Oper Frankfurt – Zemlinsky’s Der Traumgörge – Takeshi Moriuchi, Zuzana Marková & Magdalena Hinterdobler; directed by Tilmann Köhler; conducted by Markus Poschner

<div>Oper Frankfurt – Zemlinsky’s Der Traumgörge – Takeshi Moriuchi, Zuzana Marková & Magdalena Hinterdobler; directed by Tilmann Köhler; conducted by Markus Poschner</div>

George, the title character of Zemlinsky’s third opera (composed between 1903 and 1907, but not premiered until long after his death in 1980) is usually taken, in his eponymous dreaming and obsession with fairy tales, to be a figure susceptible to the newly influential theories of Sigmund Freud about the subconscious workings of the mind. That may provide the immediate cause and justification for the sequence of events within what the composer deemed a ‘fairy-tale opera’. But in purely musical-dramatic terms, George seems to mimic the intense yearnings for salvation with a romantic partner that both Senta and the Dutchman separately express in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, having the vision in a dream of a beautiful princess who apparently becomes real in the person of Gertraud, just as Wagner’s characters each envisage the other before they meet in reality (and Senta having been much preoccupied with the legendary story of the Dutchman, like George with his fairy tales). More obviously Freudian is the invocation George makes of his mother while musing before resolving to act upon his dreams, although Wagner had also pre-empted such ideas in the way that Siegfried and Parsifal also contemplate their (long dead) mothers before they set out on decisive action.

Zemlinsky’s score seems to express an ambiguity about the efficacy of George’s dreaming, however, despite the opera’s apparent moral – which could be rendered glibly as ‘dreams do come true’ insofar as George comes to recognise that his life with Gertraud, both having been rejected by the peasant protesters of one village and now settled back in his native village, fulfils his earlier dream about the princess. The music of the epilogue is slow and thoughtful, even questioning, ending on a few inconclusive notes, and so is entirely the opposite of climactic rapture. Tilmann Köhler carries the enigmatic nature of that conclusion through his new production for Oper Frankfurt (the company’s first of this work). At the end Gertraud sways on a swing at the back in quiet contentment, but George sits by himself further forwards in a state of unconcern, and joined by a group of young girls playing with stones – having never really reached psychological maturity, he seems more at home with them rather than adults.

The uniformly wood-panelled box of the set is a constant in this realisation and, although it is opened-up at the back by the end and is large enough to evoke something more of a huge barn than a standard village dwelling, its claustrophobic character rather seems to symbolise the interior world George’s own mind. He hasn’t broken free of it by the end – Gertraud tellingly sits on her swing in the darker space that has been opened up behind – and all the characters during the course of the drama come and go, intruding in that mental world and receding from it again, leaving no impact upon George with his dreams. Costume designs for the inhabitants of his home village evoke a traditionally rustic community. Those for the peasants to whom he removes himself imply a more industrially advanced society, bringing the action forwards to a time of more suggestive unrest between workers and bosses – more recognisable to our own time than the somewhat more remote and abstract struggle for freedom during the Napoleonic period referenced in the libretto (partly based on a poem by Heinrich Heine). But in each case George remains resolutely detached from those exterior environments.

Illness prevented AJ Glueckert from participating in this performance. Hans Walter Richter walked the part, confidently characterising George’s unease among his peers, while Takeshi Moriuchi sang from the side. Although his light, lyrical voice was somewhat stretched in the higher and more strenuous passages of Zemlinsky’s writing, and submerged by the orchestra in louder ones, it must have been a demanding task to step into a title role at such short notice. But his comparative softness of tone otherwise suited George’s guileless nature and Moriuchi got into his stride more during the character’s Act One monologue.

Zuzana Marková takes the parts of both the Princess and Gertraud, successfully navigating the transition from the elusive, illusory nature of the former as a figment of George’s dreamy imagination with her seamless, disembodied cantilenas, to the more impassioned vigour of the troubled Gertraud, distrusted by the peasants as the orphaned daughter of a count and who are ready to overturn the established order. Magdalena Hinterdobler takes a more straightforwardly bold, sassy approach to the role of Grete, George’s first girlfriend. After he is led by his dream to abandon both her and his home village, she turns her attention again to her past flame, the much more pragmatic Hans, who is made boisterously congenial here by Liviu Holender, an aptly down to earth foil for George’s dreaminess. Michael Porter, Iain MacNeil, and Mikołaj Trąbka provide more menace as the ringleaders of the peasant group, Züngl, Kaspar, and Mathes; Alfred Reiter is a no-nonsense Pastor, and Dietrich Volle is quite a trenchant, even petulant Miller, Grete’s father, all standing out as more boldly drawn personalities compared with George.

A generally translucent account of the score by Markus Poschner with the Orchestra of Oper Frankfurt traces the drama’s ambiguity between dream and reality. Despite the large forces called for by Zemlinsky, as in a Mahler symphony it isn’t very often that they are required to play together. The music tends to be quite ruminative, rarely reaching points of climax or resolution, and passages with the strings particularly here are sustained atmospherically and ethereally to evoke an interior world. But the Chorus breaks in boldly, rupturing the music’s meandering and introducing necessary tension to carry the drama forwards convincingly. The style of the music is similar to other, better-known works by Zemlinsky such as Die Seejungfrau or the Lyric Symphony but here it is pressed into the service of music drama, and if tension sags at all, that is on account of Zemlinsky’s setting rather than this attentive performance, and the production makes a cogent, focused case for the opera. 

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