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Opera Review (LA): The Broken Jug by Ullmann and The Dwarf by Zemlinsky at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

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James Conlon is a man of many passions: The Ring, lush romantic music, Mozart, and forgotten operas suppressed by the Nazis. This year’s additions to his series of forgotten masterworks are The Broken Jug by Viktor Ullmann and The Dwarf by Alexander Zemlinsky.

The Broken Jug, only 30 minutes long, tells the story of a certain Judge Adam who pursues a young, beauteous Eve, breaking a precious jug belonging to her mother in the course of chasing Eve around her quarters. He tries to blame it on her fiancé, and is willing to punish that man for his own crimes. Luckily the District Judge from Utrecht is in town, notices Judge Adam’s slovenly appearance and bruised head, and finds that Judge Adam has left his wig in Eve’s bedroom. The villagers get angry and the opera ends with everyone singing “None shall play the judge’s part if he is not pure of heart.”

The costumes and Dutch setting were beautifully rendered by Ralph Funicello. Although the whole show was a splash of color and comedy, it didn't hide Ullmann’s disdain for the German justice system. Apparently the authorities thought so too, for he was imprisoned at the Theresienstadt prison camp where, remarkably, he kept composing, completing an opera, a string quartet, a symphonic poem, and several song cycles. His music was rescued by the prison librarian, and surfaced in the ‘70s in England. Ullmann was eventually sent to Auschwitz, where he was killed on the day he arrived.

The new production, with its beautiful music, was well sung by the principals: James Johnson as Judge Adam, Melody Moore as Eve, Richard Cox as the hapless fiancé, and Elizabeth Bishop as the owner of the jug.

The Broken Jug served as a slight appetizer for the main course, the astonishingly beautiful The Dwarf by Zemlinsky. It is based on a short story by Oscar Wilde, whose inspiration was the famous Velazquez painting “Las Meninas.” This is not the Oscar Wilde of glittering comedy, but the Wilde of The Picture of Dorian Gray, who confronts the tyranny of beauty, the shallowness of society, and the evil whims of the aristocracy. These themes no doubt echoed Wilde's own feelings about his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and his subsequent betrayal and humiliation at Douglas's hands.

The opera itself deals with a vain and selfish Infanta who receives a singing dwarf on her birthday. The dwarf doesn’t know what he looks like, so the Infanta seduces him only to show him his image in a mirror, which kills him; she then dances, saying, “My little toy is broken.” Composer Zemlinsky was drawn to the story because of his own reputed ugliness and his rejection by a young woman he loved. Having escaped the Nazis after being harassed and pursued, he died a broken man in New York in 1942.

Luckily his glorious opera The Dwarf survives. This splendid production was its West Coast premiere. Again, the sets were by Ralph Funicello, who outdid himself with a palace drawing room complete with gold trim and mirrored doors. The radiant costumes by Linda Chou were very expensive-looking.

The singing, however, topped the setting and costumes. Mary Dunleavy's Infanta was exquisite. The maid Ghita, who sympathizes with the dwarf, was movingly portrayed by Susan B. Anthony. The dwarf himself was sung magnificently by tenor Roderick Dixon, who had to sing in his highest register and was fully successful.

Both operas were well directed by Darko Tresnjak, the newly appointed Co-Artistic Director of The Old Globe in San Diego. The audience gave the production a rousing standing ovation that must have lasted ten minutes. James Conlon has given Los Angeles a gift. The production received only four performances, and has closed, but was recorded by the LA Opera for a DVD release.

About Robert Machray

  • Bob Morein

    I heard Mr. Conlon conducting one of these pieces (I think Ullmann) two years ago in L.A.

    What isn’t mentioned here is that the majority of these orchestral pieces are a fraud. In the case of the Ullmann performed by the LA Phil, it was discovered by the audience after the performance that in fact there was NO orchestration ever done by Ullmann for this piece! All that existed was either piano-only compositions, or at the most chamber music orchestration for this work. The rest was “invented” by Conlon, and then this fact was hidden from the audience!
    I would suspect that this is the case for most of these “Recovered Voices” pieces.

    This is in my view musical fraud of the highest order. Perhaps these composers were good, perhaps not. How can the audience judge if someone else, 50+ years later, has taken the liberty of “finishing” or “expanding” these works?

    This is much worse than the performance of Mahler’s uncompleted Tenth Symphony. At least with the Mahler, the first movement was “completed” (although Mahler routinely made revisions after the first performance). The balance of the Tenth was sketched out, and the audience is always aware that this is an “interpretation”.

    In the case of Conlon however he’s attempting to build a career for himself built wholly on fraud.