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For German-Jewish composer Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-96), the biblical expression, "No prophet is honoured in his own land," is all too true. Born in Hamburg, Goldschmidt studied composition and conducting in Berlin, where his teachers included Franz Schreker, conductor of the premiere of Schonberg's Gurre-Ueder (1913). In 1932, Goldschmidt received early acclaim in Mannheim for his first opera, Der gewaltige Hahnrei.

But the rise of Nazism changed all that. With his work condemned as Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music), Goldschmidt emigrated to England in 1935, where he made a living taking conducting jobs and working at the BBC during WWII, all the while continuing to compose. His opera, Beatrice Cenci, "composed in exile," won first prize at 1951's Festival of Britain, but Covent Garden refused to stage it. In his adopted home of England, where he lived for 60 years, his work was ignored.

It wasn't until the 80s with the increased interest in composers banned by the Nazis that Beatrice Cenci received a belated premiere: a 1988 concert performance in London was finally followed by a staged performance in Magdeburg, Germany in 1994. This DVD comes from the 2018 Bregenz Festival, only the second production in the opera's history. Canadian Opera Company Music Director Johannes Debus leads the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in a riveting performance.

The English language libretto by Martin Esslin is based on The Cenci, a drama by the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley about the real-life Count Francesco Cenci. The Count, an abusive Renaissance nobleman, terrorized his family and raped his daughter Beatrice, who, together with her stepmother Lucrezia, poisoned him. But when their deed was discovered, they were charged with murder and sentenced to a public execution. To be sure, one of the most unrelentingly depressing opera plots ever.

Goldschmidt's musical idiom, while essentially tonal, is best described as harmonically edgy and Expressionistic. No, it's not easy music for those not used to such angularity and dissonance. In one of the latter scenes, when Cardinal Camillo is having his breakfast, there are strains in the orchestral opening from Act III of Tosca--what a striking contrast!

Sung in a German translation, the Bregenz cast is led by Israeli soprano Gal James as a dramatically vivid and vocally rich Beatrice. She has a huge amount to sing, and is nothing short of indefatigable, with plenty of power and reserve. One only wishes for more colours, and especially for greater warmth in her tone. Otherwise it's a fine achievement.

Equally excellent is German baritone Christoph Pohl, who offers sturdy tone and the requisite swagger--complete with an outrageous codpiece--for the devil-incarnate Count, surely one of the least sympathetic figures in all of opera with zero redeeming qualities. He also has a huge amount of music, and Pohl acquits himself beautifully. The supporting cast is fine, particularly the Lucrezia of Dshamilja Kaiser and the Orsino of Michael Lorenz.

Kudos to director Johannes Erath, set designer Katrin Connan, and costume designer Katharina Tasch for creating a psychologically intense and oppressive staging, with a strong undercurrent of the sinister and the macabre. It's not clear from the video if the performance took place on the Festival's large lakeside stage or inside the smaller indoor theatre. In any case, watching this opera is a rather unnerving experience, even on DVD in the comfort of one's living room!

There's something quite curious about the score. While it's edgy and intense, in the last 20 minutes of the opera, beginning with Beatrice's Act III aria, the music makes an abrupt change, as if someone flipped a light switch. One's ear is suddenly flooded with ingratiating musical lines that take on a previously absent melodic inspiration. This transition made clear to me what Goldschmidt meant when he called his work a "bel canto opera."

I wondered why Goldschmidt decided to change styles at this juncture, and posed that question to conductor Debus. His response? "One reason for this as well as for the almost 'transfigured', dolce, melodious tone, in particular at the end when Beatrice is singing her farewell to the world, is maybe Goldschmidt expressing his artistic credo: to search for beauty and harmony in a world where one is faced with utter cruelty, inhumanity, and barbarism ..."

Indeed, Debus leads the Vienna Symphony in a lyrical reading of the score for a performance that is, as much as possible, true to the composer's credo. A worthwhile piece to investigate for the adventurous opera lover.
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Author:So, Joseph
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Dec 22, 2019
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