GÁL Das Lied der Nacht (Hotz)
‘One of the most powerful operatic experiences ever!’ was how one critic described Das Lied der Nacht after its Breslau premiere in April 1926. The third of Hans Gál’s four operas, it was hugely successful in Germany until 1933, when the Nazis banned his music, forcing him initially to return to his native Austria, then into eventual exile in the UK. Das Lied der Nacht was not heard again until 2017, when it was revived first in Osnabrück in a production by Mascha Pörzgen, then in concert by the Hans Gál Society in Edinburgh, where Gál lived from 1940 until his death in 1987. This recording was made after the Osnabrück performances, albeit, it would seem, with a couple of cast changes.
It’s a fascinating piece, though not everyone will unequivocally share the enthusiasm of its early reviewers. Setting an overwrought libretto by the openly gay Moravian poet Karl Michael von Levetzow, it deals with the catastrophic consequences of sexual repression in its depiction of the Sicilian princess Lianora, who is repeatedly aroused by the voice of an unknown man singing in the city streets at night but finds herself unable to cope with the corresponding reality when she discovers, by the cold light of day, that the Singer is, in fact, Ciullo, a common boatman, who takes his own life when she rejects him.
Levetzow’s text, however, swamps the narrative in an unwieldy amalgam of Symbolist aesthetics and Freudian psychology that can impede the dramatic momentum. The night/day imagery from Tristan is pressed into relentless service to delineate conflicts and movements between unconscious desires and reason within the individual psyche, while the mechanics of repression are questionably equated with the strictures of organised religion, embodied in the frightful figure of Lianora’s aunt, the Princess-Abbess. Lianora apart, the protagonists remain ciphers, and Ciullo’s climactic suicide is unmoving since Levetzow never allows Gál to establish him as a character independent of Leonora’s fantasies.
The end result is curiously disengaging, despite the excellence of much of the music. Mahler’s influence is more than once apparent, appropriately enough for an opera in which the rapturous and the neurotic are in continual proximity. Lianora has a wonderful aria in the second scene, in which she waits in tremulous anticipation for the Singer to begin his song, and the duet that follows is terrifically sexy. Best of all, perhaps, is the music Gál provides for the implacable Princess-Abbess: her long scene with Lianora, dominated by slow ostinatos and immovable brass and woodwind chords, is both deeply creepy and superbly accomplished.
The performance is for the most part strong, though Ralph Ertel is occasionally taxed by the Singer’s high tessitura and Rhys Jenkins as Lianora’s womanising cousin Tancred sounds a bit too brutal. Lina Liu, however, is outstanding in her vivid delineation of Lianora’s predicament, her bright, silvery tone nicely contrasted with the altogether warmer-sounding Susann Vent-Wunderlich as her maidservant Hämone, who is very much the voice of reason within the work. The Princess-Abbess requires a grand singing actress and Gritt Gnauck, though at times unsteady, really generates the requisite menace. Conductor Andreas Hotz presses the score forwards with considerable urgency, all the while laying careful emphasis on the subtle yet telling use of counterpoint that is the hallmark of Gál’s style. The playing and choral singing are exemplary.