Einem Dantons Tod

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Einem Dantons Tod

  • Dantons Tod

Gottfried von Einem's first opera (it was premiered in Salzburg in 1947 and has been regularly performed in German-speaking countries ever since) had everything going for it: Buchner's great play as its basis, a brilliant libretto by an experienced operatic professional (von Einem's teacher Boris Blacher) and a composer who, though writing for the lyric stage for the first time, had been working in the theatre (at Berlin, Bayreuth and Dresden) since leaving school. It also had a gripping topicality: the initial inspiration for the choice of plot had been an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler, and no German or Austrian could fail to notice the uncomfortable resonances of Buchner's portrayal of Robespierre as proto-Hitler, Danton (not quite historically) as his opponent who fails, as a fatalist in the grip of seemingly uncontrollable history, to speak out against the Terror until it is too late.
It also has a vivid sense of dramatic gesture. The five coldly gleaming brass chords that open and close the opera are as brilliant a stroke as the five that brutally seize our attention at the opening of Tosca, and they have a similar effect and function. The edgy overtones of light music in the orchestral entr'actes, the way that the second of them hurls us unprepared into the opera's crucial scene (the trial of Danton before the Revolutionary Tribunal) the powerful cumulative grip of the trial scene itself—these are all the work of a born musical dramatist. And it was a real man of the theatre who contrived the concluding scenes of both acts. Both are given to the same 'subsidiary' character an uncomprehending victim of the Revolution whose love for one of its leaders is her downfall. At the end of Act 1 she remembers an old song about the sorrow of parting, shudders at the omen and suddenly feels afraid; her movingly simple lyricism is engulfed in a grim orchestral crescendo. Likewise at the end of the opera, on the steps of the guillotine (presided over by a pair of jovial Viennese-Shakespearian executioners) on which her lover has perished, she distractedly sings a chorale (haunting off-stage chorus and gravely dark orchestra), comes to her senses momentarily and welcomes her own death by crying ''Long live the King!'' The five chords. Curtain.
It is something of a problem opera also, however. Danton's aloof contemptuous inactivity until he is stung by the indignity of his arrest (he rises to vehement eloquence in his speech warning against dictatorship) means that he takes several scenes to register as a character. Until then the ruthlessly fanatical Robespierre, the out-of-his-depth idealist Desmoulins and his wife Lucile (the pathetic subject of those two curtain scenes) are all more real and rounded, as is the vividly characterized Paris mob. It is von Einem's purpose, of course, that the tension should mount with each scene, that Revolution itself, not Danton, should be the drama's central character, but with the big guns of expressive declamation mostly saved for Act 2, and Danton a shadowy figure in Act 1, the drama is a bit slow to start. I don't think one would mind this much in the theatre (von Einem's musical gestures are very shrewdly calculated to be 'completed' by stage imagery), and in a performance as good as this the sense of the stage is very strong. Adam is formidable when the dramaturgy allows him to be, Hiestermann is a piercing dangerous Robespierre, Laki and Hollweg sing touchingly and lyrically and there are no weak links elsewhere in the cast. Although recorded at a concert performance the orchestral and choral sound is not congested, and Zagrosek ensures both that the big scenes really are big and that our interest is not dissipated between them. The case for staging Dantons Tod in Britain and for investigating von Einem's five later operas is very strongly made.'

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