Brubaker, Robert


Gezeichneten Franz Schreker - Die Gezeichneten

Salzburger Festspiele, 2005 | Kent Nagano, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Robert Brubaker, Anne Schwanewilms, Michael Volle, Robert Hale, Wolfgang Schöne, Bernard Richter, Markus Petsch, Mel Ulrich, Thomas Oliemans, Guillaume Antoine, Stephen Gadd | EuroArts

There’s a gorgeous and somewhat disturbing sense of decadence about this Salzburg Festival production of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten that nonetheless feels wholly appropriate for the work. Schreker is a neglected and now unfashionable early twentieth century German composer who saw his influence and popularity fall into decline with the arrival of the Nazis. The lush orchestration of his extravagant romanticism likewise felt out of place in a harsh new world that had been rocked by two brutal world wars in the first half of the century. His work however - tentatively finding its way back into the repertoire - retains a certain fascination precisely for this unique character of that path of post-Wagnerian German Romanticism that was forever lost in the new reality of the world.

That character - and that extraordinary musical style - is very much in evidence in Die Gezeichneten, a title that is difficult to translate, since it means ‘the drawn man’ (i.e. the object of an artist’s work), but it also implies ‘a marked man’. Written on the request of fellow “degenerate composer” Alexander Zemlinsky, the story is about the tragedy of an ugly man, a hunchback, who is unable to find love. It’s a subject that seems to close to the heart of Zemlinsky, who himself a short opera adapted from an Oscar Wilde story based on this theme (Der Zwerg - The Birthday of the Infanta), the composer having been famously rejected by Alma Mahler, who described him as “a hideous dwarf”. Zemlinsky was supposed to have scored Schreker’s libretto, but in the end it was Schreker who completed the entire work himself.

Revived for the Salzburg Festival in 2005, performed in the outdoor setting of the Felsenreitschule, it’s an extraordinary experience to hear the wonderful lush Romanticism of Schreker’s flowing orchestration with all its Tristan und Isolde-like unresolved dissonances creating a sustained tension, given full expression under the musical direction of Kent Nagano, but it’s one that also works well with Nicholas Lehnhoff’s stage direction. Set in 16th century Genoa, the work opens with a group of rich decadent nobles, dressed here in extravagant exaggerated costumes, bemoaning the possibility that they might lose access to the wonderful island paradise of Elysium that has been created by Alviano Salvago for their pleasure. Salvago is a hunchback who believes he is too ugly to set foot on the island himself and, abandoning any hope of ever being loved or accepted, he is about to give the island back to the common people, leaving the nobles without any place to practice their secret vices against the daughters of Genoa.

Lehnoff’s set captures the essence of this situation, matching the musical description with a stage that consists of one huge toppled statue, one hand clawing at the air with the head detached, and having the performers clamber over the pitted and broken surface that hints at and eventually reveals the dark concealed depths of the grotto within it. More than just accompanying the musical content however, the elaborate set also mirrors to some extent the nature of Salvago himself. Salvago starts to nurse hopeful expectations when he meets Carlotta Nardi, the daughter of the Podestà who describes herself as a painter of souls, who is intrigued by the hunchback and wants to paint him. Salvago starts to believe that she is someone who can recognise his inner beauty - revealing himself to be the same as everyone else - and Carlotta consequently loses her fascination for him the moment she finishes the painting.

Musically and lyrically, Die Gezeichneten is a fascinating and beautiful work that could only have been written at this time - in 1918 - the fin de siècle decadence of the nobles coming crashing down with the harsh realities that are revealed about the workings of the world. That’s apparent very clearly and evocatively in the musical construction, the early part of the opera awash with Strauss-like extravagance in the tones and textures - reminiscent of how Strauss would approach the later Die Liebe der Danae (1940) - but also with that Wagnerian Tristan und Isolde-like sensibility of suspending chords and leaving unresolved dissonances to float around and intermingle to create an unsettling yet compelling soundscape. Schreker’s libretto is equally lyrical and extravagant in its pronouncements and in its dramatic tensions, particularly in the eloquent descriptions of the arrogance of the nobility and in the wounded pride of Graf Vitelozzo at being rejected by Carlotta in favour of Salvago.

All the decadent poetic musing however (”Life seemed to me a source of constant joy… When I stretched out my hand, I held a rose, drew in its fragrance and pulled the petals off”), comes crashing down when an actual name - Ginevra Scotti - is attached to the vices, revealing their nature as being rather more sinister, involving child abduction and abuse. The exquisite floating dreamlike reverie of the musical arrangements similarly coalesces into something much more concrete at this point, revealing the nature of the dissonance that has been hovering at the edges of the work. Evoking Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut‘ orgy scene in Act III with the assembled guests hiding behind masks, Lehnhoff’s stage direction is completely on the same page as the score, and the statue of grand nobility that has retained some dignity and grandeur even in its toppled form up to this stage, is split open to reveal its corrupt inner nature.

The complex nature of the various characters is perhaps most powerfully described - or at least is more obviously evident - in the nature of the writing for the singing voices. Fortunately, the cast are all extraordinarily good here. Anne Schwanewilms in particular is just outstanding as Carlotta - I’ve never heard her sing better, even in some of the more challenging Strauss roles. There’s a lushness to her tone here, the vocal writing and her character giving her the opportunity to demonstrate an impressive range, rising to soaring heights in a flowing legato, particularly in Carlotta’s Act II scenes with Alviano Salvago. The writing for Salvago is also very interesting, the character written for a Heldentenor voice (or at least performed here as such), even though he is an outwardly weak and physically deformed. The contradiction between his inner and outward nature is expressed very well in this manner by Robert Brubaker. Michael Volle’s lush Straussian baritone rounds out this impressively cast production as the decadent Count Vitelozzo.

Only available on DVD, the performance does seem at least to have been shot in HD, and even in the Standard Definition format, the 16:9 widescreen image looks beautiful, with good detail, clarity and colour saturation. The audio tracks, LPCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, are also fine, capturing all the warmth and colour of the orchestration that Nagano reveals so well. There are no extra features here, and no full synopsis in the booklet, although there’s a good essay that covers the main points in outline, along with some background information on the composer and the work. The DVD is NTSC, Region-free, with subtitles in German, English, French and Spanish.

NixonJohn Adams - Nixon in China

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | John Adams, Peter Sellars, Kathleen Kim, Janis Kelly, Robert Brubaker, Russell Braun, James Maddalena, Richard Paul Fink | The Met: Live in HD - February 12, 2011

The Live in HD broadcast of Nixon in China from The Met in New York was a special event in a number of ways. Most notably, it was the first time the opera had been performed at the Met, and for the occasion, many of the original team involved in its original production were reunited and their involvement made even more pronounced. Not only was it opera’s debut at the Met, but it was also the debut there of the colourful, sometimes controversial, but ever intelligent Peter Sellars as stage director – and not just of the stage, Sellars directing also directing the filmed live broadcast. With composer John Adams conducting his own opera, the broadcast proved to be a good opportunity then to re-evaluate whether a work from 1987, tied very much into the political climate of the period in which it is set, had any relevance today and whether it would go on to stand the test of time.

Although the political ramifications of the visit of President Nixon to China in 1972 and his meeting with Mao Tse-tung shouldn’t be underestimated, the state visit breaking down old enmities and opening up the world stage for a different kind of global politics where there is a recognition on both sides that it’s for their mutual good to work with each other, Nixon in China is, and has to be, more than it being an opera about a specific historical incident. The realisation that the world is a smaller place through satellite broadcasts and new technology is recognised by Nixon, who is acutely aware of how his international statesman act is going to play back home on primetime news at a time when he is seeking re-election. How significant then is it that this technology is now able to broadcast a performance of this opera across the world as it is played live in New York?

The production and the broadcast were accordingly upscaled for the Met stage, and quite marvellously, not least in the additional impact of a larger chorus, particularly during the banquet scene at the end of Act 1. Mindful of the impact that can be achieved, Sellars ensured that the HD cameras were right there in the middle of the action, the camera striving for close-ups wherever possible that were most effective when projected onto a cinema screen. Again, it’s difficult on such an occasion not to see the significance and importance of presentation of events played out on a world stage through satellite broadcasts, of playing to a wider audience and the increased importance under such circumstances of stage management – one delightfully reflected in the Chian Ch’ing’s pointing out “here are some children having fun” while giving the Nixons their official guided tour. It’s not enough to show, an audience sometimes needs to be directed towards what to feel.

Nixon

The only minor problem with Act 1 was that James Maddalena, reprising a role that he helped originate and has performed over 150 times, was suffering from a frog in his throat that severely restricted his ability to hold sustained notes. A few discrete coughs, put into the character of Nixon clearing his throat before speaking, didn’t dispel the problem. It’s a pity, since most of his best work is done in the first act. The impact that this might have had was lessened however by the strong singing performances of Robert Brubaker’s Mao Tse-tung and James Braun’s Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. The aging and infirm Mao, prone to making obscure and impenetrable remarks, remains an enigma however, but James Braun brought out the sense of dignified confusion and ambivalence about the nature of the visit, mindful – as becomes more evident later – of his own mortality.

Act 2 was given over principally to the female characters, the opera dealing with the considerable contrasts between the respective First Ladies, while in the process noting the growing importance of their role in the US Presidency. Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Pat Nixon, her voice flawlessly meeting the demands of the opening scene of the second act, while at the same time capturing the human side of her character’s charm sincerity and personal fears – an aspect that was emphasised in an equally flawless acting performance where every gesture was captured by Sellars in extreme close-up. Kathleen Kim as Chian Ch’ing, was likewise most impressive in technique and delivery.

Thereafter, the opera becomes a different beast, Alice Goodman’s libretto slipping into abstraction as it becomes more about ideas than the personalities involved. Despite their efforts to stage-manage and direct the course of world events, it’s clear that they are only weak individuals, frail and flawed human beings, with doubts about their own achievements and the legacy they will leave behind. It’s something that they can never know and that only time and history will prove. The opera likewise needs to rise above the depiction of personalities – no matter how historically important they may be – and touch on those deeper subjects that the Nixon’s visit to China gives rise to. Ultimately then, it was the fact of this performance of the opera being on the day when Hosni Mubarek was forced to step down as leader of Egypt in a revolution facilitated by advancements in modern technology that justifies the opera’s approach and suggests that Nixon in China is still relevant and may stand-up well in the years ahead.