König Kandaules – Dmitry Golovnin
Nyssia – Elisabet Strid
Gyges – Gidon Saks
Phedros – Vincenzo Neri
Syphax/Sebas – Michael J. Scott
Philebos/Cook – Tijl Faveyts
Nicomedes – Toby Girling
Pharnaces – Leonard Bernad
Simias – William Helliwell
Archelaos – Thierry Vallier
Trydo – Daniela van Lohuizen-Bernoulli
Flanders Opera Symphony Orchestra
Conductor – Dmitry Jurowski
Director/Designer – Andrij Zholdak
Co-designer/Lighting/Video – A.J. Weissbard
Costumes – Tuomas Lampinen
The story behind Zemlinsky’s last opera is almost as unusual as the plot of the work itself. The composer had been working on a drama based on André Gide’s Le roi Candaules through the mid-1930s when he was forced into exile by the Nazi annexation of his Austrian homeland. Settling in New York and with two thirds of the first act orchestrated and the rest drafted in short score, he tried to interest the Metropolitan Opera in staging it, but the inclusion in the libretto of a nude scene was enough to bar its progress. And there it was left. Zemlinsky himself died in 1942 and the manuscript was carefully guarded by his widow. But in the late 1980s, Zemlinsky expert and conductor Antony Beaumont, persuaded her to let him look at it. With so much detail annotated in the short score it proved to be little more than requiring orchestration, which he duly did, to a commission from Hamburg State Opera, where it was premiered in 1996. Since then, it has slowly seeped into the repertoire of some of the more adventurous houses – it was seen at the Salzburg Festival a few years ago and this season has had two new productions, in Augsburg and Antwerp/Gent, and there’s a revival of Palermo’s production in Seville in June.
This latest one from Flanders Opera, though, does the work a serious mis-service. The engagement of a Ukrainian director, Andrij Zholdak, who has apparently made his name through unconventional reinterpretations of the classics should have been warning enough. What a newly introduced work such as Kandaules needs is sympathetic advocacy, not wilful distortion. This was less a case of casting light on aspects of the drama as throwing every cliché of Regietheater at it such to give the ‘anti-modernists’ fuel for their argument. Not only was the plot almost completely rewritten and distorted, with cuts to the music and text to suit the director’s ego, but it was subjected to so many superimpositions and layers of visual distraction that it’s difficult to know where to begin.
Zemlinsky’s plot is itself full of ambiguities, but in short, a king who wants to share his good fortune – his wealth and his beautiful wife – is betrayed by those who benefit from his largesse. The psychologies involved are complex and motivation often unclear, and a reading of the libretto only really makes sense in tandem with the music, which is a masterpiece of suggestion and allusion. As the fisherman Gyges says at the start of the spoken prologue: ‘He who has good luck should conceal himself well! Better still, conceal his luck from others.’ Except that in this production he doesn’t – the whole text of this introductory monologue is omitted. Instead, we are presented with the king, his wife Nyssia and two boys, the latter (uncredited in the programme, though they play a leading role throughout the evening) not in the original, enjoying a family meal.
Those of us unversed in Dutch may not have been able to understand the explanations in the programme at the time, but with the help of Google Translate, I now read that the overall concept is an attempt to portray the hidden subtexts of the characters’ words and emotions through the interaction of the real and subconscious worlds, in what Zholdak terms ‘magic realism’. The two children, who interact with the king and queen as if they are their own children, represent Kandaules and Gyges at a time when they were on an equal footing, differentiated neither by wealth nor happiness. So far, so confusing to the uninitiated. But with a vertical set divided into six or so ‘rooms’, Zholdak doesn’t stop there. Instead he has two or three pieces of action happening at any one time, some of which are crass, others predictable, but none of them enlightening: servants are abused, as if to indicate the court’s degenerate nature, there’s a quite inexplicable appearance of two of the rats from Hans Neuenfels’s iconic Bayreuth Lohengrin, and some superfluous business with some giant fish costumes. Through all this, the two boys – mostly in male but sometimes in female attire – run riot, silent apart from some occasional bloodcurdling screams. We are used these days to multi-layered presentation of opera, allowing for parallel presentation of reality and imagination, but this was all taking things beyond the ridiculous. And this is quite apart from the gross liberties Zholdak takes with the story: he has Gyges kill his wife, Trydo, a while before he does so in the libretto, where his motivation is the revelation of her infidelity – here it seems to be to get her out of the way of his pursuit of Nyssia, the queen. Much of the original plot revolves around that fact that Nyssia is kept veiled from prying eyes, and that a magic ring found in the fish that Gyges has provided for the king’s feast allows its wearer to go around unseen, and thus Gyges tricks Nyssia into believing she is making love with her husband. Needless to say, there is no veil, the ring’s powers seem irrelevant and interaction between the three main characters is reduced to a stormy and steamy menage-a-trois with a higher than prescribed body count by the closing bars.
Fortunately, the musical rewards were far greater. Russian tenor Dmitry Golovnin gave a vocally focused account of the king, and Elisabet Strid’s Nyssia grew in tonal opulence as the evening progressed. Gidon Saks’s Gyges may have had only one dynamic level – forceful – but there was no denying his total engagement with the music. The collection of sycophantic courtiers gave admirable, well differentiated performances and the non-singing roles of the two boys, Trydo and servants deserved applause for their fortitude in following the director’s demands. In the pit, Dmitri Jurowski coaxed Zemlinsky’s powerful, iridescent score into potent life, and although the orchestra had a few moments of insecurity, its playing gradually firmed up, treating us to an overwhelmingly powerful account of the prelude to Act III.
I’m not convinced a repeat viewing would make any more sense of Zholdak’s impositions, and Jurowski should have made a better case for not tampering with the music and libretto – the loss of its spoken passages was especially unfortunate. And it would have been nice to say that the dazzling virtuosity of Zemlinsky’s music-dramatic vision shone through rather than that it was in fact severely compromised – it surely deserves much, much better than this.