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Othmar SCHOECK (1886-1957)
Penthesilea - opera in one act Op. 39 (1924-25)
Libretto after the play by Heinrich von Kleist
Penthesilea: Helga Dernesch
Prothoe: Jane Marsh
Meroe: Mechthild Gessendorf
High Priestess: Marjana Lipovšek
Priestess: Gabriele Sima
Achilles: Theo Adam
Diomedes: Horst Hiestermann
Herald: Peter Weber
ORF-Chor and ORF-Symphonieorchester/Gerd Albrecht
rec. live 17 Aug 1982, Vienna Musikverein, during rehearsals for the Salzburg Festival, Austrian Radio, ADD
ORFEO D'OR C 364 941 B [79.59]


The plot of Schoeck’s Penthesilea follows von Kleist's grim drama. The story and atmosphere are akin to the murderously sinister material used by Fibich in his Hippodamia melodrama and the opera Sarka (both recorded on Supraphon). Schoeck shortened the text of the play but resisted the temptation to add anything. The work was premiered in 1927 at the Dresden Opera.

The plot: The Amazons, ruled by warrior queen Penthesilea, back the Trojans against the Greeks. The queen is thrown from her horse by Achilles who spares her. Penthesilea waits for the Greeks. She encounters Diomedes. Achilles appears and admits his love for Penthesilea. Penthesilea, in true Amazon fashion, can only love a man she has defeated in battle. Achilles successfully persuades her by surrendering. They celebrate their love. They argue over to whose kingdom they shall return and the queen suffers the dawning of doubts. The battle between the Greeks and Amazons flares afresh. The Amazons gain the upper hand. Achilles and his host retreat. The Amazonian high priestess condemns Penthesilea for betrayal of her people in the cause of Achilles' love. Penthesilea's love rots into hate. When he comes to her with the intention of declaring his unconditional love for her she wounds him with an arrow and sets her dogs on him. They tear him apart. Learning the truth about Achilles’ feelings she collapses into madness and at his funeral flings herself across his corpse and dies.

Schoeck’s approach is highly individual. The soundworld stands out from his other operas. The orchestra includes two pianos, only four solo violins, a disproportionately large number of violas, cellos and double basses, no harps, no bassoon only a contra-bassoon, ten clarinets, four trumpets in the orchestra and three extensively used trumpets on stage. This is the toughest of the Schoeck operas. Schloss Durande and Massimilla Doni are each much more approachable in a hyper-romantic mode related to the work of Schreker and Zemlinsky. In Penthesilea Schoeck takes his lead from the priests of dissonance softening the elbows and angularities with a misty aureole.

The voices in this 1982 production are generally good though all show signs of some stress. Helga Dernesch acts her role and has a fine sprechgesang voice. Her singing however is troubled with vibrato (tr.7) and time has stripped some of the gold from her tone. The choral contribution is determined with plenty of heft. Listen to tr.4 [2.30] where victory song of the male chorus has no shortage of ‘grunt’. The solo voices closely recorded to the detriment at times of the orchestra.

The writing is packed with marvellous effects and incidents. Note the conveyed initmacy of the dialogue among the Amazonians. At trs. 6 and 7 there is a much more lyrical dark and deep quality. Moonlight shifts and trickles through the textures of the four solo violins in a way perhapos learnt from Schoeck’s study of the score of Rosenkavalier. There is threat too for example in the quiet underpinning glint and glitter of the two pianos (tr.12). Violence erupts as in the storming off-beat batttle music of track 3 and in track 13 with both screaming and battering percussion and the malevolence of raging saw-toothed fanfares. Let slip the dogs of war indeed.

Gerd Albrecht is an under-appreciated conductor. Surely his neglect at an international level is due to his unswerving commitment to the unfashionable late-romantic operas of Schreker, Zemlinsky and Schoeck. This Salzburg Festival production was not his first recorded foray into Schoeck. He is the conductor of the Koch-Schwann recording of Schoeck's masterpiece Massimilla Doni (1934-35). He can be seen in the same crusading light as Norman Del Mar and Michel Plasson.

Presentational strengths of this set include generous tracking. There are seventeen. Weakness (for anglophones): German libretto printed in full but no translation into English. Full notes in German and English by Gottfried Kraus and the conductor. English-only synopsis.

This was a joint production involving ORF, the EBU and the Festival Committee. Support also came from the Pro Helvetia Foundation and the Othmar Schoeck Society. After the Salzburg performances Penthesilea was produced by eleven opera houses.

The recording has its imperfections (listen to the coughing in tr.5) but it captures the essence of this savage blitzkrieg of a piece.

Rob Barnett

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