Schöne, Wolfgang


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.

LuluAlban Berg - Lulu

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Michael Schønwandt, Willy Decker, Laura Aikin, Jennifer Larmore, Andrea Hill, Marlin Miller, Wolfgang Schöne, Kurt Streit, Scott Wilde, Franz Grundheber, Robert Wörle, Victor Von Halem, Julie Mathevet, Marie-Thérèse Keller, Marianne Crebassa, Damien Pass, Ugo Rabec | Opéra Bastille, Paris - 18th October 2011

I know it’s considered one of the major works of 20th century opera, and it’s certainly one of the most important and influential works advocating the twelve-tone system – but I still find Lulu a difficult opera to love. Surprisingly, it’s less to do with the complexities of the musical arrangements, which actually feel perfectly fitting for the nature of the opera’s subject – with the use, abuse, decline and horrible murder of a woman at its core, it’s not supposed to be pretty – as much as failing to find a strong dramatic thread or conventional character development to grasp onto. But then, Alban Berg was presumably challenging these traditional concepts also.

It’s questionable then whether an opera that is built upon the deaths of many of Lulu’s lovers and which ends with her own murder as a prostitute at the hands of no less than Jack the Ripper, should be “prettified” by the impressive set designs and eye-catching choreography of Willy Decker’s production. Brightly lit with clean lines, Decker’s production has a sense of design and colour that makes it look like a Pet Shop Boys concert set in an IKEA store. Whether it looked appropriate or not, it at least felt right and, most importantly, it worked on a conceptual level, proposing an interesting new way of looking at Lulu.

Central to the opera and the image of Lulu is a portrait painted of her in the first scene of Act 1 – a critical scene that sets the tone for what is to follow. Interestingly, in Decker’s vision, the painting is made up of several canvasses that isolate and fetishise each part of her naked body like an exquisite corpse. An exquisite corpse – now that’s a great central concept and image for Lulu, for the objectification of the young woman under the gaze of countless men, each projecting their own lusts and desires upon a figure who is a composite of so many female and feminist archetypes.

Lulu

That of course is the strength of the opera itself, but it’s also the aspect that is equally difficult to pin down dramatically or in any sense of characterisation, so Decker’s staging makes that a little more meaningful. Decker’s arrangements, placing the action within an arena for this combat of the sexes that ensues, the whole colourful cabaret watched over by a chorus of dark-suited anonymous figures in hats, all work towards this vision, even taking into consideration (definitely a part of the intention of Berg’s opera itself), the audience itself voyeuristically being a part of this woman’s abasement and destruction, all for their entertainment.

I still didn’t feel that I gained any greater understanding of the complicated parade of characters that flit through Lulu’s life (which may be a good thing), but every expression of lust, jealousy, joy, anguish, anger and violence was certainly fully felt and brought out in the production, in the singing and in the incredible performance of the Paris Orchestra. As compelling as events were on the stage, my attention was constantly drawn to Michael Schønwandt conducting the infinitesimally detailed score, drawing it all together remarkably. Lulu is one of Laura Aikin’s signature roles – I’ve seen her sing it before on DVD in a fine performance in Zurich under Franz Welser-Möst – but she still looks and sounds terrific. Utterly commanding in the role, she is riveting to watch. There were however no weak elements whatsoever in this production for the Paris Opéra, with Jennifer Larmore a wonderful Count Geschwitz, and Kurt Streit notable in the role of Alwa.

The production used the now common 1979 version of the opera, with the third act, left unfinished after Berg’s death in 1937, completed by Friedrich Cerha. The performance of the score by the Paris orchestra, as mentioned above, was something of a revelation – or perhaps, since this was the first time I had been to a live performance of Lulu, it just needs to be experienced in the theatre with a truly world class orchestra. That’s what we were treated to here, with the addition of great singing and a visually impressive but thoughtful stage production.

CarmelitesFrancis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Staatsoper Hamburg, 2008 | Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Andreas Morell, Simone Young, Anne Schwanewilms, Alexia Voulgaridou, Nikolai Schukoff, Wolfgang Schöne | Arthaus Musik

Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera, for which he both composed the music and wrote the libretto (from a play by Georges Bernanos), has many distinct and individualistic qualities that set it apart, not least of which is the unique subject matter of the execution of Carmelite nuns by French Revolutionaries in 1794. The treatment however is just as fascinating, the subject of death ominously present not only through the novice nun Blanche’s pathological fear of death, through the suffering of ailing Mother Superior and the eventual martyrdom of the nuns, but also in the delicacy of the musical accompaniments that evoke an almost romantic relationship or fascination with the idea of death.

One other notable and unusual aspect of Dialogues des Carmélites is the dominance and importance of female voices, in recitative dialogue and in relation to one another. The opera really is a celebration of the female voice, ranging from soprano to mezzo-soprano and contralto, all used marvellously and, it has to be said, sung magnificently in this production. There are male roles in the opera and they are not insignificant, lending a welcome variety of colour and tone to the overpowering predominance of female singing that could otherwise become a little tiring at such length.

The staging of this Hamburg production is a masterpiece of the minimalist style, well suited to the dark subject matter and achieving incredible intensity and drama mainly from its use of light and shade and some subtle colouration. It’s perhaps a little too intense and austere when the opera is more lyrically varied in its score and libretto, but it’s true that the sense of death is omnipresent, the questions of faith and life discussed by the nuns all coloured by consideration of death. When combined with the remarkable singing, the power of the denouement is simply shattering. A truly unique opera experience.

The Blu-ray quality is superb, certainly in terms of the audio - an exceptional DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 mix - although, as noted elsewhere, there are issues with the image. Rather than being a flaw with the recording or the transfer, the mosquito noise dots actually seem to be part of the staging, caused by a fine gauze screen at the front of the stage. This is often used in stage productions for light diffusion, but rarely throughout a whole opera. Although it seems a strange decision to film the opera with a screen in-between, it’s presumably part of the production design to soften the otherwise harsh direct lighting. The dots are not always noticeable - only when performers are filmed in close-up and when they are towards the front of the stage. There’s little here however that spoils the enjoyment of this beautifully staged and fascinating opera.