Pauline Kael is reputed to have dismissed Woody Allen's Interiors with: "It's deep, on the surface."
It would be unfair -- but only slightly unfair -- to say the same of Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten (1913-1915) which, its title translated as The Stigmatized, concluded its brief run this past weekend as the final production of the 2009-2010 Los Angeles Opera season. For all its lurid, florid, torrid surfaces, and beneath its thick impasto of Life, Love, Art, Beauty, Death and, lest we forget, Sex, Die Gezeichneten boils down to that old standby, the love triangle. As with any proper opera triangle, by the end of Act III you may be sure that two out of three vertices are dead and that the survivor has sunk into spontaneous madness at the horror of it all. Tra la!
Die Gezeichneten comes to us, and with these performances receives its first production on the east side of the Atlantic, as the latest installment in LA Opera's ongoing "Recovered Voices" series, focusing on works and composers swept aside by the rise of Nazism. Schreker was a late product of the fin de siecle Viennese ferment that also produced the likes of Freud, Klimt, Schiele, Mahler, Schoenberg, and on and on, only to be snuffed out by the Great War and its even more cutthroat sequelae. Schreker was immensely successful in the early part of the last century, with productions and performances throughout Europe in the period between the wars. By the early 1930s, however, Schreker had effectively been blotted from the record. Stripped of his prominent academic position and his works suppressed, one bad turn led to another until his death in 1934. He only began to be rescued from ruthlessly imposed obscurity in the late 1960s.
Schreker's libretto began as a commission from fellow composer Alexander Zemlinsky, who requested "the tragedy of an ugly man." In time, Schreker decided to keep the libretto for himself. Zemlinsky turned for his ugly man to adapting Oscar Wilde and produced The Dwarf, memorably presented by LAO in 2008.
Although it is ostensibly set in 16th century Genoa, everyone in Die Gezeichneten behaves as if in early 20th century Vienna. At the center of the tale is the noble Alviano (Robert Brubaker), malformed and unpleasant to look upon, a hunchback whose solace lies in an embrace of Beauty as if it were Truth. Alviano has ownership of an island, "Elysium," which he has transformed into an earthly paradise or Bower of Bliss. Unwilling to taint its beauty by going there himself, Alviano has shared the secret of Elysium with his fellow nobles. They, in turn, have made use of the island as a 24-hour bachelor pad and party house, going so far as to arrange the secret abduction of many of Genoa's most attractive young women to serve as their sensual playthings. To put a stop to these rapacious shenanigans, Alviano chooses to make a gift of his island to the city of Genoa. When Genoa's mayor arrives at Alviano's home to accept the generous donation, he brings with him his beautiful daughter Carlotta (Anja Kampe), with whom Alviano is immediately smitten. Unfortunately for Alviano, but necessarily if the clockwork of the tragedy is to tick along, Carlotta has also attracted the notice of the handsome and powerful Count Tamare (Martin Gantner).
Carlotta is herself an artist, a painter, and has been at work on a portrait of Alviano after observing him on his solitary walks transformed by his rapturous absorption in nature. She invites him to her studio in order to finish the portrait, professing herself enamored by his beautiful soul. She lets it slip that she has one of those special operatic cardiac conditions, the key symptom of which is that her first experience of sexual ecstasy will likely kill her. Alviano's adoration only grows, but once the painting is done, Carlotta begins to have second thoughts. Tamare, meanwhile, has been pressing his own suit for Carlotta's attentions.
All of the characters, and much of the Genoese citizenry (the Chorus, kept offstage in this production, but plainly meant by Schreker's text to be present as a potentially dangerous mob), gather on the island in Act III. The nobles, seeking to hold on to Elysium as their personal rumpus room, falsely accuse Alviano of being behind the ongoing disappearances of young women. Alviano counters by taking the city fathers to the nobles' orgiastic grotto. There, he finds that Tamare has indeed persuaded Carlotta to turn her affections to him, and that their physical consummation has been fatal to her. Tamare's mocking triumph over Alviano is short lived as Alviano, still believing himself to be Carlotta's true love, fatally stabs Tamare. Carlotta, who is only mostly dead, revives just long enough to yearn after her beloved Tamare, the shock of which spins Alviano into pathetic insanity.
If Die Gezeichneten is worth reviving, which I agree it is, it is for the sake of its music. Schreker was working in the ultra-late Romantic vein of Mahler and Richard Strauss, combined with the translucent shimmer of Debussy, and was rightly regarded as a brilliant orchestrator. The prelude to Act I will be enough to sell you on it, if you are inclined to be sold. It can be heard here in the 2005 Salzburg production (also with Brubaker as Alviano, but with a much more mascaraed approach to the material) under the baton of former LAO principal conductor Kent Nagano, or here
(part 2 here) in a performance ca. 1997 by the Cologne Philharmonic under current LAO principal conductor James Conlon. It is heady stuff, this music, darkly perfumed and well-suited to the erotic hothouse exhalations surrounding Alviano's Elysium. At last Saturday's closing performance, as in so many cases in recent seasons, Conlon and the orchestra received, and deserved, among the most enthusiastic ovations at evening's end.
The production team, headed by director Ian Judge, was obliged to work with the steep, steep rake, the turntable, and the front and rear scrims that have been installed for the ongoing Achim Freyer production of Wagner's Ring. Making a virtue of necessity, Judge elected to minimize the physical scenery in favor of high definition films and projections devised by Wendall Harrington, to impressive effect. The action was shifted from the literal 16th century Genoa of Schreker's libretto to a distinctly Viennish milieu contemporary with the opera's composition.
The principal singers excelled in all necessary respects. Robert Brubaker conveyed Alviano's conflicted nature compellingly, and made his final derangement almost believable. Martin Gantner's Tamare was more of a braggart than strictly necessary, but did not succumb to cartoon villainy. Anja Kampe, who will be lingering in town for three more rounds as Sieglinde (opposite Placido Domingo's Siegmund) in the Ring, made the most of Schreker's having given to Carlotta virtually the only stand-alone arias in the piece, and remained sympathetic despite her character's callous disposal of Alviano.
There seems little likelihood of Die Gezeichneten entering the standard repertoire -- which is the standard repertoire's loss, really -- but it deserves a better fate than to be categorized as merely a decadent curiosity of its era. Schreker, I think, were he alive at this hour, would be pleased with the sympathetic enthusiasm lavished on his work by Los Angeles Opera.
Photos by Robert Millard, via Los Angeles Opera.
Video excerpts from the production can be seen in the preview trailer, here.
Coming soon: final thoughts on Freyer's Ring, as LA Opera prepares to launch into three full cycles of the marvelous thing.