Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us


Dietrich Henschel (Karl V.); Chariklia Mavropoulou (Juana); Nicola Beller-Carbone (Eleonore); Hubert Francis (Ferdinand); Cassandra McConnell (Isabella); Moritz Führmann (Juan); Andreas Herrmann (Henri Mathys/Alarcon); Christopher Homberger (Francisco Borgia/Papst Clemens VII); Matthias Klink (Franz I); Alexander Mayr (Frangipani); Sängerensemble der Stadt Katowice; Camerata Silesia/ Vienna Symphony Orch/Lothar Koenigs

CAPRICCIO DVD VIDEO 9001 [2008, Karl V. TT: 140 min. St. Stephan / TT: 148 min.]

Karl V is probably an important opera, but one that I had a struggle with because of my ignorance of the historical situation in the mid-16th century.

We are given no full synopsis of Krenek's own libretto, instead just a few sentences about Emperor Charles V's abdication and meditatioin on his failure to prevent Luther's reformation and to unite Christendom. The narrative is hard to follow with director Uwe Eric Laufenberg's translation of the action into c.1933 and the mid-1950s Austria. So some disorientation is perhaps inevitable for naive opera goers and opera DVD collectors.

But I suspect it is worth persevering. The score is mostly 12-tone, the first such full length operatic work, which presented huge difficulties for singers and listeners alike, though less daunting now since Wozzeck and Lulu, of course. It starts in a schoolroom situation, the Emperor the schoolmaster, and one needs determination to stay with it. But I have found that worth doing, and one soon gets used to the musical idiom.

The settings remain schematic, but they are evocative, opening out and introducing many persons from the Emperor's life, domestic and clerical, with Luther hiself, Pope Clemens VII and Karl's confessor prominent, and with some shorter scenes spoken, including a painfully stuttering Borgia...

Dietrich Henschel (whom we have admired in London recital) bears the greatest burden as Karl V, and does so magnificently.

KRENEK: Kehraus um St. Stephan
Roman Sadnik (Othmar Brandstetter); Albert Pesendorfer (Sebastian Kundrather); Christian Dresscher (Ferdinand); Andrea Bogner (Maria); Sebastian Holecek(Alfred Koppreitter); Michael Kraus (Moritz Fekete/Emmerich von Kereszthely); Elisabeth Flechl (Elisabeth); Elisabeth Wolfbauer (Nora Rittinghaus); Lars Woldt (Herr Kabulka); Gerhard Ernst (Oberwachmann Sachs); Kornmarktchor; Vorarlberg Symphony Orch/John Axelrod

This double is a lavish and generous DVD production, with Kehraus um St. Stephan a second, lighter companion piece, an operetta or Satire to Music (1930) also with Krenek's own libretto, about supposed infidelity, failed suicide and reversal of fortunes between a hopeless ex-soldier after 1918 and a successful businessman in a financial crash.

Both works are subtitled in languages of choice and for collectors of out-of-the-way opera, this double-DVD should not be passed by.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Kehraus um St. Stephan image from Luzerner Theater premiere September 2008 [Editor]

Extracts from reviews of the Bregenz Festival productions:

Austrian born composer Ernst Krenek's music is too challenging for most audiences. Krenek (1900-1991) studied in Berlin with Franz Schreker, and composed in varied styles, often influenced by jazz.

Krenek wrote almost two dozen works that might be considered to be operas. The eleventh was Karl V., the life of Emperor Karl V told in a series of flashbacks. Karl V. was the first full-length twelve-tone opera. Commissioned by the Vienna State Opera, it could not be presented by them as the composer was blacklisted by the Nazis.

In 1938 it had its premiere in Prague. The same year Krenek emigrated to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1945 and he taught in many American universities.

The Bregenz Festival resurrected interest in Krenek's music and in July 2008 presented Karl V., filmed on this DVD.

The star is baritone Dietrich Henschel, who gives a stunning performance in the title role dramatically and vocally. Henschel's artistry is matched by the remainder of the cast. Being atonal, this music is incredibly difficult to sing, and Henschel is paired with a cast that is uniformly strong. The score is hypnotic and powerful—give it a chance and you will find it compelling indeed. This is a major release.

A much lighter side of Krenek is his 1930 satire with music. He wrote his own libretto about this story of Vienna's post-WWI rogues including Othmar Brandstettler, who attempts suicide, is rescued and then works in varied positions in an effort to win the hand of Elisabeth, which he finally does. The score was neglected until it finally had its premiere in Vienna in 1990. This performance, also recorded at the Bregenz Festival in July 2008, is staged minimally, and well sung.


(Bregenz, Austria – July 31, 2008)
Ernst Krenek was a prolific, highly versatile composer, adept in a variety of idioms. During a composing career that lasted seventy years and produced over 240 works, Krenek alternately fell under the spells of atonality, neo-Romanticism, neo-classicism, jazz, Les Six, Schoenberg, post-Webernism, and lastly electronic music.

From 1933 until the end of the war, his music was not played in Germany. Krenek eventually made his way to the US via Canada in 1938.

- - still is a respected composer, Krenek has received scattered performances over the years. His operas have short runs, and are then dropped. The Bregenz Festival is holding a Krenek retrospective - - with the operetta Kehraus um St. Stephan (July 30, August 1, 2, and 5) and Karl V (July 24, 27, 31, and August 3).

Krenek completed Karl V on May 24, 1933, some three years after Kehraus um St. Stephan. - - The work is largely based on one tone row, though another one is used briefly for the French ruler, Francis I. There are however, moments of tonality, most noticeably in the instrumental music that begins Part II, with major thirds that are heard at the start and at the end, echoed in response by the xylophone’s major triad. Severe and ominous, it makes heavy demands on the listener. - - Nor is it a piece to be listened to nostalgically, like Kehraus which satirizes Vienna.

- - the work deals with the vision of uniting Europe, as Charles V sought to unite it in the early sixteenth century, in one supranational Roman Catholic empire. In Krenek’s rose-coloured glasses view of history, the trouble makers who threatened that supranational empire were the German Protestants led by Martin Luther. Strangely, there is no plot to Karl V, rather episodes which combine to make a portrait of a historical time period. As such, there’s a large cast. Karl V, his mother Juana, Eleonore his sister, Ferdinand his brother, Isabella his wife, Juan de Regla his confessor, Henri Mathys his personal doctor, the Jesuit Francisco Borgia, Juan Pizarro, Franz I, Frangipani, Pope Clemens VII, a Cardinal, Martin Luther (the monk, and as an old man), Moritz von Sachsen, Sultan Soliman and his court astrologer, four Spirits, four Clocks, male youths, and others.

Viewed on another level, Krenek created this work as a forewarning for his country of the political and military forces at work in Austria and Germany in the 1930s. And the tack taken by director Uwe Eric Laufenberg was to set Karl V not in 1558, but in 1933 to post-war Austria.

The work opened - - in a school classroom with Karl V as the teacher, and Luther as one of the students, and dressed as such, seated at desks. (Luther later appeared as an old man in monk’s garb.) The production was soaked with references to Nazis, costumed and otherwise. There were also copious amounts of video projected onto a scrim at the rear of the stage which showed newsreel footage of goose-stepping Wehrmacht soldiers, plus the destruction and devastation caused by this army, and so on. Some of this was shown as a backdrop to when Luther sang. If Laufenberg’s aim was to equate Luther with the atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht, then this is historical revisionism at its worst. Surely, there are better ways than this for the Austrians to come to terms with the Nazi ghosts of their past. But this was only one example of Laufenberg’s mixed up direction. At the end, Laufenberg had costume designer Antje Sternberg dress Eleonore in sixteenth century garb while soldiers wore modern day uniforms. And the Four Clocks were four women all dressed in black with a horizontal row of throbbing red lights across their chests.

The role of Karl V is a taxing one. Dietrich Henschel proved up to the challenge- - Thomas Johannes Mayer was a resonant Luther. Christoph Homberger was a purposely stuttering Borgia. Nicola Beller-Carbone sang the role of Eleonore admirably; the Vienna Symphony Orchestra's alert playing under Aachen born conductor Lothar Koenigs was a cut above that of the Voralberg SO under John Axelrod the night before. This performance was warmly received by the audience who applauded for six minutes.