Goldschmidt: Beatrice Cenci review – grisly lost opera gets attention it deserves

4 / 5 stars 4 out of 5 stars.

James/Pohl/Kaiser/Wiener Symphoniker/Debus
(C Major, DVD)
The German composer’s opera about the daughter of a monstrous Italian patriarch is worth revisiting in this stylish production

‘No more gruesome than many an opera’ … Gal James as Beatrice and Christoph Pohl as Francisco in Beatrice Cenci.
‘No more gruesome than many an opera’ … Gal James as Beatrice and Christoph Pohl as Francisco in Beatrice Cenci.

Berthold Goldschmidt’s adaptation of Shelley’s 1819 tragedy The Cenci was one of the four prize-winners in a competition for new opera organised in conjunction with the 1951 Festival of Britain. The winners were promised performances of their scores, but funds ran out, and though extracts from Beatrice Cenci were broadcast by the BBC in 1953, it was forgotten until 1988, when there was finally a concert performance of the complete work in London. The first staging took place in Magdeburg in 1994, two years before Goldschmidt’s death at the age of 93. A pupil of Franz Schreker in Berlin in the 1920s, Goldschmidt lived in Britain for more than 60 years, but, discouraged by a lack of performances, he gave up composition in the late 1950s to concentrate on his career as a conductor.

After the Magdeburg premiere, Beatrice Cenci was not seen again until a production last year at the Bregenz festival, which has now been issued on DVD. Sung in the composer’s own German translation of Martin Esslin’s rather wordy English libretto, the nicely stylised production by Johannes Erath makes a good case for at least occasional stagings of a work whose story – daughter kills the father who has raped her, and finds herself tortured and finally executed by the church for her “crime” – is no more gruesome than those of many established repertory pieces.

Goldschmidt set out to write a latterday bel canto work, and his vocal lines are certainly always singable, over orchestral writing that references Mahler, Busoni and Schreker as well as standard 19th-century operatic models. The Bregenz cast, led by Gal James as Beatrice, with Dshamilja Kaiser as her stepmother Lucrezia and Christoph Pohl as the swaggering, monstrous Francisco Cenci, complete with diamante codpiece, is a very decent one, and Johannes Debus makes sure that Goldschmidt’s whirling, churning orchestral writing gets the attention it deserves.

Also new on DVD

Unitel Editions has released a recording of the big operatic hit of last year’s Salzburg festival, the production of Strauss’s Salome. It’s definitely worth seeing, not for the baffling staging by Romeo Castellucci, spreading across the expanse of the Felsenreitschule stage, with a lake of milk, a black stallion stalking the stage, no dance for Salome at all, and Jokanaan’s head replaced by a headless torso, partly for Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting with the Vienna Philharmonic, but most of all for Asmik Grigorian’s performance in the title role. She’s a totally compelling, totally credible Salome, utterly secure vocally and fabulously contained; her performance is a real star-is-born moment.