Opera Scotland

Zwerg 1983Hamburg State Opera

Read more about the opera Zwerg

The operatic highlight of the 1983 Edinburgh Festival was undoubtedly the first visit by Opera Theatre of St Louis, with a new American work, The Postman Always Rings Twice (Paulus) and a rare British one, Fennimore and Gerda (Delius). There was also the fourth visit by the Hamburg company, their first since 1968. The Magic Flute production, at the vast Playhouse, was very different from its predecessors, and very entertaining. However a far more important event occurred at the more intimate King's Theatre, with the British premiere of two operas by Zemlinsky, both derived from Oscar Wilde, and presented as a double-bill. While the first piece, a three-hander called A Florentine Tragedy, worked well, it was overshadowed by the second piece. Zemlinsky's title, Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) was replaced by a restoration of Wilde's original, Der Geburtstag der Infantin (The Birthday of the Infanta). It proved to be a superb piece, well worthy of revival. Perhaps enjoying a lower profile, but also fitting the Festival's Viennese theme, was Scottish Opera's staging of Britten's Death in Venice, derived from the novella by Thomas Mann. It was also a decade since the premiere production had visited Edinburgh, so was a good opportunity to re-assess the piece.

The Usher Hall also contained two semi-operatic concerts, with Claudio Abbado on unfamiliar Wagnerian territory (Act 2 of Lohengrin), and Alexander Gibson and the local team tackling Schoenberg's huge Gurrelieder for the first time. Another Schoenberg rarity, the monodrama Erwartung, was also conducted by Abbado.

The Dwarf is a fascinating and disturbing opera, but the practical difficulties of performance may explain why it is something of a rarity. The role of the Infanta is a demanding part for a coloratura soprano who must also look convincing as a child - perhaps not as difficult to cast as Salome (a role Inga Nielsen had some success with later in her tragically brief career), but still by no means straightforward.

The central part of the dwarf is written for a tenor, who has to project over a large orchestra, and therefore needs Wagnerian reserves of power. He also needs (at least in this staging) to spend the entire performance on his knees, which is probably very tiring, if not actually painful. And he is supposed to dance from time to time. Impossible? Well, Kenneth Riegel managed most of it very well indeed, and the moment when he realized that the hideous image in the mirror was his own reflection really was quite gripping.

The supporting cast, with Beatrice Haldas as the companion and Dieter Weller as the major-domo, was first class. Even Yoko Kawahara, leading a trio of maids, had spent spent several seasons at Bayreuth, sing Woglinde and the Woodbird.

The Zemlinsky double bill was a most enjoyable discovery, and this Hamburg production was borrowed by Covent Garden a couple of years later for a London premiere. It is perhaps surprising that there has been no further exploration of this interesting composer by British companies since. Several other operas have been revived on the continent and we should hear more of them.

Performance DatesZwerg 1983

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Kings Theatre, Edinburgh | Edinburgh

22 Aug, 19.30 24 Aug, 19.30

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