Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Postcard from Madeira 3: Going with the flow

On our penultimate day here, we finally got round to doing one of our local levada walks (in all honesty, it was the first properly sunny day in a week - the cloud cover has been a bit persistent). It’s a favourite, because it encompasses the local stretch of the Levada Nova, which takes us deep into the Ribeira da Madalena valley, and carries on to the ridge opposite and returns via the pretty hillside hamlet of Pinheiro and 'our' levada. Rather than give a tedious description, I’ll let the photographs and captions capture something of its flavour:

Where the terrain is too precipitous to contain both levada and footpath,
the path goes on top - here fortunately with some protective handrails.
Casa Rosada is on the ridge in the distance.

A friendly local - he smelled of goat's cheese.

On the final stretch, a much wilder levada
(the one that eventually passes beneath our garden)
wends its way through woodland that is becoming
denuded by the work of a pine-destroying beetle

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Postcard from Madeira 2: The royal ways

The caminho real near Boaventura climbs up and crosses the cliff face to the left

Before motor vehicles came to Madeira, the main routes for people and goods were the so-called ‘caminho real’ (royal road) paths that virtually circumnavigated the island and connected coast with coast, harbour with cliff-top village. I can’t find much to explain what makes them ‘royal’, but they may have been built on the command of the Portuguese monarch in earlier eras – they were certainly regarded as municipal thoroughfares.

The arrival of the internal combustion engine made many stretches obsolete, as goods moved from mule to truck and new roads were built up and down the valleys to accommodate this newer but less nimble mode of transport. Yet plenty of stretches of the old caminhos still survive, recognisable by the typically Portuguese fetish for labour-intensive, mosaic-like paving. For, just as the footways of Lisbon and Funchal are paved with elaborate stone patterns, so these Madeiran paths have been painstakingly surfaced with thousands of flakes of volcanic stone. Moreover, when any kind of slope presents itself (hardly uncommon in this landscape), the gradients have been gently eased with beautiful curved-edged steps – hence their unsuitability for cars and lorries.

It can be quite sobering to see how the precipitous coastal terrain has been tamed by these paths, as they hug cut-out ledges along the cliff side, or zig-zag up from sea level across the cliff face itself. They are at their most dramatic on the north coast – itself the most spectacular part of the island – where sections can still be walked, though they survive in varying degrees of decrepitude. The easiest stretch to access is found at the half-forgotten hamlet of Calhau, down at the foot of a deep valley between São Jorge and Santana. Here, a modern restaurant and bathing complex mask the ancient set of the landscape as one passes the basalt cliffs at the river’s mouth. Ruins of old mill buildings shelter the remaining houses from the worst the sea can throw at them and between them a briefly driveable half-kilometre stretch of paved caminho leads up towards the cliff. Rounding the corner, we find the sea has already consumed half the original width of the path, but it’s still more than wide enough to be safe and there’s enough of the stonework left to admire the construction, complete with water channel at the edge.

A wooden bridge replaces the remnants of an old stone bridge that fell away only half a dozen years ago and the path rises to hug a natural ledge between two different strata of volcanic rock. The sea rages safely below and meanwhile the cliff walls offer a perch for an array of colourful plants, which seem to be at their floriferous peak in May and June. Most fascinating are the frankly tumescent house leeks, bulging out from their vertical fastness before flowering with a rather disappointing yellow spray:

This particular caminho links the bases of three zig-zag trails up from near sea level to the villages on the top, but it must also have been built to provide access to the ‘cais antigo’ (old quay) at the end of the knife-edge peninsular that provides the visual end of this particular walk. There’s now a permanent-looking ‘no pedestrians’ sign barring access to this last stretch, but it still looks technically walkable – down a steep flight of rough steps and across a wooden bridge attached to the cliff-side – and I’m sure it’s still used by local fishermen. In days gone by, goods would have been winched up from boats below – indeed, there’s still a working crane for launching the boats themselves.

Backtracking from the no entry sign one can either simply return the same way (it’s barely 20 minutes back to the car park), or more enterprisingly and energetically climb one of the zig-zag paths – unmissable with its curved steps to the right of the main path – which eventually meets a road. Follow this to the left and a cafe is reached in ten minutes, from where another zig-zag path leads back down to Calhau again.

Calhau, with one of the zig-zag paths heading up the
slope behind, and another descending from the right

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Postcard from Madeira

After visiting the island of Madeira on average three times a year for the past decade (staying at Casa Rosada – that’s the blatant plug for our holiday home out of the way), we are still finding new places to visit and new walks to try out. One of the latter that we recently discovered is a rarity on the island, a circular walk. With most of the island’s accessible footpaths following levadas along the contours (for those unfamiliar with Madeira, this is a network of irrigation channels that takes one into otherwise inaccessible and even implausible nooks and crannies of the landscape) there’s little scope for making round trips, and there-and-back walks are the norm. However, a combination of two levadas, a river valley and some moorland on the Paúl da Serra, the high land of the western part of Madeira, offers a highly satisfying loop that takes roughly two-and-a-half hours to circumnavigate, excluding time for taking photos and dabbling in the waters.

This is a walk labelled in the local tourist literature, rather improbably, as the ‘Lakes of Madeira’. There are no lakes as such on the island – there’s a small reservoir in the eastern mountains, but otherwise nothing larger than a big pond. These ‘lakes’ are pools of different sizes along the headwaters of one the most scenic river valleys in these parts, the Ribeira da Janela. Here the water tumbles down a series of natural waterfalls before being carried away in the artificial channels of the levada network to more distant parts. The starting-point is a local tourism hot-spot – the area of Rabaçal, popular with walkers, who come by car and minibus to the crowded car park just off the main road that follows the island ridge at this point. There are at least five levadas here, all at different heights up the mountainside, and most people descend on foot or courtesy of the bus shuttle down the winding road to the lower levels – the 25 Fontes (25 springs) and Risco. This walk, though, begins level with the road and remains above the worst of the crowds.

A shady stretch of the Levada da Alecrim

The first 30-40 minutes are along the well-used and -maintained path of the Levada da Alecrim as it twists and turns around the contour, at one point climbing 15 metres beside a foaming weir (not unlike a salmon run, though the only fish noticeable here are trout). Eventually the source of the levada is reached at a beautifully sited waterfall:

Most walkers turn around here and return the same way, but climb over a rather recumbent stile to the left of the river and a well-worn path leads gradually up the valley, passing more pools and waterfalls on the way: 

At length one emerges from the tree heather on to the flatter land of the moorland top, though the path soon drops again to cross the river at a rather ugly concrete bridge.

A steeper path then leads down to another levada, very different from the first one – where that was in concrete throughout, this one is far more natural, bubbling more irregularly along the valley side between mostly earth banks. Gradually, the hill slopes recede and, although one is slowly descending, the levada is now on more-or-less flat land atop the landscape, providing drinking water for the many cattle that spend the summer months grazing the moor:

One last challenge faces the walker on this circuit – a rather precarious, unprotected wooden bridge that crosses one of the Janela river’s upper tributaries. The stream is fordable when the water level is low, but this time it was a bit deep for risking on foot and so the bridge was the only option – one just has to remember to walk quickly, surely and don’t even think about stopping – it’s over in a flash.

A bridge too far?

The last leg of the walk is perhaps the least inspiring, following an obvious track through the gorse back to the road and the car park, but views down the Janela valley compensate.

We now recommend this walk to our visitors at Casa Rosada as an alternative to the busier Rabaçal paths and have had a good response, going by comments in the visitors’ book. It’s worth saving for a clear day, or the mists that often descend at that level hide the best of the views, and in hot weather, as it has been this week, there’s little better than the sight and sound of cool, running water to refresh the spirits.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Armide - Theater Lübeck - 26 April 2014

Sabina Martin (Armide)

Photo: Jochen Quast

Armide – Sabina Martin
Hidraot – Gerard Quinn
Renaud – Daniel Jenz
Artémidore – Mark McConnell
Ubalde – Steffen Kubach
Danish Knight – Jonghoon You
Phénice – Steinunn Soffia Skjenstad
Sidonie – Evmorfia Metaxaki
Aronte – Kong Seok Choi
Hate – Wioletta Hebrowska
Shepherdess – Frauke Becker
Demon in the form of Lucindes – Imke Looft
Pleasure spirit – Annette Hörle
Child – Antonella Frei

Chorus & Extra Chorus of Theater Lübeck
Philharmonic Orchestra of Hansestadt Lübeck

Conductor – Panagiotis Papadopoulos
Director – Michael Wallner
Sets – Heinz Hauser
Costumes – Tanja Liebermann
Dramaturge – Dr. Katharina Kost-Tolmein

Compared to the anniversary of Strauss – and last year Wagner, Verdi and Britten – the tercentenary of Gluck’s birth this year is really only just creeping into consciousness, well behind, it seems, that of C.P.E. Bach (Gluck only just makes this year’s Proms with an aria and a dance). But Theater Lübeck has leapt into the void with a rare production of his 1777 opera Armide. Daringly composed to the identical libretto that Lully had set with such success for the same Parisian public a century earlier, Armide was reputedly Gluck’s favourite among his operas. Wagner famously introduced it to the Dresden public in the 1840s, but it has rarely seen the exposure of the composer’s dramas from Classical mythology in the modern era.

It’s a story that has often drawn composers, with further operas on the theme by such diverse figures as Rossini and Dvořák. Against the background of the crusades, the sorceress Armide bewitches her enemy, Renaud, to lure him from the battlefield, but finds herself falling for his charms herself. Rejecting the intervention of the personification of Hate, in an attempt to rid her of her crush, her magic is overcome, Renaud deserts her and she is left to regret her chance to kill him when she had the opportunity.

I will admit to having difficulties with hearing words sung in French, reading surtitles in German and at the same time trying to convert either of them in the mind into English, but Michael Wallner’s staging didn’t, I feel, do enough to delineate this story and make it clear to his audience through his direction of the singers. Who, for instance, was the young girl, whose silent presence followed Armide around? After the encounter with Hate, she appeared to be a matching incarnation of Love, as the opera becomes a drama between these two states, but one was never sure. There were moments of levity, some inappropriate (often silly business involving Renaud’s fellow soldiers), some more illuminating (the portrayal of Hate as a cross between Batman’s Joker and a nightclub hostess). It was all striking to look at, with Heinz Hauser’s spiralling, primary coloured set visually turning the screw of fate and emotion. And Tanja Liebermann’s costumes were inventive, with for instance the soldiers’ uniforms referencing various styles from the medieval to the modern, and with the magic shield a disc of perspex and the sword a Jedi light sabre.

Sabina Martin (Armide), Wioletta Hebrowska (Hate)

Photo: Jochen Quast

The production had been prepared and premiered under the baton of early-music specialist Christoph Spering, but this performance two months after the first night was in the capable hands of of music staff member Panagiotis Papadopoulos. Although he took 15 minutes longer than the advertised running time, which had presumably been based on Spering’s performances, there was no sense of dragging. Indeed, the music was driven often at an exciting pace and emphasised the powerful sense of drama Gluck is able to convey through his music.

Guest principal Sabina Martin had a few pitch problems, but gave a compelling account of the title role and summoned plenty of rich tone for a tremendous final scene. Impressively, the rest of the characters were cast entirely from the company’s ensemble and chorus, led by an exceptional Renaud from young tenor Daniel Jenz, a charismatic performer with a lithe, immensely likeable voice. There were more than mere cameos from Gerard Quinn’s sinewy Hidraot and Wioletta Hebrowska’s seductively manipulative Hate and strong support from Steinunn Soffia Skjenstad and Evmorfia Metaxaki as Armide’s confidantes Phénice and Sidonie and also from Steffen Kubach (Ubalde) and Jonghoon You (Danish Knight).

Steffen Kubach (Ubalde), Daniel Jenz (Renaud), Jonghoon You (Danish Knight), Sabina Martin (Armide)

Photo: Jochen Quast

It should be noted that several of the singers were put through quite provocative vocal situations by the director, with Armide singing an aria while holding the weight of the child in her arms, Hate singing her pronouncements while suspended by wires several metres above the stage and Renaud and his fellow soldiers performing one number while running on the spot. Needless to say, all of them rose to the challenges, and their spirit seems to sum up the vibrancy and ambition of this plucky theatre and opera company.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

A Tale of Two Cities: Schwerin and Wismar


Mecklenburg State Theatre,
with cathedral spire behind, Schwerin
An easy day-trip from Lübeck, eastwards across the former GDR border into the old dukedom of Mecklenburg (now part of Mecklenburg–Vorpommern/West Pommerania province), reveals a pair of small cities presenting contrasting fates after a century of war and political division. Schwerin, the former ducal seat and now the Land’s administrative capital, is a rare example of a former East German town that was disfigured neither by bombing nor latterly by concrete and the ugly housing developments that surround many of its neighbours. A short stroll down the hill from the station brings one to a formal lake shore and a townscape that looks barely unchanged since the 19th century. Enter the main shopping street and – commercial hoardings apart – the image is maintained. Turn left and one is suddenly surrounded by grand buildings of a scale and magnificence that seem almost too grand for the gentile elegance of the place. These are now Land ministries, and are complemented by impressive public buildings surrounding the main square – the Mecklenburg State Theatre (home of Schwerin Opera) and the city museum – the square itself hosts an annual summer staging of outdoor opera, this year Nabucco.

The Schloss, Schwerin (above and below)

Before long an even more impressive sight presents itself – a fairy-tale castle that looks as if Neuschwanstein and Chambord have miraculously come together in one place. This is the ducal Schloss, built on a small island in the city’s other lake, the much larger Schwerin See, in the mid 19th century, and surrounded by exquisite gardens (recently restored) and connected to the lake shore by a causeway. The building is now the state parliament, though parts of it can be visited. I made do with an amble round the gardens, where formal planting reminiscent of the 19th-century bedding schemes at Waddesdon Manor in the UK sits between romantic grottos and a sumptuous neo-Classical orangery, with the extravagant façades of the palace on one side and the calm waters of the lake on the other.

Houses in Market Square, Wismar
A thirty-minute train ride north brings one to the Baltic coast and one of the main former Hanseatic ports – the first travelling eastwards from Lübeck and once its chief local rival, Wismar. As a busy commercial port this was inevitably bombed in the war, and a couple of raids in 1942 wrecked two of its three great churches. These had been built in the 14th and 15th centuries when rival church organisations – including the burghers and seamen – competed to see who could build higher and bigger in the new gothic style and using the local medium of Bachstein – 'baked stone', or brick. The result was some of the key ecclesiastical architecture of northern Germany. 

St Nicholas, Wismar
Wismar seems to have recovered well in the years following German reunification. The old town has a smattering of freshly restored townhouses in the typical local style with their stepped façades and narrow windows. St Nicholas, the one ancient church that survived the raids is looking spruce, with the narrowness of its nave accentuating its 37m height; only the excrescences of too much Baroquery mars the cool simplicity of its interior. St Mary’s has not been so lucky. Heavily damaged in the wartime bombing, it then suffered neglect and, as an interpretative panel outside terms it, for ‘political reasons’ the remnants of the body of the church were demolished in 1960. Now only the tower survives, surrounded to its east by little more than a shoulder-height ground-plan of the church’s original layout, mere stumps of its outer walls and column piers. The remaining tower, which still dominates the townscape, is now the focus of an interesting Bachstein Trail and the ground floor houses displays and demonstrations on medieval building practices.

Tower of St Mary's, Wismar
Next to St Mary’s is all that’s left of one of the former prides of the city, its church school house, a symphony in red-brick formality as old pictures show. The impression from a hoarding around its foundations is that a rebuild is in the offing. That has already happened to the nearby church of St George, the third of Wismar’s three great medieval church masterpieces. This too suffered in the bombing and was left roofless and in a perilous condition until 1990, when a collapse of part of the building with near-fatal consequences to local residents inspired the authorities finally to initiate its restoration. That took 20 years and some €40m – and work is still in evidence. But the result is impressive and for the moment, at least, the building is an empty shell with no furniture – perhaps the intention is to use it as a flexible performances space or a museum, as it is notably devoid of religious paraphernalia.

The restored St George's, Wismar

Finally, one can’t visit a Baltic port without exploring its harbour. This, frankly, was a little disappointing. Fine if you’re after a lunchtime smoked-fish roll from the rival enterprises selling their wares from boats on the quay, but apart from a handful of surviving old buildings – an 18th-century customs house and an old town-wall gateway – the space seems rather bare and doesn’t look as if it has yet recovered fully from the raids of 1942.

Zemlinsky double bill - Theater Lübeck - 24 April 2014

Der Zwerg

Photo: Jochen Quast

Der Zwerg

Donna Clara, Infantin von Spanien - Noa Danon
Ghita, her favourite maid - Evmorfia Metaxaki
Don Estoban, the majordomo - Taras Konoshchenko
Dwarf - Fulvio Oberto (actor), Erik Fenton (singer)
First maid - Frauke Becker
Second maid - Steinunn Soffia Skjenstad
Third maid - Annette Hörle
First girl - Seung-Yeon Ryu
Second girl - Dongeun Kim
Infantin’s playmates - Women of Theater Lübeck Chorus

Eine florentinische Tragödie 

Guido Bardi, Prince of Florence - Wolfgang Schwaninger
Simone, a merchant - Gerard Quinn
Bianca, his wife - Wioletta Hebrowska

Philharmonic Orchestra of Hansestadt Lübeck

Conductor - Ryusuke Numajiri
Director - Bernd Reiner Krieger
Designer - Roy Spahn
Choreographer - Katja Grzam
Dramaturge - Dr Richard Erkens

Alexander von Zemlinsky’s two one-act operas based on Oscar Wilde, Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) and Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy) are occasionally performed with other partners (Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi makes an apt comic foil for the latter) or even singly (The Dwarf is 90 minutes on its own). But ever since they were twinned in early productions in the 1920s they have more often than not appeared as a double bill. The novelty of Theater Lübeck’s staging is to reverse the usual order of presentation. The Florentine Tragedy is a torrid, fast-moving rush of emotion giving the sense of a 50-minute prelude to something else; The Dwarf, on the other hand, although with a tragic outcome, is more varied, with moments of light as well as shade and feels a more substantial and nuanced piece – the meat of the evening as it were.

Director Bernd Reiner Krieger’s reason for reversing this traditional running order is to draw links between the lead characters in each opera with Zemlinsky himself and his pivotal affair with Alma Schindler. For her later marital exploits I refer readers to the Tom Lehrer song to be reminded of the extent to which this femme fatale carved an emotional swathe through the artistic community of early 20th-century Vienna. In Zemlinsky’s case, she was his composition pupil between 1897 and 1901 and his lover until her marriage-at-first-sight encounter with Gustav Mahler in 1902. Zemlinsky was no Adonis, and Alma is quoted as stating it was his mind that fascinated her (not that that apparently stopped her praising his ‘virtuoso hands’). The break-up in favour of Mahler appears to have affected Zemlinsky deeply and 20 years later his Lyric Symphony – an orchestral song-cycle – was still dealing with the subject of love won and lost. In the meantime, he had asked his friend and fellow composer Franz Schreker (in honour of whose first successful opera, Der ferne Klang – The Distant Sound – this blog is entitled, incidentally) to write him an opera libretto on the subject of ‘the tragedy of the ugly man’. Both composers evidently had problems with self-image. Ultimately, and with Zemlinsky’s acquiescence, Schreker decided to set this libretto himself, as Der Gezeichneten (The Marked Ones), about a deformed Genoese nobleman’s forelorn attempts to find love and acceptance. Instead, Zemlinsky turned to an Oscar Wilde story that coincidentally Schreker had already set as a ballet, The Birthday of the Infanta. Inspired by Velázquez’s painting Las meninas, showing the Spanish Infanta with two dwarves, Wilde’s tale tells of the princess’s birthday party and of a sultan’s gift of a dwarf as a present. The dwarf has never seen himself and doesn’t know how ugly he is – the infanta and her friends play along with his self-delusion that he is a handsome knight and he falls headlong in love with her. But the infanta’s maid shows him a mirror and when he realises the truth about his appearance he dies of a broken heart and the princess’s childish response is essentially ‘oh dear, my toy has broken’ and she returns to her party. In many ways, the tragedy of the dwarf’s fate, rejected by an unthinking, spoilt child when his usefulness is past, is greater and more heart-rending than that of the other opera where ‘tragedy’ is in the title.

Der Zwerg: Noa Danon (Donna Clara), Fulvio Oberto (Dwarf)

Photo: Jochen Quast

Here, in a work written a few years earlier under the unmistakeable musical spell of Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, Zemlinsky sets a version of Wilde’s unfinished play A Florentine Tragedy, in which a merchant comes home one day to find his wife in the arms of a lover – the Prince of Florence, no less. Rather than confront them immediately, he doesn’t let slip that he has seen them and acts the host, inviting the prince to dinner. He eventually rises to the bait of their flirting, the two men fight and the prince is fatally stabbed. In a moment of transformation, the wife, who moments ago had been goading her lover to kill her hateful husband, realises her admiration for her husband’s strength and he in turn expresses his appreciation of her beauty.

Given these two plots, it might seem implausible that they can be made to reflect the affair between Zemlinsky and Alma with any kind of realism or that they can be made to intertwine in any meaningful way, but Krieger’s conception picks up on the emotional resonances more than the history. At the very start, a likeness of Zemlinsky is seen at the piano in embrace with a woman whom we take to be Alma (incidentally, the programme booklet gives no visual reference to the composer or his lover’s appearance, purely production photographs, so many in the audience will have had no reason to make the connection). As she tears herself away, ‘Zemlinsky’ is left composing at the piano and the staging begins to take on a natural, uncomplicated approach to the portrayal of Wilde’s story. The princess, when she appears wearing a trademark pink dress, is obviously the Alma figure from the opening and the dwarf, when he is carried on in a cage-like litter, the composer. His piano becomes the support for both the Infanta’s throne and for the mirror that it encases.

The denouement is witnessed by an older Zemlinsky-lookalike from the top of the grand staircase at one side of Roy Spahn’s solid, baronial single set. After the interval he is revealed to be Simone the merchant, and his wife Bianca, wearing a dress in telltale pink, is a kind of grown-up version of the princess in the first opera. Here is the reasoning behind Krieger’s ordering of the two works as a kind of generational progression – this time the ‘dwarf’ Zemlinsky is there to witness this opera’s conclusion and the whole seems to come full circle.

Eine florentinische Tragödie: Gerard Quinn (Simone), Wioletta Hebrowska (Bianca),
Wolfgang Schwaninger (Guido Bardi)

Photo: Jochen Quast

We are not led to believe that we are seeing Alma as either a spoilt princess or an adulterous wife (she was certainly the latter, but it didn’t result in murder), yet the resonances between life and fiction are telling. Rejection, self-delusion are all there in both. This linking of the two operas really works in this context, and Wilde’s own ideas in the textual adaptations of George C. Klaren (Zwerg) and Zemlinsky (Tragödie) have more connections than are at first apparent – the concepts of hate or hatefulness and love and beauty, for instance: almost the last words of Der Zwerg are Ghita the maid singing to the dying dwarf ‘What a shame. God has broken a poor heart – it was beautiful’ and the last of Eine florentinische Tragödie are Simone singing to Bianca ‘Why did I never realise that you were so beautiful?’. Themes of self-knowledge are also common to both – the dwarf not knowing the truth about his appearance (and the Infanta’s lack of understanding that it is a human being that she is treating like a toy) as much as the Florentine wife only finally appreciating the strength that she so admires in her husband.

Performances, as one has come expect in this richly endowed company, were exemplary. It was a shame that a vocal problem meant that Fulvio Oberto was unable to sing the title role of The Dwarf for this second performance in the run, but he acted the part with great passion and commitment and was ably ‘dubbed’ by American tenor Erik Fulton giving a powerfully lyrical performance from a music stand at the side of the stage (Fulton had taken the role in last year’s production in Nancy). Israeli soprano Noa Danon, a guest from Magdeburg Opera, brought appropriate naivety and petulance to the 18-year-old birthday girl and her singing revealed a well-coloured, light but warm voice. Best among the smaller roles was the Ghita of Evmorfia Metaxaki, a recent addition to Lübeck’s house ensemble and a soprano with a particularly rich timbre and expressiveness. Taras Konoshchenko’s Don Estoban looked too similar to the Go Compare tenor for comfort, but this Ukrainian bass had spirit and sonorousness aplenty.

The three-hander of the Florentine Tragedy was particularly well cast, with two of the theatre’s key ensemble figures as the husband and wife, Scottish baritone Gerard Quinn and Polish mezzo Wioletta Hebrowska, both of whom gave performances worthy of any world-class theatre. Guest tenor Wolfgang Schwaninger made the most of a rather unsympathetic character – or at least his princely haughtiness in this staging made his murder appear less a tragedy than a misfortune.

Lübeck’s general music director Ryusuke Numajiri seemed better attuned in his conducting to the flightier, transparent sound-world of Der Zwerg than the heavier, more Elektra-like emotional rollercoaster of its companion, which needed a bit more space for the textures to breathe. But the orchestra – spilling out into adjacent boxes to accommodate Zemlinsky’s typically late-Romantic requirements – played magnificently and capped a splendid achievement for the company as a whole.

POSTSCRIPT November 2014: Belatedly reading Marc D. Moskovitz's fine biography, Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony, makes me wonder if the Simone was not meant to be Mahler with Guido as Walter Gropius, whose affair with Alma may well have precipitated Mahler's demise. Alma hated the opera when she first saw it Vienna in 1917, partly, Moskovitz surmises, because she may have seen that affair reflected in its plot.