susanna (Hindemith), At The Boar’s Head (Holst), Šárka (Janáček), Kaschei the Immortal (Rimsky-Korsakov), The Bear (Walton), and The Gamblers (Shostakovich).

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