- Learby Aribert Reimann, and: King Learby Aulis Sallinen
Of all the operas which never moved beyond the planning stage, Giuseppe Verdi’s King Learwill probably head anyone’s list as our greatest loss. Except for a forgotten work performed in 1937 by an obscure Italian composer with close ties to the Fascist party, no one seems to have taken on Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy until the last quarter of the 20 thcentury, when two composers of international reputation took it on – Aribert Reimann in 1978, and Aulis Sallinen in 2000.
Reimann’s Learwas written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and first performed in Munich. Since that time it has received approximately thirty productions around the world, possibly unique for a post–World War II opera. The reason, however, is clear: Reimann’s score shows a dramatic sensitivity which is lacking in so many contemporary operas, and the title role is an outstanding vehicle for a star baritone. The dense orchestral textures are chosen carefully for each character and situation. The [End Page 598]music rages violently for such “bad” characters as Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, as well as the storm scene, yet the well-intentioned characters Edgar, Cordelia, and Gloucester are given music that is gentle and eloquent. Lear himself fits into both worlds but his final mad scene is as heartbreaking as anything in opera.
The performance presented here was filmed at the Hamburg State Opera in 2014, and features Bo Skovhus in the title role. Skovhus is one of the top singing actors of our time, and he is in full command of the role. The rest of the cast rises to his level musically and frequently dramatically. Special mention must go to Andrew Watts as Edgar, whose role requires him to move from a traditional lyric tenor up into a vibrant countertenor head voice, a shift that he handles admirably. Siobhan Stagg is a moving Cordelia, and the other sisters are suitably nasty in their more dramatic soprano music. Stage director Karoline Gruber presents the work in modern dress on an abstract revolving set, respecting the text but adding a few touches such as the Fool lingering on stage for most of the opera, sometimes upstaging the principle action as he does in the final scene (the camera shifting focus to him does not help).
While Reimann’s operas tend to be based on literary classics and preserve the shape and intentions of their sources, Sallinen’s operas are much more dramatically abstract, and in fact King Lear(his sixth) is the first to be based on a traditional drama. In writing his own libretto, Sallinen has said that he wanted to remove many of the purely narrative scenes and focus instead on the more poetical passages. As a result, several important scenes, such as the blinding of Gloucester, are omitted and merely described later by a Greek chorus of sorts. He has also eliminated the role of Kent entirely. The end result is less of a faithful representation of Shakespeare’s play than a free interpretation of some of its themes.
The performance represented here was filmed in Helsinki in 2002, two years after the premiere, and with one or two exceptions, features the original cast, all of whom have worked with Sallinen previously. Bass Matti Salminen in the title role can only be described as monumental. If his is not the subtlest dramatic performance, he clearly establishes himself as the power center around which everyone else revolves. Jorma Hynninen as Gloucester gives the most thoughtful performance and is genuinely moving. The more villainous characters come across as comic grotesques although Jorma Silvasti as Edmund works the hardest to make his character less of a stereotype. Musically, cast and conductor are in full command...