Upon the premiere of Die Gezeichneten in 1918, Franz Schreker was hailed as the heir apparent of German opera. He was compared favorably to Strauss; according to him, in a sarcastically self-aggrandizing text read at the beginning of Act 3 in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production of this opera, he was “the only true heir to Wagner.” That was, alas, the high point of his career and in 1934 he died of a stroke shortly after been declared “degenerate” by the Nazis. Today he lives at the margins of the repertory, representing an extreme of a kind of overheated yet philosophical early twentieth-century opera that makes Salome look like The Magic Flute. A ticket to a Schreker opera guarantees a trip through sin, redemption, brothels, transcendence, the mind of the artist, degradation, and more orgiastic musical depictions of a sunrise than all the recordings of Zarathustra ever made put together. It’s great it if you have the orchestra for it, but once every few years seems about right.
The Bayerische Staatsoper does have the orchestra for it, as well as a new production by Krzysztof Warlikowski that, while not exactly lucid, gets at the abstract issues in the middle of this piece.
Schreker, Die Gezeichneten. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/1/2017. New production premiere conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowsi, sets and costumes by Malgorzata Czczęśniak, lights by Felice Ross, choreographie by Claude Bardouil, video by Denis Guéguin. With John Daszak (Alviano Salvago), Catherine Naglestad (Carlotta Nardi), Christopher Maltman (Vitelozzo Tamare), Tomasz Konieczny (Antoniotto Adorno), Alistair Miles (Lodovico Nardi)
Some NSFW images ahead. Regietheater, guys.
The opera’s central image is a paradise-like island, Elysium, which was created by Alviano Salvago, the “ugliest man in Genoa,” but has since been used by his more suave aristocratic friends to abduct and assault the girls of Renaissance-era Genoa. Alviano Salvago tries to stop this but eventually becomes entangled. (Everyone in this opera has the most extravagantly Italian names. It’s not Vito but Vitolozzo, it’s not Antonio but Antoniotto and Antoniotto Adorno at that and it’s too early for Theodor but still. At one point Schreker explained Die Gezeichneten as his seduction by “the ruinous influence of Southern magic.”)
The music is late romantic, ecstatic, and scored like Strauss beyond Elektra, though Schreker is rather less fiddly than Strauss and definitely less character-specific. I don’t think Schreker (who also wrote the libretto) meant to endorse the sordid moral decay of most of the characters in this opera, particularly at the end that seems clear enough, but his music has a tendency to make the worst things sound rapturous.
Take a minute and listen to it.
Musically, the stars of the evening were Ingo Metzmacher and the Staastoper’s orchestra, who were tireless and precise through Schreker’s many, many ecstatic climaxes. Metzmacher indulged in sonority rather than rushing forward, which suited this somewhat static production. This is a kind of music that easily turns bombastic, but it remained convincingly beautiful. That beauty, though, is a fraught thing: can the opera help but endorse its characters’ decadence when its musical language is itself decadent? What Alviano’s colleagues are up to in the island’s grotto is worse than decadence, though, and the best thing about this production is how it explores where ornament becomes crime, the boundaries between art and life, between fantasy and voyeurism and abuse. It may seem simple—Alviano wants the island to represent art while the aristocrats want sex—but it becomes more interesting.
The internet has been comparing Warlikowski to David Lynch, which strikes me as by far the most helpful point of reference—as much as explaining something as “Lynchian” can ever be “helpful.” The atmosphere of Malgorzata Czczęśniak’s set is a vast, dark box, and the dress is ambiguously modern. Surreal images float in and out around the edges of the main characters, some tied more obviously to the plot than others. Elysium expends to fill the entire opera, which is full of images of art that implicate the audience. Much of it plays out in front of a huge mirror which reflects back the appropriately baroque Nationaltheater, conductor, and audience, implicating the performance itself (and us) in all the spectacle that happens. (This is a super-old trick, one that Hans Neuenfels even already used in a production of Die Gezeichneten in 1979, but it still works.)
Warlikowski couches Schreker in a wealth of other references, which can only be rendered as a list: a Tilda Swinton or Marina Abramović stand-in sleeping in a glass museum case; a corps of glittery, almost nude ballerinas out of a louche revue of the 1920s; a sequence in which Alviano’s monstrousness is filtered through a sequence of clips from silent monster movies, most provocatively including Golem; and mouse people, who apparently hail from Kafka’s short story Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse (Josephine the Singer, or, The Mouse People).
The Kafka strikes me as a reference too far, where the production goes from evocative to obscure. The mice first appear when leading lady Carlotta paints a portrait of Alviano, resulting in a cute little mouse person family, and later there’s a whole chorus of mouse people. I have not read this Kafka and instead I ended up thinking of the chorus of rats in Hans Neuenfels’s Lohengrin from Bayreuth, which is a very familiar work in Munich of all places (the program essay pointedly does not mention it, I would like to know what Neuenfels thinks of this production considering it prominently borrows from two of his own works). I also thought of Art Spiegelmann’s Maus, which apparently was intended. Does this mean I didn’t “get” it? I’m not sure.
The Kafka apparently says something about Carlotta, though I’m still not sure what. She’s an interesting character, an outsider like Alvino, and I don’t think the production quite manages to figure her out. Catherine Nagelstad is a musically sensitive singer and her performance of Carlotta’s beautiful but seemingly superfluous excursus on a fellow artist was delicately beautiful. The voice is on the dry side and sounds somewhat worn, but as she warmed up she became more lyrical, and her high notes are impressively big. But the production does not explore Carlotta’s status as an artist is not explored to the extent of Alviano’s, even though it occupies a much larger portion of the libretto, and she has a conversion to hot aristocrat Vitelozzo Tamare in the grottos of Elysium, an abrupt turn of events which could really use some firmer intervention (the program book says something vague about suicidal performance art but it isn’t convincing onstage).
I do like the chorus as a kind of group of lab mice, though, however secondhand the image seems, particularly when we see the mice indoctrinated by the monster movies’ depictions of ugliness as monstrous. Some images, however, seem less necessary. There’s a long wrestling sequence that plays out mostly in the background which seems to be a very elaborate and entirely unmusical way of expressing the aristocrats’ combative masculinity. This is not a thread that is picked up at any point later in the performance. Some of it is drawn together, some of it is not.
As you may see, linear narrative isn’t on Warlikowski’s agenda. Unusually, the Bay Staats hasn’t cut the score at all except for a single chord at the end (or so the Schreker scholars present at this performance informed me—they particularly dislike the slicing and dicing of the Salzburg Festival production, the only one available on DVD). This means that the relatively conventional love triangle between Alviano, Carlotta, and Tamare is less prominent than in most performances and Elysium looms larger. (Christopher Maltman pushed his way through Tamare vocally speaking, sounding loud but rather monochromatic, but he acted it convincingly.) While Warlikowski stages the triangle clearly, particularly in the dramatically minimalist final scene, where all the enigmatic images drop away, he is more interested in abstract ideas surrounding the island.
Outsider artist Alviano, when he reads that text by Schreker into a microphone after intermission, becomes identified with Schreker himself. The monster movies, particularly a big Star of David in the Golem section and all those Spiegelmann mice, brings this production into the opera’s own reception history and condemnation by the Nazis. It’s a less heavy-handed and more convincing biographical gloss than many I’ve seen [links TK I am posting this from a bus], because it seems to speak to the opera’s central issue: Alviano creates a world of art that is ultimately hijacked and whose power is made into something monstrous by an elite ruling class. This class, with their metaphoric boxing ring, oversized boardroom table (above), and vaguely Mafioso air, destroy his creation. (Also, I was glad to see Sean Michael Plumb, who I saw as a wonderful Gianni Schicchi in his Curtis student days, as one of these gentlemen.)
John Daszak has a sarcastic and droll way of delivering text, even when singing (this was amply on display in his Bayreuth Loge). As Alviano, looking a bit like a Lynchian Elephant Man, he made it through a marathon part singing fairly consistently. His middle voice is strong and steady, the top notes seemed less so, tending to wobble and turn harsh. I wondered what this role would sound like with a more lyric voice—I don’t know if it would be advisable for any owners of those voices to try it, though—like Fritz in Der ferne Klang this the kind of role cast for durability beyond all else. “Durable” is also the word I would use to describe metallic baritone Tomasz Konciezny as voice of authority Adorno, though he sounded more at ease with the orchestration than Maltman.
I must confess that I find Warlikowski’s work more interesting than thrilling—there’s food for thought for certain, but it seems to lack an essential musicality, and is less brutally intense than someone like Bieito or Kusej. It’s kind of theater for the head rather than the gut. Schreker, however, is a thrill ride musically, and I think there’s some dissonance here—I think I would prefer something a little more visceral. (Looking at these pictures, you probably can’t believe that I think this isn’t visceral, but it has more to do with momentum than anything else. Warlikowski is more like a series of tableaux than action.) But as a chance to experience the whole score of this once in a while work, it’s a substantive and thoughtful effort.
Die Gezeichneten continues through next week.
Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl