Thursday, 21 June 2012

Jaromír Weinberger’s Anschlussoper

Last Friday I went see the RSO Wien and Singakademie under Cornelius Meister perform Weinberger’s Wallenstein in concert. The programme notes and JSTOR were a fat lot of use and my review, which you can read in full here, ended up being more about the piece than the performances:

On paper Wallenstein is an operatic setting of Schiller’s dramatic trilogy of the same name, and presents a fall-from-grace story arc ending in the murder of its titular character, military leader Albrecht von Wallenstein, a historical character active during the Thirty Years’ War. Wallenstein commands the respect of his men, though his own loyalty to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II lessens with each day he spends in purposeless conflict with his Swedish enemy. Overtures are made to the Swedes which Wallenstein hopes will push the emperor towards peace, though his co-conspirator Octavio Piccolomini has secretly remained loyal to the emperor. Piccolomini turns Wallenstein’s army against him and the drama closes with a bloodbath, bringing an end to Wallenstein, his brother Terzky and his wife, and his comrade Illo. Max, Piccolomini’s son, had in an earlier scene fallen in love with Wallenstein’s daughter Thekla, and with his loyalties wretchedly divided between his father, Wallenstein and the emperor, he ventures into futile battle with the Swedes to meet certain death, after which Thekla dies of grief.
A straightforward political allegory may be deciphered here, drawing from Weinberger’s personal situation and the circumstances of the work’s première (at the Vienna State Opera a matter of months before Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany). Wallenstein bears a dedication to the then Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, who was struggling to maintain Austria’s independence in the face of German aggression; Schuschnigg’s predecessor Engelbert Dollfuss, who had brutally suppressed Austria’s labour movement and established authoritarian rule in 1933, had been assassinated by Nazi agents in a 1934 attempted putsch, and it is quite probable that like many in Austria’s Jewish community, Weinberger, a composer of Jewish origin who escaped into American exile in 1939, supported the Dollfuss regime for its scaling back of anti-Semitic measures and commitment to the Austrian nation-state. And so in Wallenstein, the parallels are painted with a broad brush: the absolutist, intolerant Ferdinand II as enemy belligerent represents Germany, while Wallenstein is a stand in for the slain Dollfuss. Historical loose threads are left hanging aplenty, perhaps because rather than in spite of Max Brod’s libretto driving the point home with unmistakable clarity. It is indeed a strange achievement of this opera that the seriousness of what is at stake registers so strongly that Weinberger can be himself – a nostalgia soundtrack for the former Austro-Hungarian empire – and the entire thing (almost) doesn’t sound absurd. Grim scene-setting with ominous martial music gives way with ease to oom-pah bands and Slavic-inflected melodic lyricism; ethereal moments bordering on atonality dissolve into plush Korngoldian statements with heart firmly on sleeve. For the Max and Thekla sub-plot Weinberger transitions into full-blown operetta mode.

It’s not the kind of historical claim I am normally inclined to make after one hearing and no reading, but ‘Dollfuss: The Memorial’ was a point made with no great subtlety and as no other critic mentioned it I thought it needed saying. The historiographical dust is far from settled on Dollfuss, or indeed on Austria 1933-38 altogether: at the rehabilitative end of the spectrum there are the Dollfuss articles of founding father of modern Austrian Studies R. John Rath and other publications drawing attention to the workings of the Ständestaat, while those who would not have us forget that Dollfuss did away with parliamentary democracy maintain value in the term ‘Austrofascism’. Few of the terms which attempt to mediate – clerical authoritarianism, parafascism, and the like – carry a flattering ring, and a standard complaint among my historian friends is that Anton Pelinka and Günter Bischof’s recent reassessment didn’t deliver on the detachment it promised.

And if our accounts now almost eighty years after the fact are still pushing agendas of one political colour or another, then what of Weinberger writing in 1937? Early indications showed that this would be a hagiographic tribute akin to those published in the Jewish press after the Dollfuss assassination, full of statements we can all too easily see the desperation and folly of now (‘Herzog Wallenstein soll uns immer Führer sein’ cry his men, Nuremberg Rally style). And yet Weinberger – or more precisely his librettist Max Brod – digs a little deeper in Wallenstein’s monologues, one of which mirrors Dollfuss’s transformation from cautious democrat whom the Social Democrats could do business with to the authoritarian leader of 1933 (ending in ‘I have ensnared myself in a pernicious web of my own making, and only violence can tear it apart’). The Max and Thekla subplot follows the pattern of films like Der Kongress tanzt, using politics as a screen for escapist romance, though Weinberger at least cannot be accused of failing to confront us with what the two lovers yearn to escape from. This opera is not as subtle as Mathis der Maler, though given the grave circumstances of its composition one could hardly expect it to be.

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