Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Der Kreidekreis - opera in three acts (1931-32) [123:00]
Renate Behle (soprano) - Tschang-Haitang; Gabriele Schreckenbach (mezzo) - Mrs Tschang; Roland Hermann (tenor) - Ma; Reiner Goldberg (tenor) - Emperor Pao; Siegfried Lorenz (tenor) - Tschao; Celina Lindsley (soprano) - A girl; Uwe Peter - Tong; Hans Helm (baritone) - Tschang-Ling; Gertrud Ottenthal (soprano) - Mrs Ma; Kaja Borris (mezzo) - Midwife; Gidon Saks (baritone) - Soldier
Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Stefan Soltesz
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, 1990
CAPRICCIO C5190 [72:00 + 51:00]
Lovers of Zemlinsky’s gorgeously lyrical and colourful symphonies might be a little startled - shocked, even - by Der Kreidekreis, his penultimate opera (of 1931-2). At times it has more of the harshness and edginess of Kurt Weill than the opulence and beauty of earlier Zemlinsky. This was his seventh and last completed opera and was premiered at the Stadttheater Zürich on 14 October 1933.
The story of Der Kreidekreis (The Chalk Circle) – here re-set to take place in China - is pretty stark, with hangings, the sale of children, poisonings, revolutionary fellowships, corruption, extortion, and false claims of motherhood for financial gain. It has a King Solomonesque conclusion. The music suits the storyline perfectly - austere and stark; flat and hard, with tensions running high and very few episodes of beauty to counteract or soften the harshness. The opera also features a fair amount of speech, and although the spoken element cannot be considered disproportionate for an opera, it nevertheless makes listening fairly hard-going for non-German speakers. The fact that the booklet contains no texts at all exacerbates a listener’s difficulty, with the only clues to the action lying in the fairly brief synopsis given in the booklet.
The booklet itself is terribly sparse, comprising only a track-listing, a tiny photograph of the composer, a synopsis and then short work notes. There are no biographies of either composer or any of the artists. I found it rather extraordinary that these rather vital elements are omitted, especially given that the record label (Capriccio) has forked out for an extra and unnecessary CD sleeve.
The performance, with Stefan Soltesz conducting the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is of an undeniably high standard. The soloists are well-cast, with pleasing differentiation in the voices and good enunciation. All produce very strong, robust and characterful sounds.