By Arthur Kaptainis
SARASOTA, Fla. – Tiefland is only vaguely known to music-loving North Americans, as indeed is its composer Eugène d’Albert, or Eugen, as this Scottish-born, London-educated Germanophile preferred to be identified. But how could the Sarasota Opera be only the third professional company in the United States to give Tiefland an airing following the Metropolitan Opera in 1908 (five years after its Prague premiere) and the Washington Opera in 1995?
The splendid March 10 opening in the Sarasota Opera House left the mystery intact while offering a few explanations as to why this red-blooded exercise in Wagnerian verismo (still regularly mounted in German-speaking lands) might — in an era of testy gender relations — encounter an obstacle or two.
The story concerns Pedro, a simple shepherd of the Pyrenees, who does not mind the solitary life but longs for a wife. Before the prologue is over, one has been promised by Sebastiano, a landowner of the lowlands (i.e., das Tiefland) and a distinctly three-dimensional villain.
His big idea: Marry off Marta, an orphan exploited from her youth as an entertainer, to an unsuspecting yokel, thus retaining her as his mistress and making himself available as a husband to a wealthy heiress. It is hardly surprising that Aleksey Bogdanov, the Ukrainian-born baritone who played this role with gripping authority and vocal splendor, includes Scarpia in his repertoire.
The principal characters, however, are the shepherd and his bride. Marta is so appalled at her arranged marriage that she spends the wedding night in a chair while the bewildered Pedro falls asleep beside her on the floor. (Just in case you doubted Sebastiano’s evil intentions, he expected an assignation himself in Marta’s room.)
The next day the village gossips (a female trio nicely staffed from the robust Sarasota studio artist roster) make Pedro aware of the deceit of which he has been the victim while Marta begins to recognize the virtue of the simple fellow she has been forced to wed. This generates a Tristan-esque duet (perhaps not surprising in an opera that begins with a shepherd’s lament scored for solo clarinet) in which Marta seeks death as a means of cleansing her sin and convinces Pedro, oscillating between love and fury, to draw a knife and extract a few drops of redemptive blood.
Marta also asks to be beaten, which is problematic not only for the obvious 2018 (or even 1903) reasons but because we might reasonably hope to see more self-assurance in a female heroine who knows herself to have been ill-treated by fate. Pedro, despite his initial dismay, lets love prevail. He is easy to identify with, a decent sort who gains a lifetime of education on the subject of human nature in the space of 48 hours. (Heck, some of us never learn.)
Three supporting characters, the peasant girl Nuri (sweet on Pedro but functioning mainly as a fount of backstory), the pious village elder Tommaso (who sabotages Sebastiano’s hypocritical wedding plans), and the querulous mill laborer Moruccio (who defies class divisions by threatening his “master”) all add rustic color and human vitality while moving the plot steadily forward.
Of course, the focus is on the central lovers and their liberation, which seems essentially achieved in the aforementioned duet but is then complicated by the re-entry of Sebastiano, who initiates an unsuccessful assault on Marta. Possibly librettist Rudolf Lothar (working from a play by the Catalan realist Àngel Guimerà) did not entirely share d’Albert’s lofty objectives.
All the same, the Italo-Germanic score proves admirably suited to the drama. Tunes and harmonies are memorable — the handsome intermezzo could easily stand alone on an orchestral program — and the mandatory folkish touches never interfere with the story.
What Tiefland arguably lacks is an easily excerpted solo. Pedro gives us something like a “Winterstürme” when he learns of his apparent good luck, which the Sarasotans endeavored to applaud (there being no caesura to allow an interruption). Marta’s sorrowful confession to Tommaso regarding her origins is much more a narrative than an aria, with plaintive repeated notes aplenty. The crowd gave this a big ovation, d’Albert’s nonstop Wagnerian rhetoric be damned.
That applause was substantially for Sarasota Opera regular Kara Shay Thomson (as Marta) and her grandly scaled, expressive soprano. Tenor Ben Gulley produced a heroic tone as Pedro, notwithstanding a slight fadeout in the final minutes. It was characteristic of the good judgment that prevails in Sarasota that Nando and Tommaso, younger and elder roles, were filled so aptly by tenor (and studio artist) Andrew Surrena and bass Branch Fields (convincingly made up to look his required 80 years), respectively. Soprano Hanna Brammer (a popular Micaëla the night before in Carmen) was sweet as Nuri and Alexander Charles Boyd melded a firm baritone with moody acting as Moruccio.
Conductor David Neely captured both the color and momentum of d’Albert’s writing (the pit can accommodate two harps), and the Sarasota strings sang ardently. This is a by-the-book house, so we had an atmospheric mountain scene in the prologue and a realistic rustic interior for the body of the opera. Designer Steven C. Kemp had the happy idea of opening a vista at the back to show the high altitudes that function as an idealistic alternative to the less wholesome life of the lowlands. Director Michael Unger respected the verismo character of the piece. Nothing seemed forced.
Even if so many elements had not fallen happily into place in this performance, I suspect Tiefland would have kept the crowd watching and listening to these rugged characters and believing in their lives and loves. This compact and energetic opera deserves reappraisal and revival. So does Eugen d’Albert. There are repeat performances on March 15, 18, 21, and 25. For tickets and information, go here.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.