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Mieczysław Weinberg’s Idiot
Awe-inspiring Masterpiece Unearthed in Mannheim

Click excerpts to see entire picture.
All pictures above and below courtesy Mannheim National Theater, © Hans Jörg Michel

A transfixing experience and the discovery of one of the major operas of the second half of the 20th century

Just a decade ago the name “Mieczysław Weinberg” drew a blank from music lovers. In record stores, which still existed then, you weren’t likely to find an index card with his name, or else five differently spelled ones, as every publisher seems to have had different ideas as to how his name should be written. On offer were: Vainberg, Vaynberg, Vajnberg, Wajnberg, and Weinberg for last names; Moishei, Moishe, Moissei, Moisey (Samuilovich), and Mieczysław for first names. Among the combined 25 possibilities only one is correct: the Polish “Mieczysław Weinberg” that the composer used and preferred. His friends called him Mietek.

Weinberg’s time hadn’t come then, but it is fast approaching now, almost 20 years after his death in 1996. At last count, there are at least sixty releases dedicated to his music available. His Symphonies and chamber music are well under way now, with a heartening number of releases and performances, but his six, seven, eight, nine operas (depending on how you count) are only now being rediscovered. The finally-famous Passenger (op.97, 1968) has shot to fame thanks to the production and subsequent DVD/Bluray from Bregenz which has since travelled successfully. (See Best of 2011, Interview with Michelle Breedt.) Now The Idiot, op.144, written in the mid-80s and premiered in a reduced chamber version in 1991, was at last given its first full performance in Mannheim on May 9th.

And what an opera it is! Even with my high expectations of Weinberg, who I first encountered thanks to Bob Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty (then still as “Vainberg”) and have sought out and tried, in whatever small ways, to champion since, this was astonishingly good—indeed great—music, well over three hours of it, and nary the temptation to nod off during any of it. Just as incredulous is the ingenious libretto, in which Alexander Medvedev (he already wrote the text for Weinberg’s Passenger) miraculously managed to tame Dostoyevsky’s sprawling Idiot and turn it into a cohesive story suited for the stage.

But since even equipped with the best music and a great story, inept hands can snatch missed opportunity from the jaws of triumph, it was upon the artists to make sure this would be an operatic experience of the absolutely first order. And indeed, on July 17th, with three performances already under their belt, every participant looked, sounded, played, and conducted, as if they had all waited their entire careers for this moment.

Thomas Sanderling (a Weinberg champion like his father Kurt) and the orchestra of the National Theater Mannheim sounded as though had they practiced all year long. The production by director Regula Gerber paid great attention to details, told the story economically and efficiently, conveyed all the emotions, and vividly portrayed all the characters. It was my first time at the Mannheim opera, but it sure seemed as though she made the very most of the house’s abilities and the undoubtedly limited budget. And then there was the matter of the cast of singers, an assembly of strengths and delights.

Co-First among equals in this cast were Dmitry Golovnin as Prince Myshkin—perfectly secure, strong, clear while convincingly performing all stages of innocence, reticence, and intimidation, and always at total ease with the demanding part and the text. And Myshkin’s dark alter ego Rogozhin, portrayed by Steven Scheschareg as intense and dark and lustrous and animalistic both in offense and retreat. Right with them were Lars Møller as the amended Lebedev and Ludmila Slepneva as the ravishing and ravished Nastassya Filippovna.

The relatively small rôle of the rogue Lebedev was fashioned into a (literally) intriguing composite character by librettist Medvedev. Regula Gerber took the cue and turned him fully into a devilishly delightful Mephistophelean presence who comments on, and manipulates, and drives the action—out of his own lowly, here pecuniary, there voyeuristic motives. A discarded red glove that he snatches greedily from Filippovna along the way is his only prop, and it went such a long way in visualizing perfectly his newfound rôle.

Both Lars Møller and the darkly, lusciously seductivex Ludmila Slepneva are Mannheim Opera ensemble-members which I found astounding at first. Being spoiled by performances in Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Berlin, London, New York, and even Frankfurt or Paris, one is tempted to think of places like Mannheim as the opera boondocks. I might not have been surprised that the opera had such a strong cast to provide from its ensemble if I had recalled then and there the history of the house, and that its ensemble has included, at various times and early stages in their careers, singers like Lioba Braun, Diana Damrau, Waltraud Meier, Deborah Polaski, Gabriele Schnaut, and Robert Dean Smith. Even among music directors the house has a proud history that includes Weingartner, Reznicek, Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, Horst Stein, Peter Schneider, Jun Märkl, and Fischer Ádám who have all held the job at one point. Only the new building is an acquired taste: A 1957 sin in love-it-or-hate-it raw concrete and chipped paint (built in place of a rejected Mies van der Rohe proposal)… functionalism half done right, half gone wrong.

But back to the singers: Cornelia Ptassek, who performed Aglaya, isn’t a natural born actress, but she adapted to her oddly self-destructing character increasingly well and made some of the genuine awkwardness a plausible part of the Yepanchin’s youngest daughter. Tamara Banjesevic acted and sang the smallish part of daughter No.2, Adelaïda, to greater-than-expected prominence. When Madame Yepanchin—mezzo Elzbieta Ardam—started out, it sounded reserved. Once she turned the spout on proper, though, it really poured, and irresistibly so… in dark and lusty tones.

Gavrila (“Ganya”) Ardalyonovich Ivolgin’s sister Varvara (Katharina Göres) had a short but memorable moment with her bright and strong silver-belled soprano with its pronounced, agile and tensile vibrato. Her in-story-brother was a bit on the chalky and nasal side, sounding flat without necessarily being flat; one of two unimportant disappointments amid this stellar cast, and even then only a mild one. Aristocrat Totsky was the other offender. Little was right with him, starting with the make-up that made the singer look unbelievable in every way, in a kind of high-school amateurish way that bode ill for the production since he was the first to appear on stage… but that too remained an isolated exception.

Pithily described, Weinberg’s music is “like Shostakovich, but without the smile”. The quip plays on the grim and dark image of Shostakovich’s compositions, which Weinberg could re-double at the push of a button. As with any superficial likening, the analogy makes sense and serves a purpose. Weinberg himself contributed to the easy (mis-) perception of a slanted student-teacher relationship by stating that “I am a pupil of Shostakovich. Although I have never had lessons from him, I count myself as his pupil, as his flesh and blood”.

But the more one gets to know the ‘junior partner’ of the compared twosome, a richer picture emerges. For one, Weinberg was capable of humor and wit, not just grimness. And when it comes through, it’s unburdened by the sardonic, forced, ironic quality that usually lingers with Shostakovich… appropriately childlike in Weinberg’s Children’s Notebooks for piano or happily dancing in the 1948 Sinfonietta.

A little bit of all of that shines through in The Idiot… the similarities with Shostakovich, but equally the uniqueness of the language. Some brass chorales Weinberg employs in the confrontation between Myshkin and Rogozhin were much closer in spirit to Bernd Alois Zimmerman than Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk—no miracle, really, in 1985. Much of The Idiot’s music plays out somewhere between dark and driven, ruthless and relentless. But then there are rays of lyricism that hit you in bittersweet ways. They touch you gently, but also leave a light poison where they touched. For Aglaya’s songs Weinberg distantly but notably emulates Mahler, somewhere between “Liebst Du Um Schönheit” and the Adagietto. Weinberg uses Leitmotivs (printed and explained in the exemplary program book), but they are not obvious on first hearing this work, nor is it obvious that identifying them would yet further the deep but easy appreciation of the music in his Idiot.

Stefan Mayer’s open-plan, spare set on the vast revolving stage dotted with few but poignant and elaborate props, cleverly allowed the viewer’s imagination to fill in the color—much of which the music suggested and stipulated anyway. Falk Bauer’s costumes did their part to convey atmosphere, traditional and indicative but never corny as they were.

A transfixing experience and the discovery of one of the major operas of the second half of the 20th century—the like of which I cannot reasonably expect to hear more than a couple times in an opera-going lifetime. Two more are scheduled so far, for January and February 2014—and they are, assuming a similar cast and Thomas Sanderling at it again, unmissable events for any serious Weinberg love within reasonable travel distance of Mannheim.

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