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Claudia Mahnke's Simplicius is a marvellously moving, touching performance. By the simple device of giving her ill-fitting trousers, which she has initially to hold up, Wilrett and Nel suggest a host of images : the ageless prisoner, and the particular one : those severed from society, and ultimately life, by the Third Reich even before war licensed widescale arrests; then too the simpleton, village idiot, even the madhouse occupant; the clown, perhaps the holy clown; and the child : 'Truth speaks only in wise men, children and fools'.

Claudia Mahnke (Simplicius) in ill-fitting trousers. Photo © 2004 A T Schaefer, Stuttgart
Claudia Mahnke (Simplicius) in ill-fitting trousers. Photo © 2004 A T Schaefer, Stuttgart

This Simplicius is unwittingly chosen : he/she is God's apprentice, and God's witness. To match the vocal achievement of Helen Donath (on the fabulous Wergo recording of Simplicius Simplicissimus, sadly without English text) is remarkable indeed. But Mahnke can generate the right sound, here unvibratoed, tentative, quailing. This was a great performance that leaves one eager to see her Cherubino, her Sesto, her Oberto (in Alcina), her Hänsel. Mahnke is clearly not only one of the outstanding singers in the substantial Stuttgart team, but one of the dramatic talents.

Mark Munkittrick (Captain) and Heinz Göhrig (Governor). Photo © 2004 A T Schaefer, Stuttgart
Mark Munkittrick (Captain) and Heinz Göhrig (Governor). Photo © 2004 A T Schaefer, Stuttgart

Latterly, Michael Ebbecke's Landsknecht is joined by two almost as unpleasant characters : the Hauptmann (Captain), sung by American bass Mark Munkittrick, and the Governor, sung by Heinz Göhrig. Shades of Wozzeck, perhaps. Their antics -- including those with Marcia Haydée (the Woman) didn't always add up to anything like clarity -- both maintaining the sense of threat and somewhat diminishing it. Some curious cavortings in what looked like a cross between chefs' hats, Episcopal regalia and Ku-Klux Klan outfits, and Haydée's even more bizarre, obsessive circlings, were in danger of shifting this simply lucid presentation into a bit of German stage experimentalist kitsch -- a problem that never affected Stuttgart's terrifyingly sustained Die Gezeichneten.

The mocking chorus. Photo © 2004 A T Schaefer, Stuttgart
The mocking chorus. Photo © 2004 A T Schaefer, Stuttgart

Here Simplicius is forced, for survival, virtually into the role of court jester. In the time honoured way, he makes sure that home truths prevail. Indeed despite all the murder, vainglory and abuse that peoples this opera, there is always the feeling that die Wahrheit -- truth -- will ultimately triumph over this self-serving anarchy. It's the power of Hartmann's score that it leaves you, somehow, never in doubt about this. Thus at the end, when the peasants' chorus, with its ironic intoning of 'When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Edelmann?' returns to enfold the central figure and the narrator returns to the opening words, they serve not as a prelude to tragedy, but as a final word of warning. Beware, or the cycle will recur. How right he was.

Claudia Mahnke as Simplicius Simplicissimus. Photo © 2004 A T Schaefer, Stuttgart
Claudia Mahnke as Simplicius Simplicissimus. Photo © 2004 A T Schaefer, Stuttgart

 

Copyright © 6 June 2004 Roderic Dunnett, Shropshire UK

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Karl Amadeus Hartmann's Simplicius Simplicissimus is recorded on Wergo WER 6259-2 (double disc).

The reviewed performance of the opera took place at Staatstheater Stuttgart in Germany on 19 May 2004.

Roderic Dunnett travelled to Stuttgart with British Airways from Birmingham direct and explored Stuttgart with the assistance of Stuttgart Marketing GmbH.

Stuttgart Organ Festival runs from 4 to 27 June 2004.

Stephen Oliver's opera Mario and the Magician, based on Thomas Mann's short story, will be performed by Stuttgart Youth Opera at the Staatstheater Stuttgart from Friday 25 June to Sunday 25 July 2004.

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