Blech: The Alpine King & the Misanthrope / Ward, Aachen Symphony

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Around 1902 Leo Blech nabbed the subject of the “original romantic-comic magic” play by Viennese theater manager/actor/playwright Ferdinand Raimund, had it streamlined, and turned it into his fifth opera. A cantankerous misanthrope terrorizes family and servants with his paranoid mistrust. He’s only cured when faced with his own behavior courtesy of supernatural role reversal. Highbrow opera meets folksy farce with unexpectedly gorgeous, splendidly orchestrated music somewhere between Wagner and Humperdinck. The premiere at the Dresden Court Theater was a sensational success. Then all of Blech’s music was banned and once the Nazi horror was over, it never came back. Now you can hear what we missed.

REVIEW:

Based on a lighthearted Austrian folk play, the opera concerns a bad-tempered misanthrope whose family and servants are terrorized by his paranoid violence. When the mysterious Alpine King sends the misanthrope home, magically disguised as his own brother-in-law, the old curmudgeon witnesses the impact of his behavior and learns to mend his ways.

The prelude opens with ringing horns announcing a bracing theme that reappears throughout as a leitmotif for the supernatural Alpine King. Sweeping strings and harp give way to folkish interludes, ending in a pealing of trumpets. The story begins with an extended lyrical scene full of lively yodeling for the misanthrope’s daughter and her maid. It’s followed by a Tristan-esque duet for Marthe and her devoted lover.

Act II opens with an infectious, folksy trio for a carpenter and his family. It’s pure Humperdinck, and musically witty, too. His subsequent apostrophe to peace and quiet as he settles down in his solitary, newfound home is reminiscent of Hans Sachs’s Flieder monologue. The imposing central encounter between the misanthrope and the Alpine King echoes Alberich and the Wanderer in Siegfried, while their pact to trade places suggests Gunther’s blood-brotherhood oath from Götterdämmerung. If these are lofty comparisons, Blech is not undeserving. His music is good, often very good, skillfully orchestrated and full of memorable tunes. If there is a fault, it’s in Act III. Despite its comic potential, the outcome is too obvious from the start, lowering the dramatic stakes.

Musically, everything is first rate here, with the Sinfonieorchester Aachen (from Blech’s hometown) delivering a thoroughly idiomatic reading of this lively score under the baton of its British music director, Christopher Ward. And the cast is uniformly strong. With his gnarly baritone, Ronan Collett is excellent as the Alpine King, offsetting his nobility with a hint of danger. His fellow baritone Hrólfur Saemundsson is a characterful Rappelkopf, if a trifle woolly at the top.

Sonja Gornik and Anne-Aurore Cochet are outstanding as the practical yet lovelorn Marthe and the flighty, devil-may-care Lieschen. Their voices—Gornik’s warmer and darker, Cochet’s more the classic soubrette—blend magically in duet. As their respective lovers, Tilmann Unger has a bright, thrusting heldentenor that makes a convincing paramour out of the ardent Hans, while Hyunhan Hwang, with a lighter, more lyrical instrument, is perfect for the feckless Habakuk.

The recording is supplemented by two decent but too rum-ti-tum military marches written as German propaganda in 1915. Several operas by composers better known as conductors have come to light recently. On this showing, Blech is one of the more accomplished.

-- Opera News


Product Description:


  • Release Date: September 02, 2022


  • UPC: 845221054780


  • Catalog Number: C5478


  • Label: Capriccio


  • Number of Discs: 2


  • Period: 20th Century


  • Composer: Leo Blech


  • Conductor: Christopher Ward


  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Symphony Orchestra Aachen, Opera Chorus Aachen


  • Performer: Ronan Collett, Hrolfur Saemundsson, Sonja Gornik, Irina Popova, Tilmann Unger, Anne-Aurore Cochet, Hyunhan Hwang, Pawel Lawreszuk, Fanny Lustaud, Anna Graf



Works:


  1. Alpenkönig und Menschenfeind (The Alpine King and the Misanthrope), Op. 14

    Composer: Leo Blech

    Ensemble: Aachen Symphony Orchestra, Aachen Opera Choir

    Conductor: Christopher Ward