Schumann Das Paradies und die Peri (Op 59) with Daniel Harding and the Orchestre de Paris from the Philharmonie de Paris, with Christiane Karg, Kate Royal, Gerhild Romberger, Andrew Staples, Allan Clayton and Matthias Goerne last week in Paris, now on arte.tv. This is an exceptionally interesting performance, because it reveals insight into Schumann's distinctive ideas on musical drama, eclipsed by the revolution Wagner wrought in operatic form. Das Paradies und die Peri premiered in Leipzig in December 1843, but Die fliegende Holländer had premiered in Dresden in January the same year. Schumann might seem eclipsed, but he represents an alternative but perfectly valid approach to music as theatre with roots in Germanic traditions like oratorio and Singspiele. Harding's firmly assured yet refined perspective helps us appreciate Schumann on his own terms. This perceptive Das Paradies und die Peri follows on from Harding's groundbreaking Szenen aus Goethes Faust and from his work on Schumann's symphonies. Eventually, the world will value Schumann as Schumann, not as Wagner manqué.
Das Paradies und die Peri is also seminal because it shows the depth of Schumann's engagement with literary sources. Even for the son of a Leipzig bookseller, Schumann was exceptionally well read and up to date on the latest literary trends. Moore's Lalla Rookh developed the fashion for orientalist fantasy, which intrigued the Romantiker imagination, opening up new horizons and alternatives to western European constraints. The Generic East implied unparalleled extremes, and emotions too wild for Christian convention. Lalla Rookh is One Thousand and One Arabian Nights on acid. Moore was an opium addict, like Thomas De Quincey and, later, Charles Baudelaire. Nothing like a bit of dope to break inhibitions. Nonetheless, the literary style of Lalla Rookh is itself utterly relevant. It is written in an exaggerated, verbose style so highly perfumed that it's almost unreadable now, but that was part of its original appeal. Exotic names and words pour forth in hallucinatory frenzy, creating a haze of soporific delights. How thrilling these references to strange, obscure places, people and objects to readers who had no idea of the real East, or Asia or Africa for that matter. It was enough that the words sounded wonderful, and, significantly, musical on their own terms."Lalla Rookh", incidentally, means "Tulip Face" which was a compliment in times when tulips were prized imports from distant lands. The very context is inherently theatrical, the drama living in the imagination of the audience. Perhaps these days we're too used to passive entertainment, like reality TV, to comprehend.
If anything, Schumann plays down the text so it flowers in his music. The peri flits freely between Egypt, Africa, Syria "the land of roses", "Cashmere (Kashmir) and other places including "Peristan" (the land of Peris?) and ends up by the throne of "Alla" surrounded by lotus blooms. but Schumann's music is thoroughly German. Some figures, especially in the choruses, evoke the sturdy rhythms of Der Freischütz or even Der Vampyr, but the general style is distinctively Schumann. The narrative develops not through "characters", as in opera, but through commentary, as in oratorio. The story, as such, is more allegory than plot. To achieve her goal, the peri must produce three miracles, each episode more symbolic than stageable. Thus the florid text is depicted in indirect speech and in abstract sound. The young hero, for example, in a fanfare followed by tenor (Andrew Staples) and choir, the flow caught in its tracks by the dour tyrant (Matthias Goerne, sounding more bass than usual) The women's choir weeps : the tyrant lives, the hero dies. The "action" proceeds through choir ("Sacred is the blood") and orchestra, surging forwards. The second Part opens with a depiction of the Nile, (tenor, mezzo, female voices) , the horns inn the orchestra piping out a theme which could come straight from Mendelssohn. Think magic, not historical Eygpt. The horns add melancholy gloom. The peri weeps tears for the suffering of humankind, evoked by the interplay of all four soloists. Kate Royal sings of healing balms, and Christiane Karg of repose, cushioned in (possibly) narcotic perfumes : exquisite songs, separated by delicately muted trumpets, like extended Lieder - one thinks ahead to Schumann's Requiem.
The chorus "Schmucket die Stufen zu Allahs Thron" is glorious, the voices sparkling brightly: but still, the peri cannot enter Eden. Thus the burnished darkness of "Jetzt sankt des Abends gold'ner Schei" (Goerne), broken briefly by the piercing brightness of the female voices. A haunting flute melody rises out of low cello murmurs, and Goerne returns: a quiet bass voice, singing of flowers, summer and the banks of the Jordan. Yet again, dramatic contrasts in sound. "Peri ! Oeri!" the chorus calls, shrilly, morphing yet again to bass baritone tenderness. Yet again, resolution comes from the structure of the piece itself and its musical expression. The soloists interact, joined by chorus and orchestra, and the Angel emerges. Divine intervention! This is a part Bernarda Fink has done so memorably, that she's hard to forget, but Christiane Karg does admirably. With a flourish, Das Paradies und die Peri ends with joyous tumult. An uplifting performance, idiomatically refined and true to the spirit of Schumann and to the tradition that inspired him. More to my taste than the several Rattle performances I've heard, yet also more "modern" than Gardiner and Harnoncourt, though I couldn't live without those. Modern? Yes, for Schumann is modern, and timeless, even if the texts he uses might be alien to modern ears.
photo Frédéric Désaphi