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I guarantee you won't enjoy this opera. If you're a feeling person, that is, as well as a listening ear. I like to think I'm both, and I will proclaim the musical brilliance of Karl Amadeus Hartmann's score, as well as the painful sincerity of the libretto he prepared in collaboration with Hermann Scherchen, a conductor and hartmann's mentor. But still, I doubt that 'enjoyment' has had anything to do with the composing, staging, or watching of this shriek of protest and despair.
To make any sense of Hartmann's Simplicius, one has to know that he wrote it in Munich in 1934/35, just at the beginning of Hitler's domination of all aspects of life in Germany, and that he knew full well that it wouldn't be performed any time soon, that it would be labeled as "degenerate" art. In fact, it was never staged until 1949.
This opera Simplicius Simplicissimus presents only inferences and allusions to the picaresque novel of the same title by Grimmelshausen, yet Germans in the audience will catch all such allusions and reference their meanings in relation to the novel, the apex of pre-Goethe German literature. The original tells the picaresque story of a foolish boy who somehow survives and even thrives during the calamities of the Thirty Years War, during which the population of Germany diminished from 12,000,000 to 4,000,000. Just Hartmann's choice of Simplicius as his point of departure was a statement of rage and fear, in the inter-war climate of Hitler's Germany.
The opera Simplicius is uncompromisingly "modernistic" in staging - expressionistic, if you will, and intended to seem 'experimental' no matter how often it might be staged. Characters advance on stage, open their mouths and... do nothing but grimace! Movements are dance-like yet detached from the music. Costumes and set are minimal-abstract. Much seems to happen behind the singers' backs, in the wings, in the orchestra pit. Orchestra members shout lines of narrative. A woman whose face seems etched with tragedy spends most of the opera on stage, is assaulted physically by a thug, yet never sings a note. A main character dies, buries himself symbolically in a pile of dirt on stage, then gets out of the way while the woman who sings the boy Simplicius grovels in the dirt. That singer, by the way, Claudia Mahnke, delivers her 'arias' so skillfully that art almost gets in the way of suffering. And remember T.S. Eliot's line - "Not with a bang but a whimper"? Simplicius ends precisely so, with a whimper.
Hartmann's music was, and is, highly esteemed, yet seldom recorded. The score for Simplicius is as full of allusions as the libretto - to Bach, to Prokofiev and Stravinsky, to pietist hymns and jazz themes. It's pre-post-modern eclectic, you might say, but masterfully sustained and unified. My ears tell me that I would hear the desperation in it even if it were recast as a symphony without words or action.
This is as dark as musical theater gets. Fair warning? People watch lots of dark, tormented movies and seem to find a reason to appreciate them. Why shouldn't a tormented opera be granted the same appreciation?