STEPHAN: Die ersten Menschen.
Nancy Gustafson (Chawa, soprano), Franz Hawlata (Adahm, bass), Wolfgang
Millgramm (Chabel, tenor), Donnie Ray Albert (Kajin, baritone), Orchestre
National de France/Mikko Franck
Naïve V 5028 (F) (DDD) TT: 44:03 + 48:55
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History, as they say, is written by the victors. When I think of the dead
of World War I, I think of Britain and France -- the promising lives of
George Butterworth and Wilfred Owen, among others. But, of course, Germans,
Austrians, and Turks died too -- among them the twenty-eight-year-old Rudi
Stephan, shot and killed at the front in 1915.
Stephan's music fits comfortably into the post-Wagnerian Austro-German
milieu from roughly the turn of the century. Nevertheless, Stephan works
the style better than most. His music moves with purpose, rather than flailing
about in the Wagnerian high seas. In that way, he reminds me of Wagner
himself, particularly something like Die Walküre. He doesn't work
at Wagner's level, but then again, very few composers do. Nevertheless,
he does have some of Wagner's musical drive.
Die erste Menschen, a "mystère érotique" by one
Otto Borngräber, belongs to the late Nineteenth-Century genre of Biblical
rewrites, like Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur, d'Annunzio's Le martyre
de Saint Sébastien, and Wilde's Salomé. Time has treated these works
badly. We tend to regard them as little more than kitschfests. Die
erste Menschen (literally translated, "the first men"; better translated, "the
first people." It's not easy to convey the sense of Menschen) retells
the story of Cain and Abel, as you can discover by the clever variations
on the Biblical names -- about as clever as "Schmitany Schmears." It
tries to come up with a reason why Cain slew Abel. When I hit puberty,
I wondered, if the Bible were literally true, where humanity came from,
since Eve is the only woman around and she has only sons. That's right!
Cain and Abel fight over who gets to sleep with mom. Racy stuff, eh? All
bellowed with enough hot air to fly the Goodyear blimp. There's also some
blather about how man invented or discovered God, which shows the same
amount of religious and psychological acuity in the same over-inflated
knock-off of Nietzsche.
Stephan has set all this twaddle to some very good music. Indeed, the only
reason to endure the play is to listen to the music. Stephan supplies the
depth of emotion and of psychology. He succeeds to such an extent that
you probably won't laugh outright at Borngräber's ciphers while they
cavort onstage, but wait until the music ends and read the libretto all
on its lonesome. No one set piece stands out, but that's because Stephan
constructs scenes rather than individual numbers. Each scene rushes inexorably
to its climax.
As with most non-repertory operas, the CD records a live performance. Mikko
Franck delivers a dynamic account. The orchestra responds to the shifts
of mood alertly and together. Stephan demands a set of Wagnerian voices,
and so we have Nancy Gustafson, a good Elisabeth, Franz Hawlata, a Wotan
and Sachs in the making, and Donnie Ray Albert, a baritone who can shatter
stone. The only disappointment is heldentenor Wolfgang
Millgramm, who forces his voice sharp and into bleat, reminding me, oddly
enough, of Jerry Lewis. Nevertheless, he doesn't sink the ship, and the
love duet with Chawa rises almost to the heights of Siegmund and Sieglinde.
In all, Stephan lacks the genius of Strauss, but in his own way seems the
equal of Korngold. Die erste Menschen remains a curiosity, but a curiosity
well worth the occasional listen.
S.G.S. (February 2008)