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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Gurre-Lieder [118 mins]
Emily Magee (soprano, Tove); Anna Larsson (alto, Waldtaube); Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor, Klaus Narr); Burkhard Fritz (tenor, Waldemar); Markus Marquardt (bass, Bauer); Sunnyi Melles (spoken vocals, narrator);
Dutch National Opera Chorus; Kammerchor des ChorForum Essen
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Marc Albrecht
Pierre Audi (director),
Misjel Vermeiren (screen director)
rec. Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, 2 September 2014
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround and LPCM 2.0 Stereo
Picture Format 16:9 Region Code: All
Subtitles in English, French, German, Dutch, Japanese and Korean
Notes in English, French and German.
OPUS ARTE OABD7215D Blu-ray [140 mins]

Schoenberg wrote his large-scale cantata, Gurre-Lieder, at the turn of the twentieth century, when the Art Nouveau and Jugendstil movements were at their height. It began life in 1900 as a song cycle for soprano, tenor and piano, his proposed entry in a competition held by the Wiener Tonkünstler-Verein. Missing the deadline by a week, Schoenberg decided to lengthen and fill the existing work out significantly into one of his most expansively-orchestrated scores with logical, relating, music between the first nine songs, a prelude, the Wood Dove's Song, and two new parts.

This scale (approximately 150 instrumentalists and 200 singers are called for) seems to have proved too much for Schoenberg at the time, so he set it aside in 1903, only returning to it to complete it by 1911. By then it had all the lushness, the introspection and the heavily-Romantic depth of Wagner and Mahler, to whom Schoenberg was happily indebted - and even of Scriabin in places. Although the emergent atonal (Schoenberg preferred the term ‘pantonal’) techniques, to which the composer was increasingly drawn at this time, are evident in Part Three.

The work is redolent of Debussy’s Pelléas in that it deals with yearning in an idealised setting and milieu: in this case the mediaeval Danish castle of Gurre, which actually exists. In the Danish national legend, King Waldemar (here tenor Burkhard Fritz) is murdered by his jealous queen, Helvig, in a love triangle with Waldemar’s mistress, Tove (soprano Emily Magee). Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder is based on poems by the Danish novelist, Jens Peter Jacobsen, which were translated into German by Robert Franz Arnold.

February 1913 saw the première of Gurre-Lieder conducted by Franz Schreker in Vienna, and 1932 the first recording - of Stokowski's live performances at the Metropolitan Opera, Philadelphia. Yet it was not until 2014 that the work was fully staged - by the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. And it’s this production, directed by Pierre Audi, which is under consideration here in a release by the ever-enterprising Opus Arte on DVD and Blu-ray (the medium reviewed).
This is a typical Opus Arte release where every aspect of design - from the disc’s artwork to the gently waving background of the titles and credits as the disc begins, even the clean font of the subtitles, to the costumes and scenery support, reinforce and highlight Schoenberg’s métier. This may, one imagines, have been how fin de siècle Austro-Hungary saw mediaeval Scandinavia… moonlit struts and structures, where (to quote from the libretto) ‘…the play of form and colour is mere illusion’. Indeed, there is much illusion in Gurre-Lieder,.

But this production, and every aspect of it - musically, dramatically and visually/dramaturgically, also present that other aspect of an illusion’s potential contrafact. That is the doubt which invites us to wonder, whether everything we have seen and heard may actually be real. And (so) whether our doubts are what should be doubted!

The delivery of Magee and Fritz in particular is direct and simply projected so forcefully that we are drawn in completely - much as with Wagner. Nothing else matters, in the scenes of Tove and Waldemar together, but their love. Some facial gestures and body language nevertheless indicate plainly that (thinking of Tristan) the wider world of love, amorous attraction and even the perceived conventions of liaisons and consequences also guide their conduct - perhaps subconsciously. Indeed, it is to this very external and somewhat impersonal world that Waldemar appeals (in the hunt) after he loses Tove.

Yes, Wagner’s influence on Schoenberg is as strong as is that of Mahler; although much greater prominence is given to narrative and description (of what is happening around Waldemar and Tove in the first Part, for instance) in Gurre-Lieder than Wagner ever gave. In fact Alban Berg identified about three dozen Leitmotifs for such aspects as sunset and sunrise, and the animals, whose presence is persistent throughout the work as well as for the principals.

Nor is symbolism absent… strange at first (because perhaps strikingly or obtrusively mechanical) is the passage half an hour or so into Part I where (green, live) leaves fall from the laurel tree in the background, as the couple contemplate the inevitability of death. The building, in which all the action takes place, is also some sort of rigid ruin.

The same for the lighting and staging - with appropriate senses of depth, close-up and movement. These have all been captured on film in ways, which are impossible for the audience to experience. It’s a mysterious and magically lush work, particularly in the relationship of soloists, when acting to orchestral sound. The movement around the stage of principals, for instance, is slow and somewhat over-deliberate. It suggests allegory and a certain quizzicality in the way, in which the principals both observe and are also involved in events. The colours are rich and saturated… blues, reds, golds, russets, olives/khakis, silvers and white. The set is expansive and unobtrusively concentrates our attention on the preoccupations of the characters from the very start.

This is, in other words, a filmic drama as much as a video record of a performance - until the curtain calls. Orchestra and singers achieve a remarkable balance between focus, clarity, directness on the one hand; and untrammelled Romantic space and depth on the other. Even though much of the action on stage takes place as if in slow motion, the singing is concentrated and never over-stylised. They achieve this even in costumes, which draw attention to themselves: alto Anna Larsson’s wings, Fritz’s unflattering vest and the various quasi ceremonial garbs as well as amorphous white makeup.

Nor could one expect more from the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra: rich without veering into the massive; sensitive but never precious, and colourful, while eschewing over-decoration. Some might find that, acoustically, the orchestra has been balanced a little to the detriment of the singers. Others would maintain that, on the contrary, it knits the work together.

In the end, the question is, whether the performers come together to present an integrated choral tragedy, which also respects its gothic origins. And if so, to what extent they succeed. And whether we see through and past the cantata’s obliquely gothic origins in such a way that we must respond in duly visceral fashion. And whether producer and director have apparently effortlessly created a performance, not a spectacle, which lives, and is not merely extended and potentially rather gauche sonic and visual tableaux. To each question the answer is Yes. Pain and evil, remorse and love are all immediate and genuine… as Fritz, for instance, hears and deals with the news of Tove’s death, operatic gesture is absent. Cold reality is foremost.

So is Waldemar’s struggle to accept that reality. Such a struggle is depicted in ways that a modern audience can appreciate - although the ancient topoi of hunt and reprieve are as much at the centre of his world as was perhaps his blind love before Tove’s death. Each of the singers conveys the essence of this effort effectively by singing to the others, not to the audience.

In other words, the great strength of this performance is that both singing and vocal projection are in accord with acting and visual presence; and acting and visual presence unselfconsciously support and achieve then maintain a difficult balance between emblem, stylisation, effect and emotions and concerns, about which we cannot help but care. Substance emerges from those aspects of, remember, the cantata, Gurre-Lieder, which could so easily have been a sequence of solo narrative episodes. Thus, when Tove reappears at the very end of the work, our hearts truly gladden.
The acoustic is full, resonant and yet not too roomy so as to detract from a sense of boundary to the lovers’ world. The region-free recording is high definition in surround sound with subtitles in six languages. The booklet that comes with the disc concentrates on relating to the course of the work’s gestation, development and eventual completion and reception. This helps us understand much of Schoenberg’s own maturity… he was on the verge of pantonality in his other compositions by 1911/1912.
There is a 22 minute extra documentary on the making of the production and the cast.
Mark Sealey

Previous review: Dave Billinge



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