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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866–1924)
Turandot, Eine chinesische Fabel (1917)
Arlecchino, Ein theatralisches Capriccio in einem Aufzug (1914-16)
René Pape (bass), Robert Wörle (tenor)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gerd Albrecht
rec. 1992, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin
CAPRICCIO C5398 [73:27 + 66:54]

Today, commedia dell’arte is widely regarded as one of the most significant genres in European theatre history, its stock characters deeply embedded in our collective imagination. The revival and reinvention of this theatrical form across Europe in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries began in the field of literature – for example, Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales – but eventually touched all art forms. Painters such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Miró and Picasso draw upon its characters and iconography; in the theatre, Max Reinhardt and Bertolt Brecht used it to invent new forms; composers as diverse as Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Wolf Ferrari and Debussy used it to express their opposition to what they saw as late-Romantic and veristic excess.

No one was more seduced by commedia dell’arte than Ferruccio Busoni, whose one-act ‘intermezzos’, Arlecchino and Turandot, are paired on this two-disc set, a reissue of Capriccio’s 1994 recording. Always inclined to the cerebral rather than the emotional, Busoni relished commedia’s wit and lack of sentimentality. Schiller, when he translated Turandot in 1801, may have found Carlo Gozzi’s characters stiff and puppet-like, lacking ‘realism’, but this artificiality was just to Busoni’s taste: ‘The sung word will always remain a convention on the stage, and a hindrance to any semblance of truth; to overcome this deadlock with any success a plot would have to be made in which the singers act what is incredible, fictitious, and improbable from the very start, so that one impossibility supports the other and both become plausible and acceptable.’

During a visit to Bologna in May 1912, he was impressed by a performance of commedia dell’arte, writing to the Dutch pianist Egon Petri: ‘The Arlecchino cut a most impressive figure; he was personified by an actor who endowed him with a tinge of monumentality … When Arlecchino entered as captain, with an altogether false name, wearing leather knee-boots and a red cloak which stood up at the back like a cock’s feathers – due to the angle of his sword – he became exactly like one of Callot’s figures in Hoffmann’s ‘Prinzessin Brambilla’.

Busoni’s own Arlecchino was first seen in Zurich on 11 May 1917, in a joint premiere with Turandot. Despite their roots in Italian theatre neither work relies solely on Italian forms and traditions. Busoni described Arlecchino as Ein theatralische Capriccio and the mixing of languages (the libretto is mainly sung and spoken in German but incorporates Italian, French and even Latin) is matched by the intermingling of styles and forms. Just as a French troubadour wanders among the commedia archetypes – cuckold, doctor and priest – so the music embraces Wagnerian chromaticism, Italianate lyricism, Classical pastiche, with the occasional sprinkling of atonal material thrown in (interestingly, a private performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire had been given in Busoni’s home on 17 June 1913). There are instrumental numbers, à la Falstaff, and discrete musical forms are integrated into the score, such as marches, and minuets and trios. The titular role is a speaking part – notated rhythms indicate how the text should be delivered over the orchestral music – and there is singspiel-like dialogue between the numbers. It’s a testament to Busoni’s virtuosity that such diversity forms a seamless whole.

Arlecchino is divided into four parts in which the eponymous rogue is seen in difficult guises: seducing scoundrel, conniving captain, would-be wooer, and contemptuous conqueror. Standing before the curtain, introduced by a bright, ringing fanfare, in the Prologue he instructs us that the play we are about to see is designed not for children or gods, but rather to teach and change human minds. This Arlecchino is no joker, rather a stern observer of human weakness given to Nietzschean philosophising about life and love, religion and politics, in order to illuminate our flaws and failings. (The liner book contains track listings and summaries, in German and English, but no libretti which, given the brevity of the works, is a pity.)

Peter Matić delivers Arlecchino’s commands and injunctions with authoritative precision, leaving us in no doubt who is pulling the strings of these marionettes. Occasionally, the spoken voice dominates a little, pushing the orchestra into the background, but the balance is better between singers and accompaniment. Gerd Albrecht confidently crafts the transparent, often wind-based textures, by turns punchy and sinuous, blending the kaleidoscopic palette persuasively and revealing the clever interplays and echoes between voices and instruments. Strings offer darkness at the bottom, adding drama to the piquancy and mock pathos. Overall, it’s a compelling and fluent romp through Busoni’s detailed and often delightfully witty score.

As the cuckolded, Dante-spouting tailor, Matteo, René Pape is sonorous and versatile. His first aria requires both agile large leaps and then a smooth arioso, and Pape supplies the goods in full measure. His concluding monologue sensitively conveys the deluded tailor’s bewilderment and resignation. Matteo’s ecstatic literary musings encourage Busoni to indulge in one of many parodies – he interposes the champagne aria from Don Giovanni – and the arrival of Bombastro and Cospicuo, their tongues loosened by the fruits of the local vineyard, is similarly heralded by some Donizettian la-la-ing. Siegfried Lorenz’s gentle high baritone, when the Abate eulogises about the presence of God’s spirit in the Bergamo landscape, is nicely complemented by the dark bass of Peter Lika’s Dottor, as he damns the devilishness of women.

Marcia Bellamy has an attractive tone: no wonder Captain Arlecchino is beguiled by this Columbina. She’s not unaware of his infidelities, launching into a fervent rage aria of racing semiquavers, but she is soon diverted by the dulcet tones of the romance sung by Leandro, an old knight with Quixotic delusions. Robert Wörle enjoys the parody, his high tenor floating delicately at the start, then blooming into a robust Heldentenor when singing of his own honour and loyalty. The gracious lute accompaniment doesn’t stand a chance. But, for all his boasts that he will worship, protect and enrich Columbine she soon sees through his bravura boasts. In the end, Leandro comes of worse in a tussle with Arlecchino, is stabbed by his own sword, and saved by providence in the form of a donkey – the carter carries him off to hospital.

After a concluding quartet in which Verdi and Italian opera in general are lampooned, and which is brilliantly structured by Albrecht, Arlecchino returns to conclude his moral fable. The women are reminded that everything repeats itself in circles, while Arlecchino leaves it ‘to the men and especially the gentlemen art and newspaper critics, my well-meaning judges, to take the truth root of this.’ So, not much hope for human improvement, then. The listener is then treated to a ‘potted opera’ repeat, in the form of Busoni’s instrumental Rondo arlecchinesco Op. 46: a satisfying way to revisit the story just told.

Busoni’s Turandot, premiered at the Zurich Stadttheater on that same May 1917 evening, was in fact an expansion of incidental music that Busoni had written in 1905 for a production of Gozzi’s play directed by Reinhardt. It is, like Arlecchino, an unsentimental treatment of the commedia dell’arte tale. It is also more faithful to the original play than Puccini’s later setting: there is no Liù in Busoni's version, nor Puccini’s clownish Ping, Pang and Pong.

Albrecht captures the agitation and urgency from the first bars of the overture and sustains the momentum throughout; there are ‘orientalisms’ – rhythmic ostinato, patterns and pentatonic colouring – and passionate outbursts, but alongside the pain and aggression there are also moments of softness and lyrical beauty, and Albrecht moves fluently through the incessant fluctuations, keeping the dramatic temperature high.

Busoni employs a more declamatory vocal style in this work than in Arlecchino; there is greater use of recitative and spoken text is integrated into and between some numbers. Josef Protschka is a confident, steadfast Kalaf, his sensitive phrasing and vocal power communicating the riddle-solver’s sincerity and heroism. As the loyal Barak, Friedrich Molsberger conveys wisdom and caution. Robert Wörle’s Truffaldino, the head of the eunuchs, pompously orders the slaves to prepare the throne room for a new trial, sneeringly contemptuous of those princes whose happiness depends on love. In the third scene, when Truffaldino reports that he can ascertain no information about the stranger who has solved Turandot’s riddles, Wörle exhibits fine control as his aria pushes high, then sinks low.

As Pantalone, Johannes Werner Prein’s crisp, clear enunciation helps to maintain dramatic tension in the busier ensemble passages, while René Pape is terrific as Altoum, his bass glowing with the Emperor’s goodness and warmth; one can hear the benevolence of a Sarastro as he sings of his wish to expel evil from the kingdom.

Linda Plech makes Turandot more sympathetic than one might imagine, her cruelty less prominent than her exasperation and unfulfillment. It’s not a huge voice but it’s precise and Plech sculpts the vocal line incisively, creating a sense of the princess’s coolness and introspection. Gabriele Schreckenbach sings with greater plushness, conveying Adelma’s inner warmth: the moment when the former princess, now enslaved, trades the name of the stranger for her freedom is one of the highlights and features some fine woodwind and horn playing. The splendid choral contributions (the choir are not identified in the liner book, but research suggests the RIAS Chamber Chorus) evoke the majesty of the court and enhance the immediacy of the dramatic peaks, though the canon on ‘Greensleeves’ sung by Turandot’s maidens at the start of the third scene comes as something of a surprise. The ending is similarly paradoxical, for Albrecht sweeps through the turmoil with such a sense of darkness and menace that the shift to light and joy at the close is disconcerting, as it should be.

This re-release offers listeners both sides of the theatrical coin and presents persuasive evidence of Busoni’s musical virtuosity and dramatic instincts.

Claire Seymour

Turandot, Eine chinesische Fabel (1917)
René Pape (bass) – Altoum, Kaiser/The Emperor, Linda Plech (soprano) – Turandot, Gabriele Schreckenbach (alto) – Adelma, Josef Protschka (tenor) – Kalaf, Friedrich Molsberger (bass) – Barak, Celina Lindsley (soprano) – Die Königsmutter/The Queen Mother, Robert Wörle (tenor) – Truffaldino, Johann Werner Prein (bass) – Pantalone, Gotthold Schwarz (baritone) – Tartaglia

Arlecchino, Ein theatralisches Capriccio in einem Aufzug (1914-16)
Peter Matić (speaker)/Robert Wörle (tenor) – Arlecchino, René Pape (bass) – Ser Matteo Del Sarto, Siegfried Lorenz (baritone) – Abate Cospicuo, Peter Lika (bass) – Dottor Bombastro,
Robert Wörle (tenor) – Leandro, Marcia Bellamy (soprano)/Katharina Koschny (speaker) –

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