OPERA / Renaissance man: Della Couling on a pair of Goldschmidt premieres

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
At 91, Berthold Goldschmidt's career seems to have gone into fast forward, with recordings, live performances and now, within days of one another, a splendid new production in Berlin of his first opera, Der gewaltige Hahnrei (premiered in Mannheim in 1932), and the first ever staging of his second opera, Beatrice Cenci (composed in 1951), in Magdeburg.

Goldschmidt fled Nazi Germany for England in 1935 but, like many other creative refugees, never really fitted into the artistic network of his second home. And it was only in 1987, when Simon Rattle disinterred his 1936 Ciaconna Sinfonica for the Berlin Festival, that his belated rediscovery here began.

In Der gewaltige Hahnrei (The Magnificent Cuckold), written when Goldschmidt was only 26, we see what we have lost from a composer who, had he not been so brutally uprooted from the normal processes of artistic development, would surely have written more operas.

Based on Fernand Crommelynck's surreal comedy Le Cocu Magnifique, about a young husband so obsessively jealous he forces his wife into infidelity in order to prove his suspicions, Goldschmidt's opera bears an uncanny likeness, in its exuberant vitality and prodigal invention, to the young Shostakovich's The Nose (Leningrad, 1930). The undoubted similarities are, Goldschmidt insists, fortuitous: he didn't hear Shostakovich's music until much later. His own explanation is as succinct as it is, in retrospect, tragic: 'We breathed the same musical Zeitgeist.'

At the Komische Oper, the director Harry Kupfer brings out both the wild comedy and the disturbing ambiguity - so typical of the age in which it was written - within this tale of manic obsession, manipulation and moral destruction. The stage is dominated by a huge, pink, wildly undulating path, on which the characters run, slide and teeter. Faces are white, clown- like, and there are clear references to silent film, Chaplin and a frenzied commedia dell' arte. The singers, as usual with Kupfer, respond magnificently to his demands: in particular, Gunter Neumann as the husband Bruno, and Yvonne Wiedstruck as Stella, his wife. Conducting, Yakov Kreizberg gave an acute and responsive reading of a remarkably versatile score that will surely now enter the repertoire. Kupfer's staging is not only the perfect showcase, but fresh proof that the Komische Oper is still the most exciting opera house in Europe.

Beatrice Cenci, composed in 1951 to a libretto (after Shelley) by Martin Esslin, finally made it to the stage, in Magdeburg, in a production timed (in accordance with the composer's wishes) to coincide with the Berlin Hahnrei. But here we are in a totally different country. Shelley's turgid verse-drama may have been ruthlessly pruned, but as theatre it remains a bit of a no- no, with little action to be teased out of its historical tale of incest, murder and execution. The orchestra gets the best parts, with lush string tutti and some wonderful writing for percussion.

Kupfer is an impossible act to follow, and Max Hoffmann, who directed Beatrice Cenci, limped so far behind he was out of sight. Five of the six main parts were sung by North American singers, perhaps because of Goldschmidt's insistence on having the work sung in English. Vocally they coped well, but dramatically they failed to come alive; modern dress didn't help. By contrast with Hahnrei, Goldschmidt seems here to drift rudderless, at times approaching some late 19th-century land, at others almost washing up on the shores of Britten. Hitler has a lot to answer for.

'Hahnrei': 7, 14 Oct, 13 Nov (booking 010 4930 220 2761)