Piece by piece, masterpiece by historical relic, a repertory of music composed in Central Europe during times of political repression by composers considered “undesirable” for reasons of race or religion is being unearthed. Conductor James Conlon, New York Irish by proclaimed origin, has nevertheless devoted himself to digging up and performing this music; his Los Angeles Opera series, which he calls “Recovered Voices,” is well along, well attended and, from Sunday’s evidence, well cheered.
This latest program is a double bill of one-act operas. Making its West Coast premiere, Alexander Zemlinsky’s “The Dwarf” is a work already admired, while Victor Ullmann’s “The Broken Jug,” in its U.S. premiere, dates from Ullmann’s last days of freedom before entering the Nazi captivity that would eventually cause his death.
Of the two, Zemlinsky’s setting of Oscar Wilde’s ironic tale “Birthday of the Infanta” proves by far the stronger, powerfully orchestrated, its music a fine amalgam of Mahler’s sour ironies and a jagged melodic sense right at the doorstep of Arnold Schoenberg’s bitterness. A splendid visual setting, Velasquez-inspired, by set and costume designers Ralph Funicello and Linda Cho, enhances the magic, as does some remarkable physical and vocal athletics by Rodrick Dixon as the tormented Dwarf of the title.
The Ullmann revival, sparked by his satirical opera “Emperor of Atlantis,” which is widely performed (often under Conlon) and was actually composed in captivity, goes forward as testimonial to a great spirit functioning under duress. “The Broken Jug” adds to that legend, well dispatched by a stage full of cavorting, fast-singing actors without much truly memorable on their collective plates, or much to add to Ullmann’s actual musical stature. The work is a kind of country comedy, a conniving judge getting his comeuppance; a clever pantomime, projected in silhouette during the overture, was by far the work’s most original moment.