Opéra national du Rhin is paying homage to The Birds by staging the work‘s first ever performance in France, over a century after it premiered in Munich.
The staging is the work of American director Ted Huffman, who has considerable experience of rarely performed works and premieres. At the rostrum will be the young Uzbek conductor, Aziz Shokhakimov, who took over as musical and artistic director of the Strasbourg Philharmonic in 2021. This will be their first performance under his baton at the Strasbourg Opera.
Two friends set off in search of art and love in the realm of the birds, which is as colourful as it is unreal. At first glance, Walter Braunfels’s Late Romantic opera Die Vögel (The Birds) has all the ingredients necessary of an amusing adventure story. But then the opera takes an unexpectedly serious turn in the form of some oblique allusions to the First World War. This new production at Strasbourg’s Opéra national du Rhin is the work’s French premiere!
The Birds is neither a documentary film about our feathered friends nor a remake of Hitchcock’s horror classic; it is rather an operatic adaptation of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy and a key work by German composer Walter Braunfels.
Braunfels did most of his composing in the early twentieth century at a time when Late Romanticism and Impressionism were running into new theories of music, neoclassicism and other new currents. Braunfels saw himself as belonging to the line of Straussian Late Romantics. Since he was a Jew, his works fell victim to the Nazi censors during the Third Reich. For a long time all but forgotten, they are now becoming popular again, first and foremost among them The Birds.
The plot turns on two friends, Hoffegut (Good Hope) and Ratefreund (Loyal Friend), who having had their fill of the world of humans set off in search of new adventures in the realm of the birds. There, Hoffegut lets himself be seduced by the song of the Nightingale, while Ratefreund, succumbing to human greed, persuades Hoopoe, King of the Birds, to build a grand new city in the sky. This will prevent the smoke from humans’ sacrificial offerings from reaching the gods, the aim being to starve the gods into submission to the birds. But the avian bid for power does not turn out as planned. So furious are the gods that they declare war on the birds.
The plot of the opera reflects the political situation of the period 1913 to 1919 when it was written. The war between the birds and the gods is a direct consequence of Ratefreund’s claims to power and the war on stage echoes what was happening in the trenches. The critique of political vanity needs is all too obvious.
Recorded on 27 January 2022 at the Opéra national du Rhin, Strasbourg