Gottfried von Einem’s opera Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death) is the kind of piece that is pejoratively classified as “effective” by people who would rather be at Donnerstag aus Licht. It premiered in 1947 and is (mostly) tonal, for one thing. The plot, based on Georg Büchner’s play of the same title, is a plea for human kindness in the face of savagery. While Danton doesn’t offer as traumatic an experience as Hartmann’s Simplicius Simplicissimus or Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, it is considerably more emotionally and musically accessible, has a beautiful and exciting score, a good libretto and is--yes--dramatically effective. I’m so glad the Neue Oper Wien dug it up.
Now updated with photos.
Gottfried von Einem, Dantons Tod. Neue Oper Wien, 3/10/10. Production by Leonard Prinsloos, conducted by Walter Kobéra with the amadeus ensemble-wien, Wiener Kammerchor, Mathias Hausmann (Danton), Markus Miesenberger (Camille Desmoulins), Jennifer Davison (Lucile), and Alexander Kaimbacher (Robespierre).Today Gottfried von Einem is one of the grand old men of Austrian composition, but all I know about him is what I read in Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan, and the details of his wartime affair with Friedelind Wagner didn’t introduce me to his music. This opera is written in a clean, powerful, rarely cluttered style with more stable textures than the serialists (also, it’s chromatic but in all except a few spots tonal), less ripe lyricism than Strauss, and a great deal of rhythmic propulsion. If I had to pick a defining characteristic of this score, it would be the rhythmic energy, often erupting into violence. At a few points this energy dissolves into a creepy, empty calm. If I had to pick one comparable composer, it would be Britten.
The opera premiered at the 1947 Salzburg Festival to enormous success, however it is mostly forgoten today. Dramatically, it closely follows the outlines of Büchner’s play. The setting is 1794 (year anagram alert!) Paris, during one of the bloodiest periods of the French Revolution. Politico Georg Danton and his comrade-in-arms Camille Desmoulins attempt to stop Robespierre’s violence, but they are put on trial and guillotined. There are subplots: Camille’s wife Lucile loses her mind with her husband's condemnation, and we meet various suffering and violent participants and victims of the revolution.
The chorus plays a major role in this, given a lot of complicated music. They alternately are a wild but controllable force, total destructive chaos on their own but easily persuaded by the main characters. (In this and the haunting ending depicting the insane Lucile, it recalls Boris Godunov, I realized, thinking of this recent exchange on Parterre.)
|Gernot Heinrich as Herault de Séchelles, Mathias Hausmann as Danton |
and Markus Miesenberger as Camille Desmoulins
There were no surtitles, and I had some trouble following the text. I’m going to blame this less on von Einem than on my less-than-perfect German, the cavernous performance space, and most of all the too loud orchestra. Mathias Hausmann gave a noble and well-sung portrayal of Danton, but despite a large voice was not always audible. I found the most memorable performances to be Alexander Kaimbacher’s clear tenor delivering Robespierre’s invective with haunting calm and presence and Jennifer Davison’s radiant soprano as Lucile (this opera is short on other good female roles, unfortunately). Many of the other singers were unfortunately covered up by the orchestra, and von Einem is not one of those sadistic modern vocal music composers. However, that orchestra (the lower-case preferring and oddly hyphenated amadeus ensemble-wien, conducted by Neue Oper Wien artistic director Walter Kobéra) sounded excellent. Top honors, though, go to the outstanding Wiener Kammerchor, powerfully delivering the many difficult choruses.
I know I usually start with staging matters, but Leonard Prinsloo’s production was not very memorable. I gather that he was a late replacement for someone else, but I frequently wondered how much better a really good staging of this opera with a decent budget would be. Not that Prinsloo’s production was that bad. Costumes were mixed period, more modern for the lower class and more period for the upper. The overlapping scenes of the drama were clearly staged on a simple two-level set, and the production did a good job with the changing directions of the music and some good freeze effects. I did with they had hired a real fight director, though, because the frequent onstage violence was awkwardly unconvincing. Much of the chaotic, stylized choral direction was excellent, though in their mixed period costumes and occasional crouched poses I was waiting for one of them to ask where the rumble was at.
This is an opera that collects considerable dramatic momentum. Danton’s death comes as no surprise--we know it from the title, for goodness’s sake--but the path to it is exciting and involving. In his review for Die Presse, Wilhelm Sinkovicz calls on the Staatsoper to bring this opera back into the mainstream repertoire, which I think is an excellent idea.
The performance was in the Museumsquatier complex’s Halle E, a giant room with a semi-permanent stage, raked seating for around 800, and decent acoustics. The lobby is shared with the Kunsthalle Wien, a large piece of video art looms over the entryway. The crowd is younger, hipper, and more local than that of the Staatsoper, however in jeans and a blazer I did feel underdressed (though I suspect most of the more formally dressed people were headed to an opening party afterwards).
Note, because you asked: the post title is an allusion to the first part of A Tale of Two Cities, which I'm guessing is not as central to the German secondary education system as it is to the Anglophone one.
Next: I missed the Gruberova extravaganza at the Staatsoper because I was at this, but I’ll see it sometime soon. (I am amused that Sinkovicz apparently made the same decision and wonder who exactly wrote their byline-less Lucrezia Borgia review.)
Photos copyright Armin Bardel.