Zemlinsky’s “Der König Kandaules” Reissued


ZEMLINSKY: Der König Kandaules / James O’Neal, ten (King Candaule); Nina Warren, sop (Nyssia, his wife); Monte Pederson, bar (Gyges, a Fisherman); Klaus Häger, bar (Phedros); Peter Galliard, bs (Syphax); Marius Kwecień, bar (Nicomedes); Kurt Gysen, bs (Pharnaces); Simon Yang, bs (Philebos); Ferdinand Seiler, ten (Sebas); Guido Jentjens, bs (Archelaos); Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg; Gerd Albrecht, cond / Capriccio C5443 (live: October 18 & 25, 1996, Hamburg)

As an adjunct to their six-CD set celebrating the 150th anniversary of Zemlinsky’s birth, Capriccio has also reissued this recording, one of only two issued commercially so far (the other being a 2004 performance led by Kent Nagano) of this unusual opera. The short score was completed in 1936 but the orchestration was still unfinished when Zemlinsky, being Jewish, was forced to flee Austria for America in 1938. Once settled in New York he approached his old friend and conducting pupil Artur Bodanzky about a possible production at the Metropolitan Opera, but Bodanzky was forced to turn it down because there was a nude scene in the second act that would make it unstageable at the Met. Zemlinsky then abandoned it, beginning work on a new opera titled Circe, but only the first act was completed at the time of his death in 1942. Thus the opera had to wait until October 6, 1996 to be performed at the Hamburg Opera, with the orchestral score finished and tidied up by musicologist Anthony Beaumont.

This recording was taken from two later performances in the same original production with the world premiere cast. The plot, which I found on Wikipedia along with the above information, is as follows:

Act 1

During the preparations for a feast, the Lydian king Kandaules announces that he wants to show his wife Nyssia unveiled to his favorites for the first time. When a magic ring (that makes whoever wears it invisible) is found in the belly of a fish, the king summons the fisherman Gyges. At first, the fisherman is indifferent, but when it is revealed that his wife Trydo has been unfaithful to him, he kills her in front of all the guests. Kandaules is fascinated and invites Gyges to his castle.

Act 2

Kandaules wants to share his immense wealth, including his beautiful wife, with all his friends. He convinces Gyges to use the magic ring in order to behold the naked Nyssia. Events turn against the king, when the invisible Gyges spends the night with Nyssia, who mistakes the fisherman for Kandaules.

Act 3

Gyges reveals his true identity to Nyssia and expects to be executed. Nyssia however feels humiliated and betrayed by her husband, and orders Gyges to kill the king. She then crowns Gyges the new king of Lydia.

So it’s kind of a debased plot involving somewhat debased characters, with or without the nude scene in Act 2…kind of like Salome in reverse. But at least King Pervert gets it in the end, so there’s poetic justice in that. The orchestral prelude includes a spoken text which I have no idea about since I didn’t get a booklet with my download. The music is set firmly in Zemlinsky’s late style, which means a sort of combination of Stravinsky-like rhythms and modern harmonies that incorporate open fourths and fifths and seem to move and shift like the wind. Even if there hadn’t been a nude scene in Act 2, this opera simply wouldn’t have been liked or accepted at the Met, which was and remains one of the most reactionary opera houses in the entire world. Of course, I should talk: my hometown Cincinnati Opera company refused to renew artistic director Nicholas Muni’s contract because he staged two very edgy one-act operas, Peter Bengtson’s The Maids with Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis, but you kind of expect that here. Most people think of New York City as a hotbed of edgy innovation, but it just ain’t so.

Despite the edgy orchestral score, the vocal line is pretty lyrical and grateful for the singers. No one is trying to cope with extraordinary octave leaps or Aribert Reimann-styled screaming lines, but as in the case of much modern opera there are no arias. James O’Neal, the tenor who sings the leading role, has a pretty good voice, but the baritones are even better, with dark, rich timbres firmly controlled. (In 1996, most opera houses were still hiring singers who didn’t have strains, flutters, or wobbles in their voices. How things have changed.) The one defective voice in the cast is, ironically, the only female singer, soprano Nina Warren. She has a slow vibrato that got on my nerves a bit and always seems just a shade under pitch in her high notes, but beggars can’t be choosers. This is just about the only recording of this work commonly available.

But as I say, the music itself is fascinating. It keeps shifting and changing to match the dramatic mood of each scene, and ends up sounding like a more modernistic version of a Strauss opera. Even so, I found myself disliking the music more than I liked it. Possibly because the story is an ugly one, the music is more often ugly as well in the same way that all of Janáček’s operas have ugly music, even his comedy The Cunning Little Vixen. And in my view, life is too short to put up with primarily ugly music even if the dramatic situation calls for it. Also, to be honest, the music goes on too long and, since it doesn’t vary much in tempo or tone, it just wears you down.

So chalk this one up as a failure for Zemlinsky. Hey, not everything a great composer writes is great!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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