- Mona Lisa, opera
This recorded performance of Max von Schillings' opera "Mona Lisa" on CPO came hand in hand with a 1994 revival in the city of Kiel, where the composer had conducted a successful run of it starring his fiancée Barbara Kemp some 70 years earlier. Sessions for the album, which were made in long takes in order to preserve the "live" feel of the performances, were held during the day and the performances at night. This must have been an exhausting grind for the cast, but if so, they don't show any evidence of fatigue in the recording. "Mona Lisa" is a rare opera, but not a wholly new one to recordings -- a 1953 "historical" recording under Leopold Hager with Inge Borkh in the title role has been floating around for some time. Nevertheless, this CPO recording under Klauspeter Seibel is easily the best game in town. Though it is unlikely any of the singers' names will ring a bell, all of them do an outstanding job, as do the chorus and Kiel Philharmonic Orchestra, of making Schillings' operatic masterwork come to life after a long period of neglect. The Wagnerian aspects of "Mona Lisa" is very clear from the outset -- after a highly modulatory overture, the character of the Lay Brother makes his first entrance to the accompaniment of palpitating string basses; leitmotivs abound and the orchestra echoes melodic material introduced by the singers, channeling their emotions directly into musical development. However, by the first-act Carnival scene, we are in a wholly different milieu; the music no longer comes in swells and waves, but in a brisk, rumbustious tarantella rhythm that's a million miles away from Wagner. Schillings' method of achieving the leaven, which raised the Wagnerian dough ball into bread, was to borrow some ideas from Italian verismo. Schillings' even received fan mail from operagoers who thanked him for delivering them from the death grip that Wagner had on the German opera house. Coming in the wake of 1913 and the Wagner centennial where it seemed hard to wag a stick around in Germany without poking into some vestige of the moody composer, "Mona Lisa" must have seemed like a breath of fresh air. "Mona Lisa" is a great German opera; it is concise, not burdened with too many characters, and satisfyingly dramatic even without the libretto in hand. Although the plot summary doesn't seem very promising, Beatrice Dovsky's libretto was a good one and the music moves it right along, never being stuck in one spot. Perhaps CPO noted the unfamiliarity of this work and its composer; after all, Schillings' brief flirtation with National Socialism came at the cost of his reputation, and this circumstance has helped keep "Mona Lisa" off the stage. CPO has decided to make the prospect of venturing into this once forbidden literature more attractive through dropping the price on this set; fans of German opera really should try it out as it is a splendid recording of an opera that is remarkable and unique in its spirit and style. A complete English-language libretto is included for the German challenged, not to mention excellent notes, though the writer does try to gloss over Schillings' Nazi connections -- by this time, we really just ought to be up front about that.