Thursday, 1 August 2019

Goldschmidt - Beatrice Cenci (Bregenz, 2018)

Berthold Goldschmidt - Beatrice Cenci

Bregenz Festival, 2018

Johannes Debus, Johannes Erath, Christoph Pohl, Dshamilja Kaiser, Gal James, Christina Bock, Per Bach Nissen, Michael Laurenz, Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger, Sebastian Soules, Peter Marsh

C-Major - Blu-ray

One of the complaints that is often made about German and Austrian composers in the immediate post-Wagner era of the first half of the 20th century, is that the music and subject matter had lost any kind of bearing or connection with the reality on the ground. The bizarre decadent fantasies of Franz Schreker's Irrelohe and Die Gezeichneten, Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten or Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane all take place in fantasy worlds with seductive extravagant orchestra arrangements that seemed to bear little relation to what was happening in the world outside, but perhaps in some way they do have relevance, even if it was just an escapist reaction against the growing influence of the National Socialists.

Berthold Goldschmidt, like many other German Jewish composers of this period had to do more than retreat into fantasy worlds but were forced into exile, their works soon banned by the Nazis as Entartete "degenerate music". Like those other composers, one wonders what music was subsequently lost and how it might have developed, Goldschmidt having composed only one opera Der gewaltige Hahnrei (1932) when he fled Germany in 1935 to come to England where he worked as a music director for the BBC. Beatrice Cenci, belatedly coming in 1950 while in exile gives some indication of the kind of opera work Goldschmidt might have developed, and what might otherwise have been lost.

Beatrice Cenci however might well have also been lost, the prize-winning work rejected by Covent Garden in 1950, the music of the such composers (Goldschmidt having studied under Franz Schreker) no longer fashionable at that time. The opera only received its first concert performance in 1988 and its first fully staged performance in 1994. With a renewed interest in rediscovering work from the Entartete school of composition and DVD releases giving them a wider audience (like the recent Naxos release of Korngold's extraordinary Das Wunder der Heliane), it's clear that there still are many fascinating and worthwhile discoveries to be made.

The striking Bregenz Festival production of Beatrice Cenci is certainly something of a revelation in terms of presentation and performance of this rare work. The opera itself takes something of its character from Schreker's Die Gezeichneten in terms of how it presents the decadent court of Count Francesco Cenci like the island of depravity of Alviano Salvago. Cenci likewise enjoys the favour of the Pope, with notable members of the clergy taking part in his outrageous orgies, protecting him from any censure. When Cenci's own daughter Beatrice becomes the innocent victim of his depravity, she asks Orsino, a young novice priest that she is in love with, to intercede on her behalf. Orsino arranges for the murder of Francesco Cenci.

Based on a notorious real-life historical event, Beatrice and her stepmother Lucrezia were condemned to death in 1599 for the murder of Count Cenci - Beatrice's execution by beheading in Rome incidentally witnessed by Caravaggio who may well have relied on the imagery for his gruesome painting Judith Beheading Holofernes. The legend of Beatrice Cenci however has influenced many writers and composers, notably Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose 1819 verse drama The Cenci was adapted by Goldschmidt for the opera.

Johannes Erath's 2018 production for the Bregenz Festival respects the musical approach the Goldschmidt employs, crafting a colourful and stylised drama to match the extravagant Mahler-like orchestration and the bel canto like flourishes that Goldschmidt was striving to achieve. It consequently does come across as a strange blend between Schreker's Die Gezeichneten and Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, which only highlights the delirious dreamlike quality of the chromatically untethered music, a swirling madness gradually enveloping proceedings, whether describing the decadence of Francesco Cenci, or the disturbed mindset of his abused daughter.

In contrast however to other elegant fantasies of the so-called Entartete degenerate composers, Goldschmidt's Beatrice Cenci has a foot in the real-world at the same time as it pays tribute to the beatification of the legend of Beatrice. It's about innocents having to stand up to evil and become victims in order to achieve some kind of redemption later for their sacrifice, and Erath's production also emphasises the tragedy this represents for the powers and institutions, with only a glimmer of fragile light at the end that might prevail. If we can see that in Beatrice Cenci perhaps then we can begin to see similar qualities in other such works from this school of rejected/lost opera that has been too easily dismissed and forgotten.

The performance at Bregenz is fantastic, particularly Gal James who does indeed adopt an otherworldly-like character through her lyrical and dramatic singing and performance as Beatrice, combining bel canto agility with a robust delivery. There are good performances here too from Christoph Pohl as Francesco Cenci and Dshamilja Kaiser as Lucrezia. Johannes Debus conducts the Wiener Symphoniker with a measured delivery that suggests a nightmarish dreamlike quality that is gradually spiralling into madness. Similar visual references can be found in Katrin Connan's impressive set designs.

The colourful production comes across with crisp clarity on the HD Blu-ray release from C-Major. The High Resolution soundtracks in LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 present a powerful and detailed recording of the music and singing performances. Although initially composed with an English libretto, the Bregenz production uses the German version that the composer prepared. There are no extras other than booklet notes and a synopsis. The Blu-ray disc is all-region and has subtitles in English, German, Korean and Japanese.