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Ernst KRENEK (1900-1991)
Orpheus und Eurydike - opera in three acts (1926) [105:30]
Ronald Hamilton (tenor) - Orpheus
Dunja Vejzovic (soprano) - Eurydike
Celina Lindsley (soprano) - Psyche
Cornelia Kallisch (mezzo) - Erste Furie
Gabriele Schreckenbach (alto) - Zweite Furie
Jutta Geister (alto) - Dritte Furie
Hans Franzen (bass) - Ein Betrunkener
Wilfried Gahmlich (tenor) - Ein Matrose
Bo Skovhus (baritone) - Der Narr
ORF-Chor Wien
Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien/Pinchas Steinberg
rec. Felsenreitschule, Salzburger Festspiele, Austria, 23 August 1990
ORFEO C923162I [71:46 + 33:44]

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has captivated audiences for millennia and has led to phrases such as ‘a snake in the grass’ entering the vocabulary. It is also claimed that this tale has inspired more composers to write an opera around it than any other literary work, with composers from Jacopo Peri to Philip Glass contributing works based upon the story.

The version of the text employed here is an interpretation of the story by the Austrian painter, author and dramatist Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), who is probably best known in musical circles due to his love affair with Alma Mahler. It was conceived and written in 1915 whilst Kokoschka was convalescing in an army hospital after being severely wounded during the First World War and revised two years later. His version of the story reflects his wartime experiences as well as his relationship with Alma Mahler. In it, rather than a snake leading to Eurydice’s demise, she is banished to Hades for seven years due to her infidelity. After five years, Orpheus wins a reprieve and meets Eurydice only to learn that she has become the lover of Hades. Distraught he leaves her, she returns to Hades and he wanders his destroyed world for the remaining two years. When she returns Orpheus finds it impossible to forgive her and becomes increasingly tormented by her actions and driven to madness. He is hung in a field which is depicted as a “no-man’s land between life and death”. Here she finds him and kills him to put him out of his misery stating that she has always loved him.

The music of Ernst Krenek, the Austrian-born Czech composer who in 1945 became an American citizen, is a fusion of many influences. These include late-romanticism, French impressionism, atonalism and jazz, leading to a sound-world all his own. The music he composed for this, his third of twenty-two operas, comes relatively early in his development. It was written in 1923, and shows signs of the influence, not only of his teacher Franz Schreker, but also of the late-romanticism of Richard Strauss as well as the atonalism of Alban Berg. There is no sign of the jazz that would greatly influence his 1926 masterpiece Jonny spielt auf, the opera that would launch him on the world-stage and make him a household name. Jazz would also colour some of his later works. The music he composed for the present work is dark and tense and he exploits the differing influences to portray the different aspects of the work well. This may not be a happy work but it is an interesting and thought-provoking one — one which I greatly enjoyed.

The performance from 1990 celebrated the composer's ninetieth birthday. It was captured live, but apart from the applause at the end of each of the three acts, the audience is a very quiet one. It is sung really well with Dunja Vejzovic as Eurydice and Celina Lindsley as Psyche being the stand-out performers. A young Bo Skovhus also makes an impact. The orchestral playing and choral singing of the Austrian forces is also first rate, although there was the odd occasion when I wished for slightly clearer recorded sound. The booklet notes are good. They introduce the background to both Kokoschka’s play and Krenek’s opera and provide a synopsis to the work in both German and English. Sadly the text of the opera is in German alone which may for some prove a drawback to following this work. That said, on the whole the reviewing of this work has been an enjoyable experience.

Stuart Sillitoe



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