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New Opera Notes: Zemlinsky

Zemlinsky, Der Traumgörge, directed by Joachim Schloemer, sets by Jens Kilian, Deutsche Oper, photo by A. T. Schaefer
Zemlinsky, Der Traumgörge, directed by Joachim Schloemer, sets by Jens Kilian, Deutsche Oper, photo by A. T. Schaefer
The Deutsche Oper in Berlin has mounted a production of Zemlinsky's early 20th-century opera Der Traumgörge (The Dream-George). Gustav Mahler intended to premiere this opera in Vienna in 1907, but it was not actually staged until 1980. Shirley Apthorp reviewed it (A storyteller’s troubled dream, June 4) for the Financial Times:
The choreographer and director Joachim Schloemer has struggled so hard to come up with a contemporary take on the piece, rich in meaning and open to a variety of interpretations, that he has rendered the plot, which was confusing enough to begin with, almost entirely unintelligible. Zemlinsky’s opera plays out in a timeless setting of small-town life. Dreamy orphan Görge is more interested in the world of fairy tales than in his bride-to-be, Grete. He runs away before the engagement party. After years of wandering, he finds his dream woman, the social outcast Gertraud. He rescues her from a witch-hunt and brings her to his home town, where all are enthralled by his storytelling and respect him as their leader.

Schloemer sets the action in the broken-down anteroom of a modern- day underground railway. Static escalators, grubby stairs, illuminated announcements (“FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!”) and a couple of bare concrete walls form a space that is halfway to nowhere (sets: Jens Kilian). The villagers of the first act are grey- suited office-workers, the miller and pastor are drunks, Görge drafts film scripts and wears thick glasses.

The second act, Zemlinsky’s exploration of brutality and violence, mingles subcultures of pimps, hippy surfies, puking proletarians and lumpish religious fanatics. Görge is a tramp, his Gertraud a junkie. For the postlude of the couple’s triumphant return home, Schloemer has devised a bizarre bunker of conformist cultism, Stepford Wives meet Jim Jones. The chorus are dressed in identical 1950s leisurewear, and there’s a mass suicide just before the final curtain.
For another viewpoint, George Loomis reviewed the production (Berlin operas: A grim myth and an abstruse fairy tale, June 5) for the International Herald Tribune:
Alexander von Zemlinsky's "Der Traumgörge," or The Dreaming George, an opera about fairy tales from early 20th-century Vienna [is] now in the repertoire of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Görge's preoccupation with fairy tales, which he believes "must be for real," breaks up his prospective marriage to Grete. But in Act II, which confusingly has almost entirely new characters, he meets Gertraud, whom he eventually recognizes as his fairy princess come to life. Reaching this conclusion is a tortuous process, however, and Zemlinsky's churning chromatic score adds another layer of complexity.

A colleague of Schönberg who never made the break to atonality, Zemlinsky rightly has his champions, but "Der Traumgörge" does not find him at his best, certainly not as a dramatist. Nor does Joachim Schlömer's production supply much in the way of insight. Jens Kilian's set depicts a vast hall with two (nonworking) escalators. It could be an office building housing Görge's potential publisher, for he and his many papers spend a lot of time in the lobby. The staging has a number of perplexing touches, such as having a shopping cart tumble down an escalator, including a quasi-ballet of skateboarders and portraying the citizens of Görge's village as dead in the final scene. The tenor Steve Davislim does yeoman work as Görge and Manuela Uhl brings an arresting dramatic soprano to Gertraud. The conductor Jacques Lacombe stressed clarity of texture over bringing out the colors and passions of the score. But it is doubtful that a more fervent interpretation would have added appreciably to the Deutsche Oper's case for the opera.
Well, I for one would still like to hear this opera. The Deutsche Oper's Web site has more pictures.


Henry Holland said...

If you want to hear the opera, there's a fantastic performance of it on EMI, part of James Conlon's Zemlinsky series. Should be available at finer online emporiums.

I was in Europe while this was in rep at the DO and I wanted to go until I saw that the entire production lasted 2 1/2 hours. What's the problem with that, you say? Conlon's recording is about 2 1/2 hours, in other words, in typical German fashion, they hacked the score to shreds. It's like the first recording conducted by Albrecht, it cut 25 minutes from the score.

The production looks like typical Eurotrash crap. Maybe if they told the story as it was written, in the setting specified, it wouldn't have been so confusing. Stupid Eurotrash directors.

Not his best opera, I'd say, that would be Der Zwerg, but based on the Conlon recording, it's a very interesting piece.

Charles T. Downey said...

Henry, I wish you would leave us more comments. Thanks for recommending the Conlon recording, which I have not heard.

Gavin Plumley said...

Oh the production image leaves me cold. I'm not insisting on 'by the book' interpretations of these forgotten works, but how are meant to explore this distant world when the map has been turned upside down?! Those Conlon recordings are amazing (though few and far between). Shame too that the Decca Entarete Musik series ground to a halt... there was much more to come out of that particular closet.