Martinů Larmes de couteau CAPRICCIO

Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Larmes de couteau (Knife Tears), H169 (1928)
Comedy on the Bridge, H247 (1935 rev 1951) 
Elena Tsallagova (soprano) – Éléonore, Maria Riccarda Wesseling (alto) – La Mère, Adam Palka (baritone) – Satan
Esther Dierkes (soprano) – Josephine, Stine Marie Fischer (alto) – Eva, Björn Bürger (baritone) – Johnny, Andrew Bogard (bass) – The Brewer, Michael Smallwood (tenor) – The Schoolmaster
Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Cornelius Meister
rec. 2020 (Larmes de couteau), 2021 (Comedy on the Bridge), Stuttgart Opera, Probebühne Nord
Libretti and translations
CAPRICCIO C5477 [64]

Conductor Cornelius Meister has a good track record with Martinů as his symphonic cycle shows (review review) and he is an inquisitive, expert musician who covers quite some stylistic ground. Now he’s struck out to consolidate that cycle, extending his range to include two one-act operas composed by Martinů in 1928 and 1935. The Unique Selling Point, beloved of label publicity agents, is that these are (are claimed as) first recordings in these languages, which is to say French for Larmes de couteau and English for Comedy on the Bridge. 

Larmes de couteau, ridiculouslyhad to wait for its premiere at a Brno production in 1969. You can find it sung in Czech on Supraphon SU 3386-2 631 where it’s performed by soloists with the Prague Philharmonia and Jiří Bělohlávek. In true 20s fashion the instrumentation includes banjo, accordion, saxophone, tam-tam, piano and a small complement of strings. The plot is a typically perverse one in which a woman loves a hanged man, who tuns out to be the Devil and is very much alive, but its suave inconsequentiality allows the music to backbone the production from the opening scene in which banjo and offstage accordion evoke contemporary demotic. The French Music Hall ditties that intersperse the music are also notable, grounding the work in the very much here-and-now. There’s a Stravinskian element at work too that underpins Le Jazz Hot and the piano vamping that accompanies the apostrophising of the hanged man is resonant with raucous orchestration. Her erotic enchantment is increasingly reflected by a fuller band sound until things simmer down to a simple cello accompaniment. 

Those familiar with La revue de cuisine, premiered a couple of years later, will recognise the musical elements Martinů mines, which include ragtime, vamps, and Hot Dance elements. New is a kind of Dance of Death that insinuates itself along with comic action, an element often underappreciated in Martinů’s stage works. The hanged man’s Satanic parlando charm attests to his roguish shape-shifting and the precipitate ending only serves to reinforce the opera’s point that love is an impossibility. There are only three characters in Larmes de couteau, or ‘Knife Tears’, and each plays their French-singing or French-speaking part in the success of the recording, though elements of the mock grand guignol or erotic are arguably downplayed by them.   

The companion opera is Comedy on the Bridge, composed in 1935 to a commission from Czech Radio and premiered as a radio opera in 1937. It was revived, in English, in 1951 at the Mannes School of Music and New York music critics named it best opera premiere of the year. The plot concerns two couples and a pompous Latin-quoting schoolmaster caught on a bridge patrolled on either side by soldiers whose armies are about to go to war. There’s no way out for them for bureaucratic reasons, a situation that might have seemed whimsical on commission, but which had become a wretched reality for all too many people during the war. The opera has a full panoply of military fanfare calls and answering string phrases, the orchestration fuller, richer and more versatile than in Larmes de couteau, with some very lyric string themes – lyricism was very deliberately suppressed in the earlier opera. At one or two points Martinů rather mocks conventional form. In Scene 3 he clearly undercuts classical conventions as one character addresses the fish in the river with quasi-oratorio fervour.  

Comedy on the Bridge is the bigger work at 40 minutes or so, the longest scene of which is the penultimate 13-minute one. McGuffins there are aplenty – the headless brother, the riddle that has no solution – and they pile up the absurdist nature of this dream comedy. The casting is fine. Australian Michael Smallwood takes the part of The Schoolmaster and takes particular pleasure in assuming his British Upper Class Twit role but all the roles are more than adequately taken and fussing about the occasional foreign-sounding vowel is a game anyone can play. If you want the work in Czech under its title Veselohra na mostě, you should look out for František Jílek’s Supraphon recording of 1973 which has Richard Novák as the Brewer or, as Supraphon puts it, rather charmingly, the Hops-Grower. 

This fine double-bill of one-acters comes with a full libretto. Larmes is in French with English and German translations, but Comedy on the Bridge is just English and German. 

Jonathan Woolf 

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