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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Oh Glowing Night (on Franz Schreker's opera, Die Gezeichneten)


Franz Schreker

From the original 1918 production, Savalgo

From Act III of the LAOpera production
(Photograph by Robert Millard)

Franz Schreker (libretto and music) Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized), presented by the LAOpera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion /the performance I attended was on Sunday, April 18, 2010

As I am writing this commentary, I am listening to a scene from the last act of Franz Schreker's little known opera, presented for the first time in this hemisphere in April 2010 by the LAOpera as part of their Recovered Voices series featuring works by composers suppressed by the Nazis. The glorious aria "Oh Glowing Night," is a literally shimmering, violins-harp-and-celesta infused aria to a magical night on the paradisiacal island of Elysium, built by the an ugly deformed hunchback who has put all of his aesthetic talent and buried desires into creating the near-perfect forum for beauty and love.

Unfortunately as this opera's curtain goes up, the local nobles of Genoa, to whom Alviano Salvago has given over his island, have turned this paradise into a nightmarish world where they have taken the kidnapped young daughters of Genoese locals and raped them. Fearful that his own ugly appearance might spoil the beauty of his creation, Salvago has not himself gone to the island since its transformation, but now that he has discovered what has become of his masterwork, he is determined to sign it over to the city and its people, thus laying open the hidden grotto where the nobles have taken their prey.

The libretto of Schreker's 1918 opera, which he first wrote at the request of his fellow opera composer Alexander Zemlinsky (whose Der Zwerg/The Dwarf was presented in the same series in 2008), is a strange mix of stories that parallel tales of inner and outer beauty by Oscar Wilde, fictions of secret sexual orgies celebrated by the rich (such as Arthur Schnitzler's later Dream Story), and other Viennese fin-de-si├Ęcle tales of decadence, Freud's pyschological theories, and including the older myth of the hidden grotto of Venusburg, the temple of Venus. What becomes immediately apparent is that Die Gezeichneten's Renaissance Genoa is a shadow portrait of turn-of-the-century Vienna.

A bit like early American film-maker D.W. Griffth, Schreker planned his opera to include an enormous chorus and a large orchestra of 120 or more, along with a complex storyline that moves in many directions. The LA Opera production, hampered by their larger production of Wagner's Ring cycle and recent financial woes, were forced to diminish these cinematic aspirations; yet the Los Angeles production, directed by the ever-popular James Conlon, did well with a smaller 72-piece orchestra, and projection designer Wendall K. Harrington, lighting designer Daniel Ordower, and director Ian Judge to effectively call up some of Schreker's filmic ideas through a series of well-lit projections in back of and upon a constantly changing scrim.
It is, however, hard to recreate the sense of manic action and grandiose proportion with such a small cast as this production was allotted. The grand orgy scene in Act III had to be represented by a single naked couple, the woman raped by the man. But I believe the audience understood the shock of the original work.

The music of The Stigmatized, influenced by Richard Straus and, obviously, Richard Wagner, simultaneously points to elements of Debussy and Puccini; yet Schreker is original in his determination to take his Wagnerian intensity into new territory where there is hardly ever a resolve and what might begin as a stirring aria, such as "Oh Glowing Night," trails off in incompleteness. Indeed, one might say, despite the over-arching abstraction of Schreker's stated ideas, there is no one possible solution or position to be taken in his work. People and things musically flow into indeterminacy in way that seems so modern that it is quite at odds to the 19th century concepts he posits.

The issues here—and they are often clumsily presented as just that, opposing ideological forces—concern the battle between the ideal and the real, between beauty and beast, between the forces of guilt, and the eternal battle between sin and retribution and love and transfiguration. Despite his self-loathing and the concurrent resistance to passion, Salvago represents desire unfulfilled. Similarly the beautiful Carlotta, daughter of the Genoese mayor, suffers from a heart condition and is, accordingly, afraid of giving herself over to love. Carlotta, like Salvago, is an artist, a painter who has watched him pass her studio and witnessed him, one day, standing straight up against the sun proudly before retreating to his crippled decrepitude, painting him as such; she needs only his face. Fearing she is toying with him and terrified of being hurt once again, he nonetheless agrees to go to her studio, where she admits her love. For a few seconds, it seems that these reluctant lovers have found themselves and might suddenly spring to life, but both avow their devotion without consummating it.

Meanwhile, the nobles, in their attempt to thwart the gift of Salvago's island to the city, seek to gain the support of the Duke, who must approve the city's accessions.
One of the nobles, Tamare has fallen in love with Carlotta as well, and admits to the Duke not only his love, but the secret grotto and the scandalous events within. The Duke now has little choice but to veto the acquisition for fear that all the nobles of Genoa will be exposed.

Tamare, rejected soon after by Carlotta, vows he will make her his whore. When Carlotta, joining the local citizens, visits Elysium, he gets his opportunity and succeeds, as she is overcome by his and the island's sensuality.

With this somewhat ludicrous series of events and situations, Schreker sets up the battle between Tamare, the brave but cruel lover, and Salvago, who, with self-loathing, has sublimated his desires. The rich are opposed to the everyday citizens, the evil tyrants of flesh to the ideal of beauty and love. Fortunately, despite his heavy-handed thematics, Schreker, as I mentioned, neither in his music nor his libretto, takes a stance. Salvago may be a sympathetic dreamer, but he is, as Tamare insists, a man who refuses to love life, to take charge of destiny and enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. If Tamare is a fallen man, Salvago, in anger for Carlotta's statement of preference for Tamare over himself just before she dies, takes revenge, and in doing so reveals his own fallen condition. Both men have been "marked" or "drawn," words close to the German meaning of Die Gezeichneten.

The opera ends in near absurdity as the hunchback goes mad, slowly crawling through the crowd, as the orchestra, which has so artfully kept the ever-flowing joy of life in motion, comes to a crashing halt. The glowing sky, we now perceive, is an explosion, as Salvago's island is soon to be set afire. The shimmering sky that we witnessed was more like from the fires of hell itself.

Schreker, as one might expect, was labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazis, and after he was removed from his position as Director of the Musikhochschule in Berlin, died of a stroke in 1934, two days before his 56th birthday.

Los Angeles, April 19, 2010

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