Mikko Franck

Stephan: Die Ersten Menschen

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If even the best-informed opera lover is not aware of Rudi Stephan's Die Ersten Menschen, there's a good reason for it, and it has nothing to do with the music. The libretto, based on the "erotic mystery" by Otto Borngräber, merges religiosity with sexuality to an extent that would have made Gabriele D'Annunzio blanch. The plot concerns the twisted dynamics of the Original Family: Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel. Eve is depicted as a nymphomaniac who spends the entire opera in a frenzy of unfulfilled lust, and Adam as her passive, frigid partner. While Cain's arousal in her presence is overt, Abel's is somewhat more sublimated, and although none of this swirling sexual energy gets consummated, it comes way too close for comfort. In any case, the music of the opera has much to commend it, so the best strategy for appreciating it might be to resist the urge to read the libretto and just listen to the music with as little attention to the words as possible. Stephan's post-Wagnerian musical language is harmonically lush, but idiosyncratic; it would be hard to mistake it for the work of any of his contemporaries. His orchestration is delicate and unconventional, and his text setting is lyrically expansive. He has a strong dramatic sense, and his big moments are genuinely powerful; one wonders what he might have accomplished had he put his creative energy into a dramatically viable libretto. (He was killed in action in the First World War, and this piece was one of his final works.) The opera receives an outstanding performance from Orchestre National de France, conducted by Mikko Franck, playing with gorgeous tone, and both delicacy and ferocious energy. The soloists -- soprano Nancy Gustafson, bass Franz Hawlata, tenor Wolfgang Millgramm, and baritone Donnie Ray Albert -- have all the vocal power and passion the score requires, but Millgramm's voice occasionally breaks up in the loudest passages and turns into shouting. The recording, made for broadcast by Radio France, is clean and expansive, and only very rarely does the orchestra swamp the voices.

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