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Emil Von REZNICEK (1860-1945)
Ritter Blaubart - A Fairy-Tale Opera in Three Acts (1915-1917)
Ritter Blaubart - David Pittman-Jennings (baritone)
Count Niklaus - Arutjun Kotchinian (bass)
Werner, his son - Robert Wörle (tenor)
Judith, his daughter - Celina Lindsley (soprano)
Agnes, his daughter - Andion Fernandez (soprano)
Josua, Blaubart’s blind servant - Victor Sawaley (tenor)
The Pastor - Carsten Sabrowski (bass)
Hinz, a grave robber - Johannes Schmidt (bass)
Ratte, a grave robber - Peter Maus (tenor)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michail Jurowski
Rec. Grosser Sendesaal, Berlin, Germany, 4, 5, 12-16 March 2002
CPO 999 899-2 [2CDs: 132.39]
As with other so-called one-work composers, and what a misnomer that is, all of them wrote far more than one. Rezniček’s reputation, if he has one at all, is based on the overture to his opera Donna Diana. Now having got that over with, one can assess him. Normally described by his biographers as a modernist, that also proves to be not the case, for much of his music sounds like Strauss, Humperdinck, Pfitzner and of course Wagner. Indeed, as far as the opera Ritter Blaubart is concerned, it would not take much to divert into the Ring or Lohengrin in many places in this attractive work. Rezniček was an exact contemporary of Mahler, but born where Mahler always aspired to go (and finally made it too), the Austrian capital, Vienna. Rezniček died at the age of 85, like Strauss who was four years his junior, and in the same year as Webern. It is clear from what one hears here that, unlike Webern, he took a wide berth of the route adopted by the Second Viennese School and stuck instead to the path of the classical-romantic tradition. The ‘von’ in his name indicates an aristocratic background, which gave him a useful headstart when it came to his education. His grandfather had been a respected figure in the world of military music. Following his student years, Rezniček took the Kapellmeister path at small theatres. He was also a military music director in Prague, where his first three operas had great success, before settling in Berlin in 1902, and again (for good) in 1909 after three years in Warsaw.

In 1923 Richard Specht considered Ritter Blaubart to be the summit of Rezniček’s music, and it’s hard to disagree with him that this is well-written, solidly crafted music, if densely scored in places. Count Bluebeard (he ‘actually’ had a thick, dark, black beard if legend is to be believed) was famed for his unusual sex appeal and prowess, and was doomed to bear a destiny which led women into ruin. Such was the attraction of this tale that one finds settings going back to Grétry in 1789, followed by Offenbach, Dukas and Bartók, so the story has lost little of its impact over the years. Rezniček’s librettist was Herbert Eulenberg, whose play was performed for the first time in Berlin in 1906, but suffered at the hands of faction fighting and political intrigue within theatrical circles. It enjoyed more deserved praise when it reappeared (necessarily shortened) as the libretto of Rezniček’s opera after its celebrated premiere in Darmstadt in 1920 conducted by the Hans Richter-protégé Michael Balling. In Berlin the opera thrived under Leo Blech’s guidance with 27 performances in the six years following its first staging there on 31 October 1920.

Though the story is an utterly gloomy one, it gives wonderful scope for a kaleidoscopic range of emotion and dramatic situation. Blaubart kills his first wife when he finds her in the arms of her lover, but then goes on to kill her five successors because they have dared to enter a room in which his initial secret is locked. By the time Judith, daughter of Count Nikolaus, has become his seventh wife, the locked room contains the heads of her six predecessors. In his absence she is entrusted with the room’s golden key and, despite being warned not to enter, disobeys him. Because the key immediately becomes indelibly stained with blood, the secret is out and she suffers the same fate as all his other wives. At her burial Blaubart seduces her sister Agnes, who agrees to follow him back to his castle. Blaubart’s blind servant Josua seeks to forestall her fate by setting fire to the castle in an attempt to destroy all the evidence. But this only serves to make Blaubart confess to Agnes what he has done to her sister, and, in despair she promptly throws herself from a balcony leaving Blaubart to perish in the flames.

Melodramatic though this all is, the musical result is impressive, and the performance here under Michail Jurowski utterly convincing. All the soloists are more than equal to the task, some of it as demanding as anything Wagner ever made of his singers. The orchestral interludes, which frankly contain the best music (begging the question why Rezniček never put together a purely orchestral tone poem consisting of this music) are superbly played by the Berlin Radio Orchestra. Rezniček now deserves more than to be regarded as the composer of just one overture, that of Donna Diana, and cpo has done his cause proud with the release of this opera.

Christopher Fifield

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