Paul Dessau’s opera Lanzelot, rarely played, almost forgotten but now, for the 50th anniversary of its premiere, gloriously revived at the National Theatre in Weimar in cooperation with Erfurt opera, is a weird fairy tale set to music in the composer’s trademark eclectic modernist idiom.
The story itself, by Heiner Müller, is “based on motives of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and the comic tale The Dragon by Yevgeni Schwarz in collaboration with Ginka Tschokalowa”.
Schwarz’s drama, in fact, was a closely followed source. Originally written in 1943, during the great patriotic war and marked by the author’s first-hand experience in Leningrad during its lengthy and brutal German siege, then banned in the Soviet Union for 17 years; it is clearly a political parable. At one level, it tells a tale, and so does the opera, of the knight Lancelot killing the dragon and thereby saving the princess Elsa; at another level, perhaps more clearly in the Schwarz piece than in the opera, a parable of fascism and heroic resistance to it. Yet the latter rather obvious reading as an antifascist political parable was probably the reason why the censors of the rigidly dictatorial GDR regime were accepting the opera as a jubilee piece celebrating the 20th anniversary of the country. And this was also at least one reason why the piece was almost forgotten after 1989 when it seemed to be an entirely time or even regime-bound piece.
To be sure, both of these are crudely simplified readings of a much more complex piece of drama, and musical drama for that. The revival is not only an opportunity to show the arguable, and sad, currency of the themes of authoritarianism, individuality and resistance but to think about other possible readings of the old Andersen fairy tale.
The director Peter Konwitschny whose many thoughtful productions I had the pleasure of seeing some 15 years ago in Hamburg, was again in his element, bringing out the universal, or at least not GDR bound, existential and political message of the piece while all the way not forgetting that theatre teaches through entertainment – and so do fairy tales too.
While there was no fairy, there was a Dragon – impersonated by the still young bass Oleksandr Pushniak; his large body as well as not malignant face was a valid incorporation of… what exactly? And this is where the interpretative problems begin. Wikipedia says that the 1965 GDR premiere of the Schwarz drama, directed by Benno Besson, was visually stunning, the three-headed dragon had wings with a span of 11.5 metres occupying the entire stage – and the piece itself was such a success that it was played over 600 times until 1981 – it was perhaps the most successful post-war German theatre production altogether. Perhaps it was this legendary stage production that kept the opera in the shadow, even though both the librettist and the composer were and still are, among the finest of their guild.
In Besson’s production of Schwarz’s political parable, the dragon is title hero – its three heads are human, thus showing how the diabolic power is embodied in the form of men. At a 1997 theatrical revival of the drama in Berlin, the dragon, a “grotesque unearthly being” was represented by a puppet. One critic in particular discussed the pros and cons of such a representation, both allowing movements and fantastic transformations, changes of size and shape, the hiatus of a forceful “real” human face may have diminished the dramatic power. In this operatic revival, as a single human generally in formal clothing, the figure of The Dragon broke with certain traditions and gave up on certain options for representing the tyrant/monster, it also opened other interpretative choices.
In fact, the history of adaptations is much richer – a Soviet film version by Mark Zacharov (1988) is among the most intelligent and thought provoking ones of the late Soviet era, and thirty years on, rather timely again.
But back to the opera and the beginning. The story itself starts in the Stone Age when a group of people are terrified by the plague, decimating the community. Then a “Medizinmann”, medical man, and his interpreter arrive, the former telling obscene and incestuous stories about his uncle, apparently in Latin, but here helpfully translated in subtitles, while the helper interpreting the pronouncements to the people in typical or stereotypical pagan priestly manner – the magician has read the heavenly sign and shows the way to salvation, or at least survival; boil the water (the rational core of the message, how to prevent cholera) but also implanting the seed of a myth, it is a dragon who has saved the people. Therefore, the dragon deserves the annual sacrifice of a maiden.
Jump to the present – and this year, Elsa, daughter of Charlemagne the dragon’s archivist, is celebrated not completely selflessly by three of her female friends who through Elsa’s marriage are spared both, allegedly, as citizens and also personally as potential brides at least for another year. Elsa, however, does not want to sacrifice herself – and expresses her resistance in some of piercingly high coloraturas, as performed by Emily Hindricks. Nor does Lanzelot (a powerful both vocal and physical presence of Máté Sólyom-Nagy) want this sacrificing to continue. And when the two catch sight of each other, they fall in love, Elsa also growing cold to her fiancé, Heinrich, the opportunist son (sung by Uwe Stickert) of the unscrupulous careerist mayor (Wolfgang Schwaninger).
In the first half of the staged version there are several confrontations between Lanzelot and the Dragon. They are also officially preparing for a duel but, in a brilliant mockery of democracy, judiciary and bureaucracy, the mayor finds a way to avoid it. Then the Dragon’s decision to set provisions of the constitution apart, cynically “in order to protect the constitution” surely has strong resonance with the German audience who, even in the East, take the Grundgesetz as a solid foundation of their political life for 70 years. The idea may also remind one of Carl Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty.
Surely, in the original setting, the façade of the story is anti-fascist, thus the Dragon represents Nazism or right-wing populism, eventually a dictator while the misled, myth-fed and pacified relatively well-to-do Volk supports his reign. And in this staging, even though modern technology like drones is also included, the three officers wearing Nazi uniform and narrating a weird theatrical/cinematic show for the dragon, also seeking position or demonstrating their prowess in setting up fights, a dwarf also in similar uniform mock-commenting on military technique and strategy for the benefit of the leader.
Yet there is also reference to the consumerist character of this society. The existential threat, mythical or real, was in the distant past but the price they have to pay for peace and prosperity is the yearly sacrifice. The story reminding us of the anti-utilitarian parable of Ursula Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
But of course, they give up more than one of their members every year, they give up their freedom, continuously. It becomes clear that the regime is based on at least tacit popular support. Why do the people favour the dragon? For lack of initiative, imagination or humanity itself? There are powerful passages in the opera raising these fundamental questions.
Yet if the whole community takes the Dragon’s reign for granted, how can Lanzelot be immune to this and see clearly through false ideology, political myth and comfortable delusions? Is he a stranger, like in Zacharov’s film? Is he an outsider? He is surely an idealised figure: by taking responsibility, being an individual rather than a cell in an organism or cogwheel in a machine, he stands out.
The message about the consequences of general political passivism is brought up in an actualising way in a powerful scene towards the end where Lanzelot appears on a ship-like vehicle rolling in from the back of the stage: it is full of rescued migrants, in safety vests, coming to shore and being rejected.
The fight takes place after all. Lanzelot miraculously survives the fight and in fact kills the dragon, only for the story to take a weird further turn when the mayor himself, a master manipulator of mass emotions, becomes himself a celebrated victor over the dragon – what was a tragedy first, is in the second version more a farce – but in essence, it is a similar story, with another seemingly voluntary submission and rise to power. A wedding feast is prepared where the mayor, hiding a bridal veil in his tailcoat, is getting ready to marry Elsa who was saved from one despot only to be taken by the new one. The entire town ritually dispose of their uniform dragon depicting ties, and put on a new one, bidding loyalty to a new leader whose power is based on the blatant lie as to who killed the dragon. There is only one child at the feast asking frank questions about the despot (reminding of Andersen’s The Emperor is naked…). The cycle of tyrannies seems unbreakable and the cynicism of the loyal servants of the changing regimes who always turn out to be on the winning side is an easily recognisable message but it is represented effectively.
All the while, there is hope when Lanzelot appears at the end, battered but alive. And here we can think of a more psychological interpretation. He is, perhaps, the representative Human, struggling with his inner demons and also his tendency to conformism, to follow impersonal forces be their ideological or psychological, rather than growing into authentic agency? Is the monster perhaps inside, rather than outside?