Gottfried von Einem: Der Besuch der alten Dame. Christa Ludwig, Eberhard Waechter, Hans Beirer, Hans Hotter, Manfred Jungwirth, Heinz Zednik. Vienna State Opera, Horst Stein, conductor. Orfeo C930 182 1, Total Time: 135:35.
By Matthew Gurewitsch
DIGITAL REVIEW – I’ve had occasion lately to mention the centennial of the birth of the Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem, which the city of Vienna is celebrating in a big way, with recent back-to-back revivals of his operas Dantons Tod at the Vienna State Opera and the black comedy Der Besuch der alten Dame at the Theater der Wien. As luck would have it, the 1971 world premiere of the latter, from the Vienna State Opera, has just been re-released on CD by Orfeo, and it’s a stunner.
Christa Ludwig portrays Claire Zachanassian, a woman of Bill Gatesian wealth, returning to the haunts of her youth to settle an ancient score. Eberhard Waechter steps out as Ill, the boyfriend who played her false. In a stroke of the kind of phenomenal casting Vienna could muster back in 1971, three top Wagnerians – Hans Hotter, Hans Beirer, and Manfred Jungwirth – take on the Teacher, Minister, and Mayor, respectively, complementary reflections of the sore-tested community’s collective guilty conscience. Horst Stein conducts, irreproachably.
I have classified Der Besuch der alten Dame as black comedy. The Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt called his 1956 play “a tragic comedy.” The antique Elizabethan genre of revenge tragedy is likewise apposite. English versions I know or know of always render the title as The Visit. What star – from Lynn Fontanne on Broadway and Ingrid Bergman in the movies to Chita Rivera in the Kander & Ebb musical – wants to be billed as old? Still, for my money, something freer and more specific (An Old Lady Calls) would toss out a more valuable clue.
In Einem’s opening bars, the chugging percussion, followed by blaring brass, and then a keyed-up entrance for the chorus, sets off menacing vibrations in a heartbeat – even as the sound collage evokes the location, on the platform of a train station, with trains roaring by. Operatic flourishes from the spoken play – notably the use of ensemble players as speaking trees and other features of the landscape – translate seamlessly into the medium of actual opera.
Einem’s vocal writing lends the personalities in the story facets as well as contour, most richly in the case of the heroine, whose heart is both hot and cold, harsh and tender, unflinching yet touched with rue. Lesser grotesques of the story like the billionairess’ pet eunuchs spring to life full blown as it were with the stroke of a pen. Several scenes possess the self-contained, modular character of a movement in a symphony, suggesting forces behind or beyond the conscious will of the actors. Ill’s ominous colloquy with the Minister is noteworthy in this regard, but the best is saved for Claire’s dry-eyed, businesslike departure, like the exit of a ghost.
Caveat. The liner notes feature a detailed synopsis, but without a verbatim script a listener will often be at sea. The publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, offers separate editions of the original German and Norman Tucker’s English translation (introduced by Regina Resnick in San Francisco in 1972). The libretto is by Dürrenmatt himself, adapted in exemplary fashion after he had long refused, categorically, to grant the pertinent rights. In a pinch, you can squeak by with a copy of the play, as I did with mine, acquired in my schooldays in Zurich.
After nearly three decades as an international cultural commentator working from New York, Matthew Gurewitsch relocated in Maui to begin a new chapter. For an archive of his work past and present, please visit beyondcriticism.com.