“Egmont” part of “A Hero’s Life,” Buffalo Rising

THE BASICS:  A scaled down 45 minute narration of Goethe’s “Egmont” in the second half of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert at Kleinhans Music Hall, conducted by JoAnn Falletta, narrated by RLT’s Matthew Witten.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Beethoven’s music for an 1810 revival of Johann von Goethe’s verse drama about the 16th century hero Count Egmont whose execution led to a national uprising against an oppressive Spanish regime (remember the Inquisition?) has come down through the ages, mostly because of the robust eight minute “Egmont Overture” (think Beethoven’s 5th or 9th symphonies for similar potency).  The rest of the music, not to mention the five act German verse drama itself? Rarely performed. So this English prose version, with burly Buffalo actor Matthew Witten, dressed all in black, striding about, declaiming the highlights of the action, is a very accessible 21st century introduction.  On stage JoAnn Falletta conducted the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra with popular Buffalo classical soprano Emily Helenbrook who sings two songs (in German).

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  Just as today’s film scores provide emotional backing to the plot, back in the 18th and 19th century it was the mode to provide music in between scenes of on-stage dramas. It was called “incidental music” and much of it has outlasted the plays.  (One example of this is the incidental music by Grieg to Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.” We hear the music all the time.  I’ve never seen the play once.)  So, this performance with the BPO flips things a little, and makes the narration incidental to the music by Beethoven. But due to the forceful script and the authoritative presence of actor Matthew Witten (who is mic’d) there is a good balance.

The action begins with Witten striding on stage, dressed all in black, reminiscent of the great orators long since gone, setting the scene.  The Count of Egmont is a nobleman, a Catholic, and even a member of Spanish King Philip II’s official council in the Low Countries, but when the Duke of Alba brings the Spanish Inquisition to the Netherlands, Egmont protests.  His cause is for freedom and liberty. This leads to his arrest, imprisonment, and ultimate execution.

In the hours before his beheading the ghost of Clärchen (Helenbrook), Egmonth’s earthly love and the embodiment of the Goddess of Freedom, appears to him.  To the people Egmont declares: “The deepest joys of my heart were one; divine freedom inhabited the figure of my dearest love.  Strive forth, brave people! Friends, take heart! Your parents, your wives, your children are behind you. Guard your sacred heritage. And defend all you hold most dear, as I do before you now!”

The stage itself is slightly enhanced with minimal lighting effects projected on the ceiling, and there is a follow spot illuminating Witten who, when not speaking, seems to blend into the shadows, a very effective bit of staging on the part of Director Scott Behrend who has created over fifty (50!) Road Less Traveled Productions.

Yes, it’s an historical drama, and yes it’s Beethoven, and there are very powerful scenes, but it’s not all “in your face.” For that matter, in the first half of the concert, with pianist Norman Krieger joining the BPO for Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto, the music alternates between sweeping grand gestures and tender moments.  And so it is with “Egmont” where there is a balance between strength and tenderness.

Young soprano Emily Helenbrook, now studying at the Eastman School of Music, is no stranger to Buffalo audiences, having performed all across the region and also with the BPO several times.  Her voice is clear and sweet and she is the consummate young professional.

And JoAnn Falletta is programming collaborations more and more, holding the highest standards for the music (which is, after all, why most ticket holders are there) while allowing the drama the freedom it needs to move the audience.

Certainly for Americans, a melodrama based on a play about freedom and independence written in 1777 (the year that George Washington wintered at Valley Forge) should be a “must see.” At the first performance, Friday morning, it was heartening to see busloads of high school students in attendance.  And remember back to your teenage years, when your emotions and ideals were at the highest level?  At some point during this performance, you will feel that way again.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!