On screen: Goldschmidt: Beatrice Cenci

Goldschmidt Beatrice Cenci (1949/50)

Prague Philharmonic Chorus; Wiener Symphoniker / Johannes Debus

C Major Blu-ray 751504 [107’] 1080i / 16:9. PCM Stereo / DTS-HD MA 5.1.

Sung in German with English, Japanese and Korean subtitles. Regions A, B and C Video Director: Felix Breisach.

Recorded live at Bregenz Festival on 18th July 2018

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The first DVD release for the opera Beatrice Cenci by Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-96), in a production at the Bregenz Festival in 2018 – continuing the lineage of stage-works by once forgotten and suppressed composers to have been presented at this event over recent years.

What’s the opera like?

Finished midway through the last century, Beatrice Cenci might have been expected to revive its composer’s career two decades after reaching its peak with the premiere of his first opera Der gewaltige Hanrei and 17 years after he fled Germany. A Covent Garden staging failed to materialize and it stayed unheard until a concert performance in 1988, with a full production six years later. Drawing on the 1819 verse-drama by Shelley, librettist Martin Esslin created a succinct and cohesive text where tension rarely lets up over the opera’s 105-minute duration.

Musically things are a little more ambiguous. Goldshmidt’s intention was to revive the art of bel canto and Beatrice Cenci indeed focuses attention on vocal writing to a degree unusual in post-Wagnerian opera. That said, melodies per se are in relatively short supply across a work that, for all it drama and immediacy, is arresting rather than memorable in content. Musically the idiom is still rooted in the ‘neue sachlichkeit’ found in the stage-works of Hindemith and Weill 25 years earlier, such that genuine emotion feels reined-in even at dramatic highpoints.

Johannes Erath‘s staging further exacerbates this impression, its lurid tone and over-wrought action suggestive of a gothic overkill that Goldschmidt was surely anxious to avoid. Katrin Connan‘s sub-expressionist sets, Katharina Tasch‘s faux-Renaissance costumes (redolent of Peter Greenaway during his 1980s heyday) and Bernd Purkrabek‘s lighting with its extremes of darkness and light further ensure the outcome has an exaggerated, even two-dimensional quality which leaves little room for subtlety or finesse in delineating character and incident.

Does it all work?

Only in part, but this is hardly the fault of the singers – among whom, Gal James comes into her own as the cruelly mistreated Beatrice with her soliloquy in the final act, with Dshamilja Kaiser eloquent as her step-mother Lucrezia and Christina Bock no less sympathetic as her weak half-brother Bernardo. Christoph Pohl is almost too suave to convey the sheer evil of her father Francesco, while Per Bach Nissen treads a fine line between humour and caricature as the cardinal Camillo, and Michael Laurenz brings purpose to the vacillating prelate Orsino.

The Prague Philharmonic Chorus is heard to impressive effect in those banquet and execution scenes that bring the outer acts to their climax, with Johannes Debus securing a trenchant and committed response from the Vienna Symphony players.

Understandable that the production should have been given in the composer’s own translation of the original libretto, yet this in itself tends to underline the sardonic and darkly comic aspects which, whether in accord with Esslin’s absurdist convictions, inevitably militate against Goldschmidt’s expressive priorities.

Is it recommended?

Yes, in that Beatrice Cenci is a significant and (given its historical context) valiant attempt to renew certain dramatic qualities at a premium in opera of that era. This Bregenz production makes for compulsive viewing, if rather less in the way of affective or empathetic listening.

Further information can be found at the <a href=”http:/www.cmajor-entertainment.com”>C major</a> website

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