Schreker Revival Takes Original To Still Darker Place

In Calixto Bieito’s staging of Schreker’s 1918 opera ‘Die Gezeichneten,’ the victims of sexual escapades are children. (Production photos by Iko Freese,
By Rebecca Schmid

BERLIN – In a climactic scene of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, the sickly painter Carlotta falls into the arms of the hunchbacked nobleman Alviano Salvago while orchestral colors hover somewhere between impressionism and expressionism. Carlotta, who strives to “paint souls,” may be the personification of the artist, weakened by a misunderstanding society.

Calixto Bieito devised a plot’s interpretive twist.
(Goodman Theatre)

The story, about a magical isle where noblemen enjoy sexual escapades with abducted girls, is already scandalous without any re-interpretation; despite its setting in Genoa, to which Alviano decides to donate the isle, it may be an allegory for the repressed sexuality, violence, and moral hypocrisy of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. But one wouldn’t expect anything less than a perverse twist to the plot from the director Calixto Bieito, whose new production of the opera premiered at the Komische Oper on Jan. 21.

For this director, Alviano is a neurotic who lusts after young boys. The production, meanwhile, is often more absorbed in its own meta-narrative than in the expression of the music and libretto. Gaggles of children appear in birthday hats to serenade him, and later in giant gift-boxes as the bloodied victims of Genoa’s noblemen. Black-and-white images projected above the stage include a Ferris wheel alluding to the Prater Park in Vienna but mostly focus on the faces of abused children, who stare blankly at the audience as the orchestra seethes with passion. [A video clip showing excerpts from some of the opera scenes is available for viewing, below.]

In the staging, Carlotta is a prostitute-like figure who kisses her father, the mayor, on the mouth; simulates sex with a giant teddy bear; and strangles the predatory Count Andrea Vitelozzo Tamare (in the libretto, Alviano kills him in a fit of rage after Carlotta has fallen to the Count’s charms).  Rather than paint Alviano’s portrait, she takes out a knife and cuts a profile into the wall. Dressed in a school-boy uniform, she then strokes the crotch of a doll that Alviano has been carrying at this side.

Schreker’s Elysium reinterpreted: a nightmarish landscape of repressed sexual fantasies.

The final act on the isle “Elysium” has its inspired moments, however, as Alviano rides around on a train between giant toys that evoke a nightmarish landscape of repressed fantasies (sets by Rebecca Ringst).

It wasn’t until the 1970s that a revival of Schreker’s music began. Before being blacklisted by the Nazis in 1933 and dying of a heart attack that same year, the Austrian composer rivaled Richard Strauss. Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized), premiered in 1918, absorbs chromatic Wagnerian harmony while refracting color through the orchestra, pointing the way not just to Berg but also Debussy, as the conductor Stefan Soltesz points out in program notes.

Tenor Peter Hoare, kneeling, portrayed the neurotic and increasingly desperate Alviano.

The cast members gave convincing performances despite the antics demanded of them by Bieito and, throughout the evening high standards were maintained. As Alviano, Peter Hoare was appropriately naive and neurotic, conveying desperation with a tenor that never lost power. Ausrine Stundyte was a ruthless Carlotta, bringing steely high notes to the Wagnerian-tinged monologue of the first act in which the soprano sings of a “restrained scream for redemption” (verhaltener Schrei nach Erlösung).

Carlotta (Ausrine Stundyte) falls under the spell of loathsome Tamare (Michael Nagy).

Baritone Michael Nagy rode the orchestra with a rich legato as Tamare, his nonchalant swagger capturing the character’s seductive but loathsome qualities. As the Duke Adorno, who tries to stop Alviano from giving the isle to the city, baritone Joachim Goltz was a sinister presence.

House ensemble member Jens Larsen was so bureaucratic as the mayor, Podesta, that he at times appeared emotionless. The house further draws upon its ensemble for the opera’s many comprimario roles. Ivan Turšić brought a piercing tenor to the nobleman Menaldo, while Christiane Oertel moved with chameleon-like ease between the role of Martuccia – who agrees to hide one of the captured girls in Alviano’s palace – and that of Alviano’s housekeeper.

In 1912, Schreker (right) poses with Zemlinsky (left) and Schoenberg.

The house orchestra under Soltesz was at its best. If the overture’s textures were a bit coarse at the opening performance, by the third scene, the musicians had warmed up for phrases that heaved with the singer or subsided into delicate atmospheres by the third scene.

The score is so quixotic and rich with allusion (a motive from Wagner’s Ring underscores Tamare’s greed in the third act, as if to compare him to Alberich) that one wished for a staging less distracting in its obsession with pedophilia. To the orchestra’s chilling final D-minor chords, Alviano holds up his doll and stares at the audience with a deranged expression.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times.  As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.