At the Salzburg Festival in 1955, German composer Werner Egk premiered his newest opera: Irische Legende, an adaptation of W. B. Yeats’ verse drama The Countess Cathleen. To celebrate its premier, Egk published the text of his opera, complete with five original lithographs by Viennese artist Oskar Kokoschka.
This lithograph depicts the closing moments of the fifth and final scene of the opera. As the poet Aleel looks on, angels and demons fight over the soul of the Countess Cathleen, who had sold it to provide for her starving people. In the background fly the angels, pleased to have defeated the demons. On the left stands Cathleen’s soul, candle in hand, preparing to ascend to Heaven; Kokoschka sets her otherworldliness apart with a sketched line on her right, as black shading frames her body. The central subject is Aleel, who utters the last words in the opera: he gazes into the distance, resting his head on his right hand, contemplating the life ahead of him without his love, the Countess.
Kokoschka creates a dynamic scene, as each vignette—of Cathleen, the angels, the demons, and Aleel—remains at once distinct and inextricably linked to the next, guiding the viewer’s eye. The line that ostensibly separates Cathleen from the rest of the scene actually extends, even curves toward; the angels, in turn, curve slightly downward toward the outstretched arm of one of the demons; both demons, at either hip or elbow, converge on the figure of Aleel, whose gaze cast back toward Cathleen completes the cycle. This circle of vignettes, in conjunction with Kokoschka’s loose, sketch-like strokes of the lithographic chalk, serves to recreate the action of the opera onstage. (Rosemary Frehe, Class of 2017)
demons; music; theater; supernatural
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