Tubin Barbara von Tisenhusen

Author: 
Robert Layton

Tubin Barbara von Tisenhusen

  • Barbara von Tisenhusen

Eduard Tubin first tried his hand at opera in 1941 with Puhajarv (''Holy Lake''), and a little later, Libahunt (''Werewolf'') though he finished neither. Then in 1944 when the Red Army was at the gates of Tallinn he fled to Sweden where he lived for the remainder of his life. But in the mid-1960s, relations with Soviet Estonia began to thaw, and performances of his music were once again permitted. Tubin was invited to Tallinn in 1966, when the Estonian Opera put on his ballet, Kratt, and its success prompted a commission from the Opera: Barbara von Tisenhusen was the result.
Only in January I welcomed Ondine's recording of his second opera, The Parson of Reigi, with which it has much in common. They are both relatively short: in the present opera there are three acts of about half-an-hour apiece, and it, too, turns for its inspiration to the Finnish-born Aino Kallas (1878-1956). Moreover, the plot is not dissimilar both in its simplicity and substance It concerns illicit love, the attraction of a noblewoman (Barbara von Tisenhusen) for a commoner (Franz Bonnius), their subsequent elopement, their attempted escape to Lithuania and the disastrous consequences that ensue. Like Catharina in The Parson of Reigi, she is con-demned to death, though in this instance her lover escapes her fate and is drowned in an ice-covered lake. There is one important difference in that the musical organization is more symphonic.
The thematic substance is largely drawn from a chaconne-like motive heard as the curtain rises. It changes so subtly and unobtrusively in dramatic character in each scene that I wonder whether most opera-goers would notice it. As with all composers of quality, Tubin's is the art that conceals art. Barbara von Tisenhusen has no want of variety of pace and texture, and is, I think, more effective as theatre than its successor. The fourth scene, in which the Tisenhusen brothers arrange for a bear to be savaged by a pack of dogs for their amusement, which Harri Kiirsk calls ''the cruel scherzo of the opera'', comes close to the dark world of the Eighth Symphony on which he worked at about the same time. Again characterization is far more vivid than one might expect for a composer whose thought processes are predominantly symphonic in temperament and character but then you must not forget that Tubin had stage experience when he worked at the Vanemuine Theatre in Tallinn before the Second World War. The opening of the Third Act is very characteristic and an ideal passage to sample for it conveys much of the excitement, atmosphere and dramatic skill that the score exhibits.
The singers are excellent without being of 'star quality' and the orchestral playing under Peeter Lilje is committed and serviceable. The sound is rather like that of any broadcast opera relay rather than a commercial studio recording, and needs more space in which to expand. When Barbara von Tisenhusen was first staged it played to full houses for 50 performances—and I am not surprised for it is a work of dramatic and musical coherence that deserves a strong recommendation.'

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