Antal Doráti (1906-1988)
Der Künder (The Chosen) (1986)
Tomas Konieczny (baritone) – Elia
Michael Schade (tenor) – Ahab
Rachel Frenkel (mezzo-soprano) – Isebel
Teatr Weikl Choir, Poznán
Beethoven Academy Orchestra, Cracow/Martin Fischer-Dieskau
rec. 2021, Cracow TV Studio, Poland
text and translation included
ORFEO C220313 [3 CDs: 160]
For at least three centuries European classical composers tackling religious subjects have struggled to find a suitable musical idiom in which to depict the Divinity. Texts portraying the activities of pagan gods (Norse or Greco-Roman) have generally been handled in exactly the same manner as their mortal protagonists, although it is interesting that the full-blown god Wotan in Wagner’s Ring keeps his interactions with humanity to a bare minimum until his disastrous encounter with the mortal hero in Act Three of Siegfried. Bach in his Saint Matthew Passion provides a halo of strings to surround the words of Christ; Haydn in the Creation makes sure that the words of God even in recitative are provided with a firm orchestral foundation rather than simple continuo. In the nineteenth century composers, with an eye on the waning strength of religious sentiment, generally consigned the words of God to a chorus (as in the brief contributions of the Almighty in the prologue to Boito’s Mefistofele) or left them out of the equation altogether. Schoenberg in the opening of his Moses und Aron emphasises the contrast by setting the richly harmonised choral declamations of God against the spoken voice of his protagonist. In my own Silmarillion cycle, where Tolkien’s demiurgic Valar interact with other beings (be they Elves or Men) the contrast of the latter with the amplified semi-divine voices provides a similar kind of contrast.
But Antal Doráti, faced with a similar kind of dilemma in this account of the life of the prophet Elijah, has come up with a completely different and very convincing solution. While Mendelssohn in his setting of the same subject weaves intricate choral settings of the words of God, Doráti sees the utterances of the deity as reflections of the inner psyche of the characters themselves – which means that the voice of God comes not only to the prophets, but to all the persons depicted in his operatic treatment. This is done by having the words of God being pre-recorded by the artists themselves and then played back through suitably distanced loudspeakers in the theatre. This might seem like a recipe for disaster, and one can indeed imagine that in the circumstances of live performance the possibility for things to go awry might seem problematic; but on disc in a studio production it is of course perfectly feasible, and the slightly distanced coloration placed on the ‘divine’ speech is highly effective in conveying a sense of inevitable mystery.
This recording is clearly a labour of love on the part of Martin Fischer-Dieskau, who not only conducts with commitment and passion but has also supplied the extensive booklet notes and whose association with the composer goes back to the days of his youth when Doráti chose him to be his assistant conductor with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He has selected a cast of excellent singers; but at first one gets the unfortunate impression that they are given rather too little to work with. The idiom of the score is not actually (so far as I can tell) Schoenbergian twelve-tone, but it sounds very similar to the approach of Berg in Wozzeck with rather inelegant vocal lines shifting around uneasily and not always in harmony with the text itself. The music sounds as if it might indeed be very difficult to deliver with accuracy in the context of a live performance, but here in the studio all the singers are able to cleave closely to the notated pitch and rhythm in a manner that gives their delivery assurance and strength. But the music for Ahab and his queen Jezebel has a harshness of manner that recalls Herod and Herodias in Strauss’s Salome, with the description of the beauty of the landscape leading to the episode of Naboth’s vineyard lacking in poetry; nor does the encounter of Elijah with the widow and her son strike much in the way of emotion. Incidentally, Doráti follows his source in the play by Martin Buber by employing Hebrew transliteration of names; I attempt here to clarify the situation by using the versions more familiar to English readers of the King James Bible (those used in the opera are given in the header to this review).
However, it is not until half-way through the Second Act that the music suddenly seems to spring to life, firstly with the delayed confrontation between Elijah and the Priests of Baal which Mendelssohn made the centrepiece of the first part of his oratorio. The invocation of Baal by his priests is given over to an orgiastic dance which suddenly grabs the listener’s attention, and the succeeding prayer of Elijah (the equivalent of Mendelssohn’s Lord God of Israel) is a superbly declaimed arioso over a sort of ecstatic background provided by the humming of a male chorus. The music seems to shift into quite a new field, with the prelude to Act Three suddenly acquiring a Mahlerian sort of folk dance rhythm as the peasants discuss the fate of Ahab and Jezebel, and the appearance of the young Elisha brings a freshly minted lyricism to the music. The final confrontation between Ahab and Elijah unexpectedly resolves into a melodically striking setting of the opening words of Psalm 23; and in the final scene, as Elijah ascends into heaven, this becomes an elaborate ensemble for the witnesses of the event with a very solid and satisfying tonal resolution on the repeated words “my shepherd.” This is very considerable music indeed.
The words of the psalm in this final section are not the standard Lutheran translation but a more modern and colloquial version, but this is in the nature of Buber’s philosophical approach to his subject in the original stage play; and Orfeo do us proud not only by supplying the text in full, complete with extensive stage directions, but also an English translation which is clearly designed for singing (some extraneous words are not in the German, and some phraseology is inelegantly contrived to fit the vocal line). It is manifest that Fischer-Dieskau is correct in his decision to give the opera in German rather than English, even though Doráti spent more of his later career in America than Europe; the title page reproduced in the booklet is clearly and incontrovertibly given entirely in the former language. And he is well served by his orchestra and chorus.
In the leading role of Elijah, Tomasz Konieczny dominates the action nearly throughout; and he is a tower of strength, firm of voice and pitch in music that must be extremely difficult to encompass with accuracy. Ron Silberstein as his young apprentice Elisha does not make an appearance until Act Three, but sounds equally at ease in his lyrical effusions. The leading tenor role however is that of Ahab, and Michael Schade is characterful as the vacillating king without being able to do much with the frequently abrasive vocal lines he is given to sing. The essentially warm tones of Rachel Frankel are similarly rather wasted in the strenuously vehement music assigned to Jezebel. The other singers, all of them characterful, share out a whole variety of smaller roles from the innocent-sounding child of Yuval Oren to the brusque Zidkya of Makar Pihuna. The recorded sound is excellent – and the inner voices representing God speaking to the individual characters are handled superbly, as I have already noted.
The three CDs, sensibly laid out with one Act on each disc, come in a gatefold sleeve together with a separate booklet containing the conductor’s essay and complete biographies of the performers in both English and German, as well as the text and translation, the whole package contained in an outer box. In fact, an exceptionally good presentation of an exceptionally interesting opera. Those who are curious about the music itself would be well advised to begin listening as the priests of Baal begin their dance; once they have become accustomed to the idiom, they can then return to the start and discover Doráti’s treatment of the whole story.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Ron Silberstein (tenor) – Elisha
Mi-Young Kim (soprano) – Tanit
Yuval Oren (soprano) – Child
Mark Gasztecki (bass) – Nabot, Master of Rites, Peasant
Joo-Hoon Shin (tenor) – Guard, Gatekeeper, Youth, Peasant
Makar Pihura (bass) – Priest of Baal, Zidkya, Gatekeeper, Peasant
Published: October 11, 2022