Johannes Debus, cond; Christoph Pohl (Count Francesco Cenci); Dshamilja Kaiser (Lucrezia); Gal James (Beatrice); Christina Bock (Bernardo); Per Bach Nissen (Cardinal Camillo); Michael Laurenz (Orsino); Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger (Marzio); Sébastien Soulès (Olimpio); Peter Marsh (A Judge); Prague P Ch; Vienna SO
C MAJOR 751504 (Blu-ray: 107:00)
The Bregenz Festival has an impressive track record for reviving neglected operas. The festival has two stages, and most of the international attention focuses on the Spiel auf dem See, the floating stage on Lake Constance. That one tends to show the more traditional repertoire, leaving their indoor venue, the Festspielhaus, free for more adventurous projects. In 2010, the Festival staged Weinberg’s The Passenger, kick starting a major revival of the composer’s work, culminating in centenary celebrations around the world in 2019. And since then, the programming has been just as adventurous, with commissions from Detlev Glanert and Judith Weir, as well as The Merchant of Venice by André Tchaikovsky, Amleto by Franco Faccio, Nero by Arrigo Boito, and this, Beatrice Cenci by Berthold Goldschmidt.
Goldschmidt and his powerful second opera have not suffered the complete neglect that befell many of those other names, but both have been sidelined and deserve greater attention. The composer was active in Weimar-era Germany, but was only in his early 30s when he was forced to flee the Nazis, moving to London, where he spent the rest of his life. His music received little attention in the UK, where he was more active as a conductor, notably giving the first performance of Deryck Cooke’s realization of Mahler’s 10th Symphony, at the Proms in 1964: Mahler was a key figure for Goldschmidt, that much is clear from the music of Beatrice Cenci. He lived into his 90s, long enough to see a small but significant revival of his music, headed in the early 1990s by Simon Rattle and the CBSO.
Beatrice Cenci was written in 1949, for a competition associated with the Festival of Britain, and although it won, the promised staging never materialized. But the score surfaced during the revival of Goldschmidt’s music, and was given a concert performance in London in 1988 and its first full staging at Magdeburg in 1994.
The libretto, by Martin Esslin, is based on a play, The Cenci, by Shelley. (The libretto was written in English, but the Bregenz production used a German translation by the composer himself.) The action takes place in Italy at the end of the 16th century. It’s a story of a disfunctional father-daughter relationship—common currency in opera, but this one even more perverse than anything you’ll find in Verdi. Beatrice (Gal James) is the daughter, and she, her brother Bernardo (a trouser role, Christina Bock), and stepmother Lucrezia (Dshamilja Kaiser) live under the oppressive tyranny of her father, Count Francesco Cenci (Christoph Pohl). Shelley’s five acts are whittled down to an efficient three. In the first act, a priestly contingent discuss the count and the many crimes in which he has been implicated. Beatrice appeals to Orsino (Michael Laurenz), who is about to take religious orders, for the Church to grant her permission to marry without her father’s consent, though a complex relationship between Beatrice and Orsino then ensues. The act concludes with a feast, at which the count’s tyranny is demonstrated when he drinks a toast to the death of two of his sons, murdered in Spain. In Shelley’s play, the scene concludes with the Count raping Beatrice, although Esslin’s libretto is mercifully coy on this point. By the second act, almost everybody in the story has a motive to murder the Count. That eventually happens, and Beatrice is implicated. The third act is a prison and trail scene of the Spanish Inquisition kind, leading ultimately to Beatrice’s execution.
Given the date and place of composition, the music is remarkably Romantic and remarkably Austro-German. Goldschmidt described the score as bel canto, and it is certainly voice-focused and lyrical, too lyrical perhaps for the subject matter. The influence of Mahler comes through in the playful mix of styles, eclectic though always coherent. The music also recalls the Expressionism of early Schoenberg, and the operas of Schreker and perhaps Strauss, although the tonal style is more consonant, leaning more towards Zemlinsky or Pfitzner. Goldschmidt’s orchestration is particularly attractive, employing a large orchestra, but always ensuring clarity of texture. The tuba has a particularly important role in the first act, and that bottom-heavy brass sound is used effectively to underpin the Count’s menace. There is also impressive use of xylophone and glockenspiel throughout, with the orchestral textures light enough for both to shine through. The most memorable music is in the third-act prison scene, with lots of richly voiced string writing beneath Beatrice’s appeals, the melodies presumably Beatrice’s Leitmotif’s, now coming to the fore as she becomes the center of attention.
The production, directed by Johannes Erath with sets by Katrin Connan, acknowledges the 16th-century setting, but also the rich color and Expressionism of the music, the result a Pre-Raphaelite-tinged Renaissance world. The table for the feast scene is a long glass box filled with gold. This reappears in the second act, but with the gold replaced by the bodies of the Count’s murdered sons. There are one or two Regie indulgences that stand out as excessive, or at least provocatively anachronistic. In the feast scene, a microphone is set up centre stage, and several of the Count’s and Beatrice’s monologues are delivered into it like a stand-up comedy routine. There are also a lot of pistols, most gratuitously a gold pistol that Orsino points at the Count throughout the feast scene and eventually shoots himself with. And Beatrice has a child, represented here by a large doll, which she gradually dismembers in the last act—presumably to portray her deteriorating mental state, but it’s wholly unnecessary. But these are exceptions in a production that otherwise remains faithful to the spirit and setting of the opera, and the staging is visually coherent and logical.
Although the cast is fairly large, with nine named characters, plus chorus, the drama revolves around Beatrice and the Count, both of whom are well cast. Christoph Pohl has an athletic frame, and his fast, slick movements make the character of the Count all the more maniacal and menacing. His voice is a little light, but Goldschmidt’s clear orchestration ensures that he never has to compete. It seems a great shame when he is killed off in the second act, though just when you are starting to miss him in the third, the director brings him back for a totally superfluous mute recollection scene, and you he hadn’t. Gal James also looks and sounds the part for Beatrice. Again, she sounds a little underpowered, but is never obscured by the orchestra, and the sheer passion she brings to the role elevates proceedings, especially in the final act. James’s eyes are not quite straight, which gives her an imposing glare. That, combined with the Pre-Raphaelite wild red hair wig, makes for an always-distinctive stage presence.
Johannes Debus leads a convincing account of the score. The Vienna Symphony bring life and color to Goldschmidt’s music, a job made easier, no doubt, by the composer’s always idiomatic writing, even for his unusual instrumental combinations. Video director Felix Breisach keeps the cameras busy, often zooming slowly in full-stage shots, and with plenty of close-ups, but never to distraction. The video was a co-production with ORF, but Blu-ray viewers get superior sound and visuals (you can see the wig lines, and the piles of gold don’t look realistic under this scrutiny, but never mind), as well as subtitles in German, English, Korean, and Japanese. All round, an impressive production, given a faithful rendering on video, and, provided you can overlook a few Regietheater indulgences, a compelling account of a neglected opera fully worthy of repertory status.