D'Albert Die Toten Augen

A rare chance to sample more of d'Albert's music and an opera whose extravagant plot is matched by a sumptuous score

Author: 
Michael Oliver

D'Albert Die Toten Augen

  • (Die) toten Augen

Apart from the widely admired Tiefland and the one-act comedy Die Abreise, Die toten Augen was the most successful of Eugen d'Albert's 20 operas. He chose a wide range of subject matter for them and drew on as broad a range of musical reference: parts of Tiefland are quite close to Italian verismo, the late Die schwarze Orchidee uses jazz elements. The most obvious kinship in Die toten Augen is Richard Strauss, but the orchestral textures will occasionally remind you rather more of Respighi, some of the melodies of Schreker or of Korngold.
The plot, set in Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, concerns the beautiful Myrtocle, blind since birth, who longs for sight mainly so that she may see her deeply loved husband Arcesius, whom she believes to be as handsome as Apollo. She is given her sight by Christ who (his single, off-stage line) predicts that before the sun sets she will curse him. A man as handsome as Apollo indeed appears, and Myrtocle falls into his arms: it is Galba, her husband's friend, who has loved her for years. Arcesius kills him and Myrtocle, realising his love and his suffering, blinds herself again by staring at the sun. The action is framed by a Prologue and Epilogue in which a Shepherd goes in search of a lost lamb and, in the Epilogue, finds it.
A repulsive story, you might think, but it's easy to understand what d'Albert saw in it. The setting provides pretexts for rich colour, the character and beauty of Myrtocle plentiful opportunities for ample, graceful melody (she has an attendant solo violin) while the religious element (a brief but important part in the plot is played by Mary Magdalen) calls for music of greater gravity. Although the simple story might not seem to call for an hour and three-quarters of music, there are in fact two skilfully deployed 'sub-plots'. Myrtocle is Greek and pagan, and explicitly compares herself in a graceful aria to Psyche (whom Cupid only visited in the dark, and vanished when she tried to see him by lamp-light). Then there are the linked themes of pity (Christ is early described, in a fine lyrical phrase that recurs, as 'a man who has pity on other men') and sacrifice. Mary Magdalen warns Myrtocle that she must renounce her own happiness for that of others: 'Renunciation is the virtue of the suffering'. And that phrase, quietly lyrical, returns as the opera ends.
Of course, it is perfectly possible to see all this as hokum seasoned with religiosity: Myrtocle's miraculous healing (a splendiferous orchestral tutti) has more than a touch of Cecil B de Mille about it. But it is enjoyably effective hokum, and occasionally something more. Myrtocle's happiness at regaining her sight and her physical longing for the man she takes to be her husband are both well suggested, but neither is so eloquent as her resolve to blind herself. And the opera gives abundant opportunities to singers, seized with particular gratitude and sensitivity by Dagmar Schellenberger in a radiant portrayal of the central role. Hartmut Welker is effectively vehement as her husband and the rest of the cast are excellent with the exception of Anne Gjevang's rather blowsy Magdalen. Ralf Weikert draws sumptuous, occasionally clotted colours from his orchestra, and the live recording is clean and reasonably spacious.'

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