Die Vvgel

Sharps and Flats is a daily music review.

Published April 21, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the experience of rediscovering forgotten music is similar to shopping for clothes at one of those warehouse sales, where you search through racks of unevenly pleated pants and shirts with lopsided collars in search of the garment whose flaw is subtle enough it could pass for having come off of a legitimate store shelf. The stakes in the classical music world are high for this kind of search, as audiences tire of the standard repertory even as they continue to avoid new music. To discover a neglected work worth hearing is to refresh a cultural wardrobe in need of some attention.

Such is the accomplishment of London Records in presenting "Die Vvgel (The Birds)," a forgotten composer's forgotten opera that receives its premiere recording with this release. "The Birds" is not a perfect work, but its charms are so seductive, its leitmotifs so melodious, its anthropomorphic characterizations so astute, that after one hearing you will look as kindly on its flaws as you would on your husband's freckles or your lover's gap tooth.

The opera received a successful premiere and a long run in 1920, and since then it has been revived a few times without finding its way into the repertory. The libretto, written by the composer, may be partly to blame. The opera is based loosely on the Aristophanes comedy of the same name, in which the birds and two humans who put them up to it build a city in the sky in order to intercept sacrifices on their way to Mount Olympus. In the play, the birds are successful and bring the gods to their knees. In the opera, the gods crush the uprising and leave the chastened birds and humans singing "Zeus is great." Even worse than the fact that he takes his gods seriously, Braunfels deprives us of all the wonderful pederasty, foreskin and lawyer jokes that animate the original. Aristophanes fans are bound to feel somewhat betrayed.

But what Braunfels strips from the book he more than replenishes with a glorious score. His musical language is extremely conservative, reminding one of not only his older contemporary Richard Strauss, but Wagner, Mendelssohn and even Haydn. Though not stylistically distinctive, the music is memorable for its lyrical beauty and occasional sublimity, with brilliant musical portrayals of an enchanting nightingale, a forbidding eagle and a noble and ethereal Prometheus. I can't tell how well "The Birds" would play in an opera house (though it is fun to imagine the costumes), but for the sheer loveliness of its music, the opera is wonderful to have on disc. To have presented its premiere recording is a feather in London's cap.

By Paul Festa

Paul Festa is the author of disciplineandpublish.com and a frequent Salon contributor.

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