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OPERA REVIEW

Powerful 'Voices' speaks to deeper meaning

Two works by German composers who were banned by the Nazis are staged for the first time in the U.S.

February 19, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"Recovered Voices," Los Angeles Opera's effort to restore to the repertory German opera suppressed by the Nazis, has a shaky premise but not shaky music. Sunday afternoon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the company presented works by Viktor Ullmann and Alexander Zemlinsky never before staged in America.

The Nazi attitude toward these composers was clear. They were Jewish. They were persecuted, their music forbidden. Ullmann perished in Auschwitz. Zemlinsky, a celebrated composer and conductor in the German-speaking world, emigrated from Vienna to New York in 1938 a broken man, his career pretty much destroyed.

But why it now takes a special effort to revive the works of Ullmann and Zemlinsky may have less to do with the Nazis than with issues of musical taste and originality.

Other composers were suppressed for racial and/or musical reasons, yet they continued to thrive. Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg, both of whom emigrated to the U.S., come immediately to mind. Anton Webern's music, unheard during the Nazi regime, changed the course of music immediately after the war ended.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, February 23, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 89 words Type of Material: Correction
'Recovered Voices': The headline on a review of "Recovered Voices" in Tuesday's Calendar section said the two works performed by Los Angeles Opera were written by German composers. Although "The Broken Jug" and "The Dwarf" were written in German, neither of their composers -- Viktor Ullmann and Alexander Zemlinsky, respectively -- was German. Zemlinsky was Austrian; Ullmann was born in Teschen, a city claimed by both Poles and Czechs and which at the time of his birth was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Teschen is now Cieszyn, in Poland.

Why, moreover, present Ullmann's "The Broken Jug" and Zemlinsky's "The Dwarf" when L.A. Opera has yet to stage Berg's "Lulu" or Schoenberg's "Moses and Aron"? There are two reasons more compelling than historical imperative. These obscure operas are in a Romantically accessible style and, I think most important of all, L.A. Opera music director James Conlon has a passion for them. His enthusiasm Sunday was infectious.

Of the two one-act operas, "The Dwarf" is by far the most important. Premiered in Cologne in 1922, it is the sixth of the composer's eight operas. (Conlon presented Zemlinsky's earlier "A Florentine Tragedy" last season in a concert performance with the company.) The score, especially in the orchestral writing, is ravishing.

Based on Oscar Wilde's story "The Birthday of the Infanta," this is "Beauty and the Beast" without redemption. A princess in the Spanish Court of Philip II receives a dwarf as a present for her 18th birthday. She toys with him, and he falls in love with her. He has never seen himself in the mirror. When he does, he dies of grief.

Wilde's story has a light touch, which makes it all the more devastating. Zemlinsky's opera is heavier-handed melodrama. What saves it is Zemlinsky's ability to handle complex emotion, his feel for mood and the dripping vibrancy of his orchestral palette.

Zemlinsky was at the center of things in early 20th century German and Austrian music. He was Schoenberg's mentor and brother-in-law. He has been called the missing link between Mahler and Schoenberg. But stylistically he moved slowly when music progressed at a breakneck pace. He remained stuck at the junction between late Romanticism and early Modernism.

The same could be said for Richard Strauss, but Zemlinsky didn't have Strauss' originality. Still, with a renewed interest in Romanticism, Zemlinsky is now being welcomed back into the party as a very good composer of his day, if not one of the immortals.

There is much to catch the ear in "The Dwarf." The score may not evolve with Mahlerian inventiveness, and Zemlinsky, sadly known for his own ugliness, falls easily into pathos. But from the very opening, the orchestra presents a grand spectacle, and Conlon rendered it magnificently.

The singers ride the crests of the instruments. Mary Dunleavy was a luscious Infanta and Rodrick Dixon a touching, tortured Dwarf. Susan B. Anthony's Ghita, the Infanta's maid, was movingly empathetic.

The briefer "Broken Jug," which opened the matinee, is farce. A village judge in Holland tries to place the blame on his attempted seduction of a young plaintiff elsewhere. He is Adam, she is Eve.

Just as beast does not get beauty in the "The Dwarf," Adam does not get Eve but is chased out of town.

The music is perky, hinting of Hindemith and Weill. James Johnson (Adam), Melody Moore (Eve) and the various family members, jurists and lackeys sang well and were also successful slapstick artists. We must cry through laughter, though. Ullmann finished this opera in 1942, just before the Nazis sent him to a concentration camp.

The productions by Darko Tresnjak, the co-artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, were attractive but in their lack of originality unfortunately seemed to be saying the same thing about the operas.

"The Broken Jug" was given as garden-variety period comedy, complete with dumb-show silhouette dance to accompany the overture (which lasts seven of the opera's 37 minutes).

For "The Dwarf," Ralph Funicello's lavish set and Linda Cho's extravagant costumes reproduce the Velazquez painting that inspired Wilde's original story.

I'm not sure a Pageant-of-the-Masters approach is the best image for L.A. Opera to present the weekend that LACMA opened its new home for contemporary art and the city's claims as being a major international art center are being examined by out-of-town press.

But the Pavilion stage is an eyeful. Zemlinsky music is an earful. And the result is a heady, if perhaps guilty, pleasure.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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'The Broken Jug'/ 'The Dwarf'

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 2 p.m. Saturday; 7:30 p.m. March 1 and 8

Price: $20 to $238

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www .laopera.com

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