[...] In the autumn of I897, Mahler, who had recently been appointed Musical Director of the Vienna Hofoper, wrote to Zemlinsky's publisher, expressing his interest in Sarema. Zemlinsky instead proposed a new opera, of which he had already sketched out the opening scenes, based on Holger Drachmann's folktale comedy with music, «Der var engang» ('Once upon a time, or The Prince of Nordland'), which he may have seen at the Raimund Theater in 1894. As librettist he secured the services of Maximilian Singer [1857-1928], who worked from a German translation by Marie von Borch, published in 1897. Whether Mahler commissioned the opera or merely proffered an undertaking to perform it is unclear.
Work on the short score began in August 1897 and progressed with customary rapidity. The prologue and first act were ready by the end of November, the complete short score on 10 June of the following year. According to Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Mahler was immediately struck by Zemlinsky's 'incredible technique' but found his music 'full of resemblances and plagiarisms'. He waited six weeks before inviting the composer to play the score through to him, but then accepted it for performance without further ado. [...]
Mahler threw himself with energy and enthusiasm into preparing the new opera. The sets and costumes were lavish, his best singers were entrusted with the principal roles: Selma Kurz as the Princess and Eric Schmedes as the Prince During rehearsal, numerous changes were made. According to Natalie Bauer Lechner, Mahler's friend Siegfried Lipiner advised him on textual alterations, and Zemlinsky was asked to recompose several passages. Some of these were needed to facilitate Mahler's cuts, others - including a new transition from the prologue to act I - smoothed the dramatic flow. The most far-reaching alterations were made to the closing pages of act I, which underwent two stages of transformation before meeting with Mahler's approval. The bold harmonies of the definitive version, which draws upon the song «Klopfet, so wird euch aufgetan», demonstrate Zemlinsky's continuing stylistic development. A reminiscence of the Prince's Nordic folk song, sung offstage, was interpolated in act II; extensive cuts were made in act III (a total of I77 bars), including a strophic song for the Prince in his soldier disguise, accompanied by a stage band.
The world premiere, on zz January 1900, was an unqualified success, and the piece remained in the repertoire of the Hofoper for twelve performances - a rare distinction for an operatic novelty, then as now. The critics - other than those from the anti-Semitic press, who missed no opportunity to denigrate Mahler - were enthusiastic. Many commented on the echoes of Wagner and Goldmark, but as with Sarema, these were not necessarily considered a deficiency. Heuberger, revealing a feuilletonist's talent for purple prose, recognized Zemlinsky's innate talent for music-theatre and (perhaps as a belated gesture of personal gratitude) singled out the orchestration for lavish praise:
«At present there are few composers whose sense of theatre is as acute as Zemlinsky's, few so familiar as he with every greater and lesser trade secret of dramatic effect- in the positive sense of the word. By determining in the score the exact pace of dialogue ('Rede und Gegenrede'), an opera composer commands a superb mechanism with which he can unambiguously specify his principal characters' states of mind, their moods and changes of mood. [...] Nevertheless, everything that happens on stage is symbolic. Only when the orchestra lends its unfathomable voic from the depths of some mysterious crypt are these mysteries unveiled, commented, consummated, motivated.»
The seventy-five-year-old Hanslick attended a later performance. His lengthy review was divided into strophes, each concluding with the pugnacious refrain: 'Must they always Wagnerize?' A devout 'Brahmin' to the last, he exhorted Zemlinsky to liberate himself from all remaining influence of Bayreuth:
Twelve years before Zemlinsky composed his opera, [...] I saw the folk play at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. [...] Zemlinsky's music strikes me as too artful, if not too artificial for such a comedy; the declamation too often stilted, the vocal line lacking in melody, the orchestration over-saturated and restless. [...] These observations, written long after the first performance of Zemlinsky's successful work, are by no means intended as censure. As such they would be unjustified, for they intentionally accentuate the negative aspects - actually just one negative aspect - of the score, prompted by a sincere interest in the future of this talented young composer.
Despite the acclaim to which the opera was launched, «Es war einmal...» remained on the shelf of the Hofoper library for ten years. In May I9IZ a new production was staged at Mannheim and in October of the same year, Zemlinsky himself conducted the work in Prague. Then silence - over half a century of oblivion.
In I987 the Danish Radio recorded the work in a new edition by Jan Maegaard (published in I990), a reconstruction of the version performed in Mannheim and Prague, including all the cuts, alterations and retouchings implemented by Mahler. Using the same edition, the opera was staged with considerable success at Kiel in 1991. Even in a theatre of relatively modest means, it became clear that Zemlinsky's sense of drama, his mastery of orchestral colour and wide expressive range had remained undimmed by the passing of time.
[pp.66; 72-73; senza note. © Antony Beaumont]