Walter Braunfels’ opera Die Vögel is a perfect example of work ideally suited for performance by a music festival with international standing. Like Richard Strauss’ operas Capriccio and Ariadne auf Naxos, Braunfels’ work has an intellectual or philosophical center that will never make it a big box office draw like the umpteenth pot boiler. It is very much a connoisseur’s opera. While the composer’s style fits within the parameters of Berlioz, Strauss, and Wagner, the music is not merely derivative or “easy-listening” marking of time. Braunfels has his own voice and a mastery of the orchestra that rivals that of Strauss.

Spoleto USA cut no corners in their fine production of Die Vögel, presented in the comfortable Sotille Theatre and heard June 2 at the second performance of four that constituted its US premiere. The enthusiastic and talented young players of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra and members of the Westminster Choir were under the experienced baton of Julius Rudel. The orchestra played with beautifully appropriate care for dynamics and phrasing; the score ranges from chamber-music-like delicacy to a shattering forte in a Wagner-like storm as the gods finally act against the threat of the birds and their human “advisors.”

The staging of the opera was one of the most brilliant and breathtaking in the history of the festival or the region that is regularly covered by CVNC. The Stage Director was Jonathan Eaton, the sets and costumes were by Danila Korogodsky, and the lighting was by John McLain. The centerpiece, literally towering over the action, was a gigantic, stylized, many-branched tree over 22 feet tall. In the course of the opera, many of the singers portraying various birds crawled or perched all over it. When the gods finally attacked, the tips of the limbs burst into bright flame and the whole tree rotated. Some aspects of the costumes for the birds reminded me of the sacred dance clothing of the Hopi tribe of the American Southwest. Each wore a frame on his back with a few token feathers attached. The pajama-like clothing had varying patterns of color. Keeping them clearly identified was a challenge. Both the Raven and the Eagle wore black but had slightly different headgear. Hoopoe, the King of the Birds, a man so disillusioned with the world that he “became” a bird, wore “wings” made of crude planks. All the birds conveyed their nature by constant twitches, jerky “tics,” and similar body language.

Braunfels (1882-1954) composed Die Vögel in 1920, and it received more than fifty performances within two years in Munich alone. The Nazis expelled the composer from his posts as much for refusing to compose an anthem for them as for his being one half-Jewish. He somehow managed to survive self-imposed exile within Germany. His works lay neglected until a staging of this opera in 1971. The composer adapted his own libretto from the play by Aristophanes, consolidating characters, streamlining the plot, and significantly changing the ending. Two disillusioned men, Good Hope and Loyal Friend, search for the region of the Birds. Loyal Friend persuades Hoopoe, King of the Birds, to build a great city in the clouds, fortified against mankind below and the gods above. Good Hope falls in love with Nightingale; their solos and duets are among the high points of the opera. The long-suffering Titan, Prometheus, comes to warn the Birds to submit to the will of the gods. When the Birds rally to wage war, a terrible storm roars in, and Zeus’s thunderbolt destroys the city. Loyal Friend leaves, dismissing the whole thing as a lark. Good Hope lingers, reflecting upon his profound encounter with the Nightingale, an experience that will live forever in his heart. The opera’s prologue and its finale are dominated by the gorgeous songs of the Nightingale. Aristophanes’ play had a less dramatic ending – a negotiated settlement with the gods. Considering Zeus’ less than pacific history, that may have been another bit of comedy for the Greeks.

There was not a single weak singer in the cast of soloists and members of the Westminster Choir. Flawlessly precise and possessing a strong voice that easily projected an extraordinary emotional range throughout the hall, soprano Youngok Shin was the ideal Nightingale. Shin is a veteran of the festival, having debuted in 1988 as a water nymph in Dvorák’s Rusalka; she returned in 1989 and 1990 as Susannah in Gian Carlo Menotti’s wonderful conventional staging of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Since then, her voice has grown in strength, and as the Nightingale her coloratura arpeggios and trills were astonishing. Bass Dale Travis swaggered heartily as the Loyal Friend, so lacking in foresight. This festival was blessed with one of the finest tenor voices I have heard – Roy Cornelius Smith, as Good Hope. His solos and duets with Shin explored emotional depths rare in opera. Baritone Weston Hurt, a veteran of Raleigh’s old National Opera Company, was splendid as the easily-manipulated King of the Birds, Hoopoe. Mezzo-soprano Filomena Francesca Tritto created an unforgettable image as the “sad sack” First Thrush who, as Hoopoe’s flunky, tossed feathers at him since he didn’t have many feathers of his own, due to seasonal molting…. Two alumni of the NCSA’s A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute had substantial roles. Emily Newton’s firm, well-balanced dramatic soprano served her well in the important role of the Wren. Baritone Krassen Karagiozov was a solid presence as the Raven. Having dual roles gave bass-baritone Daniel Gross plenty of scope; he was the skeptical Eagle and the voice of Zeus. Some of the most wrenching music was in an extended scene wherein baritone Brian Mulligan pleaded with the Birds to heed Zeus’ warning and then recounted how the gods punished him for aiding mankind. He was marvelous.

Note: This is the fourth of a series of reviews of Spoleto USA and Piccolo Spoleto events by CVNC critics. For an index containing links to earlier commentary (by Ken Hoover), click here.