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Berthold GOLDSCHMIDT (1903-1996)
Beatrice Cenci (1951) [107.00]
Christoph Pohl (baritone) – Francesco Cenci
Dshamilja Kaiser (mezzo-soprano) – Lucrezia
Gal James (soprano) – Beatrice
Christina Bock (mezzo-soprano) – Bernardo
Per Bach Nissen (bass) – Cardinal Camillo
Michael Laurenz (tenor) – Orsino
Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger (baritone) – Marzio
Sébastien Soulés (baritone) – Olimpio
Peter Marsh (tenor) – Judge
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Johannes Debus
rec. live, 18 July 2018, Bregenz Festival, Austria
C MAJOR 751504 Blu-Ray [107 mins]

Berthold Goldschmidt is yet another of the unfortunately not uncommon breed of composer who were comprehensively neglected during their creative lifetimes only to receive belated recognition in the final years before their deaths. One thinks of parallels such as Havergal Brian and George Lloyd in the UK, and there are many others internationally. In the case of Goldschmidt the process of re-discovery began in earnest in 1988 when his opera Beatrice Cenci, composed some forty years before, was given in concert performance in London, followed by its recording for Sony in September 1994 and a belated stage première in Germany the following month. The indefatigable Michael Haas, who was responsible for the Sony CDs, subsequently recorded Goldschmidt’s earlier opera Die gewaltigte Hahnrei for Decca’s invaluable ‘Entartete Music’ series together with a disc of concertos. This DVD and Blu-Ray releases seem to be, so far as I can discover, the first appearance of any of the composer’s works in a visual medium.

Not that Beatrice Cenci received an altogether inauspicious start. Although Goldschmidt’s compositions had been ignored by the British musical establishment after he fled from Nazi Germany in 1936, the opera was recognised in 1951 with an award from the Festival of Britain and seemed ripe for production. The text, in English, was adapted from Shelley’s five-act play by the BBC producer Martin Esslin. And this was a fertile period for British opera in the aftermath of the international success of Peter Grimes – not only Britten’s Billy Budd but Berkeley’s Nelson, Bliss’s The Olympians and several other new operas received premières during the early 1950s. But apart from a BBC radio broadcast in the 1950s (an eight-minute segment of this is available in a CD transfer from Symposium) Beatrice Cenci seems to have sunk without a trace. That is, until Helen Lawrence – who contributed a brief autobiographical note to the CD set on Sony – appeared in the title role in London in 1988, following in the footsteps of her father Martin who had featured in the BBC broadcast. Both the 1988 concert performance and the 1994 studio recording were sung in the original English; subsequent stagings, including that from Bregenz in 2018, from which this video is taken, have employed the composer’s own German translation. The long hiatus between the 1994 stage première and this 2018 revival would seem to argue that, despite critical enthusiasm, the reputation of the music as an old-fashioned combination of classical and romantic models continued to militate against it, despite the similar example of Mahler as a composer who has triumphed over widespread opprobrium and neglect to become a popular favourite.

Welcome therefore as this new DVD issue of the opera is, I fear that it may not do much to remedy the situation of neglect. In the first place, there is the problem of language. While Goldschmidt was of course a German composer, by the time he came to write Beatrice Cenci he had been living in Britain for over fifteen years and his command of the English language was certainly idiomatic enough to allow him to engage fully with Shelley’s text. Although the composer himself was responsible for the German translation – and of course there is much to be said for giving performances of modern operas in the language of the audience – the use of German in this new issue militates to an extent against its acceptance in the international market. The language also serves to highlight the resemblances between the music and German expressionism, as the prejudiced judge, who condemns the heroine, turns into a close vitriolic relative of Mime, Herod and their multitude of Germanic character tenor companions found in a whole raft of early twentieth century scores rather than the more suavely unctuous character that Shelley seems to have envisioned – an early Uriah Heep, indeed. Beatrice herself suffers from the fact that her high passages – of which there are many – sound more strenuous with German vowel sounds than with English.

This might not have been such a serious issue had Johannes Erath’s production served the music with greater emotional engagement. Even the clever use of perspective, with the judgement scene taking place in a sort of vortex, might have served to concentrate Goldschmidt’s ability in conveying the hopeless situation of the women, condemned on the basis of tortured confessions and the lack of understanding of a cleric hierarchy, hopelessly entangled in their own corrupt monetary considerations. But the costuming, with its would-be ingenious juxtaposition of the Renaissance and the modern (the clerics with their sunglasses, for example), and even more the use of make-up to simulate the appearance of Victorian puppets, serve only to produce a sense of alienation on the part of the viewer, which flies totally in the face of the emotional engagement that Goldschmidt tries so passionately to arouse in the listener. I find it almost impossible to arouse any sense of concern over the fate of these unfortunate women when they are reduced to such mannikin-like dolls; and that surely is fatally wrong.

As a musical performance, too, this production falls short of the standards set by the Sony audio recording twenty-five years ago, quite apart from the considerations of language. Gal James in the title role shows plenty of engagement, but her voice is not ideally steady on high notes and she lacks the sense of glamour that was brought to the part by Roberta Alexander. Similarly Della Jones in the trouser role of Beatrice’s brother outshines the assumption of the role here by Christina Bock. Christoph Pohl and Dshamilja Kaiser are well-focused as the Cenci older generation, and Per Bach Nissen is effectively villainous as the money-grubbing Cardinal Camillo, although he suffers more than most from some of the excesses of the production – including an entirely gratuitous insertion of a scene where he plays a recording of Puccini’s Tosca (he is Roman, see?). The chorus and orchestra enter wholeheartedly into the fray under the energetic baton of Johannes Debus, but in all honesty none of the singing eclipses the luxurious casting of the older CD set.

Therefore while the Sony recording continues to be available, albeit at full price, there would seem to be little point for those interested in making the acquaintance of this still-neglected opera through this video recording where the visual elements seem so far at odds with the music itself, and the musical performance is eclipsed by the older version employing the original language. But the opera itself well deserves resurrection. Listeners who do not know it will find it rewarding. They can always listen with their eyes closed, or at least concentrate on the subtitles (which supply the original English text that Goldschmidt originally set). The discs also come with subtitles in Korean and Japanese, although in no other European languages – not the ideal way in which to promote a virtually unknown opera.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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