Tom Lehrer’s famous song mentions only the three men that Alma Schindler married: “Gustav, Walter and Franz”. But there were several more whose lives, we are led to believe, she whipped through like a whirlwind. None more so, it seems, than Alexander Zemlinsky: his passionate affair with his one-time pupil was short-lived (Mahler’s arrival on the scene put an end to it) but it coloured his creative and personal life for decades afterwards.

Mick Morris Mehnert and David Butt Philip (Der Zwerg) and Elena Tsallagova (Donna Clara) © Monika Rittershaus
Mick Morris Mehnert and David Butt Philip (Der Zwerg) and Elena Tsallagova (Donna Clara)
© Monika Rittershaus

His compact 1922 opera Der Zwerg is based on Oscar Wilde’s short story The Birthday of the Infanta, but Georg C. Klaren’s libretto liberally weaves in what, in retrospect at least, seem like elements of Zemlinsky’s own biography. We have an ugly but noble protagonist, a master musician, cruelly mocked before ultimately, fatally becoming aware of his own nature and convinced of his unlovability.

For the Deutsche Oper’s terrific new production, director Tobias Kratzer underlines the parallels yet further. Zemlinsky’s work is preceded by Schoenberg’s Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, his brief music to a non-existent film, which Kratzer uses to accompany a scene between two pianists (Adelle Eslinger and Evgeny Nikoforov) dressed as Schindler and Zemlinsky. We see their relationship flash by, telescoped into a ten-minute piano lesson that culminates in Alma mocking Alexander before showing him his reflection in the mirror.

Mick Morris Mehnert (Der Zwerg) © Monika Rittershaus
Mick Morris Mehnert (Der Zwerg)
© Monika Rittershaus

From there we go straight into the opera itself, the prologue’s fin-de-siècle salon replaced by a kind of white-box concert hall. Donna Clara (the Infanta) and her entourage are in multicoloured modern dress (designs by Rainer Sellmaier, vividly lit by Stefan Woinke). Ghita, her maid, is a prim, matron-like type, confiscating revellers’ mobile phones ahead of the birthday celebration proper.

The main birthday gift, of course, is the exotic Dwarf himself, here played by both the actor Mick Morris Mehnert and the tenor David Butt Philip. It’s an arrangement that seems to start off awkwardly, with Butt Philip singing at a music stand as Mehnert acts. But it grows into an effective and intelligent theatrical device. One represents the physical reality, we infer, the other the imagined self, the two ‘personas’ converging more and more until the final moment of recognition and realisation, potently staged. Mehnert’s touching muteness works in rich, complex counterpoint to Butt Philip’s supreme eloquence – and the British tenor sings superbly, commanding Zemlinsky’s taxing notes with firm, focused and pleasingly plangent tone, not to mention impressive stamina.

Mick Morris Mehnert and David Butt Philip (Der Zwerg) © Monika Ritterhaus
Mick Morris Mehnert and David Butt Philip (Der Zwerg)
© Monika Ritterhaus

Around this central double performance the Deutsche Oper has assembled a very fine cast. Elena Tsallagova, singing cleanly if not always with the clearest German, is chillingly spot on as the heartless Infanta, a close relative of Wilde’s other cruel princess, Salome. As Ghita, the only compassionate member of court, Emily Magee sings movingly. Philipp Jekal is a sturdy presence as Don Estoban, serving as MC for the whole episode. The other members of the cast, as well as the women of the Deutsche Oper Chorus, fill out the drama brilliantly.

In the pit, Donald Runnicles shows himself to be a clear convert to the Zemlinskian cause. His orchestra plays wonderfully for him, with the necessary mixture of sinewy clarity and robust richness, and he paces the evening expertly, bringing out the score’s many moments of beauty (special nod to the cor anglais player, whose solos were always touchingly done). There is excellent work from the stage orchestra, too, fully involved in Kratzer’s conception of the drama, where the Dwarf not only sings, but, in clear reference to Zemlinsky himself, is a composer-conductor.

Mick Morris Mehnert and Elena Tsallagova (Donna Clara) © Monika Rittershaus
Mick Morris Mehnert and Elena Tsallagova (Donna Clara)
© Monika Rittershaus

And the central positioning of Zemlinsky in the whole show seems doubly justified: his score transcends the ostensibly tasteless subject matter, creating a drama of powerful humanity, and one with significant additional resonance in a world where cruelty and intolerance are on the rise. Kratzer’s intelligent, sensitive and uncompromising production and a terrific cast, superbly conducted, make as powerful a case as one could imagine for this fine, noble and melancholy work.

*****