d'ALBERT: Die Toten Augen
Eugene Francis Charles d'Albert (1864-1932) came from a musical family. Born in Glasgow, he spent much time in England but regarded himself basically as German. While young he became highly proficient as a pianist winning the coveted Mendelssohn Scholarship when only 17. He spent time studying in Vienna, then studied with Franz Liszt after which he enjoyed a highly successful career as a concert pianist. Later he focused on composition writing two concertos for the piano, one for the cello, a symphony, two string quartets, and, beginning in 1893, a series of twenty-one operas the best-known of which is Tiefland, which continues to have frequently performances in Europe. His next best-known opera is Die toten Augen. d'Albert had a restless life, resided in a number of countries, but only felt at home when in Switzerland. His six wives included pianist Teresa Carreno and singer Hermine Finck.
Tiefland premiered in 1903 to great acclaim. d'Albert tried in vain to repeat that success and came fairly close with Die toten Augen, which premiered at the Dresden Court Opera March 5, 1916, with Fritz Reiner conducting. It is called "Drama in One Act with a Prelude and Postlude." It takes place in Jerusalem mostly on Psalm Sunday, from sunrise to sunset. Critics were divided but the general public seemed to like the opera in spite of a rather preposterous plot. The opera remained in the repertory of many opera houses although, as it dealt with Jewish subject matter, it could not be performed in Germany from 1935 to 1945. The text is by Hanns Heinz Ewers, a novelist known for his rather grotesque works. The opera takes place in a biblical setting in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, who does not appear on stage but his voice is heard after he has performed the healing miracle essential to the story.
The opera is quite short, about as long as Salome, premiered two years later. The Prelude begins with a seven-minute orchestral introduction followed by a fifteen-minute scene representing the Parable of the Good Shepherd. After this the main "Action" begins. There is great excitement in Jerusalem. The prophet who has performed many miracles is to arrive in the city in which the Roman ambassador Arcesius lives with his beautiful wife, the blind Myrtocle, who wishes to regain her sight to see the beautiful world and, above all, to be able to see her husband whom she imagines is handsomebut in truth he is ugly and deformed. Myrtocle's servant, Arsinoe takes her to the prophet who touches her eyes restoring her sight.However, his voice proclaims to her that she will curse him before the sun has set. Myrtocle is delighted with her new-found sight; she can view the world and her own beauty.Unknown to her, Arcesius' friend, Galba, handsome Roman captain, is in love with her, and she mistakes him for her husband. Arcesius appears and in a fit of rage strangles Galba. Myrtocle then realizes that she was happier when she was blind. She permits the sun's rays to blind her, and accepts her husband, living again in her happier world of dreams.
d'Albert's score is quite Straussian (particularly the interlude where Jesus appears; could Strauss have heard this prior to writing his music for Jokanaan in Salome?). It also is very demanding for the principal singers. This CPO recording is of a concert performance about two years ago in Dresden. Dagmar Schellenberger, known for her Mozart in Europe, is effective in the demanding role of Myrtocle. Hers is a big voice of considerable ability. If she lacks the insight and compassion of Lotte Lehmann in the one big aria of the opera, "Psyche wandelt durch S”ulenhallen," it is simply because she is being compared with the very best. American soprano Margaret Chalker negotiates the role of the slave Arsenio with relative ease. Alto Anne Gjevang has more than a touch of wobble as Mary of Magdalena , but her role is relatively short. Male singers are uniformly strong. The Bavarian orchestra is first-class, conductor Rolf Weikert in total sympathy with the idiom, and the recording rich and natural with plenty of detail.
Surely anyone with an interest in d'Albert's Tiefland, undoubtedly the composer's operatic masterpiece, will find much pleasure in this fine new recording of Die Toten Augen. I am not familiar with the MYTO live performance from 1951, but the rich orchestral textures of the score doubtless are unheard in that early mono recording. I had a question about a difference between the libretto provided and what is heard on the recording. At the conclusion of the second section, the voice of Jesus is heard offstage singing, "O woman, truly, I say to you that before the sun sets you will curse me!" According to the libretto, "The jubilation of the people is resumed off-stage but is heard retreating more and more into the distance. 'Hosanna to the Son of David! Hallelujah! Hosanna in the highest!' Slowly the noise fades away." On the recording, after the voice of Jesus, there is nothing. In response to an inquiry to CPO, I was informed that "they renounced all noise (jubilations and other hurrahs) in the performance."
R.E.B. (Oct. 2000)