Auber’s Bronze Horse Fails to Justify Wagner’s Esteem

GermanyGermany  Auber, Le Cheval de bronze: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin, Maurizio Barbacini (conductor). Komische Oper, Berlin, 7.4.2012 (MB)

(sung in German, as Das bronzene Pferd)

Prince Yang: Sung-Keun Park
Princess Stella: Julia Giebel
Tsing-Sing: Tom Erik Lie
Tschin-Kao: Juri Batukov
Yan-Ko: Joska Lehtinen
Pe-Ki: Annelie Sophie Müller
Tao-Jin: Erika Roos
Lo-Mangli: Violetta Madjarowa

Frank Hilbrich (director)
Volker Thiele (set designs)
Gabriele Rupprecht (costumes)
Werner Hintze (dramaturgy)
Franck Evin (lighting)

Chorus of the Komische Oper, Berlin (chorus master: André Kellinghaus)
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Maurizio Barbacini (conductor)

Daniel-François-Esprit Auber stands as one of the composers chosen by the Paris Opéra to garner the façade of the Palais Garnier. Yet, if not quite forgotten, he remains for the most part a composer to be found in the history books rather than upon the stage. We read of La Muette de Portici both as the first grand opéra and as the work associated with the Belgian Revolution of 1830, though rarely if ever we do hear it. Nevertheless, we hear a reference – conscious or otherwise, and I tend to think that it must have been the former – in one of the most celebrated and widely-esteemed of all nineteenth-century operas, about which more below. Likewise, we read of Gustave III, if only because its ball scene had about three hundred people on stage, a hundred or so of them participating in the ‘Galop’. Occasionally we hear the odd overture or aria, but it is a rare thing, for which gratitude must certainly be accorded the Komische Oper, to hear one of Auber’s stage works in full and to see it staged. Were the composer’s contemporary detractors right? They are certainly an impressive bunch, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, and the greatest French composer of the century, Berlioz.

Yet, throughout his life, Wagner esteemed Auber highly; indeed, Cosima records in her diary, the following comment, quite a compliment when one considers what the Master would say about most of his contemporaries: ‘A heartless fellow, Auber, but a genius.’ In Mein Leben, he recalls assuring ‘M. Auber, whom I used to meet regularly at the Café Tortoni in Paris to eat ice-cream, that, under my baton, the chorus of the mutinous soldiers hatching their conspiracy in his Lestocq had been sung by a full military company, for which he thanked me in astonished delight.’ Moreover, turn to that opera I mentioned earlier, Götterdämmerung, specifically to the theme with which Gutrune rejoins Siegfried in the second act; it is identical to a theme accompanying the bridal procession in La Muette de Portici, generally considered the first grand opera. Gutrune is, in Wagner’s characterisation from Opera and Drama, the personification of French opera, ‘a coquette’; when she sings ‘May Freia greet you [Siegfried] in honour of all women,’ the equivalent line in Auber’s chorus is: ‘Deign to hear our prayer and bless, bless, this happy couple.’ As I said, the reminiscence is at the very least akin to conscious quotation.

How, then, did Le Cheval de bronze, here performed in German as Das bronzene Pferd, stand up? Not very well, I am afraid. So far as I am aware, it was not one of the Auber operas Wagner conducted, and I wonder whether even he would have struggled to have discern something of interest. Plot and music are similarly slight, at best. The former is a matter of a Chinese mandarin marrying a farmer’s daughter, the farmer welcoming said match on account of the dowry, though the daughter wishes to marry a local farmhand instead. As you might expect, that eventually happens, but in between, various men mount a bronze horse and disappear to Venus, where they must resist women’s charms for a day, lest upon returning home they divulged their experiences and be turned into stone. We meet a meddling wife to the mandarin, a beautiful Mogul Princess Stella (on Venus), and Pe-Ki, the bride who loves another, dresses up as a man in order to resist the charms of Venus and return home. I make it sound more surreal and more diverting than it is; it is difficult to imagine that anyone could respond either to the plot or to the characters. Eugène Scribe’s libretto probably sounds better when in French, but even so…

Save for one relatively attractive number (perhaps more ‘French’-sounding than the rest) in the third act – perhaps, by then, I really was clutching at straws – I found Auber’s music inoffensive but quite without character. Coloratura writing at least offers something for admirers of such things; I should be tempted to describe it as dramatically unmotivated, but cannot imagine what ‘dramatically motivated’ would mean in such a context. Almost every other number – I exaggerate only slightly – sounds like an act finale, though of course it is not (more is the pity).

The musical performance seemed pretty good on the whole. It was striking how resolutely un-Germanic the Orchestra of the Komische Oper sounded under the baton of Maurizio Barbacini: at times, one might have been listening to second-rank Rossini (in compositional terms, that is). The female cast members shone more brightly than their male counterparts, though Sung-Keun Park was suffering from a cold. Perhaps most impressive was Erika Roos’s Tao-Jin (the meddlesome fourth wife). Vocally secure throughout, she injected as much drama into her performance as could reasonably be expected. Annelie Sophie Müller, a member of the house’s Opera Studio, showed great promise in the role of Pe-Ki. Julia Giebel as Stella and Violetta Madjarowa as her lady-in-waiting, Lo-Mangli, both made good impressions in the third act. Choral singing impressed throughout.

Frank Hilbrich, who admits in the programme that he did not know the opera before being approached by the Komische Oper to direct it, presents a staging rather in the house style. There is quite a bit of ‘German humour’, involving throwing bananas, strange ‘nude’ costumes, a host of gorillas and a couple of pandas. Costumes are a mix of ‘Chinese’ and ‘modern’, likewise the sets. As if to make up for lost time, the final minute of the production allows a good number of people to shed some of their clothes and briefly, briskly to copulate. But the reader should neither salivate nor frown, for this is not Calixto Bieito; it is arguably a little more entertaining than the opera itself.

Mark Berry