Tastes change. Adolf Hitler loved Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland, the only example of German verismo. Written in 1903, this simplistic fable was one of the most popular works of the operatic canon until 1945, and enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the 1970s. Now it’s back again; Zurich’s new production will be followed by stagings in Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Braunschweig.

Zurich sets the tone smartly, by not pretending that the piece is first-rate. D’Albert’s music sounds like a mix of Wagner and Puccini, with Bizet and Meyerbeer thrown in for good measure. Catchy tunes, lumpy dialogues and colourful orchestration combine in an easy-listening romp from bucolic mountain utopia to corrupt urban valley and back. Hitler liked the clear demarcation of strong, noble highlanders from weak,
decadent lowlanders. His affection tarnished the work, and leaves future teams the challenge of freeing the piece from an ideological taint it never deserved.

Matthias Hartmann’s production tackles the problem head-on, setting the action in the Fascist 1930s and adding a eugenic twist. There are no mountains. Tommaso, now a Frankenstein-style scientist instead of a wise village elder, has created biological beings that can be programmed, à la Matrix, with a fictitious biography of choice. Pedro, in his glass case, imagines his alpine slopes, flock and dog. Evil industrialist Sebastiano buys the simple creature, just the thing for a parody marriage to his illicit but innocent lover Marta. The experiment goes wrong when Pedro asserts his independence.

Hartmann tries nobly to add the ideological sophistication that the work so
glaringly lacks. He is much aided by Volker Hintermeier’s striking stage design, a wood-panelled
corporate HQ, factory wheels turning in the background. It looks stunning, the references are readily readable, and the direction of individuals is clear and convincing. Ultimately, though, the logic of the new constellation does not quite add up, with bemusing inconsistencies in the allegiances of minor characters.

A more ideal cast would be hard to imagine. Only a well-heeled house can afford the luxury of serving a mediocre score with the very finest musicians, although this is certainly the way to do it. Peter Seiffert could have been born to the role of Pedro, with just the sort of big, burnished, ingenuous heroism the part demands. It is a pity that he did not learn the role. As the evening wore on, his appearances became more and more of a duet for tenor and prompt, with the latter frequently louder. Even so, he left no doubt that this is a part he can sing superbly.

Matthias Goerne stumbled less frequently over the part of Sebastiano. He brings just the right dark shade of slimy villainy, though the part sits too low for him, and he often sounds underpowered. That could not be said of Petra Maria Schnitzer, whose overwrought Marta would benefit from a little less force. By contrast, László Polgár’s Tommaso was an object lesson in restraint. As the young Nuri, Eva Liebau managed to sound convincingly child-like and pure.

Franz Welser-Möst drew luscious sounds from the Zurich opera house orchestra, never swamped his singers and approached the piece without irony. To understand where we are musically, he argues, we need to know the context. In this way, novelty can outweigh quality, especially when served with such style.

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