(Swans - August 9, 2010) It's not Wagner (1813-1883); it's not Richard Strauss (1864-1948); it's not Puccini (1858-1924); it's not Debussy (1862-1918). It's not even Korngold (1897-1957) or Zemlinsky (1871-1942). What is it?
It's Franz Schreker (1874-1934). In mid life Schreker dropped the second "c" from his original name "Schrecker" either because the name signifies "someone who scares people" or because it belonged to the father from whom he wished to distance himself (or both.) The composer was born in Monaco to an itinerant photographer whose family circumstances constantly varied between prosperity and collapse. And these insecurities of life seemed to find their way into Schreker's operas, the most familiar titles of which are Der Ferne Klang (1912), Die Gezeichneten (1922), and Irrelohe (1923) out of the nine he wrote. Titles I say rather than performances because since Hitler's accession as German head of government in 1933 and the half-Jewish Schreker's death in 1934 not a note of Schreker's was to be heard on any operatic stage for half a century until pioneers like Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and the Music Director of the American Symphony Orchestra, began a Schreker renaissance to bring back a composer who at one time at the beginning of the 20th century was considered the rival of Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss. Botstein brought Der Ferne Klang to New York in a concert version in 2006 but this August's performances at Bard have been the first fully staged presentations of this opera in America ever. I attended the performance on August 4, 2010.
And indeed the media sensed the importance of the occasion. Full-page color articles appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere describing the work, its composer, the present performance, the director, the conductor, and the singers. I myself saw a performance of Irrelohe at the Vienna Volksoper a few seasons ago and was struck by the composer's style of musical dramaturgy. Schreker had been the chorus master for the Vienna Volksoper and this opera house still thinks of him as a house composer.
Irrelohe sounds quite like the dramatic Richard Strauss in its tension and force but yet without any of Strauss's musical harmonic or melodic locutions that give him his own special style. Der Ferne Klang could be described as equally original but set back at an earlier 19th-century point of reference. Its very beginning, with striking major chords, points to a time when musical vocabulary was rather simpler, or at least characterized by what we would consider more traditional harmonies and gestures such as diminished 7th chords and accented tremolos in the strings. It may have been that when Schreker became the chorus master for Arnold Schoenberg's (1874-1951) Vienna premiere of the latter's Gurre-lieder (1913) that newer and stronger harmonic possibilities presented themselves to him. Alban Berg (1885-1935) was an admirer of Der Ferne Klang and even prepared the piano reduction of the score.
So what is Der Ferne Klang ("The Distant Sound") all about and what does it sound like? Schreker himself wrote the libretto, being unsatisfied with others he sought after for this, his second, opera. Actually, the plot seems to take off from George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman first performed in 1905 and as translated into German by Siegfried Trebitsch. M&S poses the dilemma of opposition between the creative man and the procreative woman. The creative man in the opera is Fritz, who hears "a distant sound" of harps that symbolizes for him his creative urges, which he thinks he can realize only by leaving his little village and the girl he loves, Greta, who loves him deeply in return. Their further adventures and tragedies caused by this separation form the plot of the opera. At the very end, when a reconciliation is at long last achieved, it is too late and Fritz succumbs to guilt and frustrated artistic ambitions. It's like a Traviata (1853) in reverse. The erring lady rushes in to the deathbed but it's the overly priggish man who does the dying instead.
Siegfried Wagner (1869-1930), Richard Wagner's son, is said to have left the Frankfurt theater where Der Ferne Klang received its world premiere in 1912 saying, "It's as if my father had never lived!" But au contraire: the numerous parallels and references to Wagner's operas in Schreker's opera are unmistakable. To be sure, the Wagnerisms concern the plotlines and references in the libretto rather than any imitations of Wagner's harmonies and musical style. The opera opens with a kind of bow to the first act of Puccini's La bohème (1896) when Fritz and Greta alternately tell each other their life stories and ambitions. But from then on it's Wagner (but Verdi and Puccini too) all the way.
Of course, there may have been another reason why Siegfried Wagner felt the influence of his father had been ignored. Throughout Schreker's opera there seemed, with one exception, to be an absence of Leitmotiven, those fragments of melody or orchestral color stated by the orchestra that identify a character or situation on the stage and of which Richard Wagner made such inordinate use. The one Leitmotiv I was able to detect had, however, a Puccinian rather than a Wagnerian flavor. Schreker kept repeating a melody that sounded very much like Tosca's aria Vissi d'arte from the second act of Tosca. Considering the psychological situation of the two parallel protagonists, Tosca and Fritz, I don't think Schreker's use of that theme was purely coincidental. What after all was Tosca singing about? "I've given my life to art and where has it gotten me?" Fritz's feelings were exactly the same after the failure of his opera The Harp and the futility of his attempts to acquire fame and fortune through his music.
Greta has strayed far from her innocent village roots as Fritz remembers her and has become in the second act a beautiful and much admired courtesan in a Venetian bordello/nightclub. Here Fritz stumbles in upon her after many years of separation. The parallels to the third act of La Traviata are palpable, as Fritz denounces the courtesan whom he has never seen before as such but who still loves him as much as ever. However, before Fritz arrives, Greta throws out a challenge to her admirers: he who can sing the most telling song can win her favors for a night. One sings a tragic song, the next a frivolous one, and finally Fritz sings of his overwhelming passion and wins the prize that he rejects, denouncing Greta in the process and rushing out. The calling up of the prize song contests in Wagner's Tannhaeuser (1845) and Die Meistersinger (1868) is unmistakable. And the pitting of feminine innocence against sexuality in typical 19th-century fashion brings us face to face with Elisabeth/Venus and the two Kundrys in Tannhaeuser and Parsifal (1882), respectively. The frequent references to Fritz as der bleiche Mann ("the pale man") irresistibly bring to mind the Flying Dutchman who is frequently so described as such in Der Fliegende Hollaender (1842-43). As a whole, this night club scene brings to my mind the similar tavern scene in Puccini's La Rondine (1915), but where, in contrast, hero and heroine find their love for each other rather than rejection.
Another parallel that suggests itself is the first scene of the third and final act. Here, a dining room is set ready for an after-opera reception to honor Fritz' opera The Harp in the midst of receiving its world premiere. The opera can be heard offstage in snippets, much as Tosca's offstage performance in Puccini's Tosca (1900) can be heard at the beginning of the second act. But on stage and at the dining table are gathered various characters from the opera itself in their non-singing moments discussing various matters quite prosaically. I couldn't help but think of Richard Strauss's prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos where similar behind-the-scenes pre-play conversations and activities go on. Both Schreker's and Strauss's operas were premiered in exactly the same year, 1912, and either might be described as "an opera about an opera."
Still another seeming reference: when Greta as courtesan finishes her bordello scene, in a rush of exuberance she calls for a wild dance to finish the scene. Soprano Yamina Maamar begins such a dance. But the curtain rapidly descends on the scene freeing Ms. Maamar from trying to compete with Salome's similar dance in Strauss's Salome (1905). The orchestra only is left to finish the scene accompanied by the audience's imagination.
Schreker's plot line leads to some imaginative staging possibilities fully realized by director Thaddeus Strassberger. (Strassberger did an equally impressive staging of Meyerbeer's [1791-1864] Les Huguenots at Bard in 2009.) Scene one: a home in a village in the woods; scene two: inside a movie house; scene three: the Venetian night club; scene four: the reception hall; finally, Fritz's studio. For the scene in the movie house in which Greta contemplates her decision to leave home and follow Fritz, we see from behind the screen a silent movie (actually one by Fritz Lang from the 1920s) followed by a newsreel (mostly of troops from WWI). We know we're behind the screen because the newsreel announcement Die Wochenschau is seen from behind and backwards. The bordello scene is lit up garishly and the girls are lavishly and colorfully costumed in one sexy gown after another. Fritz's studio is bare reflecting his ultimate loss of creative energy and guilt about his denunciation of Greta at the nightclub. In his dying moments he has a vision of Greta returning to him and forgiving him. Likewise, in his dying moments his creative energy returns and he promises to rewrite the final act of his opera that failed so miserably the night before. It parallels exactly Violetta's revival of strength in her last moments of La Traviata.
The opera's musical style: despite his non-imitation of anyone else's idioms or harmonies, Schreker inevitably builds up long scenes that end in rapturous climaxes on high notes. This was de rigueur for any 19th-century romantic opera. But that Schreker could accomplish this feat over and over again without sounding particularly like anyone else certainly bespeaks a deep originality. Yet it would take repeated hearings to make these unusual harmonies fully resonate in the listener with the ecstasies the composer was trying to impart.
All the singers were excellent both vocally and theatrically. Yamina Maamar as Grete, Mathias Schulz as Fritz, plus numerous others taking up anywhere from one to four roles each: Matthew Burns, Marc Embree, Jeff Matsey, Corey McKern, Celine Mogielnicki, Jud Perry, Aurora Sein Perry, Susan Marie Pierson, Peter Van Derick, Jaime Van Eyck, plus a fine chorus.
My thanks to Christopher Hailey, the scholar in residence for this year's Bard Summerscape Festival featuring Alban Berg. I gleaned many an interesting fact from his illuminating program notes.
On to Die Gezeichneten, wherever it may be!
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