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the birthday of the infanta

22 december 2020

"The Birthday of the Infanta" is one of Oscar Wilde's literary fairy tales. Not as well-known as "The Happy Prince" or "The Selfish Giant," "The Birthday of the Infanta" has nonetheless inspired several adaptations, thanks to its memorable climactic scene, where a disabled, nearly feral child first encounters his reflection in a mirror and finds himself monstrous.

The power of that scene so outweighs the first half of the story that "The Birthday of the Infanta" seems internally imbalanced. The Infanta dominates that first half, before the Dwarf appears. On her birthday, as the title announces, the motherless princess is briefly distracted from her drab existence with her perpetually grieving father by some mock bullfights, some mountebanks, and the entrance of the freakshow Dwarf.

She then withdraws and leaves most of the rest of the story to the Dwarf, who has an interlude with the creatures of nature before making his way into the palace and his doom. But is this sharp break really a flaw? The Dwarf in Wilde's story mirrors not just himself but the Infanta: a beautiful, flattered royal personage who seems never to have confronted her own reflection either.

With its mirror scene, "The Birthday of the Infanta" would seem a natural source for a ballet, and indeed no fewer than 15 ballets have been composed for the story. None of them seems to have won a major place in the ballet repertoire, though. An opera became the most prominent version, now more famous than Wilde's original story. Alexander Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg ("The Dwarf," 1922) is not an inner-circle opera, but it is performed continually, or was before COVID: in the winter of 2019-20 in San Francisco, for instance.

Wilde's story internalizes much of its dramatic action. In his prose, what's important is how the Infanta feels about things (or doesn't) in her own heart, and how the Dwarf muses about his own nature and the society he's been thrust into. The most talkative characters are the flowers and animals who commune with the Dwarf in the middle of the tale. For the opera, though, librettist Georg C. Klaren jettisoned the creatures and staged scenes of human introspection (via solo singing) and confrontation (via duets) – while also providing considerable work for a divided chorus of the Infanta's attendants early in the show. There's a lot going on here for a one-act opera.

Inevitably, the opera is simply different from its source, different enough that one might think of Zemlinsky loosely reflecting on Wilde's themes rather than setting them directly to music. The Infanta has a memorable interlude alone with the Dwarf, and the Dwarf has a powerful soliloquy even before the great mirror scene. And Klaren invented a character who triangulates the two of them, though not romantically: Ghita, the Infanta's attendant who sings extended scenes with both.

The most accessible version of Der Zwerg on video is a 2018 production from Lille, with a minimalist set, weird props, and gorgeous music. For the mirror scene, the almost featureless stage became a a gigantic mirror that reflected not only the Dwarf (and later the Infanta too) but everyone in the Lille opera house sitting at a given angle to the stage (so that everyone affected saw a slightly different, dynamic set with themselves foregrounded). This can't have been easy to design or to light, and it brought home the impact of Wilde's, Klaren's, and Zemlinsky's ideas very vividly.

Wilde, Oscar. "The Birthday of the Infanta." In A House of Pomegranates, 1891.