A Well-Conducted Performance of a Rarely Seen Zemlinsky Opera

SpainSpain Zemlinsky, Der König Kandaules: Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla, Pedro Halffter (conductor), Teatro de la Maestranza, Seville, 22.6.2016. (JMI)

Der König Kandaules (c) Teatro de la Maestranza

Production: Teatro Massimo de Palermo

Direction: Manfred Schweigkofler
Sets: Manfred Schweigkofler and Angelo Canu
Costumes: Mateja Benedetti
Lighting: Claudio Schmid (original); José Manuel Guerra (revival)


King Kandaules: Peter Svensson
Queen Nyssia: Nicola Beller Carbone
Gyges: Martin Gantner
Phedros: Christopher Robertson
Syphax: José Manuel Montero
Nicomedes: Damián del Castillo
Pharnaces: David Sánchez
Philebos: Matias Tosi
Simias: Vicente Ombuena
Sebas: Mikeldi Atxalandabaso
Archelaos: Italo Proferisce
Cook: Ievgen Orlov

The Seville opera season has closed with a contemporary work, one of several offered since Pedro Halffter took over as Artistic Director of the Maestranza. Opera lovers generally appreciate having the opportunity to see unknown works, but it would seem that some do not, given the many empty seats in the house.

Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) is mostly known for his operas A Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf, which are more and more often included in the programs of major opera houses. King Kandaules does not enjoy the same popularity, but it does get performed on some occasions, most recently in Antwerp and Ghent this past season. The rest of his operas are less known, and there is seldom a chance to see stagings of Der Kreidekreis or Der Traumgörge.

This opera is based on the Greek legend of Kandaules, the King of Lydia, who wanted the fisherman Gyges to see Nyssia, the former’s beautiful wife, naked. Afterwards, Nyssia made Gyges choose whether to kill her husband or kill himself. Gyges took the first option and succeeded to the throne.

The work was composed between 1935 and 1938, but the author hadn’t finished it when he went into exile in the United States following the Nazis’ annexation of Austria. Due to its erotic content, there was little interest in the opera in America, and Zemlinsky died just as he started its orchestration, which was completed by Antony Beaumont. The opera finally had its world premiere in Hamburg in 1996 under Gerd Albrecht. Its Spanish premiere was in 2005 in a concert version at the Festival of the Canary Islands, conducted by Mr. Beaumont, but this is the first staged version in Spain.

The production by Manfred Schweigkofler was first done in Palermo in May 2012. There is only one stage with two levels for the entire opera: the lower level consists of a space between pillars, while most of the action takes place on the upper level. The costumes are appropriate for the protagonists: bright in the case of Queen Nyssia, and unattractive for the secondary characters. The plot is well narrated, and uses simple elements to make the main characters visible or invisible. The best part of the production comes in Act II where the erotic content is served up without reservation by the female protagonist.

Pedro Halffter has always had a special affinity for twentieth-century operas, and always does his best conducting in this area. That was the case here: he demonstrated an excellent knowledge of the score and drew an impressive performance from the orchestra.

Austrian tenor Peter Svensson in the role of King Kandaules offered an intense interpretation on stage, but his voice sounded forced and tired. This character demands a dramatic tenor, and perhaps the role has come to him too late in his career.

German baritone Martin Gantner as Gyges was the best in the cast, singing, reciting and acting with intensity. Nicola Beller Carbone was a good interpreter of Queen Nyssia, though her voice did not seem strong enough for the character. A few years ago when this opera was done at the Salzburg Festival, Queen Nyssia was sung by Nina Stemme.

The other characters are less important and they weren’t remarkable, with the exception of Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (Sebas) and Ievgen Orlov (Cook). Bass Matias Tosi (Philebos) was serviceable in the part.

The theatre was at about 60% of capacity, and there were desertions at the intermission. The biggest applause was for Pedro Halffter.

José M. Irurzun


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