Music: Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942)
Libretto: Leo Feld (1869–1924), based on a novella by Gottfried Keller (1819–1890)
Performed in German, with Czech and English surtitles.
“This is a consummately beautiful score.” Thus simply and aptly a Gramophone magazine critic summed up Alexander Zemlinsky’s fourth opera, Kleider machen Leute (Clothes Make the Man), a gracious piece straddling comedy and allegoric fairy tale. With the libretto created by Leo Feld, based on a novella from the Swiss author Gottfried Keller’s collection Die Leute von Seldwyla (The People of Seldwyla), the story begins in earnest at the moment when on the square of Goldach, a provincial, and somewhat dreary, town, whose denizens long for a thrilling event, something that would imbue their serene petty bourgeois lives with some wide-world excitement, appears a mysterious, elegant coach with an even more mysterious stranger with romantic looks. After the coachman, disappointed by lack of payment, refers to the passenger, Wenzel Strapinski, a smartly dressed, yet impecunious tailor’s apprentice, as a Polish count, Goldach presently turns upside down. The local notables kowtow to the purported nobleman, attend to him with the uttermost servility and hospitality, deluge him with gifts. The town administrator’s daughter, Nettchen, falls in love with the newcomer, and she and Wenzel even get engaged. Only the naturally suspicious Melchior Böhni, Nettchen’s spurned wooer, notices questionable details and starts investigating …
Just like Zemlinsky’s other operas, Kleider machen Leute features wonderfully refined, colourful orchestration, making full use of the space afforded by the ambiguity of Keller’s story, oscillating as it does between reality and fantasy. The score reflects inspiration by the lucidity of Mozart’s music, as well as the mysteriousness and picturesqueness of Mahler’s symphonies. What is more, at the moment when everything seems to be lost, there emerges – as in every proper fairy tale – a happy ending, adorned by musical magnificence.
Zemlinsky composed Kleider machen Leute between 1907 and 1909, when, after accepting the invitation of Gustav Mahler, his friend and spiritual mentor, he worked at the Wiener Hofoper. In 1910, he made substantial revisions, primarily reducing the number of acts from three to two. The opera’s first version premiered on 2 December 1910 at the Volksoper Wien, where at the time Zemlinsky served as Kapellmeister, before, in 1911, joining the Neues deutsches Theater (New German Theatre) in Prague, where he held the post of music director for 16 years. Twelve years later, for a revival in Prague, Zemlinsky carried out further revisions. This second, and final, version was first performed, with the composer conducting, on 20 April 1922 at the Neues deutsches Theater, today’s State Opera, which is now presenting it again 101 years later. The new production has been undertaken by the Dutch stage director Jetske Mijnssen, critically lauded as an artist with the knack of “making music visible”. The score has been explored by the renowned Lithuanian conductor Giedrė Šlekytė, who has collaborated of late with the Staatsoper Berlin, the Bayerische Staatsoper and the Semperoper in Dresden, to name but a few. The lead role of Wenzel Strapinski will be portrayed by the American tenor Joseph Dennis, who since 2018 has been a soloist of the Semperoper and who has won several prestigious competitions, including the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (2015). The role of Nettchen was assigned to the soprano Jana Sibera, who recently received the coveted Czech Thalia Prize.