Thursday, February 21, 2013

Orff: Der Mond (ZDF-TV, 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a download of a 1965 ZDF German TV broadcast of Carl Orff’s opera Der Mond (“The Moon”), which Charles and I both thought might be interesting because just about the only Orff piece anybody’s likely to have heard these days is Carmina Burana. Alas, the download was in German and there were no subtitles, so to get at least a clue of what the piece was about (besides its title) I looked it up on the Internet and came out with the following on its Wikipedia page: it was based on one of the Grimm fairy tales and “the story involves characters who steal the moon for their country which does not have a moon. They take the moon to their graves upon their deaths and St. Peter goes to the underworld to retrieve it and hang it again in the sky. Two speaking roles include that of a child and a landlord. Singing roles include the four rascals who steal the moon, St. Peter, a farmer and the narrator.” Though we were quite a bit back of scratch trying to figure this one out because it was in untranslated German and we could only pick out the occasional word here and there, it was clear that Der Mond — at least its first half — was the work of a composer with a sense of humor (an impression one does not get from Carmina Burana, despite the light-hearted and even racy nature of some of the ancient German texts!). It also differs from Orff’s wall-of-sound masterpiece (there’s a reason why Carmina Burana — especially its opening section, “O Fortuna!” — has adorned so many film scores, including those of movies like The Doors about a quite different sort of music) in using a chamber orchestra and small choir, though it’s similar in that it’s also a piece where the chorus (however small) is more important than the individual vocal soloists, and the one substantial solo role is the narrator, who in this production is stuck inside a tree and supposedly reading the story from a large book. Another point of similarity between Carmina Burana and Der Mond is that the tenor part — the narrator, sung here by John van Kesteren — is written at the extreme high end of the tenor range, and even though the opera is short (an hour and 10 minutes, a one-act usually paired with another work of Orff’s called Die Kluge — “The Wise Girl”) one worries that he’s going to poop out before the end of it.

This telecast was from Munich in 1965 and was in black-and-white, and was conducted by Kurt Eichhorn (who, not coincidentally, made the first — and so far the only — studio recording of Der Mond for German RCA five years later) and directed by Arno Assmann; the production is quite clever and has some charming stage settings, including a large tree in which the moon hangs until the four “Bursche” (translated by Wikipedia as “Rascals”) steal it. The rascals in this production (Willi Brokmeier, Claudio Nicolai, Werner Kotzerke and Erich Winkelmann) are made up to look like what the Marx Brothers would have looked like if all had used Harpo’s makeup, and the actual theft of the moon is done with some amusing slapstick byplay between them. The scene after they die (though without the synopsis it wouldn’t be at all clear that that’s what happened) is also well done, especially when they split the moon into four pieces and each carry a piece of it down into the underworld. Alas, once St. Peter (Heinz Herrmann) enters the action the piece turns preachy in all the respects you’d expect from an opera with St. Peter as an onstage character, and Orff’s writing turns a good deal duller. It also doesn’t help that there aren’t any adult women in the dramatis personae, though a girl (Annemarie Sschuder) comes on at the end as a sort of dea ex machina. It would be nice to see Der Mond either with English subtitles or in translation — Orff’s writing is neither so lyrical nor so keyed to the rhythms of German that it would lose much in another tongue — and would be especially nice to see it on a double bill with Die Kluge: the two pieces were premiered together in Frankfurt in 1943 and, with the Nazi regime still a going concern, the opening of Wikipedia’s synopsis of Die Kluge — “A poor peasant finds on his land a mortar made out of gold. He decides to take it to the king, thinking that he will be rewarded for being a loyal subject. His wise daughter tells him not to, because the king will throw him in the dungeons thinking that he has stolen the pestle, which in truth he didn’t find. The daughter's prediction comes true” — seems like quite a gutty thing to have produced during the reign of such egomaniac savages as Hitler and his crew!