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EÖTVÖS: Paradise Reloaded (Lilith)

CD Button Schönmüller, Nelsen, Francis, Sidak, Hauf; Falk, Stoklossa, Heinrich, Jankowitsch, Wagner; Hungarian Radio Symphonic Orchestra, Vajda. German text, no translations. BMC CD 226 (2)

Recordings Eotvos Lilith cover 117
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HUNGARIAN COMPOSER  and conductor Peter Eötvös is a crucial player on the international new-music scene, having written a large body of well-crafted and underrated work. Only a few of his twelve operas have been staged in the U.S.; in June, the newly revived New York City Opera will give the long-overdue New York premiere of his 2004 Angels in America. Angels also feature in his 2013 German-language opera Paradise Reloaded (Lilith). But unlike the time-halting winged messengers of Tony Kushner’s play, the fallen angels in this opera—Lucifer and his horde—are bent on changing the course of history. 

The work had an odd genesis and is itself a kind of alternate history. It’s a reworking of Eötvös’s 2009 opera Die Tragödie des Teufels, but more a recomposition than a revision, resulting in a similar yet separate work. Both Paradise Reloaded and its predecessor are loose adaptations of Imre Madách’s 1861 play The Tragedy of Man, the premier work of Hungarian theater. The play is a Milton-inspired retelling of the Fall with an existential bent: Lucifer leads Adam through a series of nightmarish visions, showing him how humanity will progress (or rather regress) with the aim of driving him toward suicide, thereby eradicating the human race. Eötvös and his librettist, German playwright Albert Ostermaier, insert a timely additional scene in which Lucifer transports Adam to the present-day Middle East, where they witness a journalist murdered in the name of “free press” and a group of war-widows seeking revenge in the name of Islam. They also add an intriguing new character, the demoness Lilith, who according to Jewish legend was Adam’s first wife. While she featured in Tragödie des Teufels as a secondary character named “Lucy,” in Paradise Reloaded she plays a more central role, serving as Lucifer’s confidante in hopes of winning back her former husband. Husky-voiced mezzo Annette Schönmüller is a fierce, vindictive Lilith, whose turbulent vocal line slides between scream-like high notes and mocking, moan-like pitches at the bottom of her range; you can feel her character’s intense bitterness spew forth in harshly pronounced consonants in the penultimate scene, as she commands Adam to murder Eve. 

In spite of the work’s darker elements, Paradise Reloaded is surprisingly funny at times—a “divine comedy,” if you will. Baritone Holger Falk’s Lucifer is a bumbling version of Mephistopheles, whose satanic plans are always thwarted. Eötvös saves his most grotesque music for the devil, accompanying his entrance with rumbling timpani rolls, whinnying brass, slimy string glissandos and growling flutter-tongue woodwinds. The surrealist musical humor of Le Grand Macabre, by Eötvös’s Hungarian compatriot György Ligeti, seems to have been an inspiration. Like Ligeti, Eötvös indulges in bizarre bastardizations of chorale tunes: Bach’s “Lobe den Herren and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” are both subjected to parody. 

The characters in Paradise Reloaded also seem indebted to the comic-strip goofballs who populate Ligeti’s Breughelland. Lucifer’s trio of fallen-angel goons clown around with some Three Stooges-like slapstick. Tenor Eric Stoklossa and soprano Rebecca Nelsen, as Adam and Eve, are like a pair of pure-voiced, naïve children. Basking in the glow of Paradise, Eve sings bel canto coloratura runs that deteriorate into a fit of coughing as she chokes on the forbidden fruit. These cartoonish buffa elements allow the composer to try out some colorful and wacky musical experiments. But this makes it all the more difficult to take these Biblical caricatures seriously in the opera’s somber second half. Adam and Eve—dying of thirst in the desert, like Manon and des Grieux—suddenly shed the shtick and incongruously shift into tragic Romantic figures, more akin to their counterparts in Madách’s original 1861 play. But Eötvös does manage to instill a genuine sense of pathos in Lilith. Her aria that ends the opera is a lovely and moving expression of abandonment after Adam chooses Eve. Eötvös surrounds Schönmüller’s lyrical descending vocal line with a cloud of sparkling bells, pizzicato strings and piano that rains down like the splinters of broken mirror that she sings of, falling “deep into the heart … like love.” —Joe Cadagin 



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