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Judith Weir
Blond Eckbert

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Nicholas Folwell (baritone)
Anne-Marie Owens (mezzo-soprano),
Christopher Ventris (baritone)
Nerys Jones (soprano)

NMC Ancora D106 [Recorded: 1994 Re-released: 11/2005]

This awkward length opera (2 acts - 65 mins) receives a welcome rescue re-release on NMC's invaluable Ancora label.

Searching on Google its history (which is not provided with the new CD), I find that Blond Eckbert's first production was by Tim Hopkins for ENO, April 1994. I have a vivid memory of its combination of strangeness and lucidity, especially in the clarity and economy of the orchestral scoring; and of the brevity of the evening!

This sound only recording is, rather oddly, taken from a film for Channel Four, and my memories are rather confused between the two. (I did not have the Collins Classic CD; that defunct catalogue is being given new life by Naxos and NMC.)

Judith Weir wrote the libretto herself, and the best introduction to her Blond Eckbert available on line is Hanne Castein's The Composer as Librettist. She discusses the productive cross-fertilization between music and literature in Germany, where the complicated balance between word and sound held a very particular fascination for the German Romantics, including Ludwig Tieck, the author of this strange and haunting tale. Castein explores how changes Weir decided to make illuminate 'the considerable autonomy granted the author composer'.

Tieck had written Der blonde Eckbert, a highly ambiguous short text 'that charts the relentless destruction of the assumptions on which the protagonists had based their lives', at the age of twenty-three, at the very dawn of the German Romantic movement.

Tieck's Blond Eckbert is set in a remote mountain location, in a rather vague medieval past. Weir retains the presence of a supernatural force which appears in a number of guises, a series of unrelenting Doppelgänger, which finally vanquish all the main characters. Nathanael, Bertha and Eckbert all die, in fact, of the insupportable anguish caused them by the intrusion of the uncanny into their lives. Eckbert's wife Bertha's life story is set in the past, beginning like a fairy-tale and ending like a nightmare, with a clear indebtedness to the Gothic horrors of incest and madness.

Weir responded enthusiastically: " I found a kind of musical form lying there already; it has such a wonderful climactic passage. The whole story is a gift to a composer. So much in it is described by sounds, rather than visually. Apart from that central birdsong, there is the dog barking, the rustling of the birch trees. At the end of the story, Tieck says that all Eckbert hears as he lies 'distracted and dying' is the old woman speaking, the dog barking, and the bird singing, 'in dull, hollow confusion'- - its catastrophic ending confirms Blond Eckbert as an anti-fairy tale. Everyday reality and fairy-tale world are clearly separate until the interference of the supernatural blurs and finally dissolves this distinction. What is perhaps most striking about Tieck's novella is its exploration of the non-rational, indeed irrational aspects of existence, in a manner which transcends the horizons of the fairy-tale genre. This is the story's fascination for Weir, and she describes it as essentially 'a story of psychological discovery'."

Weir shows her dramatic mastery in the musical contrast in styles between Acts I and II. In the first, principally a monologue for Bertha, the music is in a fairy-tale idiom; for Act II, the music grows richer, darker and more terror-filled as Eckbert's mind unhinges. Weir retains the structural simplicity of Tieck's tale in spite of her division of the libretto into two acts. She also retains Tieck's diction and achieves the same tension he created by telling an anything but simple story in a simple voice - a story in which the apparently ordinary and everyday exists alongside the utterly extraordinary in its beguiling disguises.

For detailed analysis of the equivocal and unsettling story, I urge you to read Hanne Castein in extenso.

The filmed performance under Sian Edwards, one-time musical director of ENO, is exemplary, especially in the precision of the orchestral contribuntion, often fined to a single bare line. The brief gaps in the sung narrative are characteristic of Weir, and make you hear and ponder the significance of every phrase; this helped by having the text (in English only) to read.

The singing is excellent, and Berthe's monologue hypnotising (Anne-Marie Owens). Who are these people, the bird and the dog? Christopher Ventris takes the parts of Eckbert's 'friends' Walther and Hugo as well as that of the mysterious Old Woman. It all demands to be seen.

We need the MIW Productions/Channel Four TV film as a DVD.

See also review of revised version of Blond Eckbert (2006)

Judith Weir's new opera Armida specially commissioned for Channel 4 Television is promised in the near future.

© Peter Grahame Woolf