The Deutsche Oper’s production of Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg, recorded in 2019 in Berlin, is directed by Tobias Kratzer who seems to be the rising star among young German opera directors. I can see why. This is a thoughtful and clever production that really does have something to say without being unduly gimmicky.
Let’s recap on what Der Zwerg is all about and Zemlinsky’s possible relationship to it. It’s based on Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta and it’s not a very pleasant tale. For her 18th birthday the Sultan has given the Infanta a singing dwarf who is hideous. He doesn’t realise it. Whenever he has seen his own reflection he has assumed it’s a malevolent spirit and that the reason people laugh when he is around is that he makes them happy. He falls in love with the Infanta but she’s see him not as a person but as a pet or toy. When he realises this he dies. The Infanta is petulantly annoyed that her new toy has broken so quickly. The twist is that Zemlinsky was very short, though hardly a dwarf, and had been rejected by the love of his life, the future Alma Mahler. How far Zemlinsky identified with the dwarf is unknowable but suggestive.
On the odd occasions Der Zwerg is performed it’s usually as part of a double bill as it’s under 90 minutes. This time it’s standalone, but Kratzer has added a prologue. The scene is Zemlinsky giving Alma a piano lesson. The music is Schoenberg’s Beigleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene (Accompaniment to a Cinematic Scene). The actors playing Zemlinsky and Alma split the substantial piano part while playing out a wordless drama in which Alma first encourages then decisively rejects Zemlinsky. It sets up the theme of the drama while also asking some interesting questions about Zemlinsky’s relationship to the art music fashion of the day.
The main piece is given a contemporary setting with lots of mobile phones and so on. The salon in which the Infanta’s birthday is celebrated is an elaborate music room which bores her but fascinates the dwarf. For the dwarf Kratzer has chosen to double a singing tenor with a genuinely diminutive actor. Sometimes they mirror each other; sometimes not so much. In the crucial scene where the lady in waiting Ghita tries to get the dwarf to see what he really is the singer (quite tall and handsome) is not doubled but as he sees himself in a series of mirrors the reflection fades to reveal the actor. It’s really quite effective.
The other notable feature of the production is that Kratzer makes the Infanta a very petulant, spoiled teenager. Elena Tsallagova pulls that characterisation off just about perfectly while singing extremely well. David Butt Philip singing the dwarf, starts out singing from a music stand but is soon pulled into the action. Even at the more extreme points in the action he sings the difficult high tenor part with great skill. Mick Morris Mehnert is the other half of the dwarf and, given he has nothing to say or sing, is remarkably sympathetic. They are well supported by Emily Magee as the more sympathetic Ghita and Philipp Jekal as the Chamberlain, Don Estoban. The ladies chorus throws itself enthusiastically into the action and the orchestra produces an appropriately lush sound. Donald Runnicles conducts effectively and with a feel for Zemlinsky’s somewhat overripe idiom. The pianist parts in the prologue are taken quite effectively by the diminutive Evgeny Nikiforov and the rather more stately Adele Eslinger-Runnicles.
Video direction by Götz Filenius is in the modern style with plenty of setting shots. he’s backed up by a first rate picture on Blu-ray and excellent sound (DTS-HD-MA and stereo). There are no extras but there’s good synopsis and an interesting interview with Kratzer in the booklet. Subtitle options are German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.
I think this gets under the skin of this piece more effectively than the rival Los Angeles version and is technically much better. The LA version though does come with the only available video version of Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug