BERLIN — For anybody who has ever left Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” wishing for extra operas in its mode, or craved works that embrace each modernism and melodic wit (with fashionable storytelling besides), there’s a present ready for you: Jaromir Weinberger’s “Schwanda the Bagpiper.”
Alongside revivals of Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” a brand new manufacturing of that musical comedy was the spotlight of a sterling current weekend at the Komische Oper right here — with a robust, sometimes dangerous staging by Andreas Homoki and a romping orchestral efficiency led by Ainars Rubikis, the firm’s normal music director.
Composed in 1927, with a libretto by Milos Kares, “Schwanda” is an effective time but in addition slyly considerate. (Most frequently, it’s carried out in Max Brod’s German translation, as at the Komische Oper.) The story — in which a gifted artist chases fame, cheats on his spouse after which goes to hell and again — swipes parts from many different works: a musician protagonist; a lady whose long-suffering standing begins virtually instantly after nuptials; a bro-y companion in crime; a vexed queen; the precise Satan.
And though there’s no bagpipe in the orchestra, the overture’s rippling counterpoint is ignited by wind figures suggestive of the instrument. Later, these motifs additionally present a folkloric backdrop for the miming carried out onstage by the baritone in the title position.
A few of the music has proved enduringly standard in the live performance corridor. The “Polka,” a tune-within-the-tale that provides the character of Schwanda successful along with his royal viewers (and subsequently, in its fugal adaptation, a bop well-suited to hell) was a midcentury staple carried out by Herbert von Karajan and Dimitri Mitropoulos.
But “Schwanda” is a rarity onstage — particularly in the United States, regardless of the work’s well-received Metropolitan Opera debut in 1931. Reviewing that premiere in The New York Occasions, Olin Downes cited Smetana, Puccini, Rimsky-Korsakov and Strauss in assessing the score, which he deemed to be “written with a lot swing and esprit and sensible method” — even when it wasn’t fairly “a piece of the first order.”
At the Komische Oper, a haven for long-lost theater treasures, Homoki’s staging makes a compelling case for the work’s return to the repertory. (If I might snap my fingers and produce it to New York, like the firm’s manufacturing of “The Magic Flute” at the Mostly Mozart Festival in 2019, I wouldn’t hesitate.) The primary act flies by in an 80-minute rush, throughout which Schwanda, a domestically famend bagpiper, is tempted by Babinsky — a self-styled Robin Hood however extra of a scamplike thief — to hunt fame in a neighboring kingdom and receives a bit of extra consideration than he anticipated.
Schwanda’s new admirer is the Queen (a task as soon as sung by the nice mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig), who’s in any other case below the spell of the Magician. However his music appears to set her free, and the public is glad to have an artist as a possible king. What, although, about his spouse, Dorotka? When she exhibits up, Schwanda swears on his everlasting soul that nothing untoward has taken place — and promptly drops into hell. Spoiler alert: He makes it again alive, unhurt.
Homoki’s manufacturing, whereas sparely designed by Paul Zoller, makes use of rapidly altering stage photos to create a visible state of intoxication. A pastoral tree is the setting for home bliss; a rotating staircase supplies a public platform for residents in transit, in addition to redoubts for royals creeping about. Klaus Bruns’s costumes — resembling Babinsky’s tattered shirt cuffs and the Magician’s gaudily glowing purple night jacket — are exact or dreamlike, as wanted.
As Babinsky, the tenor Tilmann Unger stole some early scenes. However over the course of the first act, Daniel Schmutzhard’s direct, vibrant baritone sound discovered a suppleness that lent his Schwanda a clean melodic line. The soprano Kiandra Howarth, as Dorotka, had the measure of the opera’s nods to folks track — together with spark in her tone and comfortably ringing high notes.
The bass Jens Larsen — a member of the Komische Oper’s ensemble, who was a memorable Cadmus during a 2019 staging of “The Bassarids” — introduced booming malevolence to the Magician and had a superb scene companion in the mezzo-soprano Ursula Hesse von den Steinen. As the Queen, she joined milky declamations with trance-like gestures as she glided over Weinberger’s chromatic, noir-ready string harmonies.
In Act II, the staging takes of venture in its journey to hell. Homoki virtually begs the viewers to accuse him of clichés as he depicts each Hitler and Stalin as members of the Satan’s retinue. None of this appears motivated by didacticism. As an alternative, the selection registers as an index of the banality of a damned afterlife, and of a Satan bored past perception. (He merely shoots the dictators again and again like a Grindhouse filmmaker who has misplaced the plot.)
That gag tires rapidly. However Weinberger’s music not often stalls, balancing delight with invention all through. At one second, after the Satan tries to take Schwanda’s bagpipe, he can’t handle to play the “Polka.” Downes described the music right here as “hideous atonal parody”; later, the discordant impact was performed down in Heinz Wallberg’s CBS recording, as if to not offend listeners. Fortunately, that was not the case at the Komische Oper. Rubikis thrillingly goes all-in on cacophony, proposing the second as a madcap but finely wrought precursor to up to date works like John Adams’s Chamber Symphony.
If any interpretation of “Schwanda” must be set on document, it’s this one. In any case, the firm did the identical for Weinberger as soon as earlier than when it rescued another of his works from obscurity: “Spring Storms,” which the home’s chief, Barrie Kosky, directed from a brand new association of the almost misplaced rating in early 2020.
That production is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Naxos. Subsequent ought to come “Schwanda.” That method, as an alternative of simply in July, when the present returns for the Komische Oper Festival, it could possibly be seen by audiences far and huge.
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