Braunfels: Die Vögel

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Braunfels
LABELS: Arthaus
WORKS: Die Vögel
PERFORMER: Désirée Rancatore, Brandon Jovanovich, James Johnson, Martin Gantner; Los Angeles Opera Chorus & Orchestra/James Conlon; dir. Darko Tresnjak (Los Angeles, 2009)
CATALOGUE NO: 101 529

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Walter Braunfels’s Die Vögel is that very rare thing – a neglected work which really is worth reviving.
When it was premiered in Vienna in 1920 under Bruno Walter it was an immense success, and was extensively performed in Europe until the Nazis made the composer one of their ‘degenerates’, and his music has never recovered. He wrote, as is clear the moment Die Vögel begins, in a rich but by then traditional idiom, heavily indebted to Wagner and to Richard Strauss. He was even Wagnerian enough to write his own libretto, based on the play by Aristophanes. 

Birds play a large part in the work, as the title suggests, and their songs are transcribed for the singers – but if you are allergic to Messiaen, don’t let that put you off, for the sounds are fully humanised. The opera opens with an extensive solo for the Nightingale, well sung by Désirée Rancatore, and plenty of other species enter later. But the tale is a kind of cross between The Magic Flute and Parsifal, with spiritual enlightenment and redemption to the fore, though treated mainly in a less than solemn way.

The two chief male characters, one much more serious than the other, follow a higher and a lower route to happiness. The more aspiring one, Good Hope, taken by Brandon Jovanovich, is adequate vocally, but only just, and his part is large.  

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The staging is colourful, with plenty of well-coordinated movement, and James Conlon conducts his Los Angeles forces persuasively, as well as writing helpfully about the opera in the booklet. Michael Tanner