'Tiefland' makes a splendid return to American opera

March 25, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The Glasgow-born, German-trained Eugene d'Albert (1864-1932) is best remembered -- when remembered at all -- as one of the greatest pianists in the years immediately before and after the turn of the century, and as the teacher of another great pianist, Wilhelm Backhaus. But d'Albert was also one of his time's important opera composers -- he wrote 20 -- and one of them can justifiably be called a masterpiece.

That opera is "Tiefland" ("Lowlands"), currently receiving its first major American production in more than 80 years from the Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center. "Tief- land" is still a repertory item in German-speaking countries, but its neglect elsewhere is a bit of a mystery. In the seven years between its first performances in Prague in 1903 and its production at London's Covent Garden in 1910, "Tiefland" had conquered every major opera house in the world, including New York's Metropolitan Opera. It's a fascinating hybrid that has a 'u distinctive voice.

Its violent events, its honesty about sexuality and the effects of poverty upon human behavior, and its blunt musical idiom show the obvious influence of Italian verismo. "Tiefland's" score also betrays the influence of Wagner (particularly of "Tristan" and "Parsifal"), and of Debussy and Strauss. But it is without the heart-on-sleeve lyricism of the Italians, the monumental heroism of Wagner, the estheticism of Debussy or the sensationalism of Strauss.

"Tiefland" handles its themes of innocence and guilt with genuine subtlety and it demonstrates psychological penetration into the minds of its three major characters: Marta, the guilt-ridden mistress of the landlord Sebastiano; Sebastiano himself, whose brutal behavior never prevents us from seeing his sexual obsession with Marta as all too human; and Pedro -- the country bumpkin to whom Sebastiano marries Marta -- whose acquisition of compassion and understanding comes as his illusions are progressively shattered.

The case for "Tiefland" was made persuasive by conductor Heinz Fricke, the Washington Opera's music director, who kept the music moving powerfully, but also made the listener aware of the surging lyricism beneath its jagged, muscular surfaces.

Stage director Roman Terleckyj helped make the singers believable and sympathetic -- even during the few moments when Rudolf Lothar's libretto (after the Catalan playwright Angel Guimera's naturalistic drama, "Terra Baixa") descended into Wilhelmine sententiousness. And Zack Brown's scenery and costumes intelligently realized the opposition of the opera's pastoral and village elements.

The singing was generally excellent. James O'Neal coped manfully (and sometimes beautifully) with the near heldentenor demands of Pedro. As the tormented Marta, Carol Yahr, after some initially shaky moments, showed that she is a dramatic soprano who sings with security, warmth and intelligence. Most impressive of all was Richard Paul Fink as the cruelly obsessive Sebastiano. One can look forward to his assumption of the baritone roles of Verdi and Wagner in important opera houses. In somewhat smaller roles, bass-baritone Gabor Andrasy was effective as the compassionate village elder who helps save Marta from self-loathing, and Elisabeth Comeaux sang sweetly as Nuri, the child whose innocence does not keep her from being wise.

It's possible that the opera's descent into obscurity, which began during World War I, may have been a result of the anti-German sentiments engendered by the war. All this listener knows for certain is that it's good to have "Tiefland" back in a production this good.

Future performances of "Tiefland" are tomorrow, Tuesday, Friday, April 3 and 8. Call (202) 416-7800 or (800) 87-OPERA.

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