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Performed by the Washington Opera At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
One of the more eye-opening results of the recent Holocaust commemorations has been the resurrection of a nearly lost world of mid-20th-century opera. Works banned by the Nazis and not seen in 60 years have found new life on London Records’ “Entartete Musik” (“Degenerate Music”) series, and more significantly, on the world’s opera stagesGoldschmidt’s Beatrice Cenci in London and Der Gewaltige Hahnrei in Berlin, Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis in D.C. and Philadelphia, and Krása’s Verlobung im Traum in Mannheim and Prague, to name a just a few.
By importing the production of Verlobung im Traum (Betrothal in a Dream) from Europe and staging Krása’s short opera Brundibar for young audiences, the Washington Opera has not just chosen a convenient pair of PC projects from the catalog of forbidden works: It has afforded Washington audiences the chance to see the entire operatic output of Krása’s tragically short life. Unlike that of the more happily fated Korngold, Weill, Hindemith, Goldschmidt, and Krenek, Krása’s promise was snuffed out in midcareer in the Auschwitz gas chamber. An intellectual and cosmopolitan artist, Krása synthesized the international influences weaving through Prague in the ’20s and ’30s, continuing the great Czech operatic tradition of Dvoÿrák, Smetana, and Janacek. There’s no telling what might have developed had he lived into our own era, but as Betrothal testifies, his was a musical personality quite unlike any other.
What a strange and elusive piece Betrothal is! Krása’s catholic tastes in music are well-documented, but the stylistic quotes seem to shift with every phrase. Its sound-world lies somewhere between Arabella and Mahagonny, with a fair dose of Lulu thrown into the mix. Krása keeps flirting with atonality but rarely takes us there and, some lush moments aside, he tends to favor a pared-down orchestral palette. In a manner reminiscent of Webern, he’ll often reduce instrumentation to the barest handful of colors necessary to illuminate a line of text.
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The plot is full of boilerplate romantic-comedy conventions. Marya Aleksandrovna labors mightily to marry off her daughter Zina to a rich but elderly Prince. The Prince’s nephew Paul, meanwhile, connives to get Zina for himself. Zina wants neither and pines for her perilously ill lover, Fedya. The what-you-see-is-what-you-get title refers to the Prince’s drunken marriage proposal, which Zina accepts to gain the finances Fedya needs to get well, and which Paul convinces the Prince (and assembled villagers) was a proposal he only dreamed of making. The story gains distinction thanks largely to Dostoyevsky, whose short story Uncle’s Dream formed the basis for the German-language libretto. He gives everyone an ethical dilemma. Do I marry the Prince in order to benefit my lover? Should I force my affections on a woman who could be my granddaughter? Even a bounder like Paul debates with himself whether to risk losing Zina by telling her Fedya might be dying. Krása keeps step with everyone’s conflicts in his quicksilver changes of tone, occasionally generating magic, as when a character’s aroused passions prompt a gray vocal line to flower into Viennese opulence.
The score is a delicately woven carpet, but Krása dazzles most when he pulls that carpet out from under us. Zina is freed of Paul and the Prince and ecstatically prepares to meet Fedya when the news comes he’s died. It’s a shocking moment, and Krása achieves it with the utmost simplicity, letting all richness drain from the music, and turning Zina’s near-dancelike joy to a steady, listless tread. The Archivist, who had delivered a pre-curtain introduction to the story, returns with a brief epilogue to let us know that Zina will later marry an old governor and live wealthily and lovelessly for many years. With lines too heartbreaking to sing out fully, Krása has the Archivist drone them in the barely musicalized speech of Schönbergian sprechstimme, and the effect is chilling.
Its denouement excepted, however, Betrothal is a tough piece to get caught up in. The Washington Opera’s press materials quote composer Viktor Ullmann’s description of the work as having “a somnambulistic assurance,” and that pretty much nails it. As much as moments in the score tantalize and invite repeated listening, there are stretches that could tempt the heartiest listeners into their own dream worlds. That’s due in part, no doubt, to a musical and emotional landscape that doesn’t keep still long enough for the listener to gain a firm footholda liability only in a work of such pervasive reticence. The sheer interiority of it all is a challenge, dramatic action more often than not traded for states of mind. Equivocating monologues give way to prosaic snatches of conversation and drunken reveries spun out with sleepy deliberation. Granted, Krása is attempting to blur the line between dream and reality, but he winds up with an atmosphere piece where not a helluva lot happens onstage. (The same charge could be leveled against Tristan, Pelleas, or Capriccio, but they so exhaustively probe their characters’ psychesand they’re so drop-dead gorgeoustheir stasis becomes hypnotically compelling.)
Fingers could be pointed at the current production to explain Betrothal’s inertness, but director Karel Drgáÿc seems to be taking his cues straight from Krása. This is a romantic comedy that moves at half-speed, speaks in half-tones, and springs its surprises in half-revelationsand that’s exactly what winds up onstage. If anything, Drgáÿc and designer Rainer Sinell make a stab at creating life beyond the libretto.
A skeletal house, composed of strongly geometric lines, revolves during orchestral interludes to reveal the comings and goings of gossiping servants and frolicking houseguests. Even Fedya, lying on his deathbed miles away, occasionally floats though the scene. Each room is saturated in a single, iconographic coloricy blue for Zina’s loveless bedroom, green dominating the parlor where her mother’s money-hungry schemes are played out, etc.a bit heavy-handed, perhaps, but arresting even when the drama meanders. Scenes are directed in the sort of nuts-and-bolts manner that may offer few epiphanies, but never overfreights the sparer lines of score or text.
By the Washington Opera’s consistently high vocal standards, the Betrothal cast comes off solid rather than memorable, though two singers stand out. Brigitte Hahn’s Zina is generously vocalized, with silvery high notes and a fine sense of lived-in melancholy. A baritone with both richness and a wry smile in his voice, Peter Parsch finds a playful mix of Barons Ochs and Munchausen in the old Prince.
Betrothal may elude easy analysis or immediate affection, but the production is obviously a labor of love, not least by conductor Israel Yinon, who hunted down a score long assumed lost. His spiky, exploratory work in the pit is evidence of his advocacy, and the orchestra copes bravely with parts that play like thorny chamber music. The question could certainly be raised why Krása was singled out for such an American premiere over composers more seductive or trenchantly political. (Zina’s plight is allegedly that of The Artist Under the Thumb of a Repressive Regime writ small, but the production makes nothing of the allegory.) What matters is that a fine composer has at long last been given his due, and the army of brainless warhorses is kept temporarily at bay. If Betrothal’s beauties are of the somnambulant variety, it doesn’t make them less worthy.CP