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

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)