TieflandEugen D’Albert - Tiefland

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Franz Welser-Möst, Matthias Hartmann, Matthias Goerne, Peter Seiffert, Petra Maria Schnitzer, Lázló Polgár | EMI Classics

Born in Glasgow in 1864, Eugen D’Albert’s musical education in Austria is however one that, based on what is evident in his opera Tiefland (1903), indicates that he is very much a disciple of the Wagnerian school, with even a bit of verismo in his choice of subject and its handling. Apparently Bizet’s Carmen was also an influence on the composer, but although there are a few musical leitmotifs that bear the mark of the original Catalan/Pyrenean setting of Tiefland (based on the play Tierra Baixa - The Lowlands - by Àngel Guimerà, also made into a controversial film by Leni Riefenstahl), the influence is more in the subject of romance, passion and jealousy in a bucolic setting leading to tragedy (a hint of Gounod’s Mireille in there also) than in the actual musical arrangements.

The poor fool caught in the middle of a romantic entanglement here that eventually stirs killing passions is Pedro, a simple shepherd in the mountains who is offered the hand of the miller’s daughter Marta and a place down in the lowland valley by the landlord Sebastiano. Pedro innocently accepts, unaware of the reality of the situation that is known to everyone else in the lord’s household. Sebastiano is in debt and needs to marry a rich woman, but that won’t happen as long as the knowledge of his affair with Marta is widely known and spoken about. His intention then is to safely marry her off to an innocent fool that she couldn’t possibly love so as to keep up appearances of respectability while she remains his “bit on the side”.

Musically, Tiefland follows the Wagnerian model, with long solo singing of emotional intensity that purposefully drives the drama forward, with little in the way of conventional arias, duets or choral arrangements, but the music has a strong musical presence and leitmotifs that support the singing and indicate the nature of the characters and their motivations. Matthias Goerne is strongest, both in voice and dramatically, making Pedro’s wide-eyed naivety convincing while at the same time showing that he has inner depths and integrity that could indeed draw Marta to rather precipitously fall in love with him. Petra Maria Schnitzer perhaps doesn’t look like she has natural gypsy dancer roots, but sings well as Marta. Peter Seiffert doesn’t quite have the fullness of tone or the menacing build that you would associate with Sebastiano, but takes on the villain role with some relish and without overplaying.

The staging of this 2006 production at the Opernhaus in Zurich attempts to visually steer the drama away from its obvious models and references, and is thereby quite successful in allowing the piece to stand on its own. Some of the decisions are quite bizarre – the opening prologue takes place in what looks like a science-fiction laboratory where the announcement of Pedro’s engagement takes place in a virtual reality, cleverly assembled on projected screens – but thereafter, up until its reappearance in the final scene, the rest of the production is more naturalistic, taking place however in a lush stately house rather than in any period country exteriors.

The 140 minute opera is spread across two-discs on the EMI Classics DVD. The image is 16:9, the image fine, showing a well-lit stage. Audio tracks are LPCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.0 and DTS 5.0. The sound is a little thin without the low-end, and sometimes a little echoing, but the singing and orchestra can all be heard clearly. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian.