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Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin (The Music Box and the Princess) (1913)
Opera in a prologue and two acts
Master Florian – Thomas L. Mayer (baritone)
The Princess – Julia Henning (soprano)
Bursch – Hans-Jürgen Schöpflin (tenor)
Wolf – Matthias Klein (bass-baritone)
Graben-Liese – Anne-Carolyn Schlüter (mezzo)
Steward – Hans Georg Ahrens (bass)
Kiel Opera Chorus
Kiel Philharmonic Orchestra/Ulrich Windfuhr
Recorded live in the Opera House, Kiel, 25, 29 January 2003 DDD
CPO 999 958-2 [2CDs: 48’22+51’28]


The excellent CPO label continues to put us in its debt by exploring the wealth of rare repertoire still unrecorded. Their Schreker series is turning out to be one of the most valuable, with their recording of Flammen attracting particular praise. This set sees them turning their attention to one of his rarest and least performed operas, The Music Box and the Princess and, as the recording date shows, they have wasted no time in getting it onto the shelves.

The work itself was much anticipated in the Vienna of 1913, especially after the success of what has turned out to be his best known piece, Der Ferne Klang (The Distant Sound). Unfortunately for Schreker the critical mauling given to the new opera by the all-powerful Julius Korngold ensured it was buried after only five performances. Despite the composer trying to resurrect it in one-act form the piece has had to wait until this Kiel production (some ninety years after the premiere) to be re-assessed in its original form.

Listening to these discs and following the libretto leaves one with an oddly mixed feeling. In a nutshell, there is much glorious music that is worth getting to know, but one has to put up with a lot of post-Freudian psychobabble along the way. Of course this is typical of so many operas from this fin-de-siècle period (Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten was started the following year and shares similar problems) but at least we can try to listen with our cool, post-modern objectivity. The prelude is perfectly representative of Schreker’s plush harmonic and orchestral palette. Wagner’s ghost looms large, with references to the Valhalla motif from Das Rheingold as well as fleeting wisps of Parsifal. This is also to be expected from the period, and does not really detract from the heady, sumptuously evocative sound-world Schreker so expertly conjures up.

The plot is also a complex mixture of elements so beloved of the late Romantic composers. It fuses symbolism, eroticism, a blurring of dream and reality and enough traits of popular fairy tale culture for the booklet to refer to it as a ‘fin-de-siècle Magic Flute’, which is not far off the mark. It all ends in a sort of Tristan-esque rapture and is very easy to revel in, especially if you have a fondness for musical excess of this kind, as I most definitely have.

The enjoyment is due in no small measure to the thoroughly committed performances. The company at Kiel is becoming masterly at this sort of repertoire, and the orchestral contribution under Ulrich Windfuhr is a real highlight of the set. On the vocal front the main duo of Thomas L. Meyer and Julia Henning are certainly on top of their very taxing parts, with sharply etched characterisations and hints of strain only occasionally showing. The best performance for me comes from Hans-Jürgen Schöpflin, who not only possesses a fine lyric tenor voice but also has the most interesting part of the Wotan-like Journeyman.

The recording is full bodied and clear, with balance slightly favouring the singers over the orchestra. Stage noise is (happily) relatively minor, which is probably due to what looks from the booklet photos like a fairly abstract, minimalist production. The notes go into some detail about general cultural issues of the time, making a reasonably readable attempt to put the opera into a correct perspective, and there is the all-important text and translation. Recommended heartily to those fond of exploration, albeit needing something of a sweet tooth.

Tony Haywood


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