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King Lear Opera Poised for a Comeback

A new production of Aribert Reimann's LEAR opera opened in Paris in May.

An operatic version of King Lear...why hasn't anybody thought of it before? Well, some great musical minds have indeed. And on a recent trip to Paris, The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Sterns found the composer who nailed it.

The great might-have-been King Lear opera is, in fact, Verdi's Simon Boccanagra, which re-purposed music from the composer's sadly abandoned King Lear. Shakespeare's darkest play about an aging, mad monarch and his beyond-sadistic daughters maybe needed to wait until the invention of modern dissonance to penetrate its dark heart.

The composer is Aribert Reimann, and even though his Lear opera has been around since 1978, it's mainly been a presence in Germanic countries.

Now, with the current high-profile Paris Opera production — with its stark, modern dress look conceived by Calixto Bieito and ultra-clear orchestral conducting by Fabio Luisi — the opera may be entering the repertory and possibly coming to a company or festival near us.

It has always been a great opera, but pieces this uncompromising need extra dissemination time, even though this one had the advantage of being written for the legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer Dieskau.

This is the final scene, with lower string writing and eloquent vocal lines that have Lear lamenting over his dead daughter, Cordelia. If there's one reason why the opera is gaining traction, it's this.

The central problem is that the opera remains so Shakespearean that the cast needs to be great actors while also singing incredibly difficult music. Even Paris' star baritone Bo Skovhus didn't get there.

Maybe such demands are the real reason for Lear's absence. Nonetheless, the super-opinionated Parisians are not only filling the seats, but staying in them. In comparison, a recent all-Stravinsky concert in London had a near-empty balcony. But one of my usher friends at the legendary Palais Garnier opera house in Paris tells me the Act I walkout rate was...seven. Now that's a triumph.