Kienzl Don Quixote Op 50

A fine revival of a late-19th-century opera which proves as quixotic as its subject

Author: 
John Steane

Kienzl Don Quixote Op 50

  • Don Quixote

The unintentional irony becomes slowly and painfully irresistible. The opera is about a man deluded by noble ideals concerning his life’s work; and it is itself the victim of its own delusions of grandeur. Wilhelm Kienzl had enjoyed a great success with Der Evangelimann in 1895. He worked devotedly and with a sense of inspiration (almost everything in the score proclaims that) over the next two to three years to produce a crowning masterpiece in his Don Quixote.

He was in his prime, 40 years old, rich in experience and still full of creative energy. His thorough training in the high craft and art of music-making meant that the whole German tradition was his element, with Wagner part of the very air he breathed. Moreover, his mind was still growing, in musical tastes and intellectual concerns. Don Quixote brought together, in one colossal structure, his love of music-drama as rich theatrical fare, his will to lessen Wagner’s hold in exchange for access to the spirit of Mozart, his admiration for a supreme classic of European literature, and his ambition to make it newly relevant in an age increasingly fascinated by psychology. He achieved much within the scope of these comprehensive aims. He produced a vast and magnificent score. And it failed.

The failure was not abject, and the opera, with judicious cuts, secured a number of revivals, none of them, however, establishing it in the repertoire. Now, in our great age of revivals, we can hear it complete and on CD, where the physical inconveniences of a long night out do not weigh too heavily in the balance against success. On the other hand, the opulence of choruses and ensembles may well be more exciting in the opera house, with a star Quixote possibly making it unforgettable as a theatrical experience.

The weakness, I think, lies in Kienzl’s delusion about the material itself. After the première he blamed the audience for not knowing how to cope with tragi-comedy: they wanted to laugh or to cry, he said, but couldn’t do both. Personally, I didn’t do either. Tears might be near in the last scenes, but don’t flow; laughter is constantly being invited (‘How can one keep from laughing, ha ha’ sing the chorus) but is rarely if ever (never as far as I’m concerned) actually caused. The sequence of elaborate ‘stings’ or scams may have modern counterparts, but here they are tedious in the extreme and not at all funny. As for the psychotherapy, despite the protestations of ‘being cruel to be kind,’ it turns out to be a case of the cure worse than the disease. This you sit through under protest, even while the score is unfurling in undoubted mastery.

And the performance is a fine one. The title-role falls to Thomas Mohr, a resonant high baritone who makes much of his generously written solos. Sancho Panza, a tenor, not quite buffo, is made clear and sympathetic in utterance by James Wagner. Mercedes, a character sympathetic to Quixote but in love with another, is a warm-voiced mezzo, Michelle Breedt. Others in the large cast have their moments of prominence and deal with them professionally. Excellent chorus-work and fine orchestral playing testify to the effectiveness of their conductor, Gustav Kuhn. And the recorded sound is full-bodied and well-defined.

Poor old Kienzl: sidelined by Strauss and Mahler, then by the atonalists, he lived on until 1941, angry and disillusioned like his tragi-comic hero. This recording vindicates him at least to the extent that, if we still can’t laugh or cry, we can at least admire.

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