If opera as biography is your bag, then Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) should be top of your shopping list. In 1900, Zemlinsky fell in love with the young Alma Schindler, one of his composition students. At first his feelings were reciprocated, though Alma described him in her diary as “dreadfully ugly, almost chinless.” Her friends, however, were scandalized. Alma was a statuesque, upper class nuptial prize while, at 5’1” and with no great reputation as a composer, the lowly-born Zemlinsky was way below her in every sense of the word. A “skinny dwarf” was what the local Viennese called him. When the relationship inevitably went south, in 1902 Alma married Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky never quite forgave her, working out his feelings first in the orchestral tone poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) and then, between 1919 and 1922, in Der Zwerg, his one-act opera on Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta.

In the opera, the proud Infanta Donna Clara has been sent an ugly dwarf as a birthday present. At first, the princess and her maids trifle with the poor fellow who is unaware of his physical defects. The Infanta gives him a rose, but then instructs her lady-in-waiting, Ghita, to show the dwarf his refection in a mirror. At first, he refuses to believe it is himself, but ultimately it all proves too much and he dies, though whether of grief, horror, or simple self-awareness is never specified.

Tobias Kratzer is a bold director whose productions are full of daring ideas and revelatory insights (check out his recent Bayreuth Tannhäuser on DG 0735757). He opens his staging for Deutsche Oper Berlin with Schoenberg’s Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene (Accompaniment to a Film Scene), a harrowing ten-minute 12-tone score with prominent role for piano. Written for an imaginary film, it is subtitled “Danger, Fear, Catastrophe”. Not only is this a brilliantly ominous prelude to the tragedy ahead, it allows him to deal with the biographical aspect by imagining a fin-de-siècle scene between Zemlinsky and his pupil. Played out in moody black and white (Rainer Sellmaier is responsible for striking set and costumes throughout), the accomplished Adelle Eslinger-Runnicles as Alma and Evgeny Nikiforov as Zemlinsky dispatch Schoenberg’s piano part between them while exploring the protagonists’ tortured relationship.

The opera proper is just as well thought through with plenty of emotional truth and psychological depth. Set in a pristine music room adorned with the mutely staring busts of composers past, costumes are now contemporary with the vacuous, selfie-snapping women’s chorus in full fig. Later on a chamber orchestra arrives whose players become part of the action as well.

Elena Tsallagova is terrific as the gum chewing Infanta, her edgy soprano suitably icy. As the soft-hearted Ghita, Emily Magee is plush of voice and turns in an impressively complex performance. Kratzer’s coup is to cast two ‘dwarfs’: mellifluous tenor David Butt Philip plays the character as he sees himself while diminutive actor Mick Morris Mehnert suggests how others perceive him. In evening dress and clutching a score, the parallel with Zemlinsky is clear once again.

Donald Runnicles delivers a faultless reading of the sumptuous and frequently dazzling score – perhaps Zemlinsky’s most purely engaging. With such thoughtful direction, an equally accomplished musical interpretation, and excellent sound and video direction, Der Zwerg emerges as an opera thoroughly deserving of a place in the repertoire.

Composer: Zemlinsky
Work: Der Zwerg
Performers: Elena Tsallagova s, Emily Magee s, David Butt Philip t, Mick Morris Mehnert actor, Deutsche Oper Berlin/Donald Runnicles
Label: Naxos 2110657 (DVD)