Teatro Regio Torino, 2020
Pinchas Steinberg, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Annemarie Kremer, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Norman Reinhardt, Peter Sonn, Soula Parassidis, Anna Maria Chiuri, Joan Folqué, Cristiano Olivieri, Gabriel Alexander Wernick, Eugenia Braynova, Claudia De Pian
Dynamic - Blu-ray
As well as the overwhelming and inescapable influence of the legacy left on the world of opera by Richard Wagner, German and particularly Austrian composers like Korngold were certainly under the influence of the intoxicating new ideas and expression that was in the air in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. It's only recently however that we are getting the opportunity to hear and see stage performances of the lush fantasies of composers like Franz Schreker and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose careers were impacted or cut short during the rise of Nazis in the 1930s. The image of a glamourous decadent society in the operatic works of these so-called 'degenerate' composers is inevitably tempered by an awareness of the darkness in the heart of humanity or at least within human society.
Korngold was certainly something of a prodigy, showing remarkable talent in composition and orchestration from a very young age. The evidence of Die Tote Stadt alone, written at the age of 23, clearly shows just how incredibly accomplished his early opera works were before he left Germany under advisement and established himself as a composer in the United States. The recent revival at the Deutsche Oper of Das Wunder von Heliane (1927) was another eye-opening glimpse into those incredible accomplishments, another dreamy and slightly unsettling exploration of Freudian themes as well as revealing something of a debt to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The even earlier one act opera Violanta, premiered in 1916 and written when Korngold was just 17, is very much within the same decadent fantasy realm of repressed desires, lusts and fantasies, and the musical influence accordingly owes a great deal of debt to Richard Strauss's Salome.
The comparison with Salome strikes you almost immediately from the opening melancholic overture to Violanta in the rather decadent setting of a Renaissance carnival in Venice. Elegant, masked guests arrive at the House of Captain Trovai, indulging in pleasure and milling around while two uniformed guards discuss how the Lady Violanta is in a dark melancholic mood, one young guard teased for being in love with her. "He dreams of her white body, in which the moon plays the lute" certainly adheres to the imagery in Wilde's play that Strauss set so vividly to wild, decadent and powerful music in 1905. Korngold's music is not quite as harsh and dissonant, displaying more of a Puccinian love of melody and romanticism, but by the same token it doesn't have quite the same conviction or philosophical underpinning to push against conventional thought or morality.
The threat to their pleasure comes with the troubling news that the notorious womaniser Alfonso has returned to Venice. Despite the painter Giovanni Bracca's admonition that "Women frequent the shores of adventure" Simone Trovai is sure that his wife Violanta hates Alfonso for his baseness and his offense. Alfonso is certainly no Jochanaan; he seduced Violanta's sister Nerina while she was a novice at a convent and the young woman subsequently killed herself. Since then Lady Violanta has been sad, melancholic and avoided society.
Simone however can't help but be troubled to discover that Violanta has gone to sing and dance for this man with the intention of seducing him as a way to avenge her sister. Inviting him to their home, Violanta demands that Simone must kill Alfonso. Her husband is horrified that such he is being asked to kill a man who commands power and respect, but he is prepared to do it. All he has to do is wait for Violanta to sing a song that will be the cue to act, but when Violanta comes face to face with Alfonso, there is a danger that she too will be seduced by his nature.
There are variances in the situations but the musical cues of foreboding, hidden lusts and lush decadence are very similar to those of Salome, with ecstatic raptures woven around matters of debauchery and death. Which is not to say that Korngold doesn't have a way of making his own mark upon them. Like Strauss, the singing challenges are also considerable, not just for the principal role of Violanta but all of the roles are heavily demanding in the Wagnerian sense. In the 2020 Teatro Regio Torino production Annemarie Kremer is excellent as Violanta, giving a commanding central performance that has to be convincing and maintain force and seductiveness over the course of most of the hour and a half of the opera. Alfonso has to measure up to her, challenge her dominance in the same way as Jochanaan, but here with an almost lyrical Heldentenor Lohengrin-like purity of voice to go with his seductive and secretly vulnerable character and Norman Reinhardt captures that well with a fine performance.
Updating it from the Renaissance period to the 1920s the intention ought to be to highlight or draw on some of the undercurrents in the world of that time feeding into Korngold's composition, but there's no explicit references or obvious parallels made. Director Pier Luigi Pizzi however successfully contours that mood of seductive decadence and death effectively, with a hint of Klimt in the designs and costumes, Violanta wearing a voluptuous figure-hugging sparkling gold sequined dress. The whole of the one-act drama takes place in a room with long red and gold curtain drapes hanging over red velvet couches and there is a wide open circular window at the back like a dark moon showing gondolas gliding by. It creates an appropriately Styx-like quality to the location, spanning the gap between life and death.
Making the whole drama work convincingly, making the characters and the denouement credible and meaningful is a trickier prospect and it needs a little more of the edge of conviction that a director like Christof Loy can bring to this kind of work (Das Wunder von Heliane, Der ferne Klang). With fine singing performances, a strong central performance from Annemarie Kremer, and with Pinchas Steinberg bringing out the youthful musical splendour of Korngold, highlighting the characteristics that would become more familiar in the Korngold of Die Tote Stadt, the Teatro Regio Torino production give a fine account of this wonderful rarity.
Pizzi's set is dark and shadowy with bold burning reds, so it's a bit tricky to transfer to video accurately and consequently there are some variances in tone depending on the camera angle used, but the Dynamic Blu-ray HD presentation is generally very good at capturing the mood of the piece and the production. The LPCM stereo and surround DTS HD-Master Audio tracks are warmly toned, fully capturing the mood and colour of Korngold, although the recording is perhaps not quite as detailed as you might find on other High Resolution recordings. There are no extra features, but as usual Dynamic provide good information on the work and the production, including an interview with Pier Luigi Pizzi in the enclosed booklet.
Links: Teatro Regio Torino