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Die Ersten Menschen

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Rudi Stephan, Die ersten Menschen, Orchestre National de France, M. Franck
(released May 29, 2007)
What was I just saying about releasing recordings of major operatic events? While this came up in my review of a new opera, Hartke's The Greater Good, it is just as true of those rare revivals of forgotten operas. Such is the case with this new release of Die ersten Menschen (The first people), completed by German composer Rudi Stephan just before World War I put an end to his life. Under the baton of Paul Hindemith, the opera was premiered in Frankfurt after the war, in 1920, and after a few revivals, it disappeared. This performance by the Orchestre National de France was recorded live in January 2004, with the young conductor Mikko Franck on the podium.

The story is a post-Freudian re-imagining of the aftermath of the fall of man, based on the erotic mystery play of Otto Borngräber, a sort of cross-fertilization of Genesis with the Oedipus myth. True to a medieval Christian interpretation, Chabel (Abel) is a sort of Christ figure, revealing the presence of the creator to his family, who have forgotten God in the sweat of their labor. When the first act concludes with God's acceptance of Chabel's lamb, offered on an altar, Kajin (Cain) does not even bother to offer any of his harvested crops. He is concerned only with finding a woman, after his lust for Chawa (Eve) has been awakened. Chawa, herself inflamed for an uninterested Adahm, calls out for God to let her see her husband as he was when he was young.

Composer Rudi Stephan (1887-1915)
Just then, Chabel approaches in the moonlight: cue the glockenspiel and the shimmering orchestration. One of the strangest love duets ever conceived, between mother and son (and you thought Salome's lust was indecent), is interrupted by the arrival of Kajin, accompanied by saxophone solo. It is the envy from this incestuous love triangle that leads to the first murder.

The musical style is closer to Strauss and Korngold than Berg, with the broad, sweeping gestures of a large late Romantic orchestra, as in Adahm's impassioned remembrance of his first glimpse of the newly created Chawa in Paradise ("Wie sie vor mir stand") in Act I, scene 2. The cast of four solo voices is strong, with some occasional stridency at the edge of vocal control from heroic tenor Wolfgang Millgramm as the visionary Chabel (Abel). Franz Hawlata is a stentorian, all-serious Adahm (Adam) to the flighty, insistent Chawa (Eve) of Nancy Gustafson. Donnie Ray Albert, whom we last heard live in the Symphony of a Thousand in Washington, is a vibrant and puissant Kajin, responding with force to the sweeping orchestral sounds behind him in his final passage ("Etwas glüht wo in meinem Him"). This is an opera worth getting to know much better.

Naïve V 5028


Henry Holland said...

Thanks for the review! I love this period of music --Franz Schreker is my favorite opera composer-- and there's so many opera's that got buried by WWI and *shudder* the ghastly New Objectivity *shudder* that it's nice to see new pieces be resumed.

Charles T. Downey said...

Henry, I know if you are happy, I must be doing something right. Thanks for reading!

Henry Holland said...

Hahaha, I know I can be scathing about my pet dislikes (minimalism, Shostakovich, the "classical music is dying" crowd etc.) but I hope my enthusiasm for my loves (Schreker, Korngold, Britten, European plink-plonk music etc.) override that! :-)