Following on from my discovery of Bretan's "Evening star" ("Luceafarul" - see my review), I have been listening to a disc of some his songs and this opera double bill CD - both featuring the mellifluous baritone Alexandru Agache, more widely celebrated for his Verdi roles. The idiom here in "Golem" is very different from the other-worldly simplicity of "Luceafarul"; this is far more restless and melodramatic but, like that earlier opera, it is through-composed. It often uses elements of Klezmer music, with alternately wailing and joyful melodies. The overture, for example, presents a soulful, soaring theme for the violins (representing the clay-creature Golem's yearning for humanity) alternating with jollier trumpet and flute passages. Of course, the allusions to Klezmer are wholly appropriate for a legend centring on Rabbi Löw and the Golem - the Jewish predecessor to an idea more familiar to many as the "Frankenstein" story.
The standard of performance here is high: the orchestra is noticeably superior to that Nimbus recorded for "Luceafarul", the singers - especially Agache, of course - are of international standard and the sound quality is exemplary. This is a taut, compact, terrifying tale and would work very well in the theatre. As with Shelley's Creature, Bretan's music and Agache's interpretation of it makes Golem a figure arousing both fear and compassion. There is little action in either piece, but the music is full of variety and drama, and I disagree with the previous Amazon.com reviewer who claims that there are no memorable tunes; Anna's aria, an invocation to life and the sun, turns into a trio to end the work and suggests a melody that Mascagni or Leoncavallo might have written for one of their heroines.
"Arald", more of a cantata than an opera, is more lyrical, grand and static. It is a strange, ambiguous, pagan tale, based, like "Luceafarul", on a poem by Eminescu, dealing with the same desire for release from the pain and darkness of existence and into light and love. It is a rather sombre piece but imposingly sung and both melodic and short enough to sustain the listener's interest. The role of the Seer allows Agache in particular to show off his legato in broad, arcing phrases and there is a Wagnerian intensity in the love duet which has a pulsing quality reminiscent of the "Wesendonck Lieder".
I see no reason for these works to languish unperformed outside Romania; they would form a most entertaining double bill at, say, the English National Opera, though I doubt whether they would want to take the risk on the virtually unknown Bretan, whose music was considered retrogressive (i.e. tonal and melodic) even in its day.