Karl Goldmark - Ein Wintermärchen
Wexford Festival Opera, 2021
Marcus Bosch, Burkhard Fritz, Sophie Gordeladze, Ava Dodd, Simon Thorpe, Daniel Szeili, Rory Musgrave, Jevan McAuley, Niamh O'Sullivan, Conor Gahan, Ben Knight, Vladimir Sima, Sheldon Baxter, Peter Lidbetter, Fiona Finsbury
National Opera House, O'Reilly Theatre, Wexford - 21st October 2021
If the other operas in Wexford's 'Shakespeare in the Heart' programme (Edmea, Le Songe d’une nuit d’été) had only a tenuous connection with actual Shakespeare texts, the inclusion of Karl Goldmark's Ein Wintermärchen ('The Winter's Tale') at least promised a more authentic Shakespearean experience. Sadly reduced to concert performance while Covid restrictions are still in place in Ireland, it nonetheless proved to be just that, the rarely performed opera working closely to the plot of Shakespeare's drama with only minor concessions to compressing the extended timeline. Musically too it proved to be in keeping with the mood of Shakespeare's great late romance, much more authentic to the original than most opera adaptations of Shakespeare tend to be.
Musically, not being familiar with Goldmark as an opera composer - his grand opera Die Königin von Saba ('The Queen of Sheba') achieved fame in its day but is not performed now - I wasn't quite sure what musical tradition to place him within. There's his friendship with Mahler and the influence of Wagner - whether positive or as a reaction against it would have been almost impossible for a composer around this time not to acknowledge Wagner - perhaps give some clue to a certain type of sound. Even looking at the musical choices of the cast in the programme and indeed the type of singers cast for this opera all pointed in a similar direction. Perhaps the greatest influence on Goldmark however appears to be his Hungarian born origin and the whole Viennese musical world that he is associated with. There's as much Johann Strauss as Richard Strauss in Ein Wintermärchen, but perhaps even more Dvořák in the melodic richness of the orchestration.
If you had any familiarity with Shakespeare's great late play and indeed Philippe Boesman's fine modern opera version of the work (Wintermärchen, 1999) then there was little need for staging, even though this drama is famous for its unusual stage directions and extravagant magical touches. While those stage effects were missed in concert performance, leaving a few gaps to be filled by the imagination, it's mood more than anything that is essential in Ein Wintermärchen. That was provided by the cool blue lighting and backdrop in this concert performance of the opera, but also evidently in Goldmark's well-calibrated score that was enhanced by the fine acoustics of the magnificent O'Reilly theatre at the National Opera House in Wexford.
Ein Wintermärchen and indeed Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale is not all as cold, dark and gloomy as it suggests, nor is it in the realm of Korngold-like lush fantasy either. Act I is the most plot driven, the warm friendship and pleasantries exchanged between Leontes and Polixenes, the rulers of Sicily and Bohemia, breaking down very quickly as Leontes succumbs to bitter jealousy and suspicion about the relationship between Polixenes and his pregnant wife Hermione. This descends with devastating effect to the next stage of murder plots and shocking deaths. When Hermione dies, the new-born baby of his dead wife is repudiated and abandoned to her fate at sea.
Act II of the opera opens by way of contrast with jaunty folk dance music, as the character of Time puts 16 years distance between those fateful events and the pastoral scenes in Bohemia. The lost child of Hermione has been rescued from where she was abandoned and brought up by a shepherd. The pure beauty of Perdita however sets her apart from her folk and she enjoys the love of the Prince Florizel, the son of Polixenes who has no knowledge of her background. (No one does in fact, the only person who might have known having made their fatal "exit, pursued by a bear"). Despite objections by Polixenes, the marriage takes place and the act closes with the music of Viennese waltzes as preparations are made for a reconciliatory trip to Sicily.
Unlike many adaptations of Shakespeare that struggle to compress and rework a huge complex plot down into lyrical theatre, Goldmark's opera almost seems leisurely in its handling of the play, taking time to revel in mood, character and situation. It feels as if it is genuinely soaking up the character of the work, letting it breathe with musical personality rather than being slavish to the exigencies of the plot. Inevitably there are cuts to secondary characters and scenes, the tighter focus making it more difficult to establish the long passing of time and the weight this places on the regrets, mistakes and longing of the characters. You lose a little more in a concert performance without stage effects, but Goldmark's writing ensures that the concluding Act III still comes across dramatically and effectively.
Again, familiarity with the play and with its dramatic interventions and revelations helps fill in the gaps left by the concert performance, and what we lose in stage representation we gain by way of an opportunity to properly hear Goldmark's orchestral arrangements and be able to focus on the musical qualities of this rare work. It was performed to the usual high standard under the baton of Marcus Bosch in the fine acoustics of Wexford's superb opera house. There was no reduced orchestration this time, as there was with the previous performances of Edmea, Le Songe d’une nuit d’été, so the audience were able to enjoy the full orchestration of this fascinating work.
An excellent cast also gave this work a fine presentation. Burkhard Fritz got the drama off to a suitably intense start in Act II with his troubled Leontes and there was good playing alongside him from Sophie Gordeladze as Hermione and Simon Thorpe's Polixenes. Sheldon Baxter was a warm toned shepherd Valentin, there was powerful projection from tenor Daniel Szeili as Florizel and a bright Perdita in Ava Dodd. Niamh O'Sullivan's Paulina was also notable and well-received by the audience at the curtain call. They all come together wonderfully with the chorus providing strong backing in the third Act (conductor and composer Andrew Synnott managing all the festival chorus duties this year). It would have been lovely to see Ein Wintermärchen staged for full effect, but the qualities were nonetheless clearly apparent in this Wexford Festival Opera concert performance.
Links: Wexford Festival Opera