It's a Gift
March 05, 2008
Si j'étais un homme, sans doute je ferais les choses que vous me dites, mais les pauvres bêtes qui veulent prouver leur amour ne savent que se coucher par terre et mourir.
[If I were a man, I would do the things that you say [and live], but the poor beasts who want to prove their love can only lie down on the ground and die.]
--La Bête, La Belle et la Bête
Most men, confronted with their true selves, run away screaming!
--Professor Engywook, The NeverEnding Story
The Infanta (Mary Dunleavy) and the Dwarf (Rodrick Dixon), amid choristers and courtiers. (Los Angeles Opera photo by Robert Millard.)
Having no particular interest in the remaining productions -- Tosca and La Rondine -- my own Los Angeles Opera season ended this past Saturday evening, and ended well, with the double bill of Viktor Ullmann's The Broken Jug (Der zerbrochene Krug) and Alexander Zemlinsky's The Dwarf (Der Zwerg). There is one remaining performance of these paired productions (Saturday evening, March 8), and I will offer one word of advice for anyone with a remotely serious interest in music drama: Go!
This is the first fully-staged offering in music director James Conlon's "Recovered Voices" project, a multi-year initiative to rescue from obscurity works by composers who were directly affected by the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. (The recent Opera News article on Conlon and "Recovered Voices" is reproduced on the LA Opera site.) Both of the composers on this bill came out of the fertile musical hothouse of Vienna. Ullmann, living in Prague when (as Conlon put it in his pre-performance talk) "it was presented as a gift to Hitler," spent two years interned at Terezín, continuing to write, before his death at Auschwitz in 1944. Zemlinsky -- friend and compatriot of Mahler, teacher and brother-in-law of Schoenberg, first lover of Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel (née Schindler) -- was able to emigrate with his family to New York following the German entry into Austria, but died there in 1942.
The Broken Jug is a 45-minute comic piece in which a corrupt provincial judge with a roving eye is unmasked by the testimony in his own courtroom. Enjoyable to be sure, but ultimately no more than a lovely trifle. The best part of the LA Opera production is probably the shadow play that goes on during the opera's overture, some of which can be seen of which can be seen at the outset of the video clip posted here.
The Dwarf is something else again, a sad and beautiful work of high musical and dramatic quality that deserves to have a place in the standard repertoire. The opera is adapted from a story by Oscar Wilde, "The Birthday of the Infanta." In both Wilde's story and the libretto by Georg Klaren, the Infanta of Spain is presented with a dwarf on her birthday. The dwarf has no idea that he is misshapen or an object of mockery: he has never seen himself, and believes that the laughter that follows him everywhere is an expression of joy and pleasure at his presence, his singing and his dancing. When he is stripped of his illusion and shown himself in a mirror by the unfeeling Infanta, he dies of heartbreak.
Both the story and the opera are rich in themes typical of Wilde: beauty as a double-edged sword, the disjunction between appearance and inner reality, decadence and innocence. Klaren's text takes several liberties that actually serve to heighten the Wildean quality of the piece. The Infanta of the story is only twelve while her operatic incarnation is turning eighteen. Wilde's dwarf is younger too, a sort of "wild child" found by shepherds in a forest; Zemlinsky and Klaren make him more of a sophisticate, a genuinely talented singer with a mature and yearning soul, captured and kept by the captain of a Spanish ship for ten years before being sold to a Sultan, whose gift to the Infanta he becomes. In consequence, the Infanta of the opera is more knowingly cruel than her prose counterpart, especially when she spurns the sensitive dwarf's pleas for love and reassurance, to fatal effect.
Zemlinsky's music is in the lush, intelligent late Romantic idiom of Richard Strauss. (Zemlinsky conducted the Vienna premiere of Strauss's Wilde opera, Salome.) There is enough dissonance sprinkled about to let us know we are dealing with a 20th century piece, but color, melody and emotional punch are the orders of the day. It is as smart, elegant and dramatically effective as the best of Strauss.
The LA Opera production is all that Zemlinsky might have wished. The look of the production is inspired, as was Wilde's story, by Velazquez's great Las Meninas, and the action plays out in an opulent palace room lined with sliding mirrored doors, which inevitably surround the sorrowful dwarf with the truth of how others see him. (The set's initial resemblance to a really swanky hotel elevator lobby was quickly forgotten once the drama began to unfold.) The Spanish court is in blacks, whites and grays, with red and pink trim for the cyanide layer cake that is the Infanta. The Dwarf is in rich orange and gold, like the blood-orange of which he sings.
The singers are all, thank goodness, strong singing actors who do not succumb to the curse of "park and bark." As he should, Rodrick Dixon as the Dwarf dominates from the moment he emerges from his gilt gift box. Susan B. Anthony is touching, and was enthusiastically received, as the ineffectual Ghita, the Infanta's maid who protests against the cruel trick her mistress proposes. Called upon to glitter and be gay while calmly destroying her new "toy," Mary Dunleavy glittered gaily as the Infanta.
The Dwarf is easily one of the two finest productions LA Opera has offered this season, essentially tied in my mind with the company's tremendous, under-attended, Jenufa. There were a number of cameras at work around the Pavilion Saturday night, which suggests this production may see release on video. Better yet, one hopes that some old bel canto warhorse can be kept in the stable in a season or two, so that the poor Dwarf, like Tinkerbell, can return to the stage revived by well-earned applause.