Arnold Schoenberg - Gurre-Lieder
Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam - 2014
Marc Albrecht, Pierre Audi, Burkhard Fritz, Emily Magee, Anna Larsson, Marcus Marquardt, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
Arnold Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder is an unusual piece that is difficult to classify, but it's also a work that it is difficult to associate with one of the most radical composers of all time. Gurre-Lieder uses a Romantic musical language that is not typical of the Schoenberg who would shake up the old traditions with serialism, yet it comes at a time when the composer was already moving away from the traditional musical forms. Orchestrated like an opera, Gurre-Lieder certainly doesn't fit easily into the song-cycle, cantata or oratorio format, but neither would it appear to have the dramatic qualities for an opera. For a work that nonetheless remains one of Schoenberg's best known and most performed works, it's surprising that no one has attempted to adapt it to the stage until this 2014 production at the Dutch National Opera.
The fact that there is no clear narrative form to Gurre-Lieder might however work in its favour when it comes to presenting in on the stage. There are no predetermined stage directions to be adhered to and there are no preconceptions about how the work ought to look and be presented. There might be a few clues in its origins, references and the period it derives from, but a director is free to make whatever they want of the songs, the sentiments and the arrangements. Whatever images Gurre-Lieder with its grand, lush orchestration might have conjured in the mind previously however, it's unlikely to be anything like the setting that Pierre Audi devises for the Amsterdam stage.
As abstract as it might appear there is clearly an effort made by the director and the music director to get inside the work's complicated life, its history and period, at the same time as it tries to illustrate what there is of Gurre-Lieder's sparse storyline. Based on a German translation of a series of poems written in 1900 by Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, the Gurre-Lieder recount the affair and the consequences of the love of King Waldemar for a young local girl called Tove. Amidst premonitions, laments and mourning, Tove dies at the hands of Queen Helwig and Waldermar loses his mind, imagining summoning an army of the dead to avenge her death before he too expires in a blaze of remorse.
...Or something like that. To be honest, I've never really paid much attention to the lyrical content of Gurre-Lieder's Romantic meditations and expressions, which is probably why it's such a good idea to try and put the work across visually in dramatic terms. Pierre Audi's concept works in at least giving the listener something to think about in this dimension of the work, even if it still proves difficult to hold one's attention and derive any deeper meaning out of the verse. It's not great storytelling, but it can be evocative, dramatic and poetic, particularly when it is combined with Schoenberg's gorgeous post-Wagnerian musical compositions.
And post-Wagnerian, neo-Romanticism is very much the tone here in terms of subject and execution, so it's not surprising that Audi's production reflects that to some extent. The staging and subject (more so than the music) evokes gothic imagery that you might expect to find in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, there's a fatalistic love affiar that is reminiscent vaguely of Tristan und Isolde (in this case the music leads more towards the comparison), while the lush orchestration and fairytale elements can put one in mind also of Strauss's near contemporary Die Frau ohne Schatten, a work that also draws heavily from the period, from the thinking and art movements that were developing and cross-pollinating in Vienna at this time.
If there's one overall consistent theme as such that the DNO production applies as a concept for representing the work on the stage, it's perhaps this idea of great change. That's applicable to the age the work was composed in as much as to the great change in musical forms that Gurre-Lieder heralds. There's a nightmarish quality to the production that comes with this fear of death, the end of one era and the beginning of another. The anxiety particularly affects Waldemar, but the premonitions of the Wood Dove and the raising of a dead army all carry a fearful edge. Schoenberg's glorious choral finale of the rising sun on a new day certainly holds out promise for the future, but with Waldemar dying, there is a certain ambiguity there. The sun will still rise regardless and change will come, for better or worse.
There might not be anything particularly revelatory here, but the stage production does represent the essence of the work and, at the very least, it invites the listener to consider anew what the work is about much more so than a more conventional concert performance would. Marc Albrecht's conducting of the piece also benefits from these visual cues and highlights the very particular variety of musical language that Schoenberg uses in the work. The singing is perhaps not quite strong enough to carry over those huge orchestral forces, but Burkhard Fritz is wonderfully lyrical as Waldemar, Emily Magee impresses as Tove and Anna Larsson stands out as the Wood Dove. The other roles have the same Romantic lyricism and are well handled by Marcus Marquardt and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. The DNO chorus are, needless to say, mindblowingly good, which is a distinct advantage for the impact of this work's finale.
The chorus are indeed the main focus of the extra feature on the Blu-ray disc. DNO productions on Opus Arte releases always include an excellent interview/making of feature on the background to the production and rehearsals, and this one is well worth viewing. There's also a Cast Gallery and an informative essay on the work by Gavin Plumley, along with a brief synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The HD image and sound options are superb, really putting across the qualities of the production and the performance. The singing is mixed a little low in the DTS HD Master-Audio 5.1 mix, but there's a better balance and perhaps more impact in the LPCM stereo mix.