Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Schreker - Der ferne Klang (Stockholm, 2019)

Franz Schreker - Der ferne Klang

Royal Swedish Opera, 2019

Stefan Blunier, Christof Loy, Agneta Eichenholz, Daniel Johansson, Johan Rydh, Miriam Treichl, Andreas Lundmark, Jeremy Carpenter, Lars Arvidson, Vivianne Holmberg, Marie-Louise Granström, Madeleine Barringer, Ola Eliasson, Klas Hedlund, Daniel Ohlmann

OperaVision - October 2019

Franz Schreker's first breakthrough opera Der ferne Klang in 1912, like much of the composer's work that followed, has the same sense of a flawed utopian ideal that is common in the composer's later "decadent" works like Die Gezeichneten and Irrelohe. It has something in common then with other post-Wagnerian German and Austrian composers of the early twentieth century (most obviously Korngold's Die Tote Stadt or Das Wunder der Heliane) who would later be classified by the Nazi's as "Entartete", "degenerate" because of their Jewish connections.

Like those other works by such composers at the turn of the century, the influence of Wagner is inescapable, and Der ferne Klang is very much seeped in Wagnerian romanticism, both musically and thematically. If it perhaps doesn't have the same sense of purpose or philosophical rigour of Wagner's best work - few do - it is however considerably more than a pale copy or a mere fantasy aligned to the master's style, and in its own way Schreker's works tap into the concerns of their time at the beginning of the 20th century in the desire to find or create a better world.

Certainly, the comparisons with Tannhäuser are immediately obvious in the situation of Fritz, a heroic artist with a pure vision, a composer who sets off on a self-imposed pilgrimage searching for "a distant sound", an otherworldly sound of harps that he must pursue: "A noble ambition floats before my eyes and I must be free!". To do this means sacrificing his love for Grete, his obsession with the distant sound causing him to fail to recognise the beauty he already has before him in the young woman's love, until of course it is too late.

While Fritz is off in pursuit his elusive ideal, the main part of Der ferne Klang is concerned with the fate of Grete. Left in an unhappy family situation, her drunken father Graumann prepared to gamble her away in a game to the landlord of the drinking den to whom he is heavily in debt, she runs away to try and find Fritz. Along the way she falls into the seductive clutches of a glamorous lady and ends up a high class prostitute in a nightclub on an island in Venice where she is adored by the clientele, and in particular the Count.

To settle matters, Greta promises to marry whoever can tell/sing the best story, meaning that Act II of the opera even has its own version of Tannhäuser's singing contest in Wartburg. Rather than it being an occasion to seek to find ennobling truths and dispel false artistry based on received wisdom rather than hard-won experience and innovative ideas, you get the impression that Schreker uses this occasion more as an opportunity to provide a bit of musical variety, colour and cabaret.

In reality however, the Count's relentless pursuit of Greta is in a way a similar pursuit for a 'ferne Klang', one that differs from Fritz's vision in that it has a predetermined outcome - winning Greta - and thus is less pure than Fritz's noble and idealistic journey into unknown realms, so the singing contest in a way serves a similar purpose to that of the one in Tannhäuser. In Der ferne Klang however the nobility of that outcome is less sure, the dream of a paradise uncertain or maybe even an impossible ideal. Does that make striving for truth any less worthy even if it doesn't reveal what we hope it will?

That conclusion, which comes in Act III, is where Christof Loy has to really do the work in this production for the Swedish National Opera. Up until then it all seems a little lacking in this director's usual modern touches and ideas, keeping to a period setting of classical elegance. As ever, Loy is just seeking to reflect what is in the music, matching the settings and drama to the lush orchestration of Schreker's score. Since Act III opens with a long musical interlude, Loy has more room here to develop and contrast and blend the reality with the dreams.

And since Schreker also provides the opportunity by setting Act III backstage after the performance of Fritz's great masterpiece, having found his 'far off sound' in his re-encounter with Grete and in his disappointment with her circumstances and his renouncement of her at the end of Act II, Loy takes advantage of exploring how dreams and reality can be brought together in art, in opera. Since Fritz's opera is considered a failure, there's some ambiguity then in whether life informs great art or whether art is at best only a flawed shadow of life. The chances are that, like Fritz, the only way we can judge whether we've taken the right path and grasped what is important is when it's too late to change anything.

If it's doesn't make any grand gestures then or bring about any great revelations, Loy's direction very much explores and enhances the value of Schreker's Der ferne Klang. The same can be said very much for Stefan Blunier's conducting of the Swedish National Orchestra which revels in the lush beauty of Schreker's wonderful flowing orchestration. Like Richard Strauss, there's also considerable beauty and challenges in the vocal writing but when it's done right, as it is here with Agneta Eichenholz's Grete and Daniel Johansson's Fritz, both soaring in their self-delusion, shattered in their clash with reality - the effect is ravishing. How wonderful that the Swedish National Opera treat this beautiful neglected work so well.

Links: OperaVision, Swedish National Opera