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Briefly Noted: Orff's 'Gisei' Lives Again

available at Amazon
C. Orff, Gisei — das Opfer, R. McKinny, U. Helzel, Berlin Deutsche Oper, J. Lacombe

(released on February 12, 2016)
cpo 777819-2 | 60'26"
The precocious Carl Orff completed an opera in 1913, when he was only 18 years old, but he never allowed it to be performed. This was long before the composer fell in with the National Socialists in Germany, an association that is enough to make my skin crawl when hearing his most popular work, Carmina Burana. The opera, Gisei — das Opfer (Gisei, the victim), did not see the light of day until 2010, in a world premiere performance at the Staatstheater Darmstadt. Orff was fascinated by Japanese theater from an even younger age, and he made this adaptation of a section from the Japanese play Terakoya (The Temple School), using a translation by Karl Florenz. This was less than a decade after the premiere of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, in 1904; there is even a humming women's chorus in the prelude to Orff's opera.

The play concerns an episode from the complex world of 9th-century Japanese politics. One of the two chancellors at the time is murdered by the other, his rival. Matsuo, an official devoted to the murdered man, hides away his master's son, Kwan Shusai, in the temple school in Seryo, where the schoolmaster, Genzo, adopts him as his own. Years later, when Matsuo and his wife, Chiyo, have also enrolled his their own son, Kotaro, who is the same age, in the school, imperial officials arrive to take away the chancellor's son. Bound by the code of honor to his dead master, the schoolmaster delivers the head of Matsuo's son to the emperor's men. Matsuo, who has the charge of confirming the identity of the severed head as that of the dead chancellor's son, looks on his own son's dead face and agrees that it is the head of the dead chancellor's son. When the schoolmaster goes to kill the dead boy's mother, to keep her silent, he learns that she gave up her son to the school, knowing that he would take the place of the chancellor's son.

This is a decade before the premiere of Stravinsky's Les Noces, which had a strong influence on Orff's mature style, heard in the rhythmically charged choruses of Carmina Burana. Here Orff sounds keenly interested in Debussy, especially his settings of texts by Maeterlinck, and draws forth all sorts of delicate sounds from the amassed orchestra — yes, that is the sound of a glass harmonica you hear as the stars begin to twinkle at the end of the prelude, and there is are some striking solos from what sounds like a contrabass clarinet — to create a heavily charged atmosphere of raised eyebrows and coded betrayals. As heard in this recording, broadcast on Deutschlandradio from a performance at the Deutsche Opera in Berlin in 2012, the young Orff should not have been so harsh on his early work, which he disavowed. Mezzo-soprano Ulrike Helzel is magnificent as Tonami (the schoolteacher's wife), and soprano Kathryn Lewek is just as exceptional as Kwan Shusai (the Chancellor's son). Markus Brück thunders as Matsuo, the father of the murdered boy, while Ryan McKinny has the same limitations heard in his Gunther in Washington National Opera's Götterdämmerung last month. Jacques Lacombe leads the massive orchestra with a clear hand.


jfl said...
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jfl said...

...the young Orff should not have been so harsh on his early work...

This Orff-opera was a terrific surprise, wasn't it? I had a wonderful time listening to it a couple times over. With and without following the gory story.