Walter Braunfels - Die Vögel
LA Opera, 2009
James Conlon, Darko Tresnjak, Desirée Rancatore, Brandon Jovanovich, James Johnson, Martin Gantner, Stacey Tappan, Brian Mulligan, Matthew Moore, Daniel Armstrong
It’s interesting, although maybe not particularly useful, to speculate on the course that German opera might have taken were it not for the rise to power of the Nazi party, and were it not for the great suffering of two wars that would forever alter the course of history and society. In a more peaceful time, might not the influence of post-Wagner Romanticism and the ideals of German mythology have gained more of a foothold in the operatic music drama rather than being strangled at birth by the rather more harsh view of the reality of the world that would be reflected in the more discordant sounds of Berg, Schoenberg and Hindemith? Since many composers who might have had an influence during this period were lost to concentration camps or died during the conflicts, it is of course impossible to say, but it is surely possible to consider (or reconsider) the work of some of the composers who were able to continue writing – some indeed while imprisoned in a concentration camp – even if their work didn’t meet with the approval of the Nazi party and failed to achieve widespread recognition.
Much of that work has consequently languished in near-obscurity for decades as a reminder not just of what might have been in terms of German music history, but even as a reminder of the greater losses endured during those times, and it was with this in mind that the LA Opera launched their admirable Recovered Voices programme to rediscover some of the great “lost” works of composers like Viktor Ullmann, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Walter Braunfels. Braunfels, who had early on refused to write an anthem for Hitler’s Nazi party and was of Jewish heritage, was one of those who consequently did not find favour with new regime. His music falls most obviously into the post-Wagner category of mythological themes and neo-Romanticism, although I’m no expert. My only previous encounter with Braunfel’s work was in a recent 2012 radio broadcast of his extraordinary opera Verkündigung (‘The Annunciation’), its Christian mysticism theme and powerful leitmotifs reminiscent of Wagner’s Parsifal, but a wider view of the influences and Braunfel’s place within the progression of German music – up until that moment when the world forever changed – is more evident in his 1920 work Die Vögel.
Perhaps the most obvious reference point for Die Vögel (‘The Birds’) is Mozart’sThe Magic Flute (1791) – or perhaps it’s more of a starting point than a reference point, for while Die Vögel seems to incorporate themes from Mozart’s work, there are also references to other works in direct linear progression from that work, particularly with a fairytale element, in such notable works of German opera as Der Freischütz (1821), Siegfried (1876) and Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919) – all works incidentally where birds play a significant part in the mythology. It’s probably not a coincidence either than one is often reminded in this context – particularly in this colourful production at LA Opera – of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel (1906). Die Vögel (1920) is practically a summation of all those works, and if it doesn’t indicate any kind of progression upon the themes of those other great works, it is nonetheless beautifully written and there is interest in considering how those themes might relate to the time in which it was composed.
Based on the play by Aristophanes, there’s a great deal of allegorical potential within the epic fairytale drama of Die Vögel. Two men, Ratefreund (Loyal Friend) and Hoffegut (Good Hope) who between them and even within themselves symbolise the qualities and weaknesses within mankind, leave behind the world of men, seeking out Hoopoe, the once human Emperor of the birds. They propose the building of a grand city in the skies, a new domain in which the birds will reassert their power, grandeur and majesty as in times of old, escaping from the tyranny of man and the gods. If there’s a certain idealism evident in this theme, it’s also reflected in the music itself, which could be seen as looking backwards towards the models of former times, and in the musical and dramatic models (seria/buffa) that the two men themselves can be seen as representing – one of them idealistically poetic and serious, the other more practical-minded and comic.
If Act I of the opera is given over to the necessity of establishing the context of the drama and progressing it through Ratefreund’s actions, Act II seems to lose the dramatic drive in favour of musical reverie in Hoffegut’s love for the Nightingale, which is followed by in a ballet sequence of the marriage between Mister Pigeon and Miss Dove (yes, a ballet sequence – there aren’t many of those in 20th century opera) to celebrate the creation of a new kingdom of the skies. It all seems very academic, an occasion for Braunfels to demonstrate his considerable musical prowess, as well as expanding on the colour and variety of the work, and he does indeed do so beautifully. Despite appearances however, it is not at the cost the drama, and Braunfels has no compunction about breaking off the unfinished ballet when Prometheus turns up in the city with a warning about the fate of those who set themselves up to oppose the will of the gods.
While there may be metaphors that can be applied to the work (“where the small band together, they no longer fear the great”, the birds sing at one point in the Second Act), Braunfels doesn’t draw any specific parallels in the opera, which, for better or worse, comes across at times like an Ariadne auf Naxos without the self-conscious irony. LA Opera don’t seek to impose any reading either, preferring to focus on the colourful magical fairytale qualities of the work, leaving any interpretation to the viewer. The stage design by David P. Gordon is therefore simple yet brilliant, giving an impression of the spaciousness of the open skies with only a few touches of stylized coloured clouds and trees to the sides. Bold colours and lighting as well as some projections on the titled floor reflect atmospheric effects as well as the emotional content of the work, while bright colourful bird costumes evoke the ancient Greek drama as well as the fairytale elements. It looks marvelous and Darko Tresnjak’s stage direction makes the best use of it.
Directing the LA Opera orchestra, James Conlon brings out the precision and the richness of orchestration of Braunfel’s writing, with all its high Romantic influences. It’s even more of a joy to hear this rarely performed work sung so magnificently. There are some very demanding passages for the Zerbinetta/Queen of the Night-style role of the Nightingale that Désirée Rancatore navigates extremely well, only occasionally sounding a little bit harsh and strained. Brandon Jovanovich sings the Pamino/Bacchus-like role of Hoffegut wonderfully – lyrical but with the steel and clarity of a Heldentenor. James Johnson is a fine counterbalance to this in the Papageno-influenced role of Ratefreund, and Brian Mulligan’s deep baritone has a wonderful clarity and resonance in the role of Prometheus, but all the other roles were equally well sung and fitting with the characters. An absolute delight, there’s much to admire in Braunfel’s writing for Die Vögel, and this is a production that is worth coming back to for repeat viewing.
There is nice clarity and deep saturation to the wonderful colour schemes on the Blu-ray edition, but there are some movement issues with this particular release from Arthaus. It’s as if it were filmed in a different frame-rate and converted to 1080/60i. The detail and clarity is all there and I didn’t feel the movement issues were overly distracting, but it does tend to almost feel at times like there’s a slow-motion quality to movements. Audio tracks are PCM stereo and DTS HD-MA 5.1 and they give a wonderfully warm, full and clear account of the score and the singing. Optional subtitles are in German (matching the libretto), with English, French, Spanish and Italian options. The disc is BD25 and compatible for all regions.