Ned Rorem has remarked on more than one occasion that inside each composer is a frustrated singer. This, of course, leads to the question of composers who were in fact professional singers. Surprisingly, there haven't been that many: Reynaldo Hahn, Samuel Barber, and Jerome Hines are the three who come immediately to mind. Bretan was a Romanian opera singer, educated in Vienna, who composed mainly songs and four operas. The two here, Golem and Arald, date from the Twenties.
Bretan's career was cut short both by the Nazis and by the Communists. In fact, he composed nothing at all the last two decades of his life (he died in 1968). In Romania, he is known especially for his songs.
How does he do? I must admit that the operas surprised me, given their date and subject. The Golem in particular triggered memories of the great German silent film, and so I expected musical Expressionism. What I got was Meyerbeer slightly updated. Both works could have been written anywhere between 1860 and 1900. The time of composition, of course, means little aesthetically, but it does give you some idea of the shock of hearing this music for the first time.
Not surprising for a singer-composer, the interest of the opera lies, if anywhere, in the melodies. The orchestration is routine and even clunky. In fact, there's a real lack of technique, particularly in vocal ensemble passages, where the voices double or blend ineffectively. However, Bretan's melodies contain nothing surprising, like Puccini or Mahler or Mussorgsky or Duparc. Fairly simple in structure, they often just fall flat. I doubt you'll be humming them on your way to work.
Nevertheless, at their best, the operas pack a dramatic punch. The composer wrote libretti, and the Golem is a story I can't see many theater composers turning down. There is genuine conflict between the Golem and his creator, Rabbi Loew, as well as conflict within the Rabbi between his love for his granddaughter and his pride in his achievement. At the musical portrayal of conflict, Golem rises to its height.
Arald is more scena than opera, a Nordic version of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which King Arald pleads with what seems like an incarnation of Odin for the life of his queen. The results are pretty predictable (both lovers are joined in death), but again the libretto has dramatic interest wanting in the music.
The orchestra is pretty scrappy much of the time. The singers are so-so voices. Tamas Daroczy as Rabbi Loew has the best voice - a ringing and slightly forced tenor - but baritone Alexandru Agache as the Golem actually puts across the anguish of the "man of clay," who can never be human or claim a posterity. A slightly dull color to the voice adds tremendously to the effect - much like Karloff's grunts in Frankenstein. He also plays "the seer" or Odin-figure in Arald. None of the other singers have all that much to do - one sign of poor stage management from the composer.
All in all, two curiosities, rather than real finds.
Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz