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A lyrical and fantastical play in two parts - 1920

Composer Walter Braunfels · Libretto by the composer based on Aristophanes
In German with German and English surtitles | New Production

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  • Bayerisches Staatsorchester
  • Chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper
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It has literally come to be – the “cloud-cuckoo-land” of Aristophanes’s ancient comedy, The Birds. With unprecedented hubris the birds believe they are the Gods’ equal and can build their own powerful state, which will practically starve the Gods. How mistaken they are – at once foolhardy and ridiculously risible, with a tragic end for the rebels. The world premiere of his adaptation of the ancient material in Munich in 1920 was a huge breakthrough for composer Walter Braunfels. An enormous success, followed in Munich alone by fifty performances! His version is idiosyncratic and stand-alone – Braunfels adds a deeply romantic aspect to the piece, while remaining true to the comedy. He not only understands the new polity of the birds in political terms; he also does so artistically and lyrically. The new state’s failure is attributed to both a lust for power and a misplaced idealisation. The ancient myth is reflected in the sorrowful experiences of a world of yesterday. For Braunfels the ruins of the First World War are visible signs all around of the both political and spiritual decay – his opera is a final emphatic uprising against the fragmentation of the present. One hundred years later the work’s first new production now follows at the point of its world premiere.

 

Prologue
The Nightingale welcomes the audience to the Kingdom of Birds where unburdened effortlessness reigns, free from human toil. Yet, she too has deep desires and knows pain, though is unable to quite define it.

Act One
Hoffegut and Ratefreund are on a search for the King of the Birds, Hoopoe. Ratefreund seeks to free himself from humans and their dark arts, looking instead to the birds for sanctuary. Hoffegut, on the other hand, has been much strung along by the ladies, so hopes to find love among the birds instead. The Wren is curious about these two characters who declare outright their wish to find Hoopoe who himself used to be a man. When the two men glance over Hoopoe’s somewhat dishevelled feathers they are amused at his distinctly unregal appearance. They then very matter-of-factly announce their desire to flee human worries and seek refuge with the birds. Quite euphorically, Ratefreund promises Hoopoe that the birds are called to greatness. He urges them to establish a city in order to consolidate their power. The birds should intercept the sacrifices made by humans to the gods as they ascend into heaven, thus withholding sustenance from the gods and rendering them powerless. Hoopoe is enthusiastic and wants to rally the birds behind this plan. The Nightingale and Hoopoe call all the birds together. However, the birds are extremely unhappy that Hoopoe is in cahoots with the humans which they consider a form of betrayal. Hoffegut and Ratefreund are already trying to leave but Hoopoe stops them, saying that he too once came as a man. Ratefreund flatters the birds by reminding them that they are an ancient race, older even than the gods themselves. It is then only proper that they should also be more powerful than the gods. He argues that at present they are being mistreated by the humans. The speech works. The birds decide to follow his advice. First they must build a city and then they can challenge Zeus. Hoffegut imagines a positive future. The birds, Hoopoe, Ratefreund and Hoffegut get to work. Hoffegut is amazed to see that Ratefreund has already donned a cloak of feathers.

Act Two
The Nightingale, who, before her transformation into a bird, killed her own son Ithys, is tormented by bitter reminders of her past. Hoffegut is mesmerised by the song of the Nightingale. He calls to her but she is shy of humans and responds only hesitantly to his compliments. She is unsure, so acquainted with being exploited by others to sing ever more beautiful melodies. Hoffegut declares his love for her, but the Nightingale knows only an idea of love, such as that which manifests itself in the light of the moon. She kisses him. In the murky light of dawn the birds’ newly established city reveals itself. Hoopoe feels like a king. A festive parade of birds files into the city, but the joyful procession is interrupted. Prometheus has secretly scouted out the birds and their city. Ratefreund confronts him bravely – though without recognising him. Hoopoe demands duty from the stranger who naturally point-blank refuses. He is curious as to why they were unable to appreciate their freedom as birds. Hoopoe, however, contends that they were enslaved and now want to challenge Zeus. Prometheus warns them of Zeus who could punish their rebellion at any moment. Prometheus tells of his own desire to rise up against Zeus which he payed dearly. The birds, however, inflamed again by Ratefreund’s rhetoric, call for war against Zeus. Zeus reacts promptly. He summons the four winds and strikes the city with a fearsome bolt of lightning. Everyone at once humbly acknowledges Zeus’s power, against which they would never have stood a chance. Ratefreund wants to go back to the city of humans. He wasn’t able to accomplish his grand plans among the birds. At least Hoffegut understands that he has experienced something special during his encounter with the Nightingale. With the song of the Nightingale still resonating in his ears he feels as though he has truly “lived”.

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