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Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)
Gurre-Lieder (1900-1903/1910-11) [118.00]
Emily Magee (soprano), Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano), Burkhard Fritz (tenor), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor), Markus Marquardt (bass), Sunnyi Melles (speaker)
Dutch National Opera Chorus, Kammerchor des ChorForum Essen
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Marc Albrecht
rec. Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, 2 September 2014
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround and LPCM 2.0 Stereo
Subtitles in English, French, German, Dutch, Japanese and Korean
Notes in English, French and German.
Reviewed in surround
OPUS ARTE OABD7215D Blu-ray  [140 mins]

Comparing the recent Chandos SACD we have here on this Blu-ray less huge forces deployed on the stage and in the pit at the Dutch National Opera, than those used in Bergen by Edward Gardner. Nonetheless when the camera pans back to show everyone taking their bows at the end, there is a very impressive number of players and singers involved. The sound that results is a little less massive and some details come through more clearly on this Blu-ray disc as a result. Of course, the key here is that we have a staged performance, a thing never considered by the composer and something not very likely to have occurred. No wonder this is the world premiere of a staging. So, does it work, and how have these Dutch forces handled it? The first question is quickly answered, yes, it does work. It is mostly extremely impressive and the final chorus is an emotional high I will not soon forget. All participants are very fine indeed and were one to listen without the picture one would still be able to enjoy this remarkable score to the full.

The staging is, unsurprisingly, very much a 'concept'. There is no staging that derives from the initial performances so we have virgin territory for opera director Pierre Audi. Fortunately there is an extensive essay accompanying this issue, and an absorbing 22 minute documentary, which go some way to enlighten the viewer. One thing strikes me immediately, and that is the role of the speaker. Instead of the usual male singer, like Sir Thomas Allen on Chandos, we have the respected German actress, Sunnyi Melles (the daughter of a conductor and apparently herself a real princess, according to web sources). She appears dressed rather as the presenter of a cabaret complete with Marcel waved hair, straw boater and tailcoat. The impression is slightly androgynous. She appears before the music starts and speaks lines at more than one point that do not seem to be in Jacobsen's Gurresanger, certainly not at the opening. Her presence throughout the staging as a sort of observer of events piques one's interest. The stage shows a grand but faded building from fin de siècle Vienna, the time of Mahler, Klimt and Freud as well as Schönberg. Moveable blocks of scenery support the bed of Waldemar and Tove and then of the room within which Tove has been brutally slaughtered by Waldemar's Queen Helvig - just the room, no on-stage slaughtering! Waldemar starts as a moderately noble figure bewitched by love but descends into dishevelled and desperate madness after the death of Tove. Already appearing less than balanced are the peasant and Klaus Narr, the fool. The latter is whited-up like a mime artist and carries an illuminated balloon. His presence is sinister where it could easily have been laughable and his role in destroying what is left of Waldemar's sanity is quite explicit. The meeting of these two at a clearly labelled 'Wet Horse Inn' is too clever for me to decode, as is the presence during the final battle of a giant coelacanth skeleton. Tove, looking very much the young woman in love, dies in Part 1 but carries on walking the stage with a darkened veil as a constant reminder to Waldemar of what he has lost. The Wood Dove is a Valkyrie-like figure with large black wings, more like an angel of death than anything else. She sings only once but is present on stage until the end. Waldemar's army dies and is resurrected to become a zombie-like presence in full period uniforms complete with sabres. When the army is finally vanquished the chorus entering and welcoming the rising sun is peopled with white clad men and women with goggles as if protecting their eyes from this 'new dawn'. As the essay notes, the future may be more terrifying than the past. After all, the year of the first performance, 1913, was the last year of peace before, as again the notes say, "the beginning of the bloodiest century humankind has ever known." Given this it is odd that the speaker's lengthy closing narration about nature, partly in sprechstimme, which has always seemed a bit hard to explain, here becomes a means by which Waldemar is brought to understand, on his deathbed, that all things pass and that the world continues to create new life. It is a great idea but the chorus do not appear wholly convinced.

The casting overlaps that in the Chandos issue noted above, with Anna Larsson as the Wood Dove and Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke as Klauss Narr in both. I preferred the Tove in the staged version of experienced Strauss and Schönberg singer, American soprano Emily Magee, to Alwyn Mellor for Chandos but in all other respects the singing is equally successful in both. Of course Ed Gardner does have the advantage in sheer numbers so the big moments are really big. I think the SACD sound is better than the Blu-ray but the latter has the inestimable advantage of pictures and subtitles which makes it so much easier to stay with the one-hundred-plus minutes of this huge piece in one's listening room at home. The large, fifteen minute, time difference is down to the presence of those extra words for the speaker and the final applause on the video, as much as it is to tempi.

I mentioned this Dutch performance in my Chandos review, commenting that , judging by the video trailer, it would do nothing whatever to clarify events. I am happy to say I was wrong, it works and I am very glad to have seen it. Serious Schonberg fans (are there such?) will be right to purchase both. Others should certainly hear at least one or the other. Make no mistake, this is a work that grows on one.

It was good to see so soon after I reviewed the Chandos SACD that Opus Arte too used the proper hyphenated version of the title Gurre-Lieder. I noted then that the original published score by Universal Edition AG in Vienna (1920) supports this, as well as Wikipedia. As I write it is further interesting that the Philharmonia Orchestra, for their scheduled performance at the Royal Festival Hall in June 2018, now booking, do not use the hyphen.

Dave Billinge



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