Martinů: The Tears of the Knife. Kateryna Khartova, Rachel Miller, Noah Grove, Michael Dodge. / Schulhoff: Hot-Sonate. Geoffrey Conquer (piano), James Conquer (alto sax) / Hindemith: Back and Forth. Michael Dodge, Giulianna Misasi, Marta Woolner, Noah Grove, Adam Hu, Ross Mortimer, Rachel Miller. Peter Tiefenbach, music director. Anna Theodosakis, director. Mazzoleni Hall, Nov. 3, 2018.
Even for the most inveterate opera lover, few would have heard of, let alone seen, Bohuslav Martinů’s The Tears of the Knife (Les larmes du couteau) or Paul Hindemith’s Back and Forth (Hin und züruck).
No wonder. Based on the five-year data from Operabase, the authoritative source of opera performance statistics, the Hindemith opera was performed in Budapest in 2016 and in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria in 2018. The Martinů opera? No performances. Of the 2,713 individual operas in the database, these two works languish near the bottom.
That said, it should be noted that Operabase only tracks performances by professional opera companies. Moreover, these miniatures (around 25 minutes for Martinu and 15 minutes for Hindemith) make them unsuitable for mainstage programming. It’s in conservatory settings and university music departments where we would encounter these two works.
There are other reasons why they never entered the standard repertoire. While the Czech Martinů wasn’t a target of the Nazis and his works didn’t qualify as Entartete Musik. it didn’t please the organizers of the Baden-Baden Contemporary Music Festival that commissioned it in 1928. It was cancelled and remained unperformed until 1969, after the death of Martinů. The Hindemith opera premiered in Theater Baden-Baden in 1927 and was essentially banned during the Nazi Era.
Glenn Gould School, the professional arm of the Royal Conservatory of Music stretched its artistic muscles by programming these two musically and vocally challenging pieces. These works belong to the Surrealist/Dadaist genre, where reason and logic take a back seat to irrationality and the bizarre. For those of us with our feet firmly grounded in reality, Surrealist art is beyond strange. The key is to experience it and not try to understand it, and to have no preconceived ideas and to suspend disbelief.
If the stories are head-scratchers, it’s deliberate. Tears of the Knife centers on young Eleonore’s infatuation with a dead man. She wants to marry him, to the horror of her mother, who wants her to marry a neighbour, Mr. Saturn. Eleonore goes ahead with the marriage, but the guy is understandably unresponsive. She tries to make him jealous, fails, kills herself, and discovers that the dead man is actually Mr. Saturn, a pseudonym for Satan. The Back and Forth title of the Hindemith piece refers to a linear melodramatic action that plays backwards in the last minutes of the short opera.
I give the young singers full marks for their committed performances of the two absurd pieces. They tackled the astringent and dissonant — if occasionally lyrical and jazz-infused — score with energy and earnestness. Kateryna Khartova was terrific as Eleonore. The singers of Back and Forth had to walk backwards during the last minutes, as the action in the opera reverses itself. Sitting in the audience, it occurred to me that wouldn’t life be grand if we could undo our mistakes? Well, maybe in the fantastic imagination of Paul Hindemith!
The highlight of the evening was the lengthy interlude, Hot-Sonate, a delightfully jazzy piece by Erwin Schulhoff for piano and alto saxophone, masterfully played by saxophonist James Conquer. Peter Tiefenbach led the chamber orchestra with a knowing hand. The takeaway of these two operatic miniatures? It underscores the breadth and depth of human creativity and imagination in music and art, and what better place to learn that lesson than the Royal Conservatory of Music?