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The Briar and the Rose

February 17, 2008

Mary Dunleavy and Rodrick Dixon
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008

Today marked the opening of the biggest event of a rather lackluster 07/08 season for LA Opera. The company is busy saving all its pennies for future plans, one of which is the “Recovered Voices” series headed up by music director James Conlon. Last season the project kicked off with two concerts consisting of a semi-staged version of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie and brief excerpts from a number of other operas whose composers were adversely effected by the Nazis's rise to power in the early 20th century. Future plans include fully-staged productions of works from others in this group, including Braunfels’ Die Vögel, as well as Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, and Schrecker’s Die Gezeichneten. But first we have the double bill that opened this weekend, whose main course is Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg.

Apparently Zemlinsky needed more than one opera to work out his Alma Schindler issues, so he again turned to Oscar Wilde whose short story The Birthday of the Infanta served as the source material for Der Zwerg. The tale concerns a young princess who is given an ugly misshapen dwarf by a sultan for a birthday present. The dwarf has never seen himself and believes he is a beautiful, noble and artistic knight. He falls in love with the princess who is only interested in having him around for laughs. When he discovers his true image for the first time in a mirror and is rejected by the Infanta, he dies as she returns to the dancing at her party.

The plot is quite a bummer, but it should be said that LAO has made hay with an excellent new production that is well sung and acted. Conlon leads a stirring and completely convincing account of Zemlinsky’s score that comes off as important as Salome in this context. Mary Dunleavy plays the Infanta with conviction and Rodrick Dixon’s dwarf, while underpowered vocally, still manages to be heartbreaking. Special mention should also be made of Susan B. Anthony’s Ghita who almost steals the whole show from both of them. The production itself is directed by Darko Tresnjak of San Diego's Old Globe Theater. It is smart and visually interesting for a design that hews so closely to the source material. Wisely, Tresnjak has elected to plumb the very visual image that served as Wilde’s inspiration for the story in the first place, Diego Velazquez’ Las Meninas from 1656. The costumes, sets, and even some of the visual elements of the production all stem from this masterpiece including an erstwhile chorister who appears as Velazquez himself completing his painting during one of the opening scenes. It’s an excellent production of a rarely seen opera that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who cares about the art form.

Of course, before Der Zwerg, there is some other admittedly less successful business to attend to in the form of Viktor Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug. Ullmann was no slouch at opera either,and Conlon championed a production of Der Kaiser von Atlantis here in LA just a few years ago. But Krug is a very light and, in this case thankfully, very short comedy at just under 40 minutes. A cornball courtroom farce about a broken jug and a falsely accused young lover is set against a rather cartoonish Dutch village set complete with brightly colored windmills. While the music is well-played and worthwhile, the whole thing is a bit much and frankly not that funny. The whole thing smacks of a children’s theater piece with its cloying acting and overly telegraphed staging.

Given the brevity of Der Zwerg, it seems that the desire was to flesh out an evening by pairing it with something else in a Cav/Pag way. Of course this has never stopped LAO from presenting Pagliacci by itself on more than one occasion and while recognizing Ullmann in his own right is a noble idea, this isn’t the work to do it with and not in this context. Still, with something more substantial on the bill, this Recovered Voices double feature is well worth seeing in one of only three remaining performances over the next three weekends.



I went to last night's performance and largely agree with what you wrote.

I was disappointed in the Ullmann piece, I thought that pantomine behind the scrim was never going to end. Some good singing, but a slight piece, as you hint.

Ah, but Der Zwerg, what an opera. Beautifully paced, lots of nice contrasts, reams of gorgeous music and a really punishing tenor part! I thought Mr. Dixon did yeoman's work with that killer tessitura, though like almost all singers in this rep, I wish the voice was a size larger.

I think it was a poor decision to pair the Ullmann with the Zemlinsky, especially as there's already a ready-made partner for Der Zwerg in Eine florentinische Tragödie; maybe do the Ullmann as the semi-staged thing last year? Oh well!

On to next years glorious Die Vogel and then the big guns of Die Gezeichneten and Die Tote Stadt. I can't wait to hear Mr. Conlon dig in to the Schreker especially, I listened to his all-Schreker CD a few days ago and he just *gets* this repertory.
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