A Sizzling “Penthesilea” from Martha Mödl & Co.

WLCD 0225 Penthesilea  FRONT

SCHOECK: Penthesilea / Martha Mödl, soprano (Penthesilea); Paula Brivkalne, soprano (Prothoe); Paula Lenchner-Schmidt, soprano (Meroe); Res Fischer, contralto (Oberpriesterin); Eberhard Wächter, baritone (Achilles); Stefan Schwer, tenor (Diomedes); Gustaf Grefe, baritone (Herald); Stuttgart State Opera Chorus & Orchestra; Ferdinand Leitner, conductor / Walhall Eternity Series WLCD-0225 (mono, live performance of December 15, 1957)

This is the kind of work and recording that the true music lover absolutely lives for: an obscure but brilliant work of almost savage power in both the text and music given a reading by an extremely gifted ensemble of singers, working together in conjunction with an equally committed conductor. The only drawbacks to this particular recorded artifact are the singing in the opening scene of the women’s chorus, not yet warmed up and sounding a bit unsteady, and the mono in-house tape sound which, as I will describe below, had some problems in the tracks I was able to download for review.

According to sources online, this recording was initially released by Walhall in 2008 but it received only scant notice from diehard fans of modern opera. Most people either dismissed it as an unlovable oddity or criticized the singing as “being very much of its time and place,” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. I wonder if the same “critic” who made this enlightening comment would say the same thing about some of Maria Callas’ squally performances that her legion of true believers think are blue-ribbon gems. I can’t believe that the recording (or the work) has made much of an impact since I could not find a single professional review online and, on the Wikipedia page discussing this opera, this recording isn’t even mentioned as being in existence.

Apparently impressed by Strauss’ Elektra and wanting to write an opera in the same vein, Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck, then in his late 30s, set about composing this gory tale of Penthesilea, the Queen of the Amazons, and her love/hate relationship with Achilles. It was written in 1924/25 but not premiered until 1927. The coming of Hitler and the Nazis precluded its becoming a repertoire piece (I’m sure it was on their blacklist), thus this performance given roughly three decades later in Stuttgart must have come as a revelation, even to German audiences. Conductor Leitner clearly threw himself into the music, leading a taut, dark-hued performance literally dripping with violence and venom, and his gifted cast, which included at least three then-well-known names (Mödl, Wächter, and the superb German contralto Res Fischer, who was also noted for her Klytemnestra in Elektra), gives their all in a reading that verges on homicidal mania from start to finish.

At the opera’s opening Achilles has defeated Amazon Queen Penthesilea in battle, but falls in love with her. After she recovers from her wounds, Achilles lets her think she has defeated him because Amazon law stipulates that a warrior may only associate with a man she has beaten. Thus led on, Penthesilea returns his affections until she learns the truth, whereupon her love turns to bitter hatred. Achilles offers a second challenge to her but secretly plans to come unarmed and let her win. Oh, never taunt an Amazon warrior! Penthesilea takes it very seriously indeed. How seriously? She shows up with her pack of hounds who tear him apart limb from limb (to hell with his “Achilles heel”!) then drinks his blood before dying herself.

Into this brutal tale Schoeck packed some of his densest and most concise music, a score that is utterly brilliant and unhackneyed. Gone are any allusions to arias: the vocalists perform in a sequence of orchestral-accompanied recitative with occasional curses and screams, intermittently reverting to speech for certain passages. The only truly lyrical passage in the entire opera, and the most conventional music, is the Penthesilea-Achilles love duet, which has a certain Richard Strauss-like feel to it. After investigating on the internet, it seems that there are only three other recordings of this opera ever made, all of them later than this:

BASF/Harmonia Mundi: Carol Smith, Hana Janků, Barbara Scherler, Raili Kostia, Roland Hermann, William Blankenship, Kurt Widmer; Choruses of the North German Broadcasting, Hamburg & West German Broadcasting, Cologne; Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra; Zdeněk Mácal, conductor (broadcast concert performance of 8 September 1973 at Lucerne International Musikfest). (BASF LPs 49 22485-6)

Orfeo d’Or: Helga Dernesch, Jane Marsh, Mechthild Gessendorf, Marjana Lipovšek, Gabriele Sima, Theo Adam, Horst Hiestermann, Peter Weber, ORF-Chorus and ORF-Symphonieorchester conducted by Gerd Albrecht (12 August 1982 live performance)

Pan Classics 510 118: Yvonne Naef, James Johnson, Ute Trekel-Burckhardt; Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno; Basel Symphony Orchestra; Mario Venzago, conductor

I haven’t heard the first or third of these, although reviews of the latter all seem to indicate that Naef, a light-voiced mezzo, is at least vocally suited to the role of Penthesilea (though I seriously doubt her dramatic ability; I’ve heard several Naef recordings and she is no great dramatic actress) but that baritone James Johnson is a hopelessly inadequate Achilles. I have, however, heard the Orfeo d’Or recording, which is the one that all the critics rave about. Although I concede that the stereo sound is superior to the 1957 mono performance under review, and the women’s chorus is much better at the opera’s outset, I simply cannot tolerate Helga Dernesch’s deteriorated vocal state. She started out in pretty good voice, but halfway through this short opera she was wobbling and shouting her notes. And don’t even get me started on the pathetic-sounding Theo Adam as Achilles. A great stage actor he might have been, but deprived of seeing him he just sounds like a tire with a slow leak trying to make it down the interstate until he can pull off at the next exit to get a patch and some air.

In addition, though Gerd Albrecht conducts with decent tension, he almost sounds like a pale imitation of Leitner, who really has the full measure of this difficult score. A good indication of just how taut the Leitner performance is comes from the timing: 77:32 for the whole opera, whereas Albrecht takes 80:01. But although timing isn’t everything, both the singing and conducting are just so much more “on edge” in the 1957 performance that it clicks much better.

In my downloaded copy for review, I encountered a problem in tracks 18 and 19, near the end of the opera: a series of very loud and annoying clicks, ticks and pops, particularly (but not always) during soft passages. Why on earth there would be clicks and ticks in a tape recording is utterly beyond me, but even so Walhall should have professionally removed these. I had to waste a good 20 minutes of my time manually removing or diminishing these unwanted sound effects from my copy before it was listenable.

That being said, if you like really well-written but edgy modern operas you should hasten to acquire this set at your earliest convenience. This is yet another spectacular achievement during the 1950s for Mödl, who despite having a somewhat ugly lower register was certainly one of the greatest singing actresses in the Western world, and another interesting role for Wächter. The sound is, for the most part, clear and with just enough hall resonance to escape the feeling of aural claustrophobia.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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