Opéra de Lyon, 2015
Alejo Perez, David Bösch, Charles Workman, Magdalena Anna Hofmann, Simon Neal, Markus Marquardt, Michael Eder, Aline Kostrewa, Jan Petryka, Jeff Martin, Robert Wörle, Falko Hönisch, James Martin, Piotr Micinski, Stephen Owen
Lyon - 13 March 2015
Selected as one of three thematically connected works in the Opéra de Lyon's 'Les Jardins Mystérieux' March 2015 opera festival, the mysterious garden of Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten is a rather disturbing one, a paradise that holds altogether darker, twisted roots. The Lyon production of this rarely performed yet enchantingly beautiful work was accordingly dark, recognising perhaps the historical origins of Schreker's composition, as well as its continued relevance today.
The libretto for Die Gezeichneten (translated as 'Les Stigmatisés', the Stigmatised) was written by Schreker on the request of fellow composer, Alexander von Zemlinsky. The work is based on the play Hidalia by Frank Wedekind (famous as the author of Lulu), but the inspiration also comes from Oscar Wilde's 'The Birthday of the Infanta' - a work that Schreker had already written as a dance-pantomime 'Der Geburtstag der Infantin'. Zemlinsky's identification with the cruel little tale stemmed from his own insecurities regarding his relationship with Alma Schindler, later Alma Mahler, and it would become the subject of his own opera based on the Wilde story, Der Zwerg (The Dwarf).
It's not difficult to see why Schreker's libretto may not have entirely suited Zemlinsky's intentions. It doesn't have a happy ending or even a noble one, but rather seems to suggest that there is a darker side to everyone. Even the best of intentions, corrupted by a sense of pride, love or even self-empowerment, can have unintended consequences. Schreker's own experience following the success of Die Gezeichneten would seem to follow a similar trajectory, the composer being appointed to a prominent position as a Music Director in Berlin, before falling victim to the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi party and seeing his influence and musical reputation slip into decline.
In Die Gezeichneten, the stigmatised outsider is Alviano Salvago, a scarred, hunchbacked nobleman in 16th century Genoa, who has created a beautiful island paradise called 'Elysium'. Unknown to Alviano, the Genoan nobility have been using the underground grotto of the island to abuse children that they have been abducting from the city. Aware that he cannot be loved for his appearance, Alviano intends to enhance his reputation by donating the island as a gift to the people of Genoa. The nobles appeal to Duke Adorno to preserve their playground, Adorno unaware that his own missing daughter Ginevra Scotti is one of the victims held captive in the grotto.
Alviano finds another powerful enemy in Count Vitelozzo Tamare. Tamare is in love with Carlotta, the daughter of the Podestà. Carlotta, an artist following her own independent spirit, has rejected Tamare and is attracted rather to the hunchback, wanting to paint him, but Alviano's lack of confidence prevents him from exploring whether the attraction goes any deeper than artistic. Indeed, once Carlotta finishes her experimental portrait of Alviano's soul, she seems to lose any further interest in the strange little man, but Alviano, flattered by the attention of Carlotta, is now a changed man.
Lyon's production, directed by David Bösch, spared the audience none of the horror of this dark fairy-tale nor the disturbing implications and undercurrents that run through the subject. There was little sign of any Romantic decadence or period glamour here. The true nature of the Genoan nobles' activities was laid out clearly, posters showing pictures of abducted children in screen projections, lusts openly displayed as the men shared videos and pictures of the abuse carried out, groping and grasping at horrified young women. The scenes of abused children in the grotto, when it is uncovered in the final act, are horrifying, some of victims wearing rags, some dead, others with blood spilling down their legs. And yet, for all the realism of the treatment, there was still an otherworldly hallucinatory aspect to the nature of the work.
Partly that's down to the themes being just as suggestive as the abstract dark fairy-tale nature of the plot, and partly it's down to how that is expressed in the music. The themes that rise to the surface are those of the abuse of power, the corrupting influence of power, the gratification of desires and the inevitable downfall of a corrupt society. But it's also about art, the power of art to explore beneath the surface and show the true nature of the human soul. If you delve into such places however, you can also be sure of finding some unpalatable truths. This fits with the post-war view of the barbarism unleashed by Great War, but its essential truth is borne out in Schreker's own later experiences, when through his Jewish ancestry, his own art would come to be regarded as 'Entartete', degenerate art, by the National Socialists, who would come into power and leave similar devastation in the wake of the Second World War.
The question of whether Schreker's own art with its grand, elegant flow of lush post-Wagnerian orchestration, is capable of delving into those places is debatable, but in Die Gezeichneten at least, it has a place. Tied to these themes moreover, it's not ambitious to say that the work is capable of being expressive of how these themes can be applicable to many different facets of life. If there's any kind of disparity between the dark decadence of the work and the surface beauty of orchestration, Schreker's score is revealed to be much more muscular and expressive than one would think under the direction of Alejo Perez. Art is transformative, but it can also be twisted and corrupted. The meansure of that is in the dissonance that creeps into this beguiling music, and Perez and the Lyon orchestra bring this out clearly, not letting the audience be entirely seduced by its chromatic spell, but reminding us that it has a sinister side to it.
It helps that the musical performance works in conjunction with the imagery on the stage, but the singing is also a vital ingredient in this work. Having previously known this work with a more heldentenor style of performance from Robert Brubaker in the role of Alviano Salvago at Salzburg in 2005, it was quite a change to hear the softer timbre and delicate delivery of Charles Workman in the role here. This worked wonderfully however, Workman's luxurious tones contrasting with Alviano's marked and disfigured appearance. It was a captivating performance, remarkably clear in enunciation and carrying across the huge orchestral forces in a strong expressive delivery. Magdalena Anna Hofmann impressed as Carlotta, a difficult role that has to reach some near-impossible heights, and if the securing of those notes wasn't pitch-perfect every time, she brought a degree of personality to the work's complex artistic female character.
Links: Opéra de Lyon