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November 2003 - Nr. 11


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Der Kreidekreis
cuts a striking image


Elisabeth Kuehn

Alexander Zemlinski’s (1871-1942) opera Der Kreidekreis was certainly a feast for the minimalist eyes and ears on Sunday, October 26, 2003 at the Opernhaus Zürich. Adapted from Klabunds Spiel nach dem Chinesischen, Der Kreidekreis (1925) and also influenced by Brecht, Zemlinsky’s libretto and music is a social-critical parable. The three-act, seven scene opera (1930-32) has a distinct Chinese flair as its success relies on an old Chinese tale. Der Kreidekreis draws a tragic parallel between stage life and ‘real’ life: After its Première in Zürich on October 14, 1933 and the German Première in Stettin in 1934, it was censored, shortened and later banned until its reappearance in Dortmund in 1955. This production is the first time it has reappeared in Zürich since 1933.

Mrs. Tchang can no longer afford to eat with the burden of bringing up and feeding her daughter, Tchang Haitang, strongly sung by Brigitte Hahn and acted by Anikó Donáth. She sells her daughter to Tong, a shrewd ‘business’-person who deals in the female trade. He has been taken in by Tchang Haitang’s ability to dance as she would have to please her patrons somehow.

László Polgár’s Ma is captivated by the young woman and wins her by outbiding the young Pao, tenor Francisco Araiza, who has become enamoured with the young creature Haitang. She draws for them a Circle of chalk on the floor that will never be broken. One year later, a son is born to Ma and Haitang, much to the dismay of chambermaid Yü-pei, Cornelia Kallisch. This one, in turn wants her revenge on the new couple. She had also noticed that a mysterious man, Tchang Liang (Haitang’s brother), baritone Rodney Gilfry, has paid a visit to Haitang. She quickly reports this to her master to stir something between Haitang and Ma. She poisons Ma’s coffee, passing it on as Haitang’s doing. Haitang is quickly taken away, put to trial.

Yü-pei pays off some ‘friends’ who swear that they are not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, that Haitang’s child is really Yü-pei’s. To decide who is the real mother, Haitang is asked to draw a circle of chalk on the floor and both women pull for the child in the centre.

The woman who will pull the child out of the circle is deemed to be the real mother. Haitang loses the first time and does not even attempt a second time. She knows all is lost. Suddenly, an announcement is made regarding the King Pao who decides that all jailed persons are to be let free! Haitang and Pao are reunited from the first evening where he saw her as Tong’s possession. She knows that nothing could ever be between them and that the Kreidekreis cannot be broken. The opera ends tragically with the reunification of brother and sister, Haitang and Liang but they suddenly drop to the floor for the opera’s abrupt end and a blackout.

Incorporated in this singing drama are the use of live stage actors, each who were dressed in black, sitting on black chairs a the front of the stage. Each were given a role to act along with one of the singers. The effectiveness of this stage technique was superb and the flow between actor and singer unique and easy. Conductor Alan Gilbert’s interpretation of Zemlinsky’s score was one of an easy flow to the music as his musical direction was clear, relaxed but also intense. The harmonies of this Mahler-style work drew the audience in new directions. One must remember that at the time of this opera, jazz sounds were all the rage and Zemlinsky’s score is not without the addition of saxophones to empasize the exoticism of the libretto and stage presentation and the times in which it was written. His lyrical writing and tone is full of orchestral colours. The minimalist sets as well as striking lighting, one colour of different shades per scene was an effective way to treat the score and libretto as well as emphasize the dynamics of the location and story.

Zemlinsky’s frienship with Schoenberg and Mahler were great influences on his writing as was the fact that as a conductor, he was surrounded by the Viennese music masters. He emigrated to the US a few years after the Zürich première where he spent the rest of his days.

Further information on the Opernhaus Zürich is found by visiting: www.opernhaus.ch

Elizabeth Kuehn


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