Sunday, 9 July 2017

Schreker - Die Gezeichneten (Munich, 2017)

Franz Schreker - Die Gezeichneten

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2017

Ingo Metzmacher, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Tomasz Konieczny, Christopher Maltman, Alastair Miles, Catherine Naglestad, John Daszak, Matthew Grills, Kevin Conners, Sean Michael Plumb, Andrea Borghini, Peter Lobert, Andreas Wolf, Paula Iancic, Heike Grötzinger, Dean Power

StaatsoperTV - 1 July 2017

Franz Schreker's opera Die Gezeichneten is an unusual work, characteristic of a very specific style and of the period of its composition. It's a fairy-tale for the turn of the 20th century, with a late Romantic approach to its ideas and musical development that is perhaps a little too decadent and rich for modern tastes. In this opera, as in much of his other lyrical-dramas, Schreker poses some interesting questions in relation to the function of art that the post-Wagner opera world was (and perhaps still is) struggling to resolve. After 100 years of near neglect, the growing popularity of this particular opera suggests however that it's a question that is not only still relevant but becoming a more urgent issue for our contemporary society.

As far as Schreker is concerned, the pressing question of what should be the function of art and the role of the artist as an outsider is similar to the one considered by Wagner in nearly all of his important opera works. Composed in 1919 however, the world that Schreker explores in Die Gezeichneten is a very different place, and the rules and guidance that might have served as an example no longer seem relevant or are unable to take hold in a rapidly changing world that has gained a new perspective on humanity through Freudean psychoanalysis and the horrors of the First World War. If Die Gezeichneten follows the path of a fairy-tale, it's a fairy-tale where the darker undercurrents are now laid bare on the surface to serve as a reflection of what they say about modern society.

The post-Wagner/post-Parsifal/late Romantic composer/artist/idealist would like to believe that art provides a means of human transcendence from these horrors, but the former ideas about what constitutes art and beauty are now no longer quite as clear or as pure as might once have been thought. Elysium, the Utopian island of marvels and beauty created by the deformed dwarf Alviano Salvago in Die Gezeichneten, has become corrupted as a playground for the rich and the powerful to cultivate 'exotic' tastes, abducting children and exploiting the misery of others for their own pleasure. As Count Tamare describes it, it's a corruption of the realisation of a dream of beauty. There's clearly something there that resonates with our own times and this is keenly explored by director Krzysztof Warlikowski in his new production of the work for the 2017 Munich Opera Festival.

With its creator a deformed and ugly figure of ridicule, the Elysium created by Alviano in Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatised) is in himself representative of the function of art to transform the ugly reality into something beautiful. Carlotta is another artist capable of recognising the beauty of Alviano's true nature and expresses it in the painting of his pure soul. It's the validation of their belief in a higher purpose for art that leads them to love, but also to believe that they have a true and purer understanding of art and beauty. Unfortunately their great ambitions prove to be not only incompatible with the reality of the world, but they prove to be corrupting of their own nature. The seductive power of beauty in the form of Graf Andrea Vitellozzo Tamare leads Carlotta astray, while for Alviano, love has given him god-like aspirations that reveal an ugly side to his nature.

"Give me Carlotta" pleads Alviano when he is in danger of losing her love to the debauched libertine Tamare, "then I'll be a prince, a king, a god". Love has conferred Apollo-like aspirations in Alviano that align with the Wagnerian ideal of the supremacy of the artist in society, but instead he shows himself to be vindictive and egotistical, a "troll" at heart. It seems that the moment the true nature of beauty is grasped by the artist, it confers a sense of power and influence that turns him into a monster who is incapable of responding to that supreme vision of beauty without corrupting and destroying it by his very nature.

That's certainly the image that Krzysztof Warlikowski emphasises in the 2017 Munich production with his usual cinematic references. The director relies on the imagery of David Lynch's depiction of 'The Elephant Man' as a beautiful soul trapped in a monstrous body, but there are also significant scenes projected for classic silent horror films. There is the scene from 'Der Golem' where the monster is confronted and destroyed by the beauty of a child with a flower; a similar confrontation in that famous scene at the lake in 'Frankenstein'; the unmasking of 'The Phantom of the Opera' reveals the ugly side of his nature; and in 'Nosferatu' beauty will expose the monster to an unbearable light that destroys him. Apart from a scene of Duke Adorno working out in a boxing ring and figures starting to appear as mice, Warlikowski sticks fairly closely and directly to this principal theme in the first half, with Elysium a modern art gallery, replete with a Tate Modern style turbine hall showing a brilliant disc, where the idea of art is something living rather than traditional.

In Act III however, after a spoken word reading of Schreker's account of himself as an artist that associates him with Alviano, Warlikowski and Malgorzata Szczesniak's sets and costumes take these themes in an entirely unexpected and unpredictable new direction. So rich is the enigmatic ideas and imagery of the latter scenes of Die Gezeichneten, and so untethered to any kind of musical resolution, that you would expect a similarly free-associative and imaginative response from the director and he certainly delivers. There is an acceptance of art as a "realm of magic" and for Warlikowski the realm where all these concepts can be considered and explored is indeed that of the opera stage. So figures with heads of mice, virtually naked dancers, a reclining figure in a glass cage, all form part of the Elysium of the opera stage, where art is beauty, but it is also challenging and - vitally - alive.

The performances of John Daszak and Catherine Naglestad in particular are perfect fits for Warlikowsi's ideas. Daszak is simply outstanding, his voice lyrical and flexible, full of expression and capable of revealing a darker edge. Catherine Naglestad has a rather more robust soprano voice than the usual piercing but brittle edge of Straussian sopranos like Manuela Uhl or Anne Schwanewilms with whom we usually associate Schreker roles, but her voice brings a rich corrupting glamour to Carlotta. Christopher Maltman is a strong presence as Tamare. I'm not a fan of Tomasz Konieczny's bass-baritone voice and don't find it pleasant here, but as Duke Adorno it doesn't have to be and it strikes an appropriate note of discordance that lies within the music also.

Conducting the work, Ingo Metzmacher wrings all the troubling beauty out of chromatic lines that suggest that a resolution to the themes raised in the opera is unattainable, but between Schreker, Metzmacher and Warlikowski you almost feel that this is as close as the work can come to a state of transcendental perfection. An ambitious selection of works have been instrumental in the success of the Bayerische Staatsoper's exceptional 2016-17 season, attaching creative directors to the projects, finding the right conductor and singers who can bring some new and original ideas to them, and Die Gezeichneten is no exception.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV