Exploring Wellesz, Part 4: Die Bakchantinnen

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WELLESZ: Die Bakchantinnen / Thomas Moser, baritone (Dionysos); Michael Burt, bass (Teiresias); Harald Stamm, bass (Kadmos); Roberta Alexander, soprano (Princess Agave); Claudia Barainsky, soprano (Ino); Michelle Breedt, mezzo (Panthea); Hans Aschenbach, tenor (Pentheus, Agave’s Son); Jorg Gottschick, baritone (Pentheus’ Servant); Chorus (Warriors of Pentheus); Rundfunkchor Berlin; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Gerd Albrecht, conductor / Orfeo C 136 012

Egon Wellesz wrote six operas, starting with Die Prinzessin Girnara in 1918-19 and ending with Incognita in 1951 (by which time he was working and teaching at Oxford), but none achieved the high level of inspiration or later respect as Die Bakchantinnen (1928-30). Based on one of the last plays of Euripides, Wellesz wrote his own libretto and the work received glowing reviews after its premiere under the baton of Clemens Krauss in Vienna on June 28, 1931.

The problem that Wellesz faced, and his solution, are well described in the booklet for this recording:

Dionysus, now grown, returns to his homeland to revenge the death of his mother. He strikes the women of Thebes blind so that they leave home and city to hold nocturnal parties with him. Pentheus, returning home with the warriors of Thebes after a victorious battle, sees the confusion that has seized his mother, Queen Agave. He does not believe in the coming of a new god, considering all such talk fraud and magic, and decides to go to one of the nocturnal celebrations to expose this fraud.

Disguised in animal skins, he hides in a forest glen of the Kithairon mountain range where the Bacchae offer a sacrifice. A flash by Dionysus makes Pentheus visible to the Bacchae. In their drunken insanity they mistake him for a wild animal that they want to sacrifice to the god. Pentheus calls out his name in vain. He is hunted to death by Agave and the Bacchae. Only now, called back from madness into reality by the seer Teiresias, does Agave see what she has done and perceives the vengeful retaliation of her guilt.

Euripides’ drama could only offer the external framework for the opera production. What was simply narrated in his play had to become visible events, with other things pushed into the background. The effective realization of the saga, in which Wellesz transfers Euripides’ nocturnal festivities and the death of Pentheus into a plot visible on the stage, is reflected in the music. This effect is made by means of hard orchestration, polytonal layers on the one hand with extended unison passages or two-part texture on the other.

This is one of only two recordings of this opera that I could find, the other being a 1960 radio broadcast from Vienna with Paul Schöffler as Dionysos, Ludwig Weber as Teiresias, Kurt Böhme as Kadmos, Christel Goltz as Queen Agave and Fritz Uhl as Pentheus, conducted by Mitiliados Caridis (Myto 331), but of course the sound is inferior (though pretty good for a mono broadcast) and the cast is not markedly superior. In fact, although Roberta Alexander (Agave) on this recording does not have the firmest or most attractive voice, she is better than Goltz who was a very dramatic interpreter with a pretty ugly-sounding voice. The big problems in this recording are the wobbles of basso Michael Burt and tenor Hans Aschenbach.

Here, in an operatic setting, Wellesz pushes much of his experience in writing purely instrumental music aside. Bolstered by his experience in studying Byzantine vocal music, his writing for both soloists and chorus is superb and wholly idiomatic. Despite his reliance on “narrative” singing, i.e. music without arias, he brilliantly balances grateful vocal lines over an instrumental background that often moves against the vocal line rather than with it. In this way Wellesz was able to create musical tension while only occasionally relying on harsh modern chords. A good parallel would be Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, which I’m pretty sure he used as a model without copying anything that Stravinsky wrote.

Nary a musical step goes wrong in Die Bakchantinnen. Once the musical progression starts it scarcely ever lets up, and of course this is in contrast to Oedipus Rex where Stravinsky frequently interrupted the music for the narration of the story. Wellesz would undoubtedly have had to follow Stravinsky’s model had he not dramatized those long narrative passages in Euripides’ play, but by doing so he created a swirling, constantly evolving score tied closely to the stage action that holds your attention from first note to last. I think of it as a somewhat more modern version of Strauss’ Elektra.

Of course, the big difference here is that by having Dionysus/Bacchus as a principal character, both Euripides and Wellesz were dealing with the fantasy of a living deity, which removes the plot somewhat from the world of reality, but the underlying message of the play, not to become too wrapped up in a frenzy of god-worship because it distorts your mind and your perception of reality, is a universal theme. Indeed, one could apply this story to the rise of Hitler and the hypnotic power he held over most of the German people during the Third Reich. When it was all over, the German people were just as shocked and devastated by what their Führer-god had done, the slaughter of six million people, as Queen Agave was by slaughtering her own son.

The long solo by Agave and duet with Pentheus is one of the finest moments in the opera, in which Wellesz shows clearly his formidable skills as a composer. Here he had to deal with one of the most crucial scenes in the play/opera, and he responded beautifully, climaxing the scene with offstage brass and the arrival of the chorus, all knitted together into one continuous scene. He then changes the rhythm from a straight 4 to a rapid succession of triplets as the orchestra builds the tension.

Act II, much shorter than the first, opens with a surprisingly lyrical orchestral prologue in which Wellesz turns on the charm with a relatively tonal melodic line, though it leads immediately into a tense, dramatic scene featuring Pemtheus and his servant. And then, wonder of wonders, Agave gets an aria! No, it’s not “Vissi d’arte,” but it is indeed an aria and not just strophic recitative. This eventually morphs into a duet with Ino, and then the chorus enters. It’s a perfect scene. Later, in the scene “Bakchos! Bakchos!”, Wellesz sets up a stomping ostinato beat to indicate the implacable forward progression of the crowd to sacrifice Pantheus to the god. The ending of the opera is also impressive in that Wellesz just give you an A minor chord, played twice, and just stops. No big hoopla. The drama is over.

This is clearly one of his greatest pieces and one that you should hear, even if you’re not normally a modern opera lover.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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