The Dwarf

Music by Alexander Zemlinksy, libretto by Georg C Klaren, based on a story by Oscar Wilde
Opera North's Eight Little Greats season
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

A scene from The Dwarf

I have to say that, although aware of him as a composer, I have not really listened to much of Zemlinksy's music, and I certainly know nothing about The Dwarf until seeing this evening's production. Musically I found it the least appealing of the five "Little Greats" I have seen this week. It has traces of Mahler (Zemlinsky would hate that: Mahler married the girl he loved!), but - for me, at any rate - it was not memorable. His work is now undergoing a kind of rediscovery: recently Deutscher Grammophon published discs of the work of Zemlinksy and a number of his contemporaries, such as Korngold.

But as a piece of theatre The Dwarf was, for me, the highlight of the week in which the talents of the Opera North production "dream team" - director David Pountney, designer Johan Engels, lighting designer Adam Silverman and costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca - really hit the spot.

For those who don't know the story, the Infanta of Spain is celebrating her birthday and is sent a most unsual present, an ugly dwarf who has the most beautiful singing voice. He doesn't know he is ugly, having been protected from mirrors all his life. The Infanta makes a great fuss of him, giving him a white rose from her hair, and he is enchanted. Then, through her machinations, he sees himself in a mirror for the first time and begs her to tell him he is handsome but she laughs and goes back to join in the dancing. He dies of a broken heart.

A tale, then, of the thoughtless cruelty of children and the wrongness of judging by appearances, and one beset with problems in this age of political correctness. Pountney and his team get round those problems brilliantly. All at the court (the Infanta, her playmates, the maids and chamberlain Don Estoban) are far from normal - make-up, dress, stance and movement are distorted - whilst the Dwarf is the odd one out, for he is, by our standards, normal.

The set sums up the danger to the Dwarf: a huge doll's head lies upstage left, broken and cast to one side, and a mirrored walkway, which doubles as a table, stretches downstage, suspended at one point from the flies.

The tragedy proceeds inexorably from the very beginning, culminating, at the very end, with a simple but extremely effective lighting effect which brought an audible gasp from the audience: as the dwarf lies dying, the overall stage lighting dims and the spotlight, in which he has been lying since his collapse, flares to full brightness, before all the lights snap out and the curtain descends.

The actual performances in all five of the Eight Little Greats which I managed to see were of a very high standard and this was no exception. It has been a pleasure to see the chorus really acting: each member had his/her own individual character which communicated itself to the audience, rather than being, as too often in opera, mere bodies onstage going through certain stereotyped movements (for example, the recent touring production of Porgy and Bess).

As for the principals, I cannot fault them. Stefanie Krahnenfeld's Infanta had all the self-absorbtion and casual cruelty of the child whilst Paul Nilon's Dwarf played on the audience's emotions powerfully. As the servant Ghita, Majella Cullagh was painfully torn between her duty to the Infanta and her deep sypathy for the Dwarf, whilst Graeme Broadbent's Don Estoban was wonderfully camp.

Not the best musically, perhaps, but as a complete theatrical experience The Dwarf gets the prize.

The tour continues to the Lowry, Salford Quays; the Theatre Royal, Nottingham and Sadler's Wells

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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