Opera Album Review: From East Germany With Love — Paul Dessau’s Wild “Lanzelot”

A prize-winning revival of a politically rambunctious, often-entertaining opera from ’60s East Germany.

Paul Dessau: Lanzelot

Emily Hindrichs, Mate Solyom-Nagy, Oleksandr Pushniak, Juri Batuko, Wolfgang Schwaninger, and other soloists.

Weimar and Erfurt Theater choruses, Weimar Schola Cantorum Children’s Chorus, Weimar State Orchestra. Dominik Beykirch.

Audite 23448 [2 CDs] 129 minutes.

To purchase, click here. Hear any track here.

Paul Dessau (1894-1979) was one of the leading composers in East Germany (the so-called German Democratic Republic, though it was run in many ways as a socialist dictatorship). He had a colorful and varied past, which included composing and orchestrating for Disney cartoons during his years of exile in the United States. (Like so many important figures in German life, he had Jewish ancestors; a grandfather had been a cantor in a Hamburg synagogue.)

Dessau ended his long career by composing and teaching in East Germany, and serving as an important conduit for contact in both directions between composers in the GDR and those in the West, such as Hans Werner Henze, Luigi Nono, and Luca Lombardi.

Dessau’s main claim to fame lies in the incidental music that he wrote for numerous Brecht plays. (Brecht himself chose to spend his last years in the GDR, co-founding, with his wife Helene Weigel, the world-renowned Berliner Ensemble there.) Dessau also composed operas based on two Brecht plays: The Trial of Lucullus and Mr. Puntilla and His Man Matti.

By the late 1960s, many East Germans were becoming acutely aware of the harsh regime under which they were living (as were, of course, their Russian and Eastern European cohorts in various Soviet-controlled lands). Meanwhile, they were informed regularly by their government about the gross social and economic disparities in the capitalist world. And they were still not able to forget the massive disasters wrought by the Nazi war machine and its campaign to exterminate Europe’s Jews and other “undesirables.”

All of these concerns flow into Dessau’s Lanzelot, reportedly one of the biggest (in several senses) operatic works to have been created in the GDR. The first performance (1996) reportedly lasted 3-1/2 hours (though this no doubt includes long intermissions) and involved over 200 performers, including some 30 parts for soloists. There were subsequent productions in Munich (in the Federal Republic) and Dresden (back in the GDR).

Then zilch, until this new production in Weimar (in a, by now, reunited Germany), which won a prize from Opernwelt (Opera World) magazine for best revival of the year. The performances took place in 2019, a half-century after the premiere. The stage director was Peter Konwitschny, renowned for his highly imaginative or, to some, willful and disrespectful stage directing, as in an Aida in which the Triumphal Scene occurs outside a small room, and the main characters are inside, hearing all the trumpeted glory and choral acclaiming through a partially opened door.

Composer Paul Dessau in Los Angeles, 1948. Photo: Curt Bois

There are layers upon layers in Lanzelot. The plot comes from a tale by Soviet writer writer Evgeny Schwarz (best known for children’s books) that derives from “motifs” by Hans Christian Andersen. The libretto was crafted by Heiner Mueller, a GDR author renowned for his ambivalent position regarding the East German government and its directives, and for his dreamlike way of playing with the historical past. Mueller’s output has been much praised by Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America. The co-librettist here is Ginka Tcholakova, a stage director whom Mueller had married in 1967.

Add to all of this a willingness on the part of Dessau to employ a wide range of musical styles, including expressionistic vocalizing (wide leaps); quotations from familiar classics (the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin; Siegmund’s “Nothung, Nothung, neidliches Schwert!” from Die Walküre); attention-getting solos for a single string instrument, a bassoon, or a trombone; spoken or, often, heftily declaimed passages over orchestral music; passages of choral singing or unison choral speaking; and, reportedly, many passages that are aleatoric (i.e., controlled improvisation). I think I hear group improvising in one wild and wacky passage for the brass, played with all the confidence that can come when players are not constrained by notes on the page. Also perhaps in at least one raucous outburst for percussion.

It’s all unsettling, and meant to be so. And it’s all quite appropriate to the plot, which careens around, leaving us with little hope for humanity or faith in the possibility of an individual’s finding a way to live a good life and to help build a society that meets its members’ basic human needs.

Briefly, the Dragon, back in the Stone Age (scene 1, a kind of prologue), saves a town from cholera by heating water with its breath and thus killing the microbes. During the rest of the opera we are in something like modern or recent times. The Dragon is still alive and in charge of the town. Everyone finds some way of accommodating him- or herself to the perpetual rule of this scaly beast. Then their great Savior, Lanzelot, arrives and falls in love with Elsa. (Many of the names echo ones in mythology, history, literature, or Wagnerian opera.)

Lanzelot eventually leads a rebellion, fights a duel with the Dragon, kills it, and is himself presumed to be dead. The townspeople quickly try to find a way to put a new equivalent of a Dragon in place, in hopes of restoring their comfortable passivity. Lanzelot is then found not to be dead, and the opera ends irresolutely.

The singers range from the competent to the astounding. The Dragon (Oleksandr Pushniak), Charlemagne (Juri Batuko), and the Mayor (Wolfgang Schwaninger) often shout and wobble. But they’re appropriately commanding and scary. Lanzelot (Mate Solyom-Nagy) is a balm to the ear, in contrast — as welcome to the listener as he must have been to the townspeople. Several cast members’ names suggest that they are originally from Eastern Europe (or their parents were), but their German sounds fine.

A scene from the 2019 Nationaltheater Weimar production of Lanzelot. Photo: Candy Welz

“Astounding” is my adjective for Emily Hindrichs, in the high-flying role of Elsa. Even she wobbles a bit when a note is long enough to permit it. But one is inclined to excuse such flaws in such a vivid and communicative production that makes an important opera available to all to hear for the first time. The orchestra plays splendidly; the strings seem to be few in number but alert. The microphones capture everything with a vivid sense of presence.

Is the work about East Germany, Soviet Russia, fascism (as Dessau obediently insisted), or capitalism. All of the above? I can certainly name some parallels in American (and European, etc.) political life today: individuals who cater to the whims of a would-be dictator or demagogue in hopes of securing themselves a position of modest power and a reliable income stream.

I recommend Dessau’s wild, lively, and often-entertaining farrago to anybody curious about musical life and its products during the 1960s-70s in Central and Eastern Europe (e.g., also in Poland), when artists tried to negotiate some kind of creative interaction between their government’s cultural demands and their individual sense of what art might be and do. It is a noble effort, giving occasion for much fruitful pondering.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). He is on the editorial board of a recently founded and intentionally wide-ranging open-access periodical: Music & Musical Performance: An International Journal. The present review first appeared, in a somewhat different version, in American Record Guide and is posted here by kind permission.

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