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Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954) Ulenspiegel
Marc Horus (Till Ulenspiegel)
Christa Ratzenböck (Nele)
Joachim Goltz (Profoss)
Hans Peter Scheidegger (Klas)
Andreas Jankowitsch (Jost/Schuster)
Tomas Kovacic (Bürgermeister/Ablasspriester)
Martin Summer (Schreiner/Arkebusier)
EntArteOpera Choir, Israel Chamber Orchestra, Martin Sieghart
Roland Schwab (stage director)
rec. Tabakfabrik, Linz, Austria, September 2014 CAPRICCIO C9006 DVD [129 mins]
Along with Prinzessin Brambilla, Die Vögel and Verkündigung, this is the fourth opera by the German composer Walter Braunfels that I have. At first viewing, I must say, I was not that impressed but I think that it was more a reflection on the production rather than the music. The second time I just listened to the music with the pictures switched off, so the staging did not detract from the late romantic mastery of the composer. Having purely listened to the opera I then watched it again. I was able to appreciate more the vision of the director, Roland Schwab, even if I still found it somewhat distracting.
Walter Braunfels, born in Frankfurt am Main, was originally taught music by his mother who was related to Louis Spohr, before studying at the Hoch Conservatory with the well respected pianist James Kwast (his other pupils included Percy Grainger, Hans Pfitzner and Otto Klemperer). Braunfels went on to study law in Munich before deciding that his future lay in music. He achieved such success with his third opera, Die Vögel, that Adolf Hitler, not realising that he was of Jewish lineage, asked him to compose an anthem for the National Socialists, a commission that Braunfels declined. This was to affect his career during the period Hitler when was in power. He lost his position of founder director of the Hochschule für Musik Köln, while his music was deemed Entartete, or degenerate, due to his Jewish ancestry. During this period of internal exile Braunfels continued to compose, completing his Verkündigung. Although included in his list of operas, Braunfels actually described it as “A Mystery in Four Acts and a Prologue”. After the war he returned to his teaching position and his place in German society. It was only after the release by Decca in their Entartete Musik series of Die Vögel that his music began to be recognised. Since then a number of very fine recordings have appeared.
Ulenspiegel was Walter Braunfels’s second opera, composed in 1913. It is based upon the 1868 novel “La Légende et les Adventures héroïques et giorieuses d’Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzak au pays de Flanders et ailleurs” by the Belgian author Charles de Coster. It deals with the adventures of Thyl or Till Ulenspiegel, although there are not many “merry pranks” here. In this depiction Till is more of a freedom fighter battling against the forces of the oppression of the Spanish Inquisition in the Spanish Netherlands during the Reformation wars or the Dutch War of Independence. Rather than setting the action in the historical context, Roland Schwab has opted for a more kakotopian setting, in which leather-clad groups do battle, a bit like “Mad Max” the opera. This is what I have problems with, the staging. For me it does not seem to add to the drama—in fact, it detracts. I find it a bit bloody for my liking, but I suppose setting it in context might detract from some of the drama of this production.
The opera Ulenspiegel is a relatively early work, firmly based in the great Austro-German Romantic tradition. It is only after Braunfels’s conversion to Catholicism, which was partly due to his experiences in the First World War, that his music becomes more religious in nature. This can be seen in Die Vögel where the music of the final act has a more devotional tone, even ending with a hymn. The music might not be as opulent and striking as his later works, but neither the less it is still interesting and shows a style in development. It is certainly a step up from Prinzessin Brambilla, composed some four years previous. It is a dramatic work. Braunfels uses the music well to set the mood, employing different devices to ramp up the tension in the work, owing much to Wagner, Mahler and Richard Strauss.
The performance is very good, with the Israel Chamber Orchestra more than up to the challenges provided by the score. The singing of the main characters is excellent. Marc Horus as Till and Christa Ratzenböck as Nele are well matched and full of character. It is Joachim Goltz as the arch villain, the Provost, who steals the show; at times, he brings a true sense of menace to the role. All three here also prove to be fine actors, something that their roles in this opera require. The rest of the cast members and the EntArteOpera Choir also prove to be in good voice. There is an occasional bit of roughness in the singing, but this only adds to the drama of the production and seems to fit well with the action.
I still have my doubts regarding the staging, but this production is growing on me with every watch. Musically it is very enjoyable, even if the subject matter does not really lend itself to enjoyment. This is a DVD which must be given time, as it is only with repeated viewings that you come to appreciate the director’s vision.