Wednesday, 26 August 2009
Franz Schreker - Die Gezeichneten Salzburg DVD
In the early 90's Decca did a series of recordings of Entartete Musik, music suppressed by the Nazi regime. It was an act of great commercial foresight because at the time much of this music wasn't known outside specialist circles. The Decca series, created by Dr Albrecht Dümling, was truly visionary, extremely well curated, and the performances often so good they remain classics even now the genre is pretty much mainstream. This series is the benchmark by which all else is measured. Probably there won't be another series of this breadth and quality.
Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten was part of the series, conducted by Lothar Zagrosek and the Berlin Radio Symphony who were behind many of the recordings. Entartete Musik was cherished in East Germany, where there was a performance tradition. On one disc there's Matthias Goerne, barely out of his teens. Worthy as that recording is, it's outclassed by the performance in Salzburg in 2005, when Peter Ruzicka was director. So a visionary performance, unmissable for anyone, interested in the genre or not. This puts Die Gezeichneten firmly in the mainstram repertoire.
The Salzburg production is so good that topping it will be a challenge no one has yet dared attempt. It was conducted by Kent Nagano, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (where many East Berliners went to). The cast is absolutely top notch : Anne Schwanewilms, Michael Volle, Wolfgang Schöne and Robert Brubaker in what must be the ultimate performance of his career. The director was Nikolaus Lehnhoff.
Lehnhoff's penchant for massive constructions works wonderfully to express the meaning of the opera. The stage at first looks like it's strewn with formidable boulders. Alviano Salvago has built Elysium, a secret world on a remote island off Genoa. These boulders are like the bastions of a frightening fortress, which is what Elysium really is, despite being dedicated to art, love and beauty. There are prisoners here, and unspeakable crimes which don't get revealed until the end. Salvago himself is a fortress. He's a hunchback, "the ugliest man in Genoa", crippled by self-loathing. He's built Elysium as an escape. It's so perfect that it makes everything beautiful. It's used by aristocrats for exquisite orgies, in which Salvago himself doesn't participate despite the magical aura which makes hideousness beautiful.
As the lovely Overture unfolds, Brubaker is carefully putting on elaborate makeup. He's dressed in a flimsy negligee. but his cropped hair and butch features make him look like a caricature drag queen. Immediately, the staging and acting conncet to the idea of psychic dissonance that is so much the soul of this opera. The boulders on stage are formed by a giant statue of a woman, but a statue collapsed and destroyed, only one arm, on hand still raised in a futile gesture to heaven. Most of the action in the opera unfolds on the statue's body, so watch carefully how the body becomes part of the action. Sometimes its rounded curves nurture, sometimes they allow a place to hide, but they remain opaque, inpenetrable, unlike the island's victims. The stage too extends to the walls around the auditorium, arches representing the many secret rooms in the grotto, yet also look sinister, like catacombs. The statue does not foretell the ending. It's clear in the music and text all along that Elysium is an unsustainable delusion in the first place, and Salvago is not deluded. This is important because there are moral and social values in this opera. Elysium is a prototype of an ideal society, corrupted by people who don't have ideals.
Salvago announces he's giving Elysium away to the City of Genoa. An altruistic act, perhaps, but Salvago knows that the girls used in the orgies were kidnapped from the town. Schreker's dwarf is an altogether more complex person than any of Zemlinsky's. Zemlinsky's dwarves fall in love with beauties, but accept their rejection on a relatively straightforward fairy tale level. Schreker's Salavgo (note the name) is so screwed up he doesn't dare look beyond himself and or even conceive of love. Fortress Elysium blocks out vulnerable feelings.
Schreker's drama is more than fairy tale in other ways. Listen to the way Anne Schwanewilms creates Carlotta Nardi, the wayward daughter of the Podestà (Wolfgang Schöne). She's a liberated woman, an artist who doesn't follow rules, the personification of Der ferne Klang, the elusive melody in physical form. She paints souls. Listen to that wonderful passage where she sings about her dream. She sees a "small wretched wanderer" walk into the sunlight, and a miracle happens - he grows larger and larger. "So male ich eure Gestalt, Signor Alviano". Watch Brubaker's face twitch. This is truly masterful acting. He's pouring out a flood of dammed up emotions, too powerful for Salvago to contain. Then she says, she still needs to see "trunkene Auge, darin all die Schoenheit sich gespeigelt".
This line is critical. Can Salvago give her the "drunken eye" that mirrors beauty ? Brubaker pulls his butch black overcoat on again, hiding his soft pink negligee, and for a moment stands alone on the harsh boulders. The scene ends with poignant strings, the film projecting the statue's blind stone eyes.
Salvago's mirror image twin is Graf Vitelozzo Tamare, given a tour de force performance by Michael Volle, another high point in his career he deserves to be very proud of. Tamare is handsome, tall, virile. What body language! Yet listen to the music behind his description of Elysium, and its "Ein künstliche Grotto auf jenem Eiland", the Eiland soaring, swelling lyrically. So it makes sense that Tamare, Alpha male that he is, unlke the other men, the one who discovers love. "There are men who see only the light, and darkness "ist ihrem Fremd". Since he's set eyes on the Carlotta with her mysterious, challenging smile, no longer can he be careless and uncaring, no longer can he be the prankster hero he used to be. Think Tristan. Pity Volle isn't a tenor. Listen to the way Schreker builds echoes of horn calls into the music, as if he did hear the parallels. But it's distinctively Schreker's voice, "Ferne Musik und leise Gesänge" further invoked in the orchestral interlude that follows, where Lehnhoff has Schwanewilms start to seduce Brubaker.
Both Schwanewilms and Brubaker are encased in transparent black chiffon on naked flesh. When Schwanewilms talks off Brubaker's hard, heavy boots it's erotic and yet extremely tender. Watch Brubaker's expressions carefully as he doesn't have much to sing but his reactions are extremely important - thank goodness for close-ups in film! Yet seduction is just a simile for deeper intimacy. Carlotta sings of going out on s a sunny day, feeling sad without knowing why. Salvago realises someone has at last broken down his emotional walls. But that means he has to learn to give tenderness in return, for she, too is "ein gar gebrechliches Spielzug" She pulls off his pink dress, exposing him, but that's it.
The most striking scenes in this production occurs as the interlude is played. Suddenly the auditorium is bathed in blue light, a reference to the light that makes the Grotto magic. The arches around the stage light up, and figures appear, in black capes. These reference the men of Genoa in their black, beetle-like attire and also longer dramatic traditions. Carlotta's sensitivity is up against something too hard and too ingrained in society for her and Salvago to stand up to. Figures like vultures encroach on the stage as the Duke, representing power, persuades Carlotta that Salvago isn't the man for her. Eventually, it's Tamare she succumbs to, not unwillingly.
These groups of elegant but sinister figures, sexually ambiguous, with masks and feathered headresses, are Lehnhoff trademarks, but here wonderfully evoke things that can't rationally be expressed - mystery, evil, death, power, perhap ? They prepare us for the terrible trial scene when Duke Adorno and the Council of Eight denounce Salvago, blaming him for kidnapping and corrupting the girls of Genoa. It's a horrifying moment. Salvago squirms, helpless. The aristocrats who used Elysium are rounding on him for trying to end it. He must take the blame so they won't. And he is to blame, even though he never laid a finger on anyone. His crime was trying to upset the natural order of things where beauty is beauty and ugliness ugliness. Salvago's attempts to end the orgies on the island by giving it to the city are cruelly punished. Perhaps real ugliness is so powerful that dreams like Elysium can't possibly work and Salvagos are destined to fail. And the rescued girls themselves blame him, for it was in his Elysium they were corrupted.
Then in the final interlude, the ground itself opens up, as Elysium is destroyed, revealing lots of children, half naked, some dead, their haunted eyes captured more accusingly on film than you'd ever see in the opera house. It's horrible. In a corner, Carlotta and Tamare lie together as if dead. Then Volle sings. Even if he's killed, it won't change the fact he's had the most blissful moment of his life. "Die Schönheit sei Beute das Starken". In their final confrontation, Tamare tells Salvago in no uncertain terms why he's failed. "Du sahst nur das Dunkle, die Scahtten, Gefahr und Sünde". What's worse, "ein freudlos Leben, ein langsam Seichen, oder ein Tod in Rausch und Verklärung rauscher in brünstg’r Unarmung ein selig Sterben!". A death in rapture and transfiguration? Carlotta found the ecstasy, the "drunken eyes" she dreamed of so she died happy. Definitely, Tristan und Isolde, with a dash of Tannhauser.
But this is Schreker. Tamare recounts a tale about killing a funfair fiddler with his own violin. Carlotta awakes from her swoon and screams at Salvago in revulsion . "Gebt mir Wasser" she cries, "Nein, gebt mir Wein!" Salvago crumples into a ball as the music explodes into conflagration.
Often the more you love something, the harder it is to write about it, because it's sort of disappointing to dash off something superficial. Maybe one day I'll finally get around to setting out the critique of Eisler's Hollywood Liederbuch I've been making notes on for years. But with a new production of Tristan und Isolde coming up at the Royal Opera House it's a good time to be thinking about the ideas in Die Gezeichneten. Get the DVD, because this production was fantastically expensive to mount and was designed for the specifics of the Felsenreitschule and could never be quite the same again. PLEASE see my other posts on Franz Schreker, use the search button or labels on right.