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Opera (CD »Leonce and Lena«)

Kurt Schwaen: Leonce and Lena. Opera buffa according to the ‘Lustspiel’ by Georg Büchner


(from CD booklet)

The story of Leonce and Lena, as told by Georg Büchner in his comedy written in 1836 is more than simply a fairy tale. It is an allegory with a focal point of social reality. Georg Büchner was a poet and a revolutionary; in word an deed he stood up for republican, more, for socialist ideas. He was persecuted, driven into exile and died in 1837, when he was twenty-three years old. Büchner’s revolutionary ideas are of decisive importance in his poetical works. In Leonce and Lena the form of the fairy tale serves as a disguise. The ‘somewhere’ and ‘sometime’ made it possible to speak about topical problems and the comedy reveals itself as a satire on a rotten social system.

The Kingdom of King Peter takes its model from the petty German principalities of the nineteenth century. The king is a despot and an idiot. The courtiers are mental cringers. The Prince Leonce cannot endure this state of affairs, but has not the strength to rebel against things, and so surrenders himself to boredom and become sick and tired of life. On the other hand, the simple and natural character of Princess Lena denotes hope for the world to become a better place. The action shows the Prince and the Princess fleeing from their fate – although they are unknown to each other, they are to be married because of the interests of their two dynasties. While fleeing they meet and fall in love, neither knowing who the other is. But now the conventions of their society make it impossible for such a match to be accepted. A surprising happy end is full of bitter irony.

Kurt Schwaen composed Leonce and Lena in 1960. He keeps faithfully to the action of the text, does not alter the language, only somewhat shortening and condensing it. Musical numbers complete in themselves have been developed by Schwaen for each individual scene. The music does not push itself into the foreground at the cost of the words, but follows them, illustrating and explaining them. The effect of the music lies precisely in this sparsity, this ability to omit, and in this concentration. Yet it is no mere accessory, but opens up hidden dimensions in the text and determines the attitude of the listener. The gaiety of this ‘gay opera’ only rarely appears to be undisguised, but corresponding to the text it has an ironical make-up. The musical fairytale diction is also, like the subject, interwoven with criticism. The intonations taken from folk song appear in a new kind of structural relationship, and while romantic moods are not alien to this style, they abstain from any sentimentalism, rhetoric or exaggerated pathos.

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