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Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) Op.17 (1922)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Accompaniment to a film scene Op.34 (1930)
Alma Schindler, Adelle Eslinger-Runnicles (actor)
Alexander Zemlinsky, Evgeny Nikiforov (actor)
Donna Clara, Infanta of Spain, Elena Tsallagova (soprano)
Ghita, her attendant, Emily Magee (soprano)
Der Zwerg, David Butt Philip (tenor) and Mick Morris Mehnert (actor)
Don Estoban, the chamberlain, Philipp Jekal (baritone)
Maids, Flurina Stucki (soprano), Amber Fasquelle (mezzo-soprano), Maliu Vaahtoluoto (contralto)
Companions, So Young Park (soprano), Kristina Häger (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/Donald Runnicles
Directed by Tobias Kratzer
rec. live, 27 & 30 March 2019, Deutsche Oper, Berlin
NAXOS DVD 2.110657 [95 mins]

Zemlinsky’s one act opera Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) is an impressive work but it is problematic. It is based on a fairy story by Oscar Wilde, The Birthday of the Infanta, which is set in the Spanish court of the late sixteenth century. It is the (unnamed) Infanta’s twelfth birthday and she has a party with her friends and lots of presents. Her favourite is an (also unnamed) little dwarf, with short legs and a big head, who pleases the children by his dancing. He was the child of a poor charcoal-burner who had been only too willing to unload “so ugly and useless a child.” The Infanta throws him a white rose which he takes, wrongly, as a token of love. After an interlude in which birds and flowers express their views, the dwarf goes into the palace to look for the Infanta. Eventually he finds a room in which he sees a monster who looks back at him. Eventually he realises he has seen himself in a mirror. He realises he is ugly and wishes he had been killed as a child. The Infanta arrives and wants him to dance again but the dwarf has died of grief. The last words are the Infanta’s: “For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts.”

This story may have been suggested to Wilde by the celebrated painting of Velázquez, Las Meninas (The ladies-in-waiting), which features among those surrounding the Infanta, two people who would have been described as dwarves. One of them, Maria Bárbola, has the genetic condition achondroplasia, which leads to restricted growth and a large head. She had a position at court and is painted in a dignified way. The dwarf in Wilde’s story may be considered also to have carried the condition.

This story resonated with Zemlinsky, because, although he was not achondroplasic, he was self-conscious about his appearance. He was described as “a caricature, chinless and short, with bulging eyes.” These were the words of Alma Schindler, who was his pupil but who become his lover until she threw him over for Gustav Mahler, whom she subsequently married. This was a catastrophe for Zemlinsky and he brooded over it for years. He eventually turned to Georg Klaren, later known as a screenwriter, who wrote a libretto which drew on the ideas of the psychologist Otto Weininger, whose book Sex and Character was influential at the time. Klaren understood Wilde’s story as being about “an individual who is unaware that he is different from those around him. He is destroyed by a woman who, instead of penetrating to the depths of his soul, merely toys with him.” (I take this from the sleevenote by the Zemlinsky specialist Antony Beaumont to the Conlon audio recording.) Klaren makes the dwarf not the child of a charcoal-burner but a gift from the sultan, and he is also a composer, thereby deliberately making him more like Zemlinsky himself. And, crucially, he makes the Infanta not a child but a teenager, so that “her cruelty can be understood either as a tendency to sadism or as the residue of that ingenuousness with which a child inquisitively destroys a doll.”

This, however, is what makes the opera problematic. Of course, the Infanta, here named Donna Clara, is played not by an actual teenager but by an adult singer, so instead of the unthinking cruelty and lack of empathy of a child we have what indeed looks like sadism. And this is compounded by the production here, in which the dwarf is portrayed by not one but two people, a tenor who sings the role and an actual person of restricted growth who acts it. It is difficult to separate the actor from the role. Furthermore, they are both on stage at the same time and Donna Clara interacts sometimes with one and sometimes with the other in a thoroughly confusing way. It is positively painful to see the actor mocked by Donna Clara’s friends, portrayed by the women of the chorus, and having to call himself ugly and misshapen, which he is not. I do not think I am being unduly squeamish about this, or importing contemporary preoccupations into a work a century old: Klaren himself allowed that Donna Clara’s behaviour could be considered cruel and Wilde’s point was the same. It makes for uncomfortable viewing.

The music, however, is impressive. It is in the late romantic idiom we associate with Strauss and early Schoenberg, but it has a nervous intensity and a transparency which is indeed closer to Mahler, whom Zemlinsky admired despite everything. There is a good deal of lively writing and the vocal lines are clear and attractive. Musically, the performance here is very good. Elena Tsallagova is an excellent Donna Clara, pretty but heartless and with a touch of steel in her singing. David Butt Philip sings the dwarf with eloquence and passion and there is nothing the matter with Mick Morris Mehnert’s acting. Emily Magee, who sings Ghita, Donna Clara’s attendant and the only person who has compassion on the dwarf, is warm with a maternal touch. The smaller parts are all well taken and the chorus, as Donna Clara’s friends, have the right degree of enthusiasm and nastiness. Donald Runnicles conducts with fire and passion and remembers that this is not Wagner but some way towards neo-classicism.

The production, however, is peculiar. One interesting, and, I think successful idea, is to preface the opera with a short prologue. This uses Schoenberg’s orchestral work Accompaniment to a film scene, which was not written for an actual film, to support a mimed scene in which actors portraying Zemlinsky and Alma Schindler begin with a piano lesson, have an affair and then separate in acrimony. As Der Zwerg is almost confessedly autobiographical this is reasonable. However, the staging of the main action is less successful. The curtain goes up, not on anything suggesting the Royal Alcazar in Madrid or any other sixteenth century palace but on a modern orchestral concert platform complete with an organ at the back. At one point the chorus members take up “instruments” (toys, later destroyed) to perform the dwarf’s composition. The stage is later cleared and left bare. The cast are in modern dress, so that the atmosphere of a fairy tale is completely dispelled. The action is hard to follow because of the doubling of the role of the dwarf. The effect is to reinforce the cruelty of the piece, something Wilde distances more successfully in the original story.

The recording is based on two actual performances and applause and curtain calls are included. The sound and picture quality are excellent. Subtitles are available in five languages. The booklet has an interview with the director. There is one alternative on DVD, a traditional production, in which the dwarf is played and sung by one singer. It is conducted by James Conlon, who has long championed this work and who also made an audio recording for EMI. I haven’t seen Conlon’s DVD but I think I might prefer it visually to the Runnicles version, but this is musically strong.

Stephen Barber

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