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Detlev Glanert: Joseph Süss preview

(October 1999)

Detlev Glanert has established himself as one of the foremost of young German composers writing for the opera house, with such works as The Mirror of the Great Emperor having received multiple stagings. His new opera, scored for seven principal singers, chorus and chamber orchestra, tells the powerful story of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, whose execution can be seen as a chilling premonition of 20th century history.



"His trial was a farce. It was never the intention to examine the accusations and to enforce the law appropriately. The verdict was already agreed upon in mid-May in 1737 before the opening of the secret trial: the Jew should be hanged. He was meant to pay the penalty for his former employer, the dead Duke Karl Alexander whom the people of Württemberg never had the courage to confront in his lifetime…"
Hellmut G. Haasis, 1998


After the surprise death of Duke Karl Alexander von Württemberg, Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, the Duke’s personal financial adviser, is incarcerated as a political prisoner in the castles of Hohenneuffen and Hohenasperg. He is put through a questionable, judicially dubious trial. His execution finally takes place on 4 February 1738 in Stuttgart. Thousands of onlookers are attracted to the gruesome spectacle presenting itself not unlike a country fair. ‘Jew Süß’, as he is soon popularly called, hangs on the highest gallows in Germany enclosed in a metal cage. For six years, his corpse is exhibited: to warn the Jews and to edify the Christians. His case, immortalised in chronicles and songs, soon found its way into literature and theatre history.

There are numerous adaptations of his life’s story ranging from the moral tales of the 18th century to Wilhelm Hauff’s novel and Feuchtwanger’s extensive book and play, as well as the perfidious Nazi propaganda film by Veit Harlan. They show that Süß’s story is a key event in the history of European persecution of the Jews, pragmatically displaying the mechanisms of pogrom: stigmatism, deprivation of rights and annihilation.

"The opera Joseph Süß is an attempt to do justice to the historical figure of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer without, of course, blindly idealising him. Joseph Süß operates between the hedonistic forces of power, financial politics, religious rivalry and eroticism on the one hand and the forces of love for his daughter Naemi as well as for the Jewish traditions and mysticism on the other. For a time it seems he is the driving force for the court’s luxuries and a profiteer from the Duke’s insatiable lust. Eventually, he becomes the victim of an intrigue spun by Magistralrat Weissensee, his worst enemy at court. Weissensee initiates, fosters and betrays a coup d’état for which he manages to blame Süß, thus revenging his daughter Magdalena’s dishonouring by both the Duke and Süß. Weissensee furthermore discloses to the duke the existence of Süß’ daughter Naemi who has so far been kept away from court. The duke subsequently makes forceful advances to Naemi and causes her death. After the failed coup d’état, the Duke suffers a fatal stroke. As a scapegoat, Joseph Süß is imprisoned and sentenced to death by hanging.

The opera’s action starts at that point. Nightmarish voices from the living and the dead harass Joseph Süß in his prison cell: They condemn him, recall memories from his successes or express their intention to free him from his current situation. Joseph Süß, however, declines any offer of release.

By the end, his rejection turns into a prayer, and the prayer into screams of fear of death: they are louder than the voice of his dead daughter Naemi who calls him to join her. But they are also louder than the drum rolls calling for his execution."
Werner Fritsch/Uta Ackermann (translation Elke Hockings)


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