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Sunday, December 11, 2011

D'Albert's Der Golem

D'ALBERT: Der Golem
With Greiner; Morouse, Reiter, Akzeybek, Kanaris. Chorus of the Theater Bonn, Beethoven Orchestra Bonn, Blunier. German text only. DG Multichannel Hybrid MDG 937 1637-6 (2). 119 minutes.

In just seven days, the rabbi can make you a man. But, as with any creation, there are no guarantees: designed to defend the ghetto, the golem might go mad — frustrated by love for his unresponsive creator — or for his creator's daughter. Worse — or better, from an opera duet point of view — the daughter might love him. But the sacrilegious nature of this subcreation can have only one ending: the monster, misunderstood and not quite human, must be destroyed.

In some form or other – novels, plays, operas, films – The Golem was one of the most popular tropes of the 1920s. After World War I, the baneful aspects of science, of the servant becoming the destroyer, were on everybody's mind. This led notably, in Prague (the golem's home town), to Karel Capek's play, R.U.R., from which we get the word "robot."

Eugen d'Albert's opera Der Golem had its premiere in 1926, shortly after another mad-scientist opera, Hindemith's Cardillac, by the same librettist, Ferdinand Lion. The medieval myth offered the late-romantic composer plentiful meat for magical effects, from an emperor's alchemical diorama to the cabbalistic rituals of creation spell and un-spell – these sound not unlike the Amme's magic in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten of 1919. The Golem's creation is followed by a simple duet in which the rabbi's daughter, defying her father, teaches the mute to speak, and its passionate successor as they fall into forbidden love. Imagine the stringency and neurosis of Schreker or Busoni resolving into something sweet, not unlike Leh├ír. D'Albert takes full colorful advantage of these opportunities, deploying a huge orchestra elegance. His control is never in doubt; the drama is swift and spare. He pushes his musical language to the edge of the atonality being concocted at the time in Vienna, but is not quite willing to go over the side, to abandon German post-Tristan tradition.

The score is not in any way distinctive: it lacks any moment with d'Albert's stamp on it — his and no one else's. Perhaps one would hear more d'Albert in Der Golem if one knew more of his twenty operas than Tiefland, the only one that gets an occasional nod. (This 2010 production of Der Golem, the first in almost twenty years, comes from Bonn.) It was the lifelong despair of the composer that his fame as a piano virtuoso seemed to preclude any taste for his compositions.

The opera is cinematically brief – two hours of music in three acts – and its plot is spare: the rabbi ruminates on his forbidden acts, but performs them; his apprentice longs for Lea's love, but she falls for the pupil she has taught to speak. The golem, rejected as a son-in-law, goes mad and must be destroyed. The libretto is in prose not verse (there is no translation in the booklet), and so does not dally with poetic flights. There are inspirational moments and not surprisingly, considering that this recording was made from stage performances, cries and wails that may not be notated. To see it staged would be interesting; these sounds will appeal to any admirer of lush orchestral storytelling.

The Bonn cast, all unknown to me, present the story with refreshing excitement: after so many operas, d'Albert knew how to write for voice even over mighty orchestral effects. Mark Morouse, in the title role, barks his first monosyllables with such relish it is almost a pity to hear him become civilized. Ingeborg Greiner has a Germanic anguish in her sobbing soprano that suits Lea's strange loves. Alfred Reiter, as Rabbi Loew, meditates with clarity. Tansel Akzeybek sings the most desperate character, the rabbi's necessary assistant, Lea's frustrated lover. Stefan Blunier renders d'Albert's score stageworthy, with brasses gleaming and trim percussion. For a recording made from stage performances, there is no untoward vagueness in the presentation.

(reprinted from Opera News)

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