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Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz

In Review Munich Lillom hdl 217
World premiere of Doderer’s Liliom in Munich
© Thomas Dashuber

THERE IS ALWAYS something special in the air on the evening of a world premiere. The first performance of Liliom, a new opera freely but faithfully based on the 1909 play of the same name by Ferenc Molnár (1878–1952), was given by the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz on November 4 in Munich’s former Riding Hall. Liliom has music by Austrian composer Johanna Doderer and a libretto by Gärtnerplatz intendant Josef E. Köpplinger, who also directed the staging in his inimitable, spectacular way. Most of the world knows Molnár’s play today from Carousel, the 1945 musical adaptation of Liliom by Rodgers and Hammerstein. 

The Reithalle was hardly conceived for opera performances. Seventeen rising rows of seats with room for an audience of more than 400 faced a small stage area, with the large orchestra behind, separated by a scrim. The simple sets by Rainer Sinell were suggestive and atmospheric—a bench, the decorative top of a carousel, railroad tracks leading symbolically to “somewhere else” were sufficient to provide atmosphere. The meager inside of the Hollunder’s house, where Julie and Liliom live, appeared by simply opening a side wall on stage right.

Doderer’s compositional style is tonal, more Romantic than modern, but with touches of post-Romantic in the vocal lines. In Liliom, she shows a tendency to repeat sequences of text, a compositional technique that underscores the libretto but can grow wearying in the course of an evening. The entire first scene on the carnival grounds has been set in 3/4 time—or multiples thereof—and she sticks to this time signature whenever the carousel atmosphere is evoked. The work is full of melodies, few of which are memorable but all of which are effective. Liliom’s death scene is hauntingly beautiful; this can also be said for a number of segments that are musically as well as dramatically cogent. Doderer’s colorful orchestration and vocal settings are professional in the best sense of the word, with perhaps one exception—the vocal writing for the character of Liliom himself, played here by the enormously talented tenor Daniel Prohaska, who is as accomplished an actor as he is a singer. Prohaska is graced with an exquisite voice, but his one serious weakness is sustained singing in his upper range, which is exactly where much of the role of Liliom lies. Doderer has written the role too high for Prohaska, even though the composer knew exactly who was to sing the title role, and placing vocal obstacles in his way seems counterproductive at best. Nevertheless, Prohaska gave a spellbinding performance. 

Soprano Camille Schnoor was a stunning Julie, easily coping with a role whose challenging vocal range demanded consummate ability. Veteran Angelika Kirchschlager was a commanding presence as Frau Muskat; at this stage of her career, she shows some loss of tone quality in her upper range, but her voice is still supple and lovely. Soprano Cornelia Zink, crystal-clear of voice, was Julie’s lively counterpart, Marie, and soprano Katerina Friedland was splendid as Liliom and Julie’s daughter, Luise. The strong Gärtnerplatz ensemble showed no weaknesses. The Gärtnerplatz Chorus and Children’s Chorus, directed by Felix Maybier, sang impeccably, and the Gärtnerplatz Orchestra, conducted expertly by Michael Brandstätter, played with precision as well as conviction. The opera should have a good chance at survival. —Jeffrey A. Leipsic

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