Meyerbeer’s Dinorah in Görlitz

Meyerbeer’s Dinorah is a rarity even among his largely neglected works but the reluctance of opera houses to mount a revival is not difficult to explain. It is an odd mixture of Dark Ages mystery, fairy tale, and romantic madness with just a touch of Christian redemption. The excesses of nature, a storm destroying the village and the heroine’s parents when she is about to be married, induce her insanity and the bridegroom, with the help of sinister forces, to seek out a long-lost treasure. Before he attains it, however, he is able to save her life when she is struck by another shaft of lightning and falls into a river. So, apparently drawing the piece to a happy ending, the nuptials are resumed. No; not an easy narrative to make sense of or to present convincingly on the stage.

It was therefore courageous of the Theater Görlitz to present the work. The second version of the score, with added recitatives and prepared for the performances at Covent Garden in 1859, was used but not with the Italian libretto  there adopted, nor the original French, but rather in the German translation written by Johann Christoph Grünbaum. This, with its naivety and rhyming couplets, did not encourage one to take the drama very seriously.

The music, while an eclectic combination of opulent romanticism, coloratura showpieces, eerie harmonies and motives in the style of Der Freischütz and Mozartian patter, is never less than interesting. The long overture, more of a symphony than a prelude, most effectively introduces the competing forces of nature, the spirits and humans, and in Act Two there is a show-stopping scena when Dinorah interacts with her shadow. The conductor Ewa Strusinska endowed the score with lots of forward thrust, while not ignoring the pathos and melancholy of some episodes, and there was an exceptional performance of the title role by Jenifer Lary. Her creamy soprano filled out the exultant lyrical passages and her coloratura trills and high notes were spot on. She also managed convincingly to portray her insanity by avoiding exaggeration and presenting her perceptions as if in a dream. Ji-Su Park was disappointing as her lover Hoël. His baritone tended to thicken when under pressure and there were occasional uncertainties of pitch. Neither he nor Corentin, his sidekick, a Papageno-like character who not very bravely has to deal with the world of the spirits, seemed dramatically comfortable with the vagaries of the plot, though in the latter role Thembi Nkosi displayed a beautifully honed tenor voice.

The dramatic insecurity of the two male principals was symptomatic of the shortcomings of Geertje Boeden’s production. Having astutely decided to present the external world of nature and the mythical spirits through an animated video projected onto a backcloth (designer Aron Kitzig) she was not able successfully to integrate that dimension with human action on front stage. The single set, designed by Olga von Wahl and Carl-Christian Andresen, did not help. A rugged mountainside up and down which the protagonists clambered unsteadily was too dominant, making all movement constricted and therefore awkward.

Perhaps the most important weakness in the production was its failure to communicate a coherent idea of what the piece is about and how, for example, the lengthy subplot relating to the treasure relates to the rest of the action.  One emerged from this performance in Görlitz, grateful for having been given the opportunity of experiencing a notable operatic rarity, given with energy and commitment by singers some of whom excelled, but with a sense that a confident and imaginative staging could have rendered the experience more satisfying.