Alexander Zemlinsky was Schoenberg's teacher, friend and brother-in-law, but musically he was closer to Mahler and Richard Strauss. Yet he was no mere late-romantic imitator. He found his own voice, and nowhere with more clarity and assurance than in his opera The Dwarf, with which Opera North kicks off its innovative season of eight short operas.
The Dwarf is based on the Oscar Wilde story The Birthday of the Infanta. For her 18th birthday, the Infanta is presented with a dwarf by the Sultan of Turkey. She and her heartless companions regard him as a mere toy, but he knows nothing of his ugliness, and falls in love with the princess. When he finally uncovers the truth about himself, he dies of a broken heart. The Infanta is unmoved.
Out of this disturbing story of cruelty and innocence, Zemlinsky fashioned a moving masterpiece, with a particularly rewarding central role. But how is the opera to be staged? The sight of the privileged mocking physical deformity would be hard to take, however true to history it might be. The director David Pountney makes no attempt to recreate that spectacle. Paul Nilon comes on in white tie and tails. He might be a waiter, or a singer. The key is that he has forgotten, or never known, how insignificant he is in relation to a princess. The discovery of this destroys him. Nilon gets well inside the part, and sings it with conviction, even if his acting is sometimes clumsy. Graeme Broadbent is a suitably camp court chamberlain, and Majella Cullagh brings warmth to Ghita, the one sympathetic figure in the royal entourage. Stefanie Krahnenfeld well conveys the Infanta's petulance and frivolity, but Pountney's staging shows a rather uncertain touch, the exaggerations of the court and its costumes taking too much attention away from the tragedy being acted out at its core.
The Spanish theme was sustained with Manuel de Falla's La Vida Breve, given an intensely powerful and brilliantly detailed production by Christopher Alden. Its story is simple enough, and not so far from that of The Dwarf. Salud lives through her love of Paco, but he is two-timing her, and is about to marry the rich girl, Carmela. Salud confronts them at their wedding and falls dead before them. Like the Dwarf's, her death seems to have no physical cause. Alden solves this by having her mutilate herself before committing suicide. The whole opera is here set in a shabby dressmaking workshop where Salud (Mary Plazas) and her grandmother (Susan Gorton) both work. This gives the opening and choral laments about their life of endless toil real substance. But Carmela's wealth is not stressed so much as her sexual availability. Salud comes to realise just how cynical and selfish her lover is. From happiness she moves to despair. Mary Plazas gives a wonderful performance of this evolution. Alden's focus on the tragedy and its sordid reality is unrelenting. The two dances are not danced. The wedding celebrations are offstage. But it works.
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