Schmidt Fredigundis ORF Vienna Orfeo C380012

Franz Schmidt (1874-1939)
Fredigundis, opera in three acts (1916-1921)
Fredigundis: Dunja Vejzovic, mezzo-soprano
Chilperic: Martin Egel, bass-baritone
Landerich, Praetexatus, Bishop of Rouen: Werner Hollweg, tenor
Drakolen: Reid Bunger, bass-baritone
Österreichischer Rundfunk Chor Wien, Österreichischer Rundfunk Orchester Wien / Ernst Märzendorfer
rec. live 1979, Musikverein, Wien, Austria
Orfeo C380012 [2 CDs: 146]

I first encountered Franz Schmidt’s music in the mid-1970s. I borrowed an LP with the 1972 Decca recording of the 4th Symphony by the Vienna Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta. I played it several times before realising how splendid a work it was. Then the search was on for Schmidt’s other pieces. His other three symphonies had not been recorded. The next work to appear may have been Variations on a Hussar’s Song performed by the New Philharmonia and Hans Bauer. I remember being a little disappointed, but kept my eyes open for other works.

Almost everything Schmidt composed eventually appeared on disc, often in multiple versions. The only unrecorded major piece may be the late, unfinished cantata Deutsche Auferstehung (German resurrection), composed to a Nazi text, ending with cries of Sieg Heil. His friendliness with the regime caused severe neglect of his music after the war, but he appears to have been politically very naïve. Friends and colleagues noted that he was never a party member, and had many Jewish friends, some of whom he helped financially. But he knew Hitler and the Nazis proclaimed him Austria’s greatest living composer. They took his oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln as an indication of support: its proclamation of the coming of the New Jerusalem was read as the triumph of the Nazi vision.

Austrian Radio made the only recording of Fredigundis, the opera Schmidt started in 1916. I had previously only heard his two vocal works: the 1906 opera Notre Dame and the aforementioned oratorio, which I cannot make myself like. I think Fredigundis bears little resemblance to either, and I am glad to hear little of The Book with Seven Seals in it.

The libretto is loosely based on the life of Fredigundis (Frédégonde), the sixth-century Germanic queen consort of Chilperic I, a Merovingian king of Neustria in north-western France, the area around Paris, Orléans, Tours and Soissons. The early mediaeval history is blurry enough to allow an imaginative retelling. Fredigundis was a servant at Chilperic’s court. She became his mistress. She encouraged him to set aside his first wife Audovera and have his second wife Galswintha murdered. Galswintha was the sister of Queen Brunhilda of Austrasia, married to Chilperic’s brother Sigebert I. There arose a strong antagonism between Brunhilda and Fredigundis, much intrigue and warlike feelings between the families. Fredigundis may have arranged the murder of Sigebert, which left Brunhilda as regent of Austrasia.

So here is a historical persona perhaps better known in the German lands, never mind that her kingdom was in what now is part of France. The lurid story of Fredigundis may have been why Schmidt decided to compose an opera about her. Imaginative retelling aside, the actual libretto is something of a taradiddle. That can be forgiven because of the complex relationships and politics of the royal families of the time, and the conflicting accounts of her life that have survived.

Act I opens with an impressive eight-minute overture, beginning with Konigsfanfaren (King’s fanfares). Schmidt later used them in his organ work Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme. The overture introduces themes for Fredigundis and Chilperic, and develops into an elaborate fugue.

The scene is a riverbank. A beautiful red-haired servant girl is sitting in the branches of an oak tree. She is approached by Landerich, the son of Duke Drakolen, whose land this is. In a playful scene, she taunts him because he fancies her. She says a prophecy foretells that great luck will come to her, and that her beauty will be paramount. She kills a robin with a stone, saying that no other creature with red hair can be allowed to compete. Fanfares are heard in the distance, and a boat approaches along the river. She becomes excited, knowing that it is the marriage barge of King Chilperic and his new wife Galswintha.

More royal fanfares accompany the barge. Fredigundis stands and raises her arms, open to the sky. Chilperic notices her and cannot pull his gaze away. Fredigundis, triumphant, sings that she will use demonic magic to obtain gold and rise to the heights. Landerich warns her that the king noticing her means nothing – it has happened to many who have lived to regret it. Duke Drakolen enters and furiously tells his son that he will be banished to a monastery for disobeying his order to have nothing to do with Fredigundis. He insults her, earning her enmity by calling her a red viper who should be burned. He leaves and a storm blows up, giving Schmidt the opportunity to exercise his orchestral imagination.

The wind builds, royal fanfares are heard and a wild huntsman enters. He is Chilperic in disguise. Fredigundis, seizing the moment, throws herself into his arms and declares herself ready to dedicate her life to him. Her beauty charms him. A love duet finds Schmidt at his most romantic; a renowned cellist, he scored it with a brief cello interlude. This is the highlight of Act I. They sing of mutual adoration. The King carries her off to a waiting boat, singing that ardent desire has him in its grip. She replies that exultant love embraces her and that she is his. They leave. Landerich creeps on stage just before his exile, and sings sorrowfully of his loss to the King.

Schmidt lets loose in this scene, with music derived from the themes of both protagonists, interspersed with romance. His melodic invention could be more memorable, but the music is powerful. Anyhow, Fredigundis is just a scheming red-haired hussy determined to use her beauty to capture the King, and so become Queen. Nothing and no one will stand in her way, so she hardly merits swooning romantic music.

Schmidt wrote tonally in Vienna, where the atonal musical whirlwind was beginning to gather force. His response was to further embrace tonality, but marry it with chromaticism and heavy contrapuntal writing. Several critics complained that the density and complexity made it hard work to follow his music. Tellingly, Richard Strauss said: “There is no point in making things that difficult for yourself. Like a stream of lava, your music crushes everything. I would have made four operas out of that [material]”.

Act II, Scene One, opens with quiet, chilling music. Fredigundis creeps towards Galswintha’s bedchamber. She schools herself to commit the murder, swearing vengeance on Duke Drakolen for his insults, and telling herself that killing Galswintha will make her a powerful queen. She hears voices and realises that she has come too soon. Here are Chilperic and Drakolen, and Bishop Praetextatus, who is Landerich after a lightning-fast promotion in the church. Fredigundis stabs the Queen nonetheless, and the three hear the dying scream. Schmidt’s music becomes expressionistic, descriptive of the erupting chaos. It sounds incredibly complex, but his contrapuntal mastery must have allowed him to combine the main characters’ themes.

Fredigundis rushes to leave the room where the dead Queen’s body lies. She collides with Drakolen. As she struggles free, stabbing Drakolen, he grasps a strand of her hair, and recognises her. Chilperic realises what has happened but, blinded by his love for Fredigundis, leaves with her. Drakolen shouts that she is guilty, and orders servants to seize her. They say that the King has forbidden anyone to follow Fredigundis. Praetextatus, horrified and torn by his love for Fredigundis, asks the servants to take away his wounded father, delirious from the pain of his injury. The curtain falls on this scene of confusion.

In Scene Two, the fanfares and themes reappear. The chorus sings praise of Chilperic and Fredigundis: this is the crowning of the new Queen. It becomes orchestrally splendid, even tumultuous. Praetextatus bewails the fact that he must crown a murderess. He argues with himself, but his loyalty to Chilperic and his love for Fredigundis overcome his hesitation. The crowning takes place, but Drakolen rushes in. He accuses Fredigundis, much to the horror of his son, who begs him to shut up. Furious, the King demands proof. Drakolen brings out the strand of red hair, but Fredigundis whisks it away, throws it into a brazier and accuses Drakolen of hating her. The King orders Drakolen to be taken away and locked up. Fredgundis orders him to be blinded. The surrounding nobles are dismayed as Chilperic commands them to acknowledge the new Queen. The ceremony continues to splendid music: Schmidt rises to the challenge of finishing a tumultuous act in exalted style.

Had Schmidt created a suite of orchestral interludes, passages such as the one above might have lent life to this unjustly neglected opera.

Act III, Scene One, has an orchestral introduction: gloomy, quiet music to fit Fredigundis’s worried state of mind. Her child is very ill, and she believes heaven punishes her for murderous behaviour. Chilperic tries to reassure her. She becomes more distraught when she hears the blind Drakolen, now a beggar outside the castle, sing of his inability to see the beautiful countryside. Chilperic, furious, shouts that he will set dogs on Drakolen. To the accompaniment of serene, sad music, Praetextatus appears, called for by Fredigundis to pray for her daughter’s life. He refuses, saying she has put herself beyond redemption. She attempts to play on his past love for her, but he says her only hope is to renounce wealth and power. She reluctantly agrees and pours him a cup of wine and leaves to go to her baby. The King breaks in the conversation, angry and upset at the thought of losing Fredigundis. He says the Bishop does not know her like he, the King, does. He drinks the wine and says that as sure that there is not a drop left, he will not be robbed of one drop of Fredigundis’s love.

Fredigundis is delighted that the Bishop’s prayers have helped her child. He reminds her to remember her vow, and tells the upset King that she will leave him. She reassures Chilperic: she deceived the bishop, and will stay as his Queen. Delighted, he declares his love, but complains that he feels strange, calling for more wine. Fearful, Fredigundis realises that he drank the wine meant for Praetextatus, which she had poisoned. The music becomes even darker, although a brief lightening depicts the King’s hallucinating state by introducing the tinkling of a celeste into fragmented phrases.

The King is dying. A servant says the child has died. To a sudden crescendo with a crash of the tam-tam, Fredigundis screams and rushes to her child. Chilperic, with the initial accompaniment of a comforting cello, recalls the crowning of Fredigundis. Drakolen’s voice proclaims that the Red Queen is surrounded by eternal darkness.

Fredigundis returns and throws herself over the lifeless King, to a slow, throbbing threnody with low drum beats and tam-tam. Schmidt transforms it into a funeral march, effective in closing the scene. Again, had Schmidt extracted an orchestral suite, this march would be a fine foil to the earlier celebratory music.

This 43-minute scene plays to almost completely mournful music. Schmidt asks a lot of his audience. He requires attention to the musical structure and the not-insignificant stage action. The act may have been arranged to engender some sympathy for the Queen, who, by the end, loses the two people she loves. Schmidt sets the stage for the reaction they might well feel during the final scene.

It opens in a side chapel in Rouen Cathedral, wherein lies Chilperic’s marble sarcophagus left propped open by Fredigundis’s command. Drakolen creeps in, and addresses the body, assuring himself that Fredigundis deceived the King but, enlightened beyond earthly madness, he can see all she did and its consequences. Drakolen curses his son, who is seeking him day and night, saying that the King and Praetextatus were under the spell of the evil woman. He hears noises off, and leaves hurriedly.

Fredigundis wrapped in a wide cloak enters carrying a strangely shaped urn. It becomes clear that she wants to use heathen magic to resurrect her husband. The orchestra vividly illustrates her dance around the sarcophagus; the music includes variations on an old French dancing tune. She says: “I long for the glow of your mouth, for your voice, for your warm blood, for the gentle caress of your hands”. This reminds us of Oscar Wilde’s speech for Salome in Richard Strauss’s opera. But there is no hint that the dance is one of Seven Veils, or that Fredigundis is motivated by Salome’s sado-erotic lusts.

Chilperic’s body fails to respond to Fredigundis’s incantations. She runs towards the sarcophagus as if to embrace the corpse. The propped-up lid falls with a crash, trapping her long hair. Drakolen re-enters the chapel, hears the thunder of the falling lid, thinks that she is dead and praises God for her demise. He moves away to tell the populace that she has died, and does not hear her. She interprets the trapping as a sign that Chilperic will not return, but has taken with him her red hair he loved so much. Praetextatus enters, looking for his father, and sees the Queen lying awkwardly by the sarcophagus. He sees with horror that her hair has turned white. The slab is lifted and Fredigundis carried to the foreground. She sings the attractive closing aria. Sometimes Schmidt gives it the air of a hymn by reducing the accompaniment to the organ. She has a vision of an angelic child: her child, who beckons to her. She also sees Childeric in glowing light. She calls on him to take her, and she dies.

It is an effective final scene, and we are rather sorry for the scheming, murderous woman who harmed many to reach the pinnacle she so desired.

The Austrian Radio recording is quite old. Unsurprisingly, it does not attain the high standards of modern productions, but it is perfectly all right, coping well with Schmidt’s orchestral, vocal and choral demands. There is only occasional audience noise, unobtrusive. The orchestra and chorus are very good, well-balanced. The singers are really fine. Dunja Vejzovic, mezzo-soprano, was 36. She sings the part of unlikeable Fredigundis quite splendidly, and fully characterises the expressive range of the woman without resorting to vibrato. Martin Egel as Chilperic, only 35 then, has a firm bass-baritone. Tenor Werner Hollweg, aged 43, takes the parts of Landerich, Praetextatus and Bishop of Rouen. The male singers are all first-rate.

The presentation of the discs is excellent. There is a German and English libretto, a short biography, synopsis and history of the work. This issue deserves to do well. It should be available worldwide: Orfeo is now an independent limited company, part of Naxos Germany. I strongly recommend the release to those who enjoy Franz Schmidt’s music.

Jim Westhead

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