Counting this present concert performance, public outings for Jaromir Weinberger’s 1937 opera Wallenstein may possibly have reached double digits, and such reception details, or indeed any information about the opera beyond a basic synopsis, would have made a welcome addition to the programme. With nothing but a few passing references in the scholarly literature this would have been a job for a specialist, but Vienna is not lacking in these and the programme note writer’s importance, after all, increases in direct proportion to the obscurity of the work performed. Here I can only fill in some gaps and offer a few limited observations.
On paper Wallenstein is an operatic setting of Schiller’s dramatic trilogy of the same name, and presents a fall-from-grace story arc ending in the murder of its titular character, military leader Albrecht von Wallenstein, a historical character active during the Thirty Years’ War. Wallenstein commands the respect of his men, though his own loyalty to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II lessens with each day he spends in purposeless conflict with his Swedish enemy. Overtures are made to the Swedes which Wallenstein hopes will push the emperor towards peace, though his co-conspirator Octavio Piccolomini has secretly remained loyal to the emperor. Piccolomini turns Wallenstein’s army against him and the drama closes with a bloodbath, bringing an end to Wallenstein, his brother Terzky and his wife, and his comrade Illo. Max, Piccolomini’s son, had in an earlier scene fallen in love with Wallenstein’s daughter Thekla, and with his loyalties wretchedly divided between his father, Wallenstein and the emperor, he ventures into futile battle with the Swedes to meet certain death, after which Thekla dies of grief.
A straightforward political allegory may be deciphered here, drawing from Weinberger’s personal situation and the circumstances of the work’s première (at the Vienna State Opera a matter of months before Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany). Wallenstein bears a dedication to the then Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, who was struggling to maintain Austria’s independence in the face of German aggression; Schuschnigg’s predecessor Engelbert Dollfuss, who had brutally suppressed Austria’s labour movement and established authoritarian rule in 1933, had been assassinated by Nazi agents in a 1934 attempted putsch, and it is quite probable that like many in Austria’s Jewish community, Weinberger, a composer of Jewish origin who escaped into American exile in 1939, supported the Dollfuss regime for its scaling back of anti-Semitic measures and commitment to the Austrian nation-state. And so in Wallenstein, the parallels are painted with a broad brush: the absolutist, intolerant Ferdinand II as enemy belligerent represents Germany, while Wallenstein is a stand in for the slain Dollfuss. Historical loose threads are left hanging aplenty, perhaps because rather than in spite of Max Brod’s libretto driving the point home with unmistakable clarity. It is indeed a strange achievement of this opera that the seriousness of what is at stake registers so strongly that Weinberger can be himself – a nostalgia soundtrack for the former Austro-Hungarian empire – and the entire thing (almost) doesn’t sound absurd. Grim scene-setting with ominous martial music gives way with ease to oom-pah bands and Slavic-inflected melodic lyricism; ethereal moments bordering on atonality dissolve into plush Korngoldian statements with heart firmly on sleeve. For the Max and Thekla sub-plot Weinberger transitions into full-blown operetta mode.
That all of this sounded a faintly credible mish-mash can be attributed squarely to conductor Cornelius Meister, who segued seamlessly from lilting Ländler to the dark hues and musico-dramatic sweep required for Wallenstein’s monologues. If there was a sense of Weinberger hopelessly if poignantly clinging on to an Austro-Hungarian identity that never was, I do not believe it was my imagination, or even simply there in the score. The RSO Wien were on superb form in every department and well-balanced, though the singers would not have been overpowered had slightly more been given at times. No reservations at all could be made about the Wiener Singakademie’s contribution. As Wallenstein, Roman Trekel’s menacing all-black attire bordered on Fascist iconography, as if to remind us of this martyr’s true colours, though deheroization through textual and musical nuance was quite enough, and the artistry indeed undeniable. As Thekla, Martina Welschenbach’s light voice was put through its paces with the most vocally challenging part of the cast; flexibility was not always there and phrasing short on breath, but tone was attractive. The only disappointments were the Piccolomini father and son, Ralf Lukas and Daniel Kirch; Lukas sounded a good deal too bland to commit betrayal, while erratic singing almost brought Kirch to grief in the operetta scenes. Standouts among the smaller roles included soprano Dagmar Schellenberger, who gave a sympathetic portrayal of the Gräfin Terzky with full-lyric creaminess and warmth, and resonant baritone Benno Schollum, who was the best-cast villain of the piece.
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