SCARTAZZINI: Der Sandmann / Ryan McKinney, baritone (Nathanael); Agneta Eichenholz, soprano (Clara/Clarissa); Marko Spehar, bass (Lothar); Thomas Piffka, tenor (Father); Hans Schöpflin, tenor (Coppelius); Basel Theater Chorus & Symphony Orchestra; Tomáš Hanus, conductor / Musiques Suisses MGB CD6288
Here’s something different under the sun: an ultra-modern Swiss-Italian composer reworking one of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s best-known tales of insanity and terror in a one-act, 10-scene opera. It’s exactly the sort of thing that would send a conventional opera-lover, wrapped up in his/her cushy little world of Donizetti-Verdi-Wagner-Strauss, heading for the exits, but I found it utterly fascinating.
Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini (b. 1971) employs a style based on the kind of music Penderecki and Reimann wrote, but he avoids the “ugliness for ugliness’ sake” that they reveled in. His music is atonal but not serial; it always seems to be hovering around a certain key but never quite establishes that key due to the constantly sliding chromatics. His orchestration is mostly high-pitched, focused around the violins, high winds and trumpets; lower instruments such as cellos, basses, trombones and tympani are used to create an ominous mood. Even the chorus is generally pitched high. The purpose seems to be to create a high tension that keeps the listener on edge.
This is, as I say, wholly appropriate to the story, much more so than Offenbach’s gaily bouncing polkas and waltzes in the “Olympia act” of his Les Contes d’Hoffmann. That is also because Scartazzini uses the whole story for his opera, whereas Offenbach chopped it down to the presentation of Olympia and a fairly brief flirtation/romance between the life-sized automaton and the poet representing the author himself.
For those unfamiliar with the twisted psychological world of E.T.A. Hoffmann, let me summarize the original tale for you. Nathanael (or Nathaniel) writes a letter to Lothar, the brother of his beloved fiancée Clara, recalling his childhood fear of the legendary Sandman who was said to steal the eyes of children who would not go to bed and feed them to his own children who lived on the moon. This legend was connected, in his mind, with a strange character named Coppelius who visited his father every night. One night, hiding in his father’s room to “see the Sandman,” he saw Coppelius carrying out an alchemical experiment, taking “shining masses” out of the fireplace and hammering them into face-like shapes without eyes. When Nathanael screams he is found out, whereupon Coppelius throws him into the hearth and is about to throw burning coals into the boy’s eyes when his father pleads with him to stop. Coppelius instead twists Nathanael’s hands and feet, torturing him until he passes out. The following year another experiment causes his father’s death, whereupon Coppelius disappears without a trace. (What a great little story to read your kid for bedtime, huh gang?) Nathanael’s father dies as the result of a flaming explosion.
Now, in the present, Nathanael believes that a barometer-seller who arrived recently at his rooms under the name Giuseppe Coppola is none other than the hated Coppelius, and is determined to seek vengeance, but he is persuaded that Coppola, who is Italian, is not the German Coppelius. Coppola is also vouched for by his new physics professor, Spalanzani, who is also Italian and has known Coppola for years. Now we reach the part of the story that is used in Contes d’Hoffmann: Spalanzani’s daughter, Olympia, is kept in her room where Nathanael can only get brief glimpses of her, but he becomes smitten with her.
Shortly after another letter, Nathanael returns to his hometown from his studies to see Clara and Lothar, and in the joy of their reunion Coppelius/Coppola is at first forgotten. Nevertheless, the encounter with Coppola has had a profound effect on Nathanael, driving him toward a gloomy mysticism which bores Clara and leads to their gradual estrangement. He writes a poem about Coppelius destroying his happiness in love, in which Coppelius appears at his wedding to touch Clara’s eyes and then throws Nathanael into a circle of fire. [What a fun guy!] After he emotionally reads this poem to her, she tells him to throw the insane poem into the fire. Nathanael’s frustration with this leads him to call her an “inanimate, accursed automaton,” which so enrages Lothar that he in turn insults Nathanael, and a duel is only narrowly averted by Clara’s intervention. Nathanael pleads for Clara’s forgiveness, and declares his true love for her, and the three then reconcile.
From here on out, any good opera-lover knows the rest of the story: of Spalanzani’s grand party which is the “coming out” debut of his “daughter” Olympia, her playing the harpsichord (changed to harp in Offenbach’s opera), and Nathanael’s complete infatuation with her, reading to her, telling her how much he loves her, to which she can only reply “Ah! Ah!” Coppola, who turns out to indeed be Coppelius, comes to Spalanzani to argue over money due him. Coppelius tears the mechanical doll apart and takes it with him. Spalanzani urges Nathanael to go after Coppelius and recover the doll, but the sight of Olympia’s eyes lying on the ground drives him into madness and he attacks Spalanzani and tries to strangle him. Others pull him off the professor and he is put into an insane asylum.
Nathanael appears to recover from his madness and is reunited with Clara and Lothar. He resolves to marry Clara and move to a pleasant estate near his home town. On the way to visit the place, they pass through the town and climb the high steeple to look out at the view. Clara points out a bush that seems to be striding towards them. Nathanael automatically withdraws Coppola’s spyglass and, looking through it sideways, sees Clara through the lens. With Clara in place of Olympia as the subject of the spyglass’ gaze, madness strikes Nathanael again, and he tries to hurl her from the steeple. She is saved by Lothar, but in the crowd that gathers below Coppelius appears, and upon seeing him Nathanael cries “pretty eyes, pretty eyes!” and leaps over the railing to his death. Coppelius disappears into the crowd.
Thus you can see that this jolly little tale is not, and should not, be set to “normal” music, It is almost exactly the same kind of Teutonic psychological drama presented in the 1919 German film classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and those who have seen this film with a modern soundtrack know that said music is tense and edgy, not romantic and relaxing.
Scartazzini is quoted in the booklet as saying: “With music, you can file away at a text until it becomes raw and fragile; you can make it shine, you can expand verses through the music or you can prune them; you can hide them in whispers or have them shouted out; in this manner, you can convey your own reading of it.” But annotator Michael Topel also warns us that “What we hear is not always what it means! This becomes particularly clear in the 5th scene…[where] Nathanael allows himself to be celebrated by his delighted fan club when he reads from his first novel, Der Sandmann. But everything becomes too big, too lush, both in the text and in the music. The distortion of reality becomes ever more grotesque…ultimately, Nathanael is imagining everything; it is all wish-fulfillment, all surreal.”
With that being said, I felt cheated to some extent by not being able to see the drama unfold onstage. Scartazzini’s music is indeed interesting and original, at times combining Nathanael’s music with that of other characters in a sort of antiphonal style. Sprechstimme is also used a great deal while the instrumental accompaniment swirls madly (perfect description) in the background. Since the libretto provided in the booklet is in German only, I don’t know exactly how Scartazzini has adapted the story for his opera, but it is surely condensed in its telling. The accompanying photos of the production show the characters in modern dress. In short, it’s the sort of thing that I’m sure would be more effective and impressive to see at least once. I didn’t care much for either Wozzeck or Lulu prior to seeing them performed, but once I did I could appreciate the listening experience much more.
Taken on its own merits, the score is continuous and develops in an interesting manner. It also helps that the singing is consistently good: not a bad voice in the cast, and wonder of wonders, every singer has crystal-clear diction, even soprano Eichenholz which nowadays is a bit of a miracle. With its attendant stage noises—minimal but still audible—this is evidently a stage production, but since I reviewed it via downloads I didn’t have the back cover and thus was not provided a performance date (although the booklet does say that this is a co-production of SRF 2 Kultur and the Basel Theater).
Nevertheless, this is an ambitious and largely successful attempt to capture Hoffmann’s edgy psychological drama in music, and if it seems to borrow a bit from Berg and Reimann in its writing for voices the overall impression is that of a very original work. If only we had the visuals to go along with the music, and at least a proper English translation of Scartazzini’s adaptation of the original story!
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley