Day 19 of the George Enescu Festival: Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg

RomaniaRomania George Enescu Festival 2021 [3] – Zemlinsky, Der Zwerg: Soloists, Romanian Radio Academic Choir, Romanian Radio National Orchestra / Oleg Caetani (conductor). Sala Palatului, Bucharest, 15.9.2021. (SS)

(l-r) Oleg Caetani, Rodrick Dixon & Lucia Cesaroni in Der Zwerg (c) Andrei Gîndac

Multimedia director – Carmen Lidia Vidu
Choir master – Ciprian Țuțu

Donna Clara, the Infanta – Lucia Cesaroni
The Dwarf – Rodrick Dixon
Ghita – Emily Magee
Don Esteban, chamberlain – Kristinn Sigmundsson
First Maid – Alisa Jordheim
Second Maid – Hagar Sharvit
Third Maid – Margaret Plummer

It is coming up to the centenary of Der Zwerg, Alexander Zemlinsky’s one-acter about an obnoxious Infanta who spends her birthday toying with the affections (and ultimately the life) of an unlovely dwarf, and it was scheduled to have at least three outings across the world this year alone: a production in San Francisco that fell to COVID, a further production that’s currently playing in Amsterdam, and this semi-staged concert performance at the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest. The fallacy of the ‘autonomous’ musical work notwithstanding, one advantage of doing this opera in concert was a de-emphasizing of its semi-biographical aspects, which directors of recent productions have been inescapably drawn to. As thought-provoking as it may be for a director like Tobias Kratzer to dig deep into the Zemlinsky/Dwarf and Alma Schindler/Infanta parallels (as he did two years ago in Berlin), they needn’t necessarily be present and Carmen Lidia Vidu’s whimsical video projections quite consciously avoided them. Her flood of relentlessly ‘cute’ images – nearly all in lollipop pink and showing things like the infanta from Velázquez’s Las Meninas at a pool party – was knocking on the door of Japanese kawaii culture, which may sound at odds with the dramatic content and music of Der Zwerg but turned out a perverse stroke of genius. The more the wacky bubblegum visuals insisted that this was just another regular fairytale, the more the mind revolted in the face of the story’s astonishing cruelty.

At times it was almost too much. This was also a Zwerg in which the titular dwarf was sung by a singer of color (the rest of the cast was white), and hearing the Infanta’s retinue sing ‘monster!’ and ‘how grim’ as a black man first entered the stage was impossible to watch without thinking of last year’s Central Park bird-watching incident. At the same time, tenor Rodrick Dixon is no stranger to the opera (his performance in the LA Opera’s production is available on DVD) and he clearly loves to inhabit the vocally demanding role of the Dwarf, which he performs to mesmerizing effect. His ‘song of the blood orange’ was sung with heartfelt sincerity and his declaration of love for the Infanta with intense infatuation, while the way he formed a mirror with his hand and recoiled in horror at his dwarfish appearance was as agonized as the scream and anguished monologue that followed. What’s more, his brightly lyrical voice didn’t come under strain even as the tessitura crept ever higher. The rest of the cast made worthy efforts to act out their roles, but Dixon’s performance was the most in character, and the best sung.

The libretto asks for near-constant scornful laughter from Donna Clara (the Infanta), which Lucia Cesaroni credibly provided while mercifully stopping short of outright sadism. Her big aria in which she leads on the Dwarf was excellent, sung with an unexpectedly open and ringing voice for a soprano with relatively tight vibrato. Emily Magee gave a richly compassionate performance as Ghita, the Infanta’s lady-in-waiting, although her singing didn’t project nearly as well as the two leads. It was hard to believe that she has Strauss’s Ariadne in her repertoire, but a concert performance in a 4000-seat hall was bound to run into this problem. The Chamberlain has some of the best lines in the libretto and Kristinn Sigmundsson squandered none of them – his ‘das Schönste ist scheusslich!’ (‘the most wonderful gift is repulsive’) was gruffly hammed up to just the right degree. Alisa Jordheim, Hagar Sharvit and Margaret Plummer were memorably cliquey as the Infanta’s obsequious maids.

James Conlon, a great champion of Der Zwerg, was originally announced as the conductor, but his replacement, Oleg Caetani, seemed equally enamoured with the score. Its manifold colors were always vivid without ever appearing lurid, and well-paced tempi gave the music a wonderful flow and the singers plenty of space for phrasing. It was a little on the loud side: Emily Magee was not the only singer who struggled to be heard, and most of the text was sadly a wash. But the Romanian Radio National Orchestra sounded glorious and Zemlinsky’s wealth of instrumental details never failed to gleam and beguile.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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