Von Einem Der Prozess

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Von Einem Der Prozess

  • (Der) Prozess, '(The) Trial'

What a cast for the first night of a new opera! Austria’s leading dramatic tenor in the title-role, della Casa as the three women in Josef K’s life, Vienna State Opera stalwarts in even tiny parts, with Walter Berry and the great Ludwig Hofmann in two and four cameo roles respectively. Although the services of the prompter are liberally called upon (no wonder: Josef K is never off-stage and seldom silent for long) the performance is a highly assured one, with only one dropped stitch that I could hear, and Bohm conducts as though the piece had been in his repertory for years.
The accompanying booklet reprints two early reviews, one favourable, the other less so, and studiously avoids taking either side. I know exactly how its author feels. Von Einem treats this unreal, surreal plot both realistically and with detachment. The music is mostly matter-of-fact, not hallucinatory, with frequent touches of irony: mock-ceremonious fanfares for the nightmarish court hearing, big-band dance music in the cathedral scene before Josef K’s execution. Hints of Stravinsky are frequent (at two points an almost literal quotation from the Symphony in Three Movements) and quite often the stage action and the music of the orchestra seem to be in deliberate conflict: one of the most deadpan Stravinskian passages accompanies one of the drama’s most sinister encounters. The orchestra make much use of ostinato, the vocal lines are often rapidly declamatory. I have not seen the libretto (only summaries of each scene are provided) but it seems very wordy.
For all these reasons the opera is slow to grip. The first scene is unpromising, with speech giving way to monotone recitative and then to an orchestral ‘invention’ around that monotone. But tension does build, quite powerfully, lyrical expansiveness does develop (in the scenes between Josef K and the three women almost Puccinian lyricism at times) and by the longer scenes of the Second Act we are aware of real drama taking place. Only fitfully – some of those scenes seem simply too long, too full of words – but often enough to convince you that the opera would work on stage.
However, there’s the problem: for real involvement with this piece, in the absence of staging, you need (unless your German is fluent) more than a one-sentence summary of a scene that takes eight or ten minutes to play and is full of dialogue. The singing is remarkable: Lorenz is selflessly heroic, with just a few signs of strain, in the endurance test of the central role; della Casa is in beautiful, expressive voice throughout and there is not a single weak link. But vocal connoisseurship and reminiscent cries of “Goodness! Oscar Czerwenka! Do you remember him?” will not keep you fully occupied through those long passages of declamation. The recording, from a broadcast tape formerly in the composer’s possession, is good, though the higher voices are acidulated a little.'

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