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BLACHER: 200.000 Taler

spacer Mödl, Weiss, Mikes; Reich, Haefliger, Feldhoff; Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hollreiser. Production: Sellner. Arthaus Musik 102 185, 96 mins., subtitled

TalerDVD

Boris Blacher (1903–75) was a prolific, imaginative composer whose name and work have sadly become obscure. He absorbed influences from all the major schools of musical thought he lived through, from neo-classicism and twelve-tone through electronic and experimental. But his music maintained a strong personal identity, and it was often surprising. 

After being banished from cultural life for promoting the music of Schoenberg, Hindemith and other modern composers that the Nazis had labeled “degenerate,” Blacher rose to prominence after the war as both a composer and a composition teacher. Having established a reputation as an iconoclast with such operas as Abstract Opera No. 1 (1957) and Zwischenfälle bei einer Notlandung (Incident at a Crash Landing, 1964), Blacher defied expectations in 1969 with 200.000 Taler (200,000 Thaler), a very realistic opera based on a story by Sholem Aleichem, who today is most famous for having written the play that was adapted into Fiddler on the Roof

Set on a Russian shtetl around the start of the twentieth century, Alei­chem’s play Dos Groijse Gewins (The Big Prize, or The Jackpot) tells the story of an impoverished tailor whose life is transformed by winning a lottery. Director Gustav Rudolf Sellner’s world-premiere production opted for a very down-to-earth style, befitting the subject matter. Blacher wrote the opera in a conversational style, adhering closely to the form of the original play; there are no arias or set pieces. His music utilizes modernist techniques, incorporating the speech rhythms of the text, and it’s complex yet extremely accessible. Listeners who dislike modern music will find this opera palatable and approachable, yet more adventurous listeners will also find much to admire in Blacher’s inventiveness. While invoking elements of Jewish folk music, he avoids the boring practice of our own time, in which composers present such source music verbatim. Blacher pays respect to the culture without pandering to it. The music keeps the drama moving forward without overwhelming the storyline.

This studio recording gives the production an advantage: the voices are never buried, as they would be in a live setting, so one hears every line with utmost clarity (although at times this perfect balance can be unsettling). The original cast is wonderful, a reminder of the great singers who were active forty-five years ago. Baritone Günter Reich is convincing and charismatic as the tailor, Schimele Soroker. He captures both the anxiety of Schimele’s poverty and his unsophisticated bumptiousness when trying to move in upper-class social circles. The great Wagnerian mezzo Marta Mödl gives a fine supporting performance as Schimele’s wife. The two assistant tailors, both desperately in love with Schimele’s daughter Bailke, are heard in wonderful, sonorous performances by tenor Ernst Haefliger and bass-baritone Gerd Feldhoff. Bailke’s honest, homespun charms are particularly on display in the glowing performance of soprano Dorothea Weiss. The supporting cast is impeccable, and Heinrich Hollreiser leads the orchestra with dynamic intensity.

Neither Blacher’s opera nor the Alei­chem story on which it is based is a monumental work. However, and fortunately, not everything needs to be. 200.000 Taler is a delightful, entertaining look at the human comedy. And this excellent film version presents the opera in the warm, loving light it deserves. spacer 

ARLO MCKINNON

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