Der ferne Klang: Opera in the age of mechanical reproduction

Schreker, Der ferne Klang.  Bard Summerscape, 7/30/10.  American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein, production by Thaddeus Strassberger with Yamina Maamar (Grete), Mathias Schulz (Fritz), Corey Kern (The Count/Rudolf), Susan Marie Pierson (lots of parts), Matthew Burns (Innkeeper/Policeman), lots more. Full information and tickets here.

Act 1, with World War I backdrop

 Every year, the Bard Music Festival, located on the rural Bard College campus around 100 miles north of New York City, and its accompanying “Summerscape” events focus on the works of a single composer “and his world.”  ([Sic], no “her” yet.)  This year the composer is Alban Berg, but as usual the major opera production is a work of a lesser-known contemporary, here Franz Schreker’s 1912 opera Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound).  It’s an amazing score most memorable for its incredible orchestration, but this iteration of it, despite an interesting production and strong singing, has too many musical weaknesses to do more than hint at Schreker’s strengths.

The semi-protagonist, a composer named Fritz, leaves his girlfriend Grete in search of said sound.  But it turns out that the plot is really more about the havoc this causes on Grete than it is about Fritz at all.  Ten years later (Act II), she’s in a Venetian bordello and he’s horrified to run into her, five years after that (Act III) she’s a common prostitute and he’s a composer still one elusive sound short of a successful opera.  But an encounter with Grete is all he needs to realize that her love was the sound all along.  Awwwww.  Unfortunately Fritz starts thinking about this–I left the sound to look for the sound!–and perhaps it’s the effort involved in figuring out this circular logic that kills the poor dude in Grete’s arms before he can add the sound to his opera.  Lucky us, we heard it back in the overture (it involves a celesta).  Don’t think about the meta-ness too much, you might end up like Fritz.

Despite being flip about the plot, I think this is a really underrated opera.  But that’s not because of the libretto, which Schreker wrote himself and possibly shouldn’t have.  It’s because of the music, which sounds like a bipolar and slightly stoned Richard Strauss, only better.  It’s tonal-ish, with the collage of found music and timbral effects of Mahler and the delicacy of later Berg.  It’s overly intense, overstuffed, overripe, and overpowering.  The orchestration is almost limitlessly colorful. 

Unfortunately, last night’s performance only suggested its richness; you might say Schreker’s sounds remained somewhat distant.  As led by Leon Botstein, always a better musical evangelist than he is a conductor, the orchestra sounded ragged and unfocused.  Very few details ever emerged from the complexity of the score, the entire account lacked shape and momentum.  Sometimes it worked, just because this music is so good, but it was despite the performance, not because of it.  (And reducing one of the best passages, the interlude in the middle of Act 3, to table-moving music was unfortunate.)  The positioning of the Venetian act’s stage bands directly above the pit completely ruined the multi-perspective effect of this amazing soundscape.

Grete in Act 2

However, much of the singing was very good.  Yamina Maamar as Grete has a big, solid voice, her bio describes her as a former mezzo but her upper register sounds great.  Mathias Schulz was less pleasant as Fritz, but sang forcefully if without finesse.  I think both have sung these roles before, and seemed very confident even through the overall mush of the orchestral performance.  The large cast of supporting characters were all well sung and most of the German diction was fantastic.  (Note: when you’re sitting near the front of the orchestra, it’s a loooong way up to those surtitles. Once I remembered I speak German I didn’t have much trouble understanding it, though.)

In the program, director Thaddeus Strassberger notes that his production was inspired by the rough parallels between the opera and Schreker’s own life. So that’s how he set it.  It’s an interesting concept.  We start in the middle of World War I as Fritz leaves to look for the sound, when we get to Venice we’re in the decadent 1920s, for the final act we’re approaching World War II (don’t do the math).  Fritz’s inability to hear the sound, his Romantic quest, becomes a symptom of modernist alienation and the much more concrete social breakdown of the interwar period.  (Remember, the opera dates from 1912, so this is a speculative concept, not that I have a problem with that.)

In Act 1, we are greeted by a projection of an old photograph of birch trees: not the experience of nature but its representation. After Fritz’s departure, Grete also runs away to escape her dreadful family and, as the libretto has it, experiences a vision of sorts by the side of a lake.  Here, it is instead in a movie theater, again only a representation of nature.  But is it an authentic vision?  According to Schreker, yes, but not Strassberger, and he has a point because it is what leads her into the 1920s Venetian bordello of Act II.  Here she and the other ornamentally-attired ladies of the establishment (entire costume budget used to appropriately tacky effect) are reflected in arrays of mirrors, dizzying and deceptive, as some events from Act I seem to replay themselves.  In Act III, around 1935, we have an endless hall of mirrors stretching backstage into infinity as events repeat yet again.  Strassberger transforms some actual events of the libretto into Fritz’s fevered imagination, a very effective tactic.

I could take or leave the bits of Schreker biography (also: far from the first production that has tried this sort of thing), but the concept problematically seems to put the sound itself in the background.  I am not sure about the loss of the Romantic longing that seems to underlie Fritz’s quest, the transformation of a spiritual crisis into a social one.  Maybe this is partly Schreker’s fault by spending so much more time with Grete than Fritz, and ineffable crises are pretty hard to put on stage.  The source of the sound is Grete’s Eternal Feminine self (as seen in her ecstatic forest experience that is missing here), but here the gloomy all-enveloping modernity of war and sin has seemingly eliminated any possibility of transcendence.  The decadence of the 1920s has baggage that Schreker’s 1912 did not (I think it’s fair to be this picky since the production is trying to establish something so specific).  A very interesting concept, but I’m not sure if it is entirely successful.  It comes across as a shadow of Lulu rather than something different and interesting in its own right.  Ha, Berg festival.  I see.

Unfortunately, as a whole I felt that this evening represented something of a missed opportunity.  The glory of this opera is its score, and when you have this much trouble hearing it, you’re missing most of the point.

Video: More Schreker! Excellent DVD of Die Gezeichneten from the Salzburg Festival

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  1. I was there as well and largely agree with your review, but there was one performer – the mother/procuress/waitress – whose German was so stunningly awful I could barely concentrate. Her recitative in Act I was like something out of a Catskills resort; the word "Tochter" sounded like "doctor," if it was Jackie Mason talking.

  2. Indeed, you are absolutely right. The spoken section in the first scene was kind of painful. I was trying to focus on the positive, and her voice was fine.

    At least Schreker is good at making the text comprehensible even through the big orchestration. So you can TELL when the pronunciation is totally off.