Things never went right with Zemlinsky’s Der Traumgörge. Gustav Mahler was supposed to conduct the 1907 premiere, but he threw in the towel at the Vienna State Opera and the performance never happened.

It was only in 1980 that this lush and enigmatic cautionary tale finally saw the light of day in a Nuremberg staging. But it did not set the world on fire, and has stayed stubbornly out of the repertoire in spite of sporadic attempts to resuscitate it.

In fact, it’s so obscure that even German opera buffs are likely to ask, “What’s a Görge?”. A century ago, Görge was a north German version of the name George. Now it’s as forgotten as Zemlinsky’s opera The Dream-George.

Rounding off a largely disastrous season, the Deutsche Oper Berlin has come up with a new staging that will do little to convince the world that this is anything other than a justly neglected masterwork.

The choreographer and director Joachim Schloemer has struggled so hard to come up with a contemporary take on the piece, rich in meaning and open to a variety of interpretations, that he has rendered the plot, which was confusing enough to begin with, almost entirely unintelligible.

Zemlinsky’s opera plays out in a timeless setting of small-town life. Dreamy orphan Görge is more interested in the world of fairy tales than in his bride-to-be, Grete. He runs away before the engagement party. After years of wandering, he finds his dream woman, the social outcast Gertraud. He rescues her from a witch-hunt and brings her to his home town, where all are enthralled by his storytelling and respect him as their leader.

Schloemer sets the action in the broken-down anteroom of a modern- day underground railway. Static escalators, grubby stairs, illuminated announcements (“FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!”) and a couple of bare concrete walls form a space that is halfway to nowhere (sets: Jens Kilian). The villagers of the first act are grey- suited office-workers, the miller and pastor are drunks, Görge drafts film scripts and wears thick glasses.

The second act, Zemlinsky’s exploration of brutality and violence, mingles subcultures of pimps, hippy surfies, puking proletarians and lumpish religious fanatics. Görge is a tramp, his Gertraud a junkie. For the postlude of the couple’s triumphant return home, Schloemer has devised a bizarre bunker of conformist cultism, Stepford Wives meet Jim Jones. The chorus are dressed in identical 1950s leisurewear, and there’s a mass suicide just before the final curtain.

It’s a disjointed and incoherent take on what is fundamentally a Parsifal for Pentecost, Zemlinsky’s answer to Wagner’s tale of lost leaders and redemption. Schloemer’s subversion of the ostensibly happy end is fine in itself but, without a cogent context, it works like a desperate gag.

Jacques Lacombe does the piece only limited good. He conducts with a good sense of Zemlinsky’s luxuriance, but without the clarity and sensitivity really to make the score work. Too often the singers are swamped, left to belt out impossibly complex lines
over the full force of the composer’s dense orchestration.

In this opaque setting, Steve Davislim still manages to bring charisma and intelligence to the murderously difficult title role, singing with lyrical refinement and courage.

His women, reduced in number by Michaele Kaune’s sudden indisposition from four to three, all sing well, Fionnuala McCarthy clean and crystalline as Grete, and Manuela Uhl boldly taking on the part of Princess as well as Gertraud with grace, style and impressive accuracy. 

The smaller roles are all solidly cast. But a good night of opera takes more than fine singing, and there’s little else in this frenetic evening to make it seem worth all that effort.

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