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Summer Opera: Schreker's Die Gezeichneten

Franz Schreker, Die Gezeichneten, Salzburg Festival, July 2005, photograph by Bernd UhligThe Salzburg Festival has a real hit on its hands this year, a blockbuster production of Franz Schreker's expressionistic masterpiece Die Gezeichneten (The Branded, 1915). Schreker was a celebrated composer whose career was sabotaged by the Nazi party in the 1930s, especially at the 1938 Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) exhibit organized by the Nazis in Düsseldorf, where he was labeled as a sexual pervert because of the erotic content of his works. Someone (not credited) previewed the production (Salzburg Festival Opens With Once Banned Erotic Opera, July 26) for Bloomberg News, including information on the exhibit organized by the Salzburg Festival on Schreker's life.

Michael Haas, who together with curator Christopher Hailey has mounted an exhibition on Schreker's life and work for the foyer of Salzburg's Grosses Festspielhaus, says, "Of course, it's a huge gamble. Audiences today are not only disinclined to listen to new music, they're reluctant to listen to anything unfamiliar. The Salzburg public is not generally interested in hearing something like 'Die Gezeichneten'." The exhibition, "Border Crossings, Musical Frontiers," is a condensed and modified form of the show mounted by Hailey and Haas last winter at Vienna's Jewish Museum [Franz Schreker: Grenzgänge Grenzklänge—CTD]. For Salzburg, they have focused on Schreker's Vienna years and the context in which he composed "Die Gezeichneten."

"The story of Schreker is in many ways the story of Austro-Hungary, the story of people at that time," Haas says. "It's a culturally historic exhibition as much as it is a musical exhibition." Though it was first performed as World War I neared its end, "Die Gezeichneten" had its genesis in 1911, when Schreker began work on a libretto about the tragedy of an ugly man. Though it was inspired by Oscar Wilde's novella "The Birthday of the Infanta," Schreker's opera enters murkier moral territory. It is set in 16th-century Italy, and tells of a hunchbacked nobleman, an artificial island paradise, a group of debauched aristocrats whose hobby is abducting and raping young women and a cruel and predatory woman painter. Its mix of bold virtuosity and macabre decadence reflected the dark mood of that time. "Even though it takes place in Renaissance Italy, the characters were recognizably realistic to the audiences of the day," says Haas. "In its own way, that caused quite a furor." Conductor Winfried Zillig (1905-1963), a student at the time of the premiere, noted some were so shocked by the piece that attending a performance was "tantamount to a sexual crime."
This opera was one of the most interesting things listed in Opera in the Summer 2005, and many of the international press big boys were there. For the New York Times, Jeremy Eichler wrote the review (With a Disturbing Vision of Utopia Lost, a Forgotten Modernist Is Remembered, July 28), which was republished in the International Herald Tribune on August 3:
Schreker's lush and sensuous musical language was built on extensions of a late-Romantic grammar. He was 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 [Nikolaus] 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 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. 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? Lehnhoff's answer is pedophilia.
Other Articles:

Alex Ross, All About Schreker (The New Yorker, August 22)

Ben Mattison, Photo Journal: Schrecker's Die Gezeichneten at Salzburg (Playbill Arts, July 26)

Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, Ordnungssinn eines Renaissance-Rauschs (Frankfurter Rundschau, July 28)

Peter Hagmann, Secrets of the grotto (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, July 28), translated into English (Sign and Sight, July 29)

Rupert Christiansen, Back to the future (The Telegraph, August 6)
European critics were there, too, like Jean-Louis Validire (Salzbourg : chef-d'oeuvre expressionniste, August 1) for Le Figaro (my translation):
By opening the summer Salzburg Festival with Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, Peter Ruzicka has completed a process of rehabilitation for composers, if not totally forgotten, at least sidelined in recent programming. [...]
Die Gezeichneten was premiered on April 25, 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire had crumbled after a war that had become an abominable butchery. It was in that climate that Schreker's opera unfolded, with its writing developing in the extraordinary creative effervescence of that epoch that was an echo of a civilization's fall. «Modernism» was deployed in all directions from Mahler to Schoenberg in Germany [sic—Austria] to Debussy and Ravel in France. This style did not form into a school or even a trend, but in its desire to explore new forms it attached considerable importance to literature, as we see in the encounter between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

In this sense, Die Gezeichneten is entirely exemplary. A dense libretto, by the composer, and an expressionistic musical style, which searches out new instrumental colors, make this opera a masterpiece. Kent Nagano, leading the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester of Berlin, rendered the effects of this incandescent music with great nuance and clarity. Nikolaus Lehnhoff did a good job with the exceptional stage of the Felsenreitschule, the back of which leans up against the mountain. A staging at the service of the text that adapts intelligently, without infantile provocation, the work's "scandalous" reputation to how society has evolved: what was taboo in 1920 is hardly that today.
Another critic, Renaud Machart, referred in his review ("Les Stigmatisés", prélude à la musique hollywoodienne, August 6) for Le Monde, to the "Hollywood" sound of Schreker's opera (my translation):
What a strange feeling to think you are hearing Hollywood-style music during the middle of the long prelude to Die Gezeichneten, a 1918 opera created by a Viennese musician. That musician, Franz Schreker (1878-1934), we could easily imagine him having written, years later, the sinuous and insinuating melody for Lara in Doctor Zhivago. Later, during a climax in the work's third act, you could swear you heard the ample lyricism of Max Steiner's luxurious score for Gone with the Wind. In fact, this sensation is not strange at all: if life had led Franz Schreker to the United States, like so many other musicians chased out of central Europe by the Nazis, he also would have happily jumped through the door of the Hollywood studios. Max Steiner was Richard Strauss's godson and Gustav Mahler's student, and before reigning in Hollywood, Erich Wolfgang Korngold had been regarded like the new Mozart in Vienna. In fact, in Die Gezeichneten, we hear just about everything that makes up the stuff of American film music down to the present day. So much so that the strange and ambiguous atmosphere, which is Schreker's trademark, are also found at certain points in the soundtracks of the recent Batman movies. So, let us not reproach this music for being "Hollywoodish," since it is Hollywood music that is actually Schrekerized.
See, PBS should be broadcasting this, if at all possible. I am sorry that I won't be able to see it, unless they make a DVD.

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