DER WIDERSPÄNSTIGEN ZÄHMUNG (THE TAMING OF THE SHREW)
Comic opera in 4 acts
Libretto: Joseph Viktor Widmann, after Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew
First performed: National Theatre, Mannheim, 11 October 1874, conducted by Ernest Frank.
The opera is based on Shakespeare’s early comedy. Katherina is the “shrew”; she bullies her family, abuses the servants, breaks a lute over her tutor’s head, threatens to deck him with a stool, and generally makes life hell for all around her. Her younger sister, Bianca, has several suitors, but their father, Baptista, insists that Kate be married first.
Petruchio (a fortune seeker in Shakespeare; a millionaire in the opera) courts and then weds Kate – to her fury. He “tames” her by giving her a dose of her own medicine: he behaves outrageously, rants and raves, takes away her food until she’s learnt manners, and insists that black is white, and day night.
Some critics (including George Bernard Shaw) think the play is misogynistic; others, such as Harold Bloom, see it more positively. The Shakespearances site argues, convincingly, that the play is about learning to trust within a relationship.
Goetz’s opera was a hit in provincial Germany, translated into French, and performed in New York. These days, it’s obscure; the last major recording was in 1955. Goetz himself is equally obscure; he wrote an opera and a half, a symphony, and some chamber music, and then died quietly of tuberculosis in a Swiss sanatorium.
George Bernard Shaw, though, proclaimed him a genius.
The Symphony in F and The Taming of the Shrew “place Goetz securely above all other German composers of the last hundred years, save only Mozart and Beethoven, Weber and Wagner.” The Shrew was “the greatest comic opera of the century, except Die Meistersinger.”
High praise indeed! “Greatest comic opera of the century” is a big claim – and the opera doesn’t live up to it. There were three guys named Rossini, Offenbach, and Sullivan, for a start. Moniuszko’s Straszny dwór, Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann, and a dozen each by Donizetti and Auber are funnier, and have better tunes. (And some of us don’t think Meistersinger is all that hilarious, either.)
Goetz’s opera is gentle and skilfully composed. There are some fine moments: a sweet, sad love duet for Bianca and her boyfriend Lucentio; Petruchio’s “Sie ist ein Weib”, showing his determination to marry this headstrong woman, with a great tune; the scene where Katherine and Petruchio first meet, and she finds herself falling in love; and Katherine’s aria “Die Kraft versagt”, the gem of the opera.
Otherwise, it reminds me of Meistersinger: lots of recit, floating on the orchestra. On the whole, it lacks the brilliance and energy of the Shakespearean original, or the exhilarating mixture of sophisticated wordplay and knockabout farce of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate.
Knowing Shaw, he was probably being provocative. Hailing an obscure, dead composer as a genius (and dissing the brainless Schubert, the timidly genteel, limited Mendelssohn, the laborious Schumann, and the doltish Brahms into the bargain)?
These days, we’d call it The Trolling of the Shaw.
There’s only one recording:
Gottlob Frick (Baptista); Annelies Kupper (Katherine); Elisabeth Lindemeier (Bianca); Waldemar Kmentt (Lucentio); Benno Kusche (Hortensio); and Marcel Cordes (Petruchio), with the Bavarian RSO & Chorus conducted by Joseph Keilberth, 1955.
An excellent cast, but the mono recording means some of the high notes are distorted, and the chorus and ensembles suffer. Several pages are also cut.