Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Money Sings

Sam Shirakawa visited Bonn several days ago and has filed a report on a rare revival he attended of Lortzing's Der Wildschütz:

Lortzing: Der Wildschütz 
(The Poacher Or: An Indecent Proposal) [New Production]
1 June 2001

Is there any reason why Albert Lortzing’s seldom heard stage work Der Wildschütz oder: Ein unmoralisches Angebot (The Poacher Or: An Indecent Proposal) should be revived? The program notes to Oper Bonn’s handsome new production list about 25 reasons -- all reasonable, some fanciful, others even compelling. But the main reason is not given.

Oper Bonn is mounting Wildschütz (1842) because it can, thanks to a well-drilled cast and to a co-production deal with Theater Chemnitz and the Vienna Volksoper that helps defray costs.

Those, like me, who have never seen it before are lucky in having Dietrich W. Hilsdorf’s gimmick-free production set before us, because the story is complicated enough without imposing a “concept” on it: a German village schoolmaster loses his job and jeopardizes his marriage after he is accused of shooting a deer while trespassing on a local count’s property. To clear himself and settle his debts, he may have to sell his wife to the nobleman. Ergo the subtitle: An Indecent Proposal. Before everything is straightened out, a lengthy series of identity switches, disguises and subterfuge must be played out.

Hilsdorf‘s staging is pleasantly direct and fluently blocked with charming period sets by Dieter Richter that glide on and off aboard a revolving platform. Renate Schmitzer’s costumes are satisfyingly ooh-ahh, especially for the noblewomen.

The production is also strongly cast and well-paced under the musical guidance of Ulrich Zippelius. Philipp Meierhöfer fuses resolve with desperation as the schoolmaster Baculus, determined to win back his job even if he has to sell his soul, um, I mean, his wife. Kathrin Leidig’s pleasant lyric soprano and graceful stage presence endows credibility on her portrayal of Baculus’ young spouse Gretchen. She is elegantly counter-balanced by Julia Kamenik as the recently widowed Baroness Freimann, who offers to help Baculus out of his dilemma. Giorgos Kanaris as the libidinous Count von Eberbach elicits sympathy through his way with the most tuneful arias of the opera. André Riemer as the Count’s brother-in-law Baron Kronthal makes a vocally impressive attempt at captivating Gretchen for himself. Anjara I. Bartz, Charlotte Quadt and Carlos Krause ably round out the principals.

Coming back to the question why Der Wildschütz should be revived, maybe the key question is why it is performed so rarely these days? In my view, a significant part of its current popularity problem lies in its mechanics. For starters, it takes a full act -- or about an hour, followed by an intermission -- before the memorable tunes, arias and ensembles start tumbling out, one after another. Worse, most of the exciting music -- and there's lots of it -- is awarded to the Count, the Baron, and the widowed Baroness, little of it to Baculus and Gretchen. The work is also too long, and the convolutions of the plot become ha-ha interruptus. Lortzing was a versatile Man of the Theater who wrote his own libretti, so it's hard to figure out why his plot labors for levity. That said, composer and conductor Hans Pfitzner proclaimed the schoolmaster Baculus as "The finest comic figure of German opera." Go figure.

The other problem that burdens the story is thematic. Baculus is apparently marrying a much younger woman. Age difference may not necessarily wither matrimony in life, but it is A-material for cuckold comedies and tragedies. Witness The Barber of Seville or Pagliacci. In Wildschütz, though, its semi-incestuous implications are, oddly, not an issue. Ultimately, it is a comedy of muneration not manners. While Baculus is certainly not the first husband who‘s thought seriously about putting his wife on sale, Lortzing falls short of making the subject a laughing matter.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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