Lorca’s play Blood wedding took some time to establish itself on the international stage. The English translation was not published until 1959. Two years earlier Wolfgang Fortner had used a German translation of the Spanish original as the basis for his opera Bluthochzeit. Fortner was already well established as a composer in Germany, but this was his first opera. Recognising the strength of Lorca’s drama, he set the text more or less exactly as it stood with only minimal abridgement. As such it stands in the same sphere as Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande or Berg’s Wozzeck, with the words allowed to govern the musical development in considerable detail including substantial use of spoken dialogue. The opera was an immediate success but, as is not unusual in such circumstances, it soon faded from the repertory after an initial run of presentations. This is its first available recording in any format. Following the première which opened the new Cologne Opera in 1957 Fortner revised it and a new version of the vocal score was published in 1963; that is the version that is employed here. In fact the conductor admits in the booklet to having made some further adjustments, in order to provide a more effective curtain for the First Act - which corresponds now to the end of Act Two of Lorca’s play.
The orchestra, as it has to accommodate considerable amounts of declamation of spoken dialogue, is generally kept firmly in the background. All the more so in this production, where they are placed on a platform at the back and high above the stage. However in the interludes between scenes they are allowed their head. Their more extended commentaries on the action mirror the similar method in Debussy’s Pelléas. The interface between dialogue and sung text is very well handled, the juxtaposition not jarring as it so easily could have been. The music indeed derived from incidental music that Fortner wrote for a stage presentation. He added to this original score expressive passages to heighten the emotions where appropriate. The idiom is basically twelve-tone in technique, but Fortner often uses octaves and tonal sequences which are not in accord with strict Schoenbergian method. The results are always lyrically appropriate and often very beautiful. There are also elements of Spanish folk music, which add a spice to the textures. The comparison made by the conductor in the booklet to the musical style of Martinů’s Greek Passion is not entirely inappropriate. Also the lay of the vocal lines recalls Janáček rather than the greater angularity of Berg or Schoenberg.
Oddly enough the role of the bridegroom, whom one would surely imagine as the leading tenor in a conventional opera, is entirely a spoken one. The remainder of the principal protagonists are allowed to sing as appropriate, and clearly enjoy the melodic lines they are given. At an early stage there is even a duet for two women which opens the second scene. This is beautifully delivered here by Miriam Ritter and Cornelia Berger. The trio for the three grieving women towards the end of Act Two is a real gift for Ritter, Banu Böke and Dalia Schaechter. Among the other singers Thomas Laske does what he can with a rather unsympathetic character. The strongly sung Joslyn Rechter presents the bullying maid as thoroughly unpleasant. Annika Boos manages her coloratura lines with some aplomb. Ingeborg Wolff in a triple role is costumed identically as a bag lady throughout, which does not help her to achieve distinction between her various incarnations. Gregor Henze and Stephan Ullrich dovetail their spoken lines into the orchestration with style. There are a number of smaller roles, not credited on the DVD cover, which are well taken by individual members of the chorus.
The staging by Christian von Götz is generally fairly conventional. It follows the outlines of the original Lorca play closely although his insistence on staging the orchestral interludes brings some grating moments. There is a unit set showing a housing tenement at the back. The location is clearly shifted from a rural setting to an urban one while the period appears to be more modern - the costumes particularly so. The result does not jar. The video production is however annoying, continually cutting to the rear of the stage to show conductor and orchestra in action - this not just during the interludes, but during the action as well. The presence of the players on-stage, carefully handled and avoiding interference with the stage action, is rendered more prominent by this camera technique. It becomes aggravating after a while since it distracts from what is happening on stage. This seems to be becoming a new habit among video directors - it dates back to Carlos Kleiber’s video recording of Der Rosenkavalier - and one wishes they would stop it.
After the interval the unit set disappears, revealing the orchestra more than one would wish during the phantasmagorical and symbolically fraught scene in the forest. The atmosphere is not assisted by a rather unlovely aria for the Moon, inelegantly sung by Martin Koch who is dressed as a sort of down-and-out goth - in the modern fashion sense. Oddly enough the fatal combat in which the two husbands stab each other is accompanied merely by two solo violins in a manner that hearkens back to the similar murder scene with two flutes in Hindemith’s Cardillac. It is left to the long final scene where the three women seek reconciliation to provide a musical resolution. It is in this scene that the reason for the opera’s decline from favour is perhaps to be found. After the beautiful and rather folksy trio, the Mother - superbly sung throughout by Schaechter - is left to sing a final lament. The music - in rather Straussian lines - surges forward. Sadly, the orchestral sound lacks body and this is not helped by their placement on stage. It is only in the final bars that a real sense of anguish is achieved. The music rises to a dramatic climax, with a sustained high note for Schaechter, and then simply stops almost in mid-air. Vaughan Williams in his similar portrayal of a grieving widow at the end of Riders to the sea achieves much greater effect with much less effort, although his objectives are different. With Fortner there is drama here, all right, and passion; but the sense of catharsis is missing.
Another reason for the eclipse of Fortner’s opera might be found in the existence of a slightly later setting of Blood wedding, this time in Hungarian translation, by Sándor Szokolay. This 1964 score was a great success and received the benefit of an LP recording three years later which was subsequently transferred to CD, although I have not heard the work. There also appears to have been a setting by Alberto Ginastera, which would have the advantage of setting Lorca’s original text. Nevertheless Fortner’s is a generally interesting and rewarding score, and it is good finally to have it on disc for further exploration. The taping comes from a single stage performance, but includes patches from the dress rehearsal two months earlier. The presentation of the DVD is good, with essays by the conductor and producer, a musical description (including music examples) and the complete text in German. The latter is perhaps less necessary with a DVD than with a CD but shows good intentions. There are however no extras on the DVD, and subtitles are supplied in German and English only.
Paul Corfield Godfrey