Carl ORFF (1895 - 1982)
Antigonae - Ein Trauerspiel des Sophokles von Friedrich Hölderlin (1949)
Antigonae - Martha Mödl (soprano)
Ismene - Marianne Radev (mezzo)
Chorführer - William Dooley (bass-baritone)
Kreon - Carlos Alexander (baritone)
Ein Wächter - Paul Kuen (tenor)
Hämon - Fritz Uhl (tenor)
Tiresias - Josef Traxel (tenor)
Ein Bote - Kurt Böhme (bass)
Eurydice - Lilian Benningsen (soprano)
Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. Bayerischer Rundfunk Herkulesaal, Germany, 1958
HÄNSSLER PROFIL PH09066 [77:24 + 65:42] 

One of the most striking evenings I have ever spent in an opera house was in Stuttgart in 1980 watching a double bill of Carl Orff operas. In that instance Die Kluge coupled with Orff’s orchestration/arrangement of Monteverdi’s Klage der Ariadne. Both works struck me then as eminently theatrical whilst occupying a very similar sound-world to parts of Carmina Burana. That heritage, both timbral and aesthetic is shared by the work under consideration here - Antigonae. Sticking with the classical analogy; Janus-like (OK I know its Roman not Greek!) this work occupies an important place in Orff’s oeuvre as it sits on the cusp between the populist primitivism of the works mentioned above and the declamatory theatre works - Oedipus der Tyrann (1959) and Prometheus. Antigonae dates from the end of the 1940s when Orff was still coming out from under the cloud of his perceived Nazi sympathies. As part of his post-war defence he had claimed (fictitious) membership of the German resistance movement Die Weisse Rose (The White Rose). Apparently some see parallels between the classical tragedy of Antigonae and the execution of Sophie Scholl (another young woman who defied the state to do what she perceived as right) - one of the key members of Die Weisse Rose - by the Nazis in 1943. By coincidence 1943 was the year of Die Kluge’s composition.

Whatever the ultimate truth of this work’s origins it makes for a curious opera. Orff acknowledged as much by describing the piece not as an opera but as a Vertonung, a "musical setting" and indeed the work comes across as a sequence of almost ritualised encounters. How much is lost in the translation from stage to audio only I do not know but in this form it works rather well. Certainly so when it is projected as powerfully as in this historical performance from Bavarian Radio in 1958. Sonically it is remarkable and historically benefits from the presence and praise of the composer who wrote warmly to Martha Mödl who plays the eponymous heroine: “again I express my thanks and sincere admiration for your great Antigonae. Some time will pass before ‘the masses’ and the press (not all, but most of it) are capable of grasping and appreciating such a performance ...” Sadly, as someone who cannot speak German the absence of a complete libretto or even a detailed synopsis makes the following of the dramatic narrative all but impossible. Here is the synopsis as copied from Wikipedia (the one in the liner-notes is even shorter!):

The opera begins in the early morning following a battle in Thebes between the armies of the two sons of Oedipus: Eteocles and Polynices. King Kreon, who ascended the throne of Thebes after both brothers are killed in battle, decrees that Polynices is not to be buried. Antigonae, his sister, defies the order, but is caught. Kreon decrees that she be buried alive in spite of the fact that she is betrothed to his son, Haemon. The Gods, through the blind prophet Tiresias, express their disapproval of Kreon's decision, which convinces him to rescind his order, and he goes to bury Polynices. However, Antigonae has already hanged herself rather than be buried alive. When Kreon arrives at the tomb where she was to be interred, his son, Haemon, attacks him and then kills himself. Finally, when Kreon's wife, Eurydice, is informed of Haemon's and Antigonae's deaths she, too, takes her own life. At the end of the opera Kreon is the only principal left alive.

The libretto is in fact a line for line setting of Friedrich Hölderlin’s German translation of Sophocles’ original play of 442 BC. This results in an opera running only a few minutes shy of two and a half hours. Much of the text is declaimed in the quasi-sung style Orff called singstimmen. This shares certain of the characteristics of sprechgesang but remains more tonally centred. Punctuating these extended tracts of declaimed text are instrumental interludes which one would have to call minimalist - track 3 CD 1 gives a good idea of this. Orff uses a very particular instrumentation: 6 flutes (all doubling piccolos), 6 oboes (3 doubling Cor Anglais), 6 trumpets, 4 harps, 6 pianos (all played 4-hands), 9 double-basses and a huge percussion section requiring 10-15 players. Theoretically this could produce a vast wall of sound but Orff uses it very sparingly - usually punctuating the text with sharp-edged ‘events’ either high or low in pitch. Indeed the woodwind, harps and brass are held in reserve and used very sparingly indeed - the vast bulk of the instrumental accompaniment being reserved for the pianos and percussion. The male choir - very much in the style of the In Taberna section of Carmina Burana - seems to have the function of a Greek chorus, commenting on the unfolding drama. So typical of Orff is their semi-sung rhythmic exultant declamation of text over throbbingly insistent piano/percussion ostinati. It’s a sound both sophisticated and primitive but thrilling in either case [CD 2 track 5 - is a perfect example].

It is to the enduring credit of the performers here with such minimal melodic material and the absence of any extended explanation of the action that they manage to hold one’s attention as powerfully as they do. Try the opening to Act 2 [CD 1 tracks 9-10]. I love the menacing male choir and Paul Kuen’s vibrant tenor is ideally suited to Orff’s penetrating high lines. Conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch is now regarded very much as one of the old school but it is easy to forget his contribution to the contemporary music scene of fifty or so years ago. I do not have access to any other performances for comparison’s sake but this sounds compellingly authentic. He was the conductor on the famous studio recordings of Die Kluge and Der Mond with Schwarzkopf and the Philharmonia at about the same time as this performance; 1957 original release but now just re-released on EMI at a silly price. As a record of some fine singing too it takes some beating; all of the main roles are powerfully and dramatically sung. Checking the catalogue there have been several performances released on CD but only one seems to have derived from a studio recording - that on DG featuring Inge Borkh in the title role - which has been praised for its charismatic performances. It is not clear if the recording under discussion is a studio/radio recording or a live performance. I suspect the latter - there is a little extraneous audience sound - so perhaps a concert rather than a stage performance. Mödl had performed the role before - that recording with Fritz Wunderlich in the supporting cast (was there ever a more flexible tenor!) is still available from Archipel; it’s a live performance from Stuttgart in 1956 and you can’t help feeling that this role is one that she has both lived with and inhabits fully. Try CD 2 track 4 for an example of her total commitment to the drama of the role.

I find the later Orff harder to warm to - the Karajan led De Temporum Fine Comoedia from 1977 sits on my CD shelves gathering dust - just the 25-30 percussionists needed there. However this work is instantly more essentially dramatic. For sure you could argue that Orff is a one-trick pony as far as the sound-world he creates but conversely he is far more than a one-work wonder. Given the extended declaimed text this is an opera/performance piece that would require an idiomatic translation to claim a toe-hold in a non-German speaking opera house but with an appropriate staging and charismatic leads I could imagine this making a compelling evening in the theatre. Have any of Orff’s operas/stage works been professionally staged in the UK? - I don’t know. Certainly Antigonae is a far weightier work than the two fairy-tale pieces mentioned earlier and they are closer still to the sound-world of Carmina Burana. Even so, I have been really taken by this work. I could see it capturing the imagination of the same kind of English National Opera audience who respond to Philip Glass or John Adams. I would have to say that in my humble opinion it is superior to either.

Full marks to Hänssler for releasing this performance. The sound quality is absolutely first rate with little if any allowance having to be made for the age of the recording or presence of an audience. The essay in the liner-note is good but the omission of extended synopsis let alone libretto is little short of scandalous. This is being released at mid-upper price and the documentation should reflect the cost. Given the literal setting of the Hölderlin text it is possible to find that online and refer to it while following the performance. I tried to see if there was a libretto available via the Hänssler website but had no luck following a fairly cursory search. For those who no longer wish to leave their choice of Orff to ‘fortune empress of the world’ this is music which rewards the adventurous listener richly.

Nick Barnard