Notes and Editorial Reviews
Also available on Blu-ray
World Premiere Recording on DVD! A production of the LA Opera House ground-breaking Recovered Voices project, highlighting the works of composers affected by the Holocaust. Walter Braunfels, a strong advocate of neo-Romanticism, made significant contributions to the world of twentieth-century opera. Yet, he lost his rightful places in twentieth-century opera houses. His music inhabits a very different world, both geographically and aesthetically, nurtured far from Vienna’s charged, multi-cultural atmosphere. Deeply rooted in German Classicism and Romanticism, he conceals none of his admiration for the inherited past and sees himself as
building on its fundamentals. By almost any standard, he was a conservative. The premiere of Die Vögel in Munich in 1920, under the direction of Bruno Walter (who still lauded the work as late as 1950), was a huge public and critical success. The number of productions and performances in the following years was staggering. However, in the post- World War II years of his “rehabilitation”, Braunfels never regained a foothold. Die Vögel was not produced again until 1971 in Karlsruhe and 1994 in Berlin.
“A rare chance to hear Braunfels‘s lighthearted, tenderly spiritual and little-known fable…” (The New York Times)
“A marvelous performance…the orchestra sounded radiant.“ (Los Angeles Times)
“Conlon conducted with lustrous élan…We should hear more of Braunfels‘ work.” (Financial Times, London)
Nightingale – Désirée Rancatore
Good Hope – Brandon Jovanovich
Loyal Friend – James Johnson
Hoopoe – Martin Gantner
Wren – Stacey Tappan
Prometheus – Brian Mulligan
Eagle / Zeus – Matthew Moore
Los Angeles Opera Chorus and Orchestra
(chorus master: Grant Gershon)
James Conlon, conductor
Darko Tresnjak, stage director
David P. Gordon, set designer
Linda Cho, costume designer
David Weiner, lighting designer
Peggy Hickey, choreographer
Recorded live from Los Angeles Opera, 2009
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian
Running time: 139 mins
No. of DVDs: 1
R E V I E W:
James Conlon, cond; Désirée Rancatore (
); Brandon Jovanovich (
); James Johnson (
); Martin Gantner (
); Brian Mulligan (
); LA Op O/Ch
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 529 (139:00) Live: Los Angeles 2009
was premiered in Munich in 1920 under the baton of Bruno Walter, it was an overnight hit. Numerous productions followed throughout Europe, and it seemed well on its way to entering the standard repertoire. But then the Thousand Year Reich appeared, and after the war, the institutionalization of the avant-garde put paid to any return of the opera. It wasn’t mounted again until 1971, nor seen in a major opera house until 1994. It has since been revived several times, and one audio recording made (London 448 679-2). Now, we finally have an opportunity to see it, as well as hear it.
The libretto is by Braunfels. Where the play upon which it is based, Aristophanes’
, is a topical satire on ambition, war, and the pettiness of humanity, the opera is an exotic fantasy with touches of the profound. Two men, Ratefreund (Loyal Friend) and Hoffegut (Good Hope), seek and find the kingdom of the anthropomorphic birds. Ratefreund plays the demagogue card, stoking the birds’ fear and anger until under his direction they build a city that will prevent the humans’ incense—the food of the gods—from rising to reach Mt. Olympus. Never mind the gods; the birds will demand worship, instead. Meanwhile, Hoffegut finds both earthly love and transcendence in the Nightingale and her song. Prometheus, first friend of the birds, arrives in great pain to warn them of Zeus’s anger, but their preparations for war are insufficient, and the god’s windstorm blows down their city. A resigned Ratefreund shrugs away his loss and heads back to the nearest human town, but I think Hoffegut, still cherishing what he has experienced, is the gainer. Thought and will failed to storm the mansion of the gods, but feeling and intuition moved beyond human experience in a moment.
The music is a sophisticated South German mix of many influences, among which the most prominent are Wagner, Mozart, Weber, and Rimsky-Korsakov.
proceeds in leisurely fashion, but the work’s successes both initially and in revivals show Braunfels was right to allow his musical creativity to set the pace, rather than to chain it, limping, behind a fast-moving plot. There’s humor to be had, some of it in the form of oblique near-quotations: Prometheus sounds at first more than a bit like another Wanderer, Zeus’s windstorm recalls a certain cursed mariner, and the Nightingale’s harmonies and figurations demonstrate she wintered regularly with the Queen of Shemakhan. But by and large the opera is a gloriously inspired work of fantasy in the late-German Romantic manner, with a clarity of texture and feeling for proportion more common to an earlier era.
has deserved a far, far better fate that it has received.
This imaginative production will certainly help. Not least among its virtues is the lighting design of David Weiner, which starts with a silhouetted, origami-like bird flitting across the stage floor, followed by another, and then a flock. The atmospheric sets, by David Gordon, make sparing but excellent use of well-placed rises, a raked stage, a few palm trees, a large, transparent solar disc, and fluffy, two-dimensional clouds, placed on the floor to simulate the heights. Linda Cho’s costumes, resplendently rethought off several models—Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian, with scarf-based wings—add great color and variety throughout, and they’re put to excellent use in extensive choreography designed by Peggy Hickey. Darko Tresnjak’s direction can’t bring action to the more static pages of the score, but he does block his actor/singer/dancers very effectively. Time and again he and the others on his production team create striking images to heighten the musical effect. Thus, for example, the warlike sounds that anticipate the gods’ attack sees bird soldiers forming a broad semicircle, bearing Myrmidon headdresses and extending lengthy spears tipped not with metallic points, but oversized imitation bird claws. It is only one moment, but there are several like this.
Three of the performances are standouts. First, Brandon Jovanovich, who made his Met debut as Don José (
) in 2009, reveals a gloriously bright tenor with ringing, easily attained high notes. He uses his voice with great sensitivity, and also displays the best acting—not merely a series of reasonably chosen gestures, but an ability to modulate facial expressions and his body in a way that many professional actors don’t achieve. Désirée Rancatore’s dark-toned Nightingale seems more of a mezzo with a high extension than a soprano, but she has all the coloratura and notes that are required, although the top ones possess a beat. Brian Mulligan makes a very convincing Wagnerian baritone as Prometheus, his excellent breath support anchoring a broad spectrum of coloration in this, the most serious role in the opera. For the rest, Ratefreund calls for a high bass, so that James Johnson’s deeper one is hard-pressed in his high notes. He does have the measure of the part, however. Finally, Martin Gantner’s drier, lyrical tenor is sung a bit too softly to be heard properly, but provides a good tonal contrast with Jonvanovich. James Conlon leads with spirit and great sympathy, while the L.A. Opera Orchestra is a rich, focused instrument.
Finally, the camera direction by Kenneth Shapiro is notable in avoiding both endless close-ups and switching shots every two to three seconds, two curses that have afflicted numerous opera DVDs in recent years. It makes a great difference when someone is in charge of filming who gives home viewers the next best thing to actually being there, live.
Sound is offered in PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1. The picture format is 16:9, and subtitles are provided in English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian.
All too often, seldom-seen operas end up the victims of production teams that are solely interested in distracting the unusual attention these works receive onto themselves. That’s not the case here. The people who designed this
strove to render Braunfels his due, and succeeded in a way that covers them with laurels, too.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Die Vögel, Op. 30 by Walter Braunfels
Matthew Moore (Voice),
Stacey Tappan (Voice),
James Johnson (Baritone),
Désirée Rancatore (Soprano),
Brandon Jovanovich (Tenor),
Martin Gantner (Tenor),
Brian Mulligan (Voice)
Los Angeles Opera Chorus,
Los Angeles Opera Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1918-1920; Germany
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