Zemlinsky is rediscovered by Prague

Zemlinsky is rediscovered by Prague


norman lebrecht

March 04, 2023

Gustav Mahler’s protege Alexander Zemlinsky was chief conductor of Prague’s second opera house from 1911 to 1927, a golden age of excellence an innovation. After he left for Berlin, the Czechs erased him from memory. Now, they have restaged his opera Kleider machen Leute (Clothes Make the Man), a century after its premiere.

Alexander Goldscheider reports for slippedisc.com:

The staging is part of Musica non grata, which aims to ‘revive the artistic legacy of male and female composers important to the musical life of interwar Czechoslovakia who were persecuted by National Socialism or for religious, racial, political or gender reasons.’ So far, the gender part would seem more trendy than genuine, as all the works were written by Jewish males: Czechs Pavel Haas, Rudolf Karel, Hans Krása, Gideon Klein, Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann and Jaromír Weinberger, but also by Paul Abraham, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schreker, Kurt Weill, Mieczysław Weinberg and Alexander Zemlinsky. That does not make the Musica non grata any less laudable. The works include Brundibár, Der Kaiser von Atlantis, Seven Deadly Sins, Erwartung, Gurre-Lieder and the likes, with Zemlinsky’s music comedy, rather than opera, being more of an exception.

Clothes make the man, staged by the Dutch director Jetske Mijnssen, requires 130 costumes by Julia Katharina Berndt and choreography by Dustin Klein. The conductor is the Lithuanian Giedré Šlekyté. Not many Czechs involved.

It was a performance of two halves. It is a trivial story of a tailor coming to a village where he is mistaken for a count, falls in love, causes a fuss. The first half is a conversation piece with a long and welcome instrumental interplay, quite static even with the revolving stage. The second half magically took off with love duets between local beauty Nettchen (Jana Sibera) and “count” Wenzel Strapinski (Joseph Dennis). The entire cast, including the choir, and in the second half also the orchestra, added to a visually and musically thrilling climax rounded off by an enthusiastic reception and long applause of the packed house. What certainly does appeal to a contemporary public is Zemlinsky’s rich romantic music on a par with Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler or early Arnold Schoenberg.


  • Anthony Sayer says:

    We should all do more Zemlinsky, Eine Florentinische Tragödie being among his best works, I feel.

  • Gordon says:

    Yo. Wanna explain exactly how Zemlinsky can in any way be defined as “Mahler’s protege”? News to me but the #1 Classical Music News site probably knows best.

  • Helen Kamioner says:

    first learned of this opera in 1982 when I was engaged to prompt in Oberhausen

  • Meal says:

    Zemlinsky is one of those composers in the shadow of his contamporaries. He should be played more often. James Conlon brought him to my attention almost 30 years ago. He did a couple of fine recordings of his music at that time.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Norman, please, how can you write such glaring inaccuracies in regards to a composer you’ve even written books on: Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky was no protégé to Mahler. His wife, Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel, studied music with Zemlinsky in her late teens. Mahler and Zemlinsky’s compositions have very little in common. Bruckner was closer to being a protégé than Zemlinksy. And still, those two had little in common as well, compositionally speaking. Alma’s own small group of songs she kept bare far more resemblance to Zemlinsky, than anything Mahler ever composed.