For some artists, a perverse muse is sometimes the only muse they know. Profound personal suffering becomes the main source of their inspiration. Strindberg had his stormy marriage to Siri von Essen; Pirandello the corrosive psychoses of his troubled wife. For Alexander von Zemlinsky, it was his pupil, Alma Schindler, who left him for Gustav Mahler and later dismissed him as “a hideous gnome”. Autobiography filtered through fairy tales like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid raised his thwarted passion to the level of allegory, but nowhere more poignantly – or stridently – than in his 1921 opera, Der Zwerg.

Kirsten Chambers (Donna Clara), Aleš Briscein (the Dwarf) © Kathy Wittman
Kirsten Chambers (Donna Clara), Aleš Briscein (the Dwarf)
© Kathy Wittman

When Zemlinsky attended the 1908 première of his friend Franz Schreker’s ballet, Der Geburtstag der Infantin (“The Birthday of the Infanta”), he found himself seated next to Mahler and Alma. That proximity and Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale, the basis for the ballet’s scenario, sparked an interest in adapting the tale as a one-act opera. He eventually settled on screenwriter and film director Georg Klaren to provide the libretto. Klaren departed extensively from Wilde’s fairy tale, then infused it with morbid theories from Otto Weininger’s controversial 1903 study, Sex and Character.  

Wilde’s Infanta is twelve and a fairly benign influence on the plot. The dwarf, only recently brought to the palace from the nearby woods, precipitates his own demise as he wanders, looking for her, and unexpectedly finds himself in front of a mirror. The shock and horror of seeing himself for the first time proves lethal: no princess’s kiss will turn anyone into a handsome prince in this macabre fairy tale. Klaren’s Infanta, however, is eighteen, but still a cold, willful, and petulant child in the way she treats those around her. She knows that the dwarf, a birthday present from the Sultan, has led a cloistered life and never seen himself, yet she sadistically toys with him – asking him to sing for her, dance with her, and favoring him with a white rose – and then conspires to put him in front of a mirror. Despite seeing danger in her eyes and sensing mortal peril, the dwarf falls in love, but it is a masochistic love: “I do not know what love is, but if love is submission, then, yes, I love you!” He will love her even if it means his death, which, once he sees himself in the mirror and the Infanta mocks him for his temerity, it does.

Zemlinsky’s score, which brilliantly follows the path Strauss abandoned after Salome, recreates the hothouse atmosphere Wilde evokes with his vivid descriptions of overripe profusions of fruits and flowers. Like the pomegranates in the palace garden, it splits and cracks in the heat to reveal its bleeding heart. Motifs associated with the two main characters and specific emotions weave in and out, but the drama is in the expressionistic use of harmony and the unusual twists and turns of the arioso vocal line. Conductor Gil Rose was indulgent and the orchestra took the bit and ran like a thoroughbred. The mounting hysteria of the score’s final pages never descended to hectoring, though a bit more attention to dynamics might have covered and strained the singers less.

Aleš Briscein returned to surpass his September coup as  Dvořák’s Dmitrij. Zemlinsky anchors the dwarf in the melancholy key of D minor and keeps him, for the most part, in a minor key. The vocal line also sits in the high end of the tenor range and makes liberal use of dissonance: cast the wrong tenor and the audience will be covering its ears. Despite fleeting signs of strain during some of the louder passages, Briscein was never shrill or strident. He sang with stamina and confidence, always responsive to the turbulence of the emotional waves which wash over him. With minimal, halting movements, subtle facial expressions, and a guileless demeanor, he simply was the dwarf. The audience shot to its feet to applaud his indelible characterization and vocal prowess.

The frivolous Infanta could be Salome’s much less depraved sister. Kirsten Chambers, an accomplished Salome herself, was able to modulate a voice which suggests power to spare to perfectly embody Zemlinsky and Klaren’s headstrong, self-absorbed, strangely bloodless adolescent. James Johnson was stiff and officious in demeanor and commanding vocally as the chamberlain, Don Estoban. Michelle Trainor’s warm steady tone cast a maternal glow on Ghita, the only character to question and show compassion. Erica Petrocelli, Dana Varga, and Vera Savage – all stalwarts of the Boston operaverse  – were the Infanta’s lively posse of enablers, often spurred on by the deft and spirited chorus of women. Like everyone else, the three maidens not only sang from memory but acted their parts.

Unfortunately, some odd stage business involving the white rose and the dwarf’s death distracted unnecessarily from a harrowing finale.