Saturday, August 06, 2005

"Die Gezeichneten" at Salzburg

It has been quite an exciting Salzburg Festival this summer. As I reported earlier, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte with Riccardo Muti at the helm is an enticing prelude to the upcoming celebration of Mozart's birthday next year. Now, a nearly forgotten work by an almost forgotten composer is being performed at the Felsenreitschule to great acclaim. The work is Die Gezeichneten (The Marked Ones) by Austrian composer Franz Schreker. The production is by Nikolaus Lehnhoff and the musical direction by Kent Nagano. Readers of this blog and visitors to my Wagner site will recognize this to be the creative team of the marvelous production of Wagner's Parsifal from Baden-Baden that was captured on DVD and released this year.

I heard the live broadcast of Die Gezeichneten last week, recorded it, and designed the cover that you see above. What is immediately striking when you hear Schreker's work is his great lyricism and his adept abilities as orchestrator. Listeners will immediately call it "Strauss-like" when they first hear it. Indeed, for many music critics of his day, it was Schreker and not Richard Strauss who was the heir to Wagner. Unfortunately, the tide of political events that led to World War II virtually erased Schreker's name and his works from memory. As a half-Jew, Shreker saw his works banned in his native Austria and he was unable to secure any commissions or adquire any teaching posts. He died in 1934 from complications brought on by a stroke.

Here is Jeremy Eichler's review from the New York Times:

SALZBURG FESTIVAL REVIEW; With a Disturbing Vision of Utopia Lost, a Forgotten Modernist Is Remembered

By JEREMY EICHLER

The Austrian composer Franz Schreker was one of the great dreamers of early-20th-century music, a cartographer of distant sonic utopias and a prophet of their demise. His fame reached its height in German-speaking Europe around 1920, when his operas rivaled Strauss's in popularity, and he was hailed by some as the true heir to Wagner. But he was crushed by the double blow of shifting Weimar fashion and then the Third Reich.

As a progressive composer of half-Jewish descent, he was dismissed from prominent teaching posts, his music later banned. He died of a stroke in 1934 and his reputation lay in tatters for decades after the war. He was surely the most successful composer of his generation to simply vanish from music history.

But Schreker's return may finally be drawing near. His works are once again being performed in Austria and Germany, and Tuesday night a new staging of his apocalyptic opera, ''Die Gezeichneten,'' was unveiled here as the opening production of the prestigious Salzburg Festival. Directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, with Kent Nagano leading his Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, it was an engrossing evening that conveyed not only the vertiginous beauty of Schreker's music, but also the composer's theatrical gifts, his penchant for probing the unconscious drives and boundless yearnings of his characters in a world that is crumbling around them.

''Die Gezeichneten'' (''The Branded'') was completed in 1915, and though the action is set in a mythical 16th-century Genoa, it is a product of tumultuous fin-de-siècle Vienna and the heady last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It tells the story of a wealthy hunchback, Alviano Salvago, who detests his appearance and is filled with such hunger for beauty that he creates an island paradise, an Elysium of art and natural wonders. But Alviano soon learns that corrupt noblemen have discovered a secret grotto on the island and, spurred on by their leader, Tamare, they have been abducting the daughters of the city to indulge in violent orgies there.

Alviano tries to avert disaster and donates Elysium to the citizens of Genoa, but before the transfer occurs, he is seduced by Carlotta, a painter of hands and souls who has been secretly observing him and persuades him to sit for a portrait. He falls desperately in love and they are engaged to marry, but she loses interest after her painting is complete and soon becomes prey to the rapacious Tamare. The final scene takes place in the grotto, where Alviano discovers Carlotta's betrayal, shoots Tamare dead and staggers off, a broken shell of a man.

Schreker wrote the steamy libretto himself, and it is a prescient meditation on the limits of aesthetic refuge; on 19th-century notions of beauty that were premised on repression, be it social, psychological or sexual; and on the quick free-fall of any utopia to its opposite extreme.

These were bread-and-butter themes for the Vienna moderns, and writers like Hofmannsthal and Schnitzler charted this terrain with far more subtlety and complexity. But Schreker had at his command a tool he could wield like no one else: the orchestra.

He was an unsurpassed master of timbre who possessed an almost mystical relationship with the very idea of sound. But unlike his fellow Viennese composers, Schreker never expelled himself from the garden of tonality. His lush and sensuous musical language was built on extensions of a late-Romantic grammar. He was, in other words, the rarest of musical creatures: a modernist who never got the memo on grim austerity, a progressive composer who forgot that ornament was crime. Instead, he found ways to push boundaries from within a tonal universe, stacking chords on top of one another, stretching chromaticism to its outer limits and swaddling his expressionist musical dramas in intoxicating swirls of color.

''Die Gezeichneten'' was one of his most popular operas, and Mr. Lehnhoff has created a staging that is sometimes fuzzy on the details but true to its dark heart. Seeking to universalize Alviano's plight, he has made the character's deformity purely psychological. (His self-loathing drives him to secret cross-dressing, a cliché of German ''director's theater'' but it somehow works here.) More harmful to Schreker's concept is Mr. Lehnhoff's decision to stage all three acts on the ruins of the destroyed Elysium, rendered as the rubble of a giant godlike statue, thereby visually anticipating the opera's end and eliminating the suspense that might have been built from guarding the secret of the distant paradise.

But the director's most striking revision is to the murderous orgies of the third act. He challenged himself to convey the shock of Schreker's original, but how do you do that when modern viewers have been so anesthetized by television and film, not to mention Stanley Kubrick's ''Eyes Wide Shut,'' which was based on a roughly contemporary novella by Schnitzler? Mr. Lehnhoff's answer is pedophilia. At the work's final climax, it is revealed that the ''daughters of Genoa'' who had been abducted to the grotto are in fact quivering little girls who look scarcely 10 years old. The stomach turns; the shock is achieved.

Without previous exposure to Mr. Lehnhoff's work, one might chalk this up to more German directorial scandal-mongering. But his riveting ''Makropulos Case'' at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of 2001 suggests a deeper mind at work. I left feeling duly disturbed but also skeptical about how well this solution integrated with Schreker's original vision.

The cast struggled valiantly with Schreker's demanding vocal writing. Robert Brubaker was affecting and sympathetic if also underpowered as Alviano, Michael Volle was a suitably muscular Tamare, and Robert Hale sang with ample depth in the supporting role of the Duke Adorno. As Carlotta, the soprano Anne Schwanewilms was the standout, with an icy radiance to her voice and a mesmerizing stage presence.

Mr. Nagano led his ensemble in a masterfully paced reading of the score, showing an intuitive feel for Schreker's palette with all its blends and subtle shading. At the opera's most riveting moments, the sound had a way of billowing out from the orchestra, like a soft wind blowing from a place unseen.

2 comments:

Jim said...

Hi, found your blog after Googling "Gezeichneten" [bookmarks page].

I'm a Schreker fanatic. He's my favorite opera composer. I discovered him after reading about him briefly in the program notes to a production of "Wozzeck" here in Los Angeles in 1989 (Berg did the piano/vocal reduction for Schreker's "Der Ferne Klang"). I bought the only opera then available on CD (DFK) and was hooked within 2 minutes.

I've heard recordings of 7 of his 9 operas (10 if you include the revision "Das Spielwerk") and have seen productions of 4 of them, the 4 of them that are flat out great operas: "Der Ferne Klang", "Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin", "Die Gezeichneten" and "Der Schatzgraber". I'm utterly convinced that they should be done as often as, at the least, Strauss' 2nd tier stuff ("Arabella" for example). The production of "Die Gezeichneten" that I saw in Stuttgart two years ago was staggering; it won a ton of awards and it was easy to see why: I left the Staatstheatre shattered.

The one problem: all of the commerically available recordings have glaring flaws. Keep in mind that Schreker's operas, ca. 1920, were more popular than Strauss'. Thus he had the top singers and conductors of the day performing them: Jeritza, Tauber, Mayer, Lehmann; Kleiber, Szell etc. All the recordings are done by singers that you'd encounter on the 2nd tier German opera house circuit. To really soar, they need current voices like Fleming, Voigt (she'd be *fabulous* in this music), Urmana, Heppner, Terfel etc.

Um, I love Schreker's music. Can you tell? :-)

Ariadne said...

Hi, count me in on the Schreker fan bandwagon.

I'm "just a mom" now finally making my way back to the opera stage and am RIVETED by Korngold and Schreker. If I play my cards right, I will be able to perform most of it myself.

Please (1) come over to my blog and comment at www.vissid-amore.blogspot.com and

(2) TELL ME HOW I CAN GET A COPY OF YOUR RECORDING!!!

Thanks!