In a café facing the opera at Il Teatro alla Scala in Milan, legend has it that a bottle of rare champagne awaits the person able to narrate in fifteen minutes or less, in good modern Italian, without contradictions or errors, the storyline to Verdi’s Il Trovatore. The bottle remains unopened after over a century and a half!
This fantastic anecdote suggests that a society of Busonologists mimic the challenge by placing an excellent bottle across from the Hamburg Staatsoper (where Die Brautwahl received its premiere in 1912) for anyone, in any language, able to resume the bizarre storyline for this opera in less than an hour!
Dramaturgical clarity was not one of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s concerns in the collection Die Serapionsbrüder which provides the plot for Die Brautwahl. Busoni’s carefully planned work does not alleviate the confusion. The mood of the work is very volatile oscillating between the sentimental and the fantastic. Busoni’s attitude toward both worlds - Bourgeois and Occult - remains very mi-figue, mi-raisin (as we say in French). The deadpan irony and sophisticated supernatural banter seems to belong to the world of French author Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, a writer much admired by Busoni.
There are many wonderful musical moments in the opera, and with our contemporary habit of remote control "zapping," today’s audience may be more adept at finding and cherishing the pearls in this vast work than Busoni’s contemporaries, who promptly dismissed the work for its complexity and "unreadability" on stage.
A keen ear listening through the work will discover well-known kernels of vintage Busoni:
1. a passage which will become the Preludio from Toccata BV 287
2. an orchestration of Elegie nr. 5 Die Nächtlichen
3. an adaptation of Elegie Nr. 6 Erscheinung