If you were looking for an opera with a message for the times we live in, a good place to start would be Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Simplicius Simplicissimus, which has had a belated UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells. Because Simplicius (yes, it’s a mouthful of a title) is a piece about what happens when great power falls into the unworthy hands of thugs and monsters.
First composed in 1934 in Germany, just after Hitler came to office, it’s ostensibly set in the Thirty Years War centuries earlier: a time of devastating turmoil across central Europe. But beneath this camouflage, it’s a portrayal of the Third Reich – which is why it had no chance of an immediate performance, and was never staged until the Second World War was over.
Hartmann was an anti-Nazi who withdrew into “internal exile”, as it’s now called, through the Hitler years. He sought no platform for his work, and had no contact with the ruling cultural authorities – a stand that should have guaranteed him favour when the war ended. But he never found the champions his music merited, and the result is that his name is little known outside the Austro-German world. Hence the time it’s taken for Simplicius to reach the British stage.
As theatre it’s didactic in the way of Brecht and Weill, the message bigger than the medium. As music, it’s a Cook’s tour of prevailing trends in 1930s European modernism, borrowing from Hindemith, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. And I wouldn’t claim it as great opera. But it’s certainly important as a missing link between the pre- and post-war German avant-garde.
At Sadler’s Wells it proved a punchily effective, not to say disturbing show – staged in a time warp straddling the 17th and 20th centuries by director Polly Graham, and with a strong all-round performance from the soprano Stephanie Corley in the central role, that of a simpleton who struggles to survive amid the turmoil and speak truth to power.
More memories of war played at the Festival Hall last week in a live-scored film called The Battle of the Somme, based on a film made during the conflict of 1916, and shown here with live musical accompaniment by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Attaching music to real footage of young men marching to death might seem like making entertainment out of tragedy, but it’s how the film was shown in cinemas 100 years ago. And at least this time around the soundtrack wasn’t jingoistic, as it would have been back then, but a commissioned score by film/television composer Laura Rossi that responded to the horror, pathos and (as Wilfred Owen said) the pity of it all – in music that you might call Vaughan Williams goes to Hollywood. Strangely impressive.
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