A Weinberg Korngold Double Bill in Heidelberg

The idea of the Heidelberg Theatre to bring together in a double bill two short operas by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (Mazel Tov) and Erich Korngold (Der Ring des Polykrates) seemed to be a good one. Both were written by Jewish composers who had to flee their homeland to escape the Nazis and whose work has found acclaim only relatively recently. Weinberg spent almost the whole of his creative life in Russia and had to contend with Stalinist repression and anti-Semitism. Korngold after arriving in California turned mostly to writing film music and was neglected as a serious composer.

But there any similarity ends. Korngold came from a wealthy, privileged and emancipated Viennese family. A Wunderkind, he achieved great success for his compositions at an early age and Der Ring des Polykrates was written when he was only nineteen. Its theme, two couples finding that their love could be enhanced by sacrifice – the Polykrates Ring comes from a ballad of Schiller to this effect – is conventional opera, if not operetta, material. Weinberg had humble, Polish and very East European Jewish origins. His two-act piece Mazel Tov reflects this. In Tsarist Russia, a cook and a housemaid work for, and are tormented by, an aristocrat. They are courted by, respectively, a bookseller and a local lad. All Jewish, the four bemoan their fate in a country where there seems to be no hope. However, through story-telling, merrymaking and – not the least – conversion to socialism, they have the courage to face up to the tyranny and get wed.

Director Yona Kim decided that she could integrate the two works, treating them both as a commentary on the fate of the two Jewish composers and also, less obviously, on class conflict. Unsurprisingly, given its subject matter, this worked well with Mazel Tov, though having constantly in the background images of a shtetl, the fiddler on the roof, pogroms and finally, appearing on the stage, caricatures of Stalin and Hitler shaking hands, was to over-egg the pudding. The music too, combining introspective, almost prayer-like intensity, with dance tunes and wry humorous phrasing, felt authentically Jewish.

Sadly, the conceptualisation proved fundamentally inappropriate for the Korngold. The setting becomes California where the successful husband of one of the two couples is a musician. But there is little or no class conflict present and nothing ethnically relevant in the characters or their predicament. The music with its sweeping, lyrical idiom, reminiscent of Richard Strauss, is far removed from any notion of repression and victimization. To create a link between the fate of Weinberg and that of Korngold, Yona Kim therefore interposed in the work sequences in which the successful husband reflects ruefully on his Viennese past while extracts from Korngold’s Piano Concerto are played. This, and the appearance of the wife’s ex-lover as mutilated by war, is extraneous to the nature of the original and jarred on the senses.

A great pity, because musically both works had been well prepared and well executed. Dutch conductor Olivier Pols moved adroitly from the bitter-sweet, sometimes sparse strains of Jewish Russia to the lush sounds of early twentieth century Vienna. In the Weinberg, mezzo Elisabeth Auerbach was sonorous and moving as the resolute cook Bejlja and veteran tenor Winfrid Mikus was convincing as the ageing bookseller, her suitor, notwithstanding a ridiculous beard. In both pieces Gloria Rehm’s soubrettish voice and demeanour served well young love. Irina Simmes’ full, rich soprano met all the considerable demands of the composer’s wife in the Korngold and she was well matched by Alexander Geller’s powerful but lyric tenor. As the young lover in Mazel Tov, Ipča Ramanović was energetic and amusing, but sufficiently constrained in Polykrates to offer a world-weary, wounded ex-lover. The cast was completed by Namwon Huh’s attractively sung Florian, the composer’s assistant.

Both operas are well worth reviving and if the Weinberg emerged from the evening as the more poignant and satisfying of the two, that was largely due to the misconceived interpolations imposed on the Korngold.