September 25, 2018

Music: Echoes of ‘Voices’ yet to be

When James Conlon conducts two concerts inaugurating the Los Angeles Opera’s “Recovered Voices” series on March 7 and 10, he’ll introduce local audiences to unfamiliar scores. The semi-staged program consists of music by Alexander Zemlinsky, Viktor Ullmann, Franz Schreker and others — composers whose works were suppressed by the Nazis and only rediscovered relatively recently.

But Conlon, who is midway through his first season as L.A. Opera’s music director, could hardly be more familiar with this material, for since he first encountered it in the mid-1990s while working in Cologne, Conlon, more than any other musician in recent years, has devoted himself to resurrecting it.

Not that he’s the one who unearthed these works — Conlon is quick to note that he’s made no trips to dusty archives or attics. All of these scores have been published, some of them performed and even recorded. In the mid-1990s, for instance, the Decca/London label released a substantial series of CDs under the Entartete Musik banner. But, alas, most of those recordings are out of print now.

Conlon, too, has recorded some of this music, especially works by Zemlinsky, who is probably best known today as Arnold Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and an early lover of Alma Mahler, that protean muse to artists as diverse as Franz Werfel and Walter Gropius.

But as Conlon’s Zemlinsky recordings for EMI make clear, this composer deserves to be much more than a footnote in music history. His ultra-Romantic operas, choral pieces, orchestral songs and symphonies are lush, dramatic scores of wide appeal.

Indeed, among the myriad excerpts to be performed at the upcoming “Recovered Voices” concerts, only one piece will be performed in full: Zemlinsky’s one-act opera, “A Florentine Tragedy,” sung in German and based on a play by Oscar Wilde.

The opera, which had its premiere in 1917, in Stuttgart, has only three characters: a cuckolded husband, an unfaithful wife and her lover, a prince. It is a revenge drama, but with a most unusual twist — an unanticipated reconciliation at its conclusion. As for the music, it couldn’t be more accessible, opening like a Fox film score by Alfred Newman and then echoing Wagner and Richard Strauss throughout.

Conlon’s recording, produced “live” in Cologne in 1997, features baritone Donnie Ray Albert as the husband, Simone; a role he’ll reprise at the “Recovered Voices” concerts. He’ll also sing “The Emperor’s Farewell” from Ullmann’s opera “Kaiser von Atlantis.” Conlon has not recorded this short opera, but he has conducted it regularly in various American cities.

The only other work on the program that Conlon has recorded is the nearly 20-minute-long prelude to Schreker’s “Die Gezeichneten” (“The Stigmatized”), an opera of overpowering rue, vibrant color and Mahlerian intensity that the conductor hopes to bring to L.A. Opera in a fully staged production in the future. For now, though, his EMI CD of the “Gezeichneten” prelude and other music by Schreker (all of it terrific) will have to do.