Zemlinsky’s “Der Kreidekreis”

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ZEMLINSKY: Der Kreidekreis / Renate Behle, sop (Tschang-Haitang); Gabriele Schrekenbach, alto (Frau/Mrs. Tschang); Roland Hermann, bs (Ma, the Tax Collector); Siegfried Lorenz, bs-bar (Tschao); Celina Lindsley, sop (Mädchen); Reiner Goldberg, ten (Prince/Emperor Pao); Uwe Peter, ten (Tong the Marriage Broker); Hans Helm, bar (Tschang-Ling); Gertrud Ottenthal, mezzo (Yü-Pei, Ma’s first wife); Kaja Borris, sop (Midwife); Warren Mok, ten (1st Coolie); Bengt-Ola Morgny, ten (2nd Coolie); Peter Matić, bar (Tschu-Tschu); Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Stefan Soltesz, cond / Capriccio C 5190

In my further explorations of Zemlinsky’s music, I’ve run across other operas, of which the most popular (nowadays, anyway) seems to be his one-act Der Zwerg (The Dwarf, 1917, premiered 1922). Based on a fairy tale by Oscar Wilde. the music is typically excellent though it is, after all, a tall tale about a dwarf who doesn’t know of his deformity sent to a Princess as a gift who falls in love with her, is spurned, finally sees himself in a mirror and dies of a broken heart. The years 1904-1934 seem to have been rife with opera plots based on some twisted tale of deformity, infidelity, betrayal and even insanity; one even sees this from Strauss in Salome, Elektra and Die Frau öhne Schatten, not to mention Weill’s Mahagonny and the much lesser-known operas of Schreker and Zemlinsky.

Der Kreidekreis or The Chalk Circle certainly fits into this category. It is a seamy tale which, we are told, is based on a Chinese fairy tale. If so, the Chinese must have been telling their kids some gritty stuff at bedtime that made the Grimm fairy tales look like the Care Bears. Tong, a former executioner, is now the proprietor of a whorehouse. Mrs. Cheng, a recent widow due to the fact that her husband was being blackmailed by the unscrupulous tax collector Ma and so committed suicide, most now sell her daughter Tschang-Haitang into prostitution in order to pay her bills. Prince Pao, one of Tong’s customers, is enchanted by Haitang. She draws a chalk circle on a paper wall, symbolizing the wheel of fate. Ma’s head bursts through the circle; he wants Haitang for himself and so buys her from Tong at a higher price than the Prince can come up with. (I think we’ve already beaten the Grimm brothers’ “Tinder Box” for disgusting fairy tale of the month club.)

Ma’s first wife, Yü-Pei, is furious over Haitang being in the household, particularly when Haitang bears him a son while she remains childless. Yü-Pei conspires with her lover, Chow (oh brother! a love quadrangle!) to murder Ma. The destitute Chang-Ling reappears at the garden gate; after consulting the chalk circle, he agrees that Ma must die. Haitang gives Chang-Ling her coat, observed by Yü-Pei who promptly informs Ma, accusing Haiting of consorting with beggars. Yü-Pei slips poison into Ma’s tea and he collapses on the spot. Haitang is arrested for the murder and Yü-Pei claims the child as hers. (Thanks to Wikipedia for all of this synopsis info.)

The corrupt judge, Chu-Chu, has been bribed by Chow while Yü-Pei has bribed the midwife, Mrs. Lien, and two fake witnesses to testify against Haitang. She is duly sentenced for murdering Ma. But here comes the rescue! News arrives that Prince Pao (remember him?) has been crowned Emperor and, as an act of goodwill, has declared an amnesty for all condemned prisoners. Pao reprieves Chang-Ling and orders Haitang’s child to be placed in the middle of a chalk circle. The two women are told to pull the child out: the child will be handed to whoever pulls the hardest. Unable to harm her son, Haitang reveals herself to be the true mother. Yü-Pei, Chow and Chu are led off for sentencing. Pao proclaims Haitang his wife and she is crowned empress. So we have a happy ending after all.

But into this gritty tale of prostitution, sex bondage, murder and mayhem, Zemlinsky poured some of the most colorful and fascinating music of his entire career. To my ears, this even beats Der Zwerg for his finest operatic score; in addition to the highly varied and colorful orchestration, Zemlinsky wrote some outstanding little arias for his characters. Like Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, there is also narration (quite a bit of it in fact), which makes it a sort of modern singspiel. And, thank goodness, we have an outstanding cast of singers, headed by soprano Renata Behle, mother of tenor Daniel Behle, as Tschang-Haitang. Between the light, airy scoring, lovely little arias that come and go like little gems, and his usual skill at creating a unified score, Zemlinsky succeeded in forging an opera that despite its dark plot enchants the listener as it holds his or her attention. It also scores over many of his other operas by having a regular rhythm that is easy for the listener to follow.

Der Kreidekreis is colorful in a somewhat Eastern-sounding way without intentionally copying any actual Chinese music. Zemlinsky also curbed his general tendency to write in harmonies that were too complex or modern for general audiences, though there are indeed several moments where the orchestra plays some complex figures. In toto, then, it’s not surprising that this was his biggest hit since Der Zwerg. But its success didn’t last long, thanks to the election of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. It was originally planned to premiere the work on four German stages—Frankfurt, Berlin, Cologne and Nuremberg—simultaneously in 1933, but the Nazis forbade this. In January 1934, however, due to a temporary lifting of restrictions, it was premiered in Stettin, Coburg, Berlin and Nuremburg, followed in February with a performance in Graz. Due to its instant success, it was also performed in Prague and Bratislava, but that was the end of it, as well as the end of Zemlinsky’s career in Germany.

Yet even with all its excellences, one realizes while listening to it that this is undoubtedly a total theatrical experience where the sets, acting, narration and singing are all interdependent on each other, much like the visuals, lighting and backdrops that Britten incorporated into Death in Venice. As such, an audio recording can only provide so much, although the singing and spoken acting does its best to bring as much of it as possible out through purely auditory means. Because of this, a libretto is mandatory to one’s full enjoyment of the opera. I suppose there is a German-English libretto provided if you buy the CD set, but I didn’t get one with my download. Happily, there is a free libretto, German only, available online, which I used Google Translate to convert into English for you. Ordinarily I wouldn’t recommend that you go to so much effort, but in this case I think it’s worth it. You  can read it online or download it by clicking HERE.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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