On Friday at Jordan Hall Gil Rose and Odyssey Opera once again have put Boston opera lovers in their debt with a powerful concert performance of a work that few in the audience are every likely to be able to see onstage or even hear live again, Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (The Dwarf). Zemlinsky’s name is still known for the most part only to devotees of Viennese music in the first decades of the 20th century. Brahms, in his last years, spoke highly of the young composer (then in his early 20s) and recommended Zemlinsky to his publisher. He became closely involved with Schoenberg as friend, sometime teacher, and later brother-in-law (Schoenberg married his sister). He taught orchestration to Berg and Webern, and later, privately, to Korngold.
His work was very favorably received at first, though after about 1910, he had to struggle for recognition, even as he was composing some of his most important compositions. During that time he was principal opera conductor at the New German Theater in Prague, where his assistants were to become a starry list themselves: Erich Kleiber, Anton Webern, and George Szell. Among the works he managed to compose during the busy Prague years were the Second String Quartet, the Lyric Symphony (his best-known orchestral work), and two operas based on stories by Oscar Wilde: A Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf, two intense works cast in one act. (Both are psychologically intense, in addition to being compact. They were almost certainly influenced by Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, two of the most advanced operas of the decade.)
The Dwarf is based somewhat freely on Wilde’s short story “The Birthday of the Infanta.” Zemlinsky chose the subject in part because of his obsession with the theme of ugliness, a subject he seemed unable to avoid on account of his own small stature and irregular features. He had been paying court to his composition student, the beautiful Alma Schindler, when she dumped him for Mahler. Later on she made rude comments about his physical appearance, comments that reached his ears. Years later, in her memoirs, published after Zemlinsky’s death, she called him a “hideous gnome.”
Wilde’s story was adapted into a libretto by Georg Karlen, who simplified the original and made a significant change in the character of the Spanish Infanta. In Wilde, she had been celebrating her twelfth birthday. In the opera, the details are simplified for the purpose of fitting the story into a single act. Crucially, the Infanta is turned into a beautiful princess just turning eighteen, entirely self-satisfied, one for whom any man might feel romantic urges.
The climax of both stories is the moment when the dwarf catches sight of himself for the first time in mirror. At first he thinks he sees a monster there, but he is unable to reach it, because something cold and transparent separates them. Gradually he realizes that everything in the room has been visually echoed in the mirror, bringing him to the devastating conclusion that he is the ugly creature in the mirror. He tries to get a kiss from the Infanta, but she humiliates him, declaring him to be a monster. His lovelorn condition brings on a powerful emotional breakdown, and he dies, still clutching the white rose she gave him, while the Infanta’s birthday party continues offstage; the orchestra closes the opera with a bitter harmonic wrench.
The cast of Der Zwerg is a small one, consisting of the Infanta herself (sung by Kirsten Chambers) and her favorite chambermaid Ghita (sung by Michelle Trainor). There are also three other maids (Erica Petrocelli, Dana Varga, and Vera Savage), who serve as interlocutors with Ghita and Don Estoban (James Johnson), the chamberlain at the court, who has arranged to bring the dwarf for the Infanta’s amusement. Mr Johnson gave an excellent appropriately haughty performance as an important figure at court, arranging all the details. Finally, there is the Dwarf (Aleš Briscein), the last to arrive, though he dominates the action thereafter.
Ms Chambers appears during the first part of the opera as the impatient and imperious young princess who is entirely full of herself. She demands to see her birthday presents, but Don Escobar insists that it is not yet time. After she leaves, he reveals the unique gift, the Dwarf sent by the Sultan. From this point on, the opera focuses largely on the two principals, the returning Infanta and her unusual gift. The Dwarf believes he is a nobleman, but the orchestral music that accompanies his movements and singing give the lie to that belief. (A reference to the “Tarnhelm” chords from Wagner’s Ring suggests the delusion—only here it is the Dwarf himself who is deluded.) When Ghita returns, the Infanta explains to her that her Dwarf is ignorant of his ugliness and orders her to show him a mirror. After she leaves, Ghita feels a growing empathy for him. She tries to explain what a mirror is, without much success. She leaves, first warning him to beware of the Infanta’s throne.
Left alone, the Dwarf has the most psychologically intense and vocally challenging passage in the opera. First recalling the Infanta, he kisses the cushion of her throne, but, in so doing, accidentally pulls a drape off of a large mirror, revealing him to himself. He screams and tries to come to grips with what he has seen. When the Infanta returns, he tells her simply, “I am a dwarf and I love you.” She cruelly replies that he is just an animal. Ghita returns as the Dwarf collapses to the ground, kisses the white rose, and dies. The sounds of the ongoing party can be heard from the other room.
The dramatic intensity of Der Zwerg was maintained from beginning to end by all of the excellent cast of singers and equally by the large orchestra, which Zemlinsky scores in a spectacular variety of large groupings and special colorations of an almost chamber character from beginning to end of the 90-minute work. The lush and varied sonorities evoke the emotional states of the characters with an effective network of leitmotivs and the evocation of the ongoing festivities in the background behind the personal tragedy in the title character. The orchestra and conductor Gil Rose kept the gripping tale moving from beginning to end. A fine chorus of women’s voices, trained by William Cutter, played its part in the lighter tones of the opening scene. The program booklet was very helpful in guiding the audience into this very unfamiliar opera. Laura Stanfield Prichard’s notes included a summary of Wilde’s original story, comparing it with the adjustments for the libretto, as well as an explanation of some of the complicated relationships between the various composers whose lives and works intertwined in early 20th-century Vienna.
Michelle Trainor was a warmly empathetic Ghita in contrast to the ice princess of Kirsten Chambers, who maintained her chilly demeanor, softened slightly with her vocal presentation as a young and foolish girl, quite without thought for others. Finally it would be hard to imagine that the vocally and dramatically demanding role of the Dwarf could be better sung and acted than by Aleš Briscein, who justifiably received an immediate and enthusiastic standing ovation at his arrival onstage for the curtain call. Though the opera was presented in concert form, and through Briscein was in formal dress, with only a white rose in his hand as a prop, the gripping details of his emotions—even if only suggested and not fully acted out gesturally—plus his resonant and varied vocal colors (especially as he realized the truth about himself and yet pleaded to be accepted) was one of the most memorable performances I have seen or heard in this entire season. He already performed superbly in Odyssey Opera’s Dimitri last September. I hope he will be heard in Boston again soon.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.