Der Traumgörge: A Dark Fairytale Opera from 1907 Makes Its Way Today, on CD and in Performance
Alexander Zemlinsky: Der Traumgörge
Pamela Coburn (Grete), Janis Martin (Princess, Gertraud), Josef Protschka (Görge), Hartmut Welker (Hans, Kaspar)
Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Hessian Radio Choruses, cond. Gerd Albrecht|
Capriccio 5395 [2 CDs] 111 minutes
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Numerous early- and mid-twentieth-century German operas failed to reach our shores, or came but made little impact. Even today, several of Richard Strauss’s many highly accomplished and gratifying operas after Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos remain largely unknown to most opera lovers. True, their librettos are often cumbersome, wordy, or obscure, but the works are still well worth hearing and seeing—or getting to know at home through recordings and DVDs. Then there’s Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who, having traveled to Hollywood to write film scores, ended up staying here because of the rise of Nazism in Germany. Yet his operas—quite successful for a time in the German-speaking lands—somehow never caught up with him in America.
Alexander von Zemlinsky—composer of the vivid, tumultuous opera under review: <I>Der Traumgörge<P> (composed 1904-6)—had a somewhat similar trajectory to Korngold but without the happy ending: he fled Nazism, leaving his career as an opera composer/conductor behind. He ended up, a defeated man ill with tuberculosis, in Larchmont NY (in Westchester County), where he died four years after emigrating.
Only in recent decades has the musical world begun to discover and evaluate what Zemlinsky had to offer. Arnold Schoenberg, who had been his student, frankly called him “a great composer.” But other contemporaries were grumpier: Alma Mahler wrote that she and her husband Gustav used to joke that, like his rather unimpressively shaped head, Zemlinsky’s music “had no chin.” By this she presumably meant that his scores, though full of chromatic harmonies and enharmonic shifts (elements that she specifically mentions in that passage), lacked melodic definition, vivid contrasts, and powerful command of form. Yet Gustav promoted Zemlinsky’s conducting career and tried to get the very opera reviewed here performed at the Vienna Court Opera, where he was chief conductor. The moment that Mahler quit his job (in 1907), the work (which had begun to be staged and rehearsed) got shelved, and the score lay untouched until rediscovered by scholars and then given its world premiere in 1980 in Nürnberg.
Musicians and audiences have decided that Alma was wrong about Zemlinsky’s music. (She was not an unbiased observer, having rejected his marriage proposal years earlier. She considered him too poor and too short.) The Lyric Symphony has now been recorded at least ten times, by major performers. His opera Eine florentinische Tragödie, based on a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s one-act play A Florentine Tragedy, has been recorded six times (see my enthusiastic review of the latest, as well as Michael Miller’s review of a fully-staged performance at the 2007 Bard Music Festival). And now we have a re-release of a 1987 recording of his two-act fairy-tale opera Der Traumgörge, which means something like Georgie the Dreamer. The opera is by now well-known to connoisseurs from a 1999 recording under James Conlon, featuring Patricia Racette and David Kuebler (based on an unstaged performance and re-released in 2010).
The recording under review is a re-release, by Capriccio, of an equally strong rendering (likewise recorded during a stage performance) that preceded the Conlon to market but has been unavailable for a while.
The plot of Der Traumgörge blends elements from several distinct literary sources (including a set of three poems by Heine). It centers on a kind of “holy fool” character, Dreamy George, an “introspective orphan” (to quote Grove Music Online), who abandons his fiancée Grete because a princess in a story book tells him about the wonders of the wider world. Don’t worry about Grete; she was more interested in the inheritance that will eventually come to Görge than in his passionate philosophizing, and she perks up when Hans, a sturdy soldier (baritone), returns from war and takes an interest in her.
In Act 2, George goes wandering hither and yon, drinks too much, and falls in love with Gertraud, the daughter of a dispossessed nobleman. (She turns out to be basically the storybook princess in another guise. The roles have generally been played by the same singer, though Zemlinsky did not specify this.) He tries to engage in political revolution but discovers that the enraged peasants just want to create havoc. They accuse Gertraud of being a witch and threaten to burn her house down. He saves Gertraud and returns with her to his village, where, in the opera’s rather lengthy Epilogue—a third act, really—they make a happy, quiet life for themselves and improve the lives of their fellow townspeople. The inherited property and moolah come in handy. A fairytale ending, in other words.
The opera has affinities with a number of better-known works. For example, by placing a baffled anti-hero in a variety of social contexts, where he confronts different individuals, groups, and personal and moral/religious challenges, the opera reminds me of works as disparate as Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, Parsifal, and Wozzeck.
But it has its own distinct flavor, and one that I have grown to love. The rich and varied orchestral tissue is a big part of this: I was pleasantly surprised by many new and dramatically appropriate sonorities welling up from the pit. Even better, the vocal parts here have plenty of “chin.” This is most evident in two folklike numbers: one for Grete, the other for Kaspar, the leader of the supposed revolutionaries. But all the characters, even in moments of great stress or self-doubt, express themselves in memorable vocal phrases. This is a “singers’ opera”—though in a very different sense from, say, Bellini. I think it would be effective on stage—with very simple sets appropriate to a (richly elaborated) folklike tale.
The performances are as strong, in their own way, as those in the Conlon recording. (You can listen to the beginning of each track here.) Josef Protschka is marvelous in the central role of Georgie, producing a steady stream of clear, strong tone that makes one believe that this guy really does have something to offer the world and his fellow creatures. Collectors may recognize the name: at age 11 Protschka recorded the title role in the famous MGM recording of Brecht and Weill’s Der Jasager made in Düsseldorf and later re-released on Heliodor (again, LP). A year later Protschka provided the vocals for Stockhausen to manipulate in Gesang der Jünglinge.
Janis Martin excels as both the princess and Gertraud, though her long notes sometimes quaver a bit. (She was steady as a rock 17 years earlier when I heard her at Bayreuth in Die Meistersinger.) Pamela Coburn, perhaps best known for her Siébel in the Alain Lombard recording of Gounod’s Faust and her Marzelline in the Haitink Fidelio, brings vocal sumptuousness to Grete. But Patricia Racette, on the Conlon recording, bites into certain lines with even more dramatic specificity.
In short, I can’t choose between this recording and the Conlon. Neither version, in its current release, comes with a libretto, which is a crying shame. (The original releases of both did have one. Maybe you can locate a copy in a library and photocopy it?) Both booklets do offer a basic plot summary, and you can find more details in OperaGrove (Grove Music Online) and in Antony Beaumont’s magisterial book on Zemlinsky. Beaumont’s book also explains some of the extensive cuts made in the Albrecht recording, which is about a half-hour shorter than the Conlon.
Further evidence of Zemlinsky’s posthumous rise in the musical world: This very opera recently received a (further-belated) world premiere of Antony Beaumont’s critical edition in performances, sung in German by a superb international cast under conductor Marta Gardolinska; it can currently be heard online. The production, I was astonished to learn, took place in late September and October 2020, during a somewhat controlled phase in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Here’s a French article focusing on aspects of the production’s staging and lighting. The production was the world-premiere of Antony Beaumont’s critical edition, in a version with reduced orchestration. The smaller orchestra no doubt helped the singers be heard clearly. Perhaps it also allowed the players in the pit to be distanced from each other (and, of course, masked—except for the wind players).
However you get to know his operas, including Georgie the Dreamer, I think you’ll agree that Zemlinsky, despite his recessed chin, cuts a fine figure.
More generally, bit by bit, we’re realizing what treasures twentieth-century German opera has to offer. Let me end with one more suggestion: Gottfried von Einem’s lively, scorching 1971 Der Besuch der alten Dame (The Visit of the Old Lady), in a vivid live recording that stars Christa Ludwig, then at the height of her artistry. And, for an intriguing comparison to Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie, Swiss composer Richard Flury’s less intense but still quite involving one-act opera (composed 1927-28) based on the same German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play.
The present essay first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.