Zemlinsky Der Zwerg

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Zemlinsky Der Zwerg

  • (Der) Zwerg

Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (“The Dwarf”) was rediscovered in 1981, in a much admired production by the Hamburg State Opera that was toured widely and eventually recorded, with a different orchestra, though with the same cast and conductor, Gerd Albrecht. For that production the opera was renamed Der Geburtstag der Infantin (“The Birthday of the Infanta”) to make clear its derivation from Oscar Wilde’s short story, and the libretto was extensively revised by the stage director Adolf Dresen, supposedly to accord more closely with Wilde’s text. It was also, we now realize, quite extensively cut: Conlon’s new recording lasts 13 minutes longer than Albrecht’s.
For a first recording of a one-act opera of inconvenient length it no doubt seemed desirable to present it on a single CD. I feel much more strongly about the wholesale revision of the text. Georg Klaren’s original libretto may take very considerable liberties with Wilde’s story, but it was written at the composer’s invitation and quite frequently the words that Dresen supplied flatly contradict the imagery to which Zemlinsky was responding. In Dresen’s text, for example, the Dwarf arrives in a cage, wearing dirty clothes, his face smudged with soot; he says that his father was a charcoal-burner, and elsewhere it is explained that he was captured, a wild forest creature, by the huntsmen of the Infanta’s father. In the libretto that Zemlinsky actually set, the Dwarf is carried in a sedan chair, arrives as a gift from the Sultan, and is dressed with the utmost magnificence. Where Dresen has him babbling about a piece of charcoal “as pretty as a field of stars”, in the original he speaks poetically but darkly of his forgotten childhood, his kidnap by a Spaniard and his happiness that people smile lovingly at him wherever he goes (never having seen a mirror he does not yet realize that they are amused by his grotesque appearance).
Antony Beaumont, who brought Zemlinsky’s manuscript to the attention of James Conlon, writes plausibly in the accompanying booklet of the painful autobiographical elements that the opera contains: the Dwarf is Zemlinsky himself, the Infanta Alma Schindler, who left him after a brief affair (despite finding him “comical... a caricature, chinless and short”), almost immediately announcing her marriage to Gustav Mahler. The revised text is more cruel than the one Zemlinsky set, underplaying or excising the Dwarf’s nobility of bearing, his oriental and perhaps aristocratic origins and both the pathos and the poetry of his utterance.
For all that, the Hamburg performances and Albrecht’s recording made a strong impression: partly Albrecht’s doing, partly that of Kenneth Riegel in the role of the Dwarf, who made of him a very moving figure, restoring some of the qualities that Dresen had removed. In the new recording Conlon’s cast is at least the equal of Albrecht’s and Isokoski is a more alluring Infanta than Inga Nielsen for Albrecht. The orchestral sound of the new version is more luxurious, and of course we have 13 minutes more of Zemlinsky’s ravishing orchestral textures, sumptuously rendered by a fine recording. David Kuebler is not quite Riegel’s equal, though he sings poetically and lyrically, with great intelligence, and with a real feeling for the much more sympathetic words that he is singing. At least as recorded here, his voice has an edge and at times a sense of strain to it. With that one reservation, however, the new recording is preferable to its predecessor. The more one looks at the alterations that were made (with the sanction of the composer’s widow, it should be said) the more breathtakingly inept they seem.'

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