Melusine is an opera in four acts after the eponymous drama by the French-German poet Yvan Goll (1891-1950) to a libretto by Claus Henneberg. Here's its première recording on two CDs from Wergo. First performed in 1971, it's a beautiful, intense and lyrical work drenched in emotion and plangent music. Melusine, of course, is a mermaid whose half-human half-mythical figure has inspired artists for centuries. This opera is a story of equally "hybrid" components: set in twentieth century Paris, it centers around the carnal preoccupations of men for Melusine (Marlene Mild, soprano); and of Melusine for fulfillment of her own. At first she delights in the refuge which an overgrown park near her home affords before she is wholly human. Then, as the opera progresses, the fulfillment with tragic consequences that follows as she breaks the taboo of falling in love herself – with the Count (Song-Hu Liu, baritone). It's necessary to dismiss any thoughts you may have about the fey qualities of mermaids. And, for that matter, about heavy symbolism.
Instead, even the elements of magic and the mythical (Pythia, sung by mezzo-soprano Teresa Erbe, is a fairy; mermaids are… very rare) are to be seen through for what they tell us about archetypes. For the work was inspired by real events: while Yvan Goll and his wife, Claire, were living in Paris in 1919 a park in which she delighted to retire to as her own special domain was indeed sold. Goll not only saw this as material for a work exploring loss, deception (the opera Melusine is also concerned with the machinations of property dealing; as an analog to wider corruptions) and even resistance to materialism. But also as the opportunity to examine how one person's (Melusine's) strength of personality can be far reaching. For this reason at least, the principal's command of her part is essential. Mild's is.
More important – and of greater interest to Reimann (born 1936), who was apparently at first unenthusiastic about the project when Henneberg first suggested it to him in the early 1960s – is the change through which Melusine goes as she becomes human. Initially intent on using her wiles to get her way with those who would deprive her of the park, she has to accommodate completely new feelings when she meets the Count. The vocal writing reflects this transformation. Coloratura becomes lyric. Real emotion emerges from virtuosity. At the same time as humanity (albeit emblematically in the person of a more real Melusine) "triumphs" in this respect, though, the bleakness of our future due to environmental destruction is heightened… the park is as much a metaphor for that destruction as anything. Yet another achievement of Reimann's is to build his characters in such a way that they almost carry auras of their personalities around with them. Not in the way that Leitmotif works (although there are some motivic components throughout – the Count's, for instance). But through timbre and texture.
Aribert Reimann was born in 1936. His compositions (most of which are abstract serialist) closely reflect the bleakness of wartime Germany. His later career as an accompanist (notably with Fischer-Dieskau) must have contributed to his skills in writing for the voice, even though such works as Ein Traumspiel and Lear present singers with considerable challenges. In this – as in his use of large orchestral scoring for the voice – Reimann has been compared with Britten. Unlike the latter, he experimented with
Reimann has barely a dozen works in the current catalog; fewer CDs still exclusively dedicated to his work. Berg comes to mind. As does Henze – and their writing for the voice in a serial context. One of the ways he achieves this (and the singers, and instrumentalists, on these CDs so successfully respect it) is in the balance between movement, and emphasis on a tonality. There's even something akin to the way Mozart manages stasis and kinesis in Reimann's writing. And Peter Hirsch with the Nürnberger Philharmoniker fully understands this. The orchestra too, by the way, makes the most (but never too much) of the three massive symphonic interludes which further enrich the impact that Melusine makes.
Melusine is scored for a large chamber orchestra of 16 strings, 14 winds with timpani, harp and celesta. The Nürnberger Philharmoniker is excellent in achieving the air of mystery blended with both the comic and the very down-to-earth which make the opera so significant (for all its subsequent neglect) and so enjoyable. Those involved in this recording and the wider implications of the project are to be congratulated for keeping the work, and what it represents in post-war opera, alive. The recording has the qualities of immediacy, beauty, a suitable amalgam of direct, non-nonsense, realism and speculative musing on a variety of core human qualities from faith and greed to love and self-knowledge. We're doubly fortunate that the performers without exception understand and subscribe to these values in such a way that the performance is wholly convincing and thoroughly absorbing.
The opera is well packaged by Wergo and comes on excellently-recorded CDs of studio performances that nevertheless have great atmosphere and presence. The accompanying booklet is full of useful information, including the libretto with German and English on facing pages. Whether or not this work is new to you, this is well worth investigating for its well-wrought melodic lines, clean and expressive harmonies, and realization of Goll's perceptive character studies – all of which make for a persuasive work whose value has little to do with any of its strong sense of period, or curiosity value. Recommended.
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Sealey.