It is set in the
Netherlands: a woman sues the fiancÈ of her daughter Eve for having broken a
precious jug, in a court presided over by Judge Adam; as it happens Judge Adam
himself broke the jug while sneaking into Eve’s room in an attempt to
seduce her, and was severely injured trying to escape. As the (excellent)
conductor, James Conlon, says in the liner notes, the jug represents
Eve’s virginity. One might think of Pope’s famous couplet:
“Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law, / Or some frail China
jar receive a flaw…” But the jug has far greater symbolic import,
too: Eve’s mother points out that famous figures from Dutch history were
depicted on the jug, and to Kleist the jug represents history itself, a tale
shattered by human vice. As Kafka says, the Last Judgment in a court in
The staging of the opera (directed by Darko Tresnjak, with sets by Ralph
Funicello) is good. The sky and the background windmills are colored like sin,
ranging from lurid red to livid blue; during the overture, in an especially
nice touch, dancers in silhouette, framed by a huge jug-arch, pantomime the
events preliminary to the action. It is as if the drama were itself taking
place on a great delft vase. The singing and the acting are enjoyably
competent, but not more.
Ullmann’s opera is not one of his better works. In places there is
rhythmic pungency, sometimes in a finely Prokofiev-like manner, but much of the
music is generally peppy or generally mock-serious—there is none of
blackness found in his other operas, Der Sturz des Antichrist and
Der Kaiser von Atlantis. It would have better if the music had cut
deeper, as Kleist’s play does, despite its cheerfulness. On the other
hand, Kleist once wrote that we need to eat the apple of the Tree of Knowledge
of Good and Evil a second time, to recover our lost innocence, to become pure,
as a puppet or a god is pure; and maybe Ullmann has tried to restore something
of the innocence that was lost in the fall of man.
Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg is on an altogether
different plane of achievement. The plot, derived from an Oscar Wilde fairy
tale, is simple: on the Infantin’s eighteenth birthday her playmates
frolic about her, and she receives many gorgeous gifts; the chamberlain tells
us that the most beautiful of all is also the most abominable, a dwarf whose
hideousness has been concealed from him all his life, for he has never been
allowed to see a mirror; for sport the Infantin pretends to fall in love with
him, but comes to think it would be still better sport to show him what he
looks like; he peers into a mirror, and shrieks; the Infantin tells him that
she never loved him—who could love a grotesque little
hunchback?—and he dies of a broken heart; the Infanta notes that a
favorite toy is broken, and returns to the land of tra-la-la.
The plot sounds like a version or perversion of the first scene of Das
Rheingold: here, when the ugly dwarf falls in love with the beautiful
maiden, we feel pity for the dwarf and contempt for the maiden. And there is
even a moment of musical resemblance, when the orchestra plays limping figures
as the chamberlain describes the dwarf, similar to those we hear in the earlier
opera at Alberich’s entrance. But what Zemlinsky’s music tells us
is that his opera is a version or perversion of the Olympia act in Les
contes d’Hoffmann, for the Infantin is like a mechanical doll, and
the dwarf is a poet who considers her a creature straight from a romantic
This performance (also designed by Tresnjak and Funicello) is somewhat
unsatisfactory. The set is handsome, with its black marble walls and golden
stairs. But this very dark, spare set isn’t right for an opera where,
especially at the beginning, all should be bejeweled, glittery, full of
sunlight. It would have been better to look to Vel·zquez for inspiration, not
Zurbar·n. Mary Dunleavy, the Infantin, has a potent voice, a little shrill at
times; she makes her character less a spoiled horror in a pretty dress than a
playfully self-indulgent girl, caught up in a game whose consequences she
doesn’t understand. I wouldn’t have guess that a production could
go a ways toward exculpating the Infantin, but I was intrigued by this idea.
What seemed wrong to me was Dunleavy’s naturalness, her smiling ease as
she played her game: she might have been Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier
talking demurely with Octavian.
I understand the Infantin (as I believe Wilde understood her) as pure
artifice—better to have her move jerkily like a robot than to make her a
character with an interesting personality. As the dwarf, Rodrick Dixon was
superb, a figure of energy and a sort of supple pathos, ready to accommodate
himself to the shifting viciousnesses around him.
But still, this is an opera that I find intensely moving. I have loved it
for many years, and my life would have been poorer without it.
image_description=Alexander Zemlinsky: Der Zwerg; Viktor Ullmann: Der zerbrochene Krug
product_title=Alexander Zemlinsky: Der Zwerg; Viktor Ullmann: Der zerbrochene Krug
product_by=DerZwerg — The Dwarf: Rodrick Dixon; Donna Clara: Mary Dunleavy; Ghita: Susan B. Anthony; Don Estoban: James Johnson; First Maid: Melody Moore; Second Maid: Lauren McNeese; Third Maid: Elizabeth Bishop; First Playmate: Karen Vuong; Second Playmate: Rena Harms.
Der zerbrochene Krug — Adam: James Johnson; Licht: Bonaventura Bottone; Walter: Steven Humes; Frau Marthe Rull: Elizabeth Bishop; Eve: Melody Moore; Veit T¸mpel: Jason Stearns; Ruprecht: Richard Cox; Frau Brigitte: Natasha Flores; First Maid: Rena Harms; Second Maid: Lauren McNeese; A Servant: Ryan McKinny.
Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus. James Conlon, conductor. Darko Tresnjak, stage director. Ralph Funicello, set designer. Linda Cho, costume designer. David Weiner, lighting designer. Peggy Hickey, choreographer. Recorded live at the Los Angeles Opera, 2008.
product_id=ArtHaus Musik 101528 [Blu-Ray]