by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, August 22, 2005.
A friend once borrowed a history of opera from the library, only to find that every other page had been marked up by one of those hyper-punctuating annotators who stalk the pages of library books around the world. Whether the topic was Monteverdi, Wagner, or Gilbert and Sullivan, the voice in the margins kept returning to one agonized, enigmatic question: “WHAT ABOUT SCHREKER???” My friend, who understandably knew little of the Austrian opera composer Franz Schreker (1878-1934), began to use that graphite cri de coeur as shorthand for the cult of obscure art, which sees repertories and canons as conspiracies against neglected genius. Any gathering of aesthetes will sooner or later have a “What about Schreker?” moment.
It's a good question, though. Schreker was better on his best days than most great composers are on their off days, which is why canons of genius are suspect. A child of fin-de-siècle Vienna, he delighted in the traumas of hypersensitive artist types, capturing them inside a glistening spiderweb of orchestral sound. At the height of his career, around 1920, he was anything but obscure: his operas were staged in all the major German and Austrian houses, and he became the director of the prestigious Hochschule für Musik, in Berlin. There were various reasons for his subsequent decline: he grew less sure of himself as he passed the age of forty; the ever-changing stylistic trends of the Jazz Age left him bewildered; he was of partly Jewish descent, which meant that after the Nazi takeover of 1933 he could no longer earn a living. He tried to learn English, in preparation for possibly emigrating to America. “Ladies and gentlemen, let us begin,” he wrote in his notebook. But he did not get the chance, dying, literally and figuratively, of a broken heart.
An attempt at resuscitation is under way. Schreker's operas are sidling back into the repertories of Central European opera houses. This summer, the Salzburg Festival mounted a beautifully disturbing production of “Die Gezeichneten,” or “The Branded,” which, between 1918 and 1930, played in twenty-two cities, and then went unheard for decades. Nazism consigned Schreker to obscurity; now German-speaking opera lovers seem determined to make amends. Heinz Fischer, the President of Austria, who is trying to quell yet more antiSemitic noises from the country's far right, made a point of attending “Die Gezeichneten” and visiting an exhibition of Schrekeriana which the Jewish Museum of Vienna had put together. But it's tricky to frame Schreker as a virtuous victim of history. Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who directed “Die Gezeichneten,” rightly perceives that there is something dangerous and strange at the heart of Schreker's music, an unstable, implosive energy, which guarantees that it will have an uneasy future.
Schreker had sharp features, a high forehead, and incisive eyes. He looked a little like Mahler, which may explain why Alma Mahler had an affair with him after her husband's death. His father was a portrait photographer for the European aristocracy; his mother came from an old Austrian Catholic family. He was one of the few young composers of his generation who refused to be overwhelmed by Richard Wagner, paying heed instead to international contemporaries, notably Debussy, Puccini, and Paul Dukas, whose opera “Ariane et Barbe-Bleue” is another hidden gem of the fin de siècle. (New York City Opera will revive it this fall.) Schreker's first major opera, “Der Ferne Klang” (“The Distant Sound”), first heard in 1912, stood out from myth-based, swords-and-sorcery operas of the period, because it was set in the present day, in the salons and cafés of the bourgeoisie. An ambitious young composer goes in search of a “distant sound,” turning away from the woman who loves him. She descends into the dregs of society, not unlike Wedekind's Lulu, and only when it is too late does the artist realize his error.
From the start Schreker had an urge to make art about art, to show the exhilarating possibilities and creeping dangers of the creative path. In “The Music Box and the Princess,” a wandering youth summons magic sounds with his flute. In “The Singing Devil,” an organ builder creates a wondrous instrument that is supposed to bring peace, but falls into the hands of an evil fanatic. In “Der Schatzgräber,” a musician uses an enchanted lute to locate buried treasure. In “Irrelohe,” an itinerant fiddler sets fire to the countryside wherever he goes. And in “Christophorus,” the strongest opera of his later years, a wise old composer oversees a quarrelsome posse of students, one of whom is a Schoenberg-like fanatic who “writes linearly.”
Schreker wrote his own librettos, mobilizing naturalistic devices that hadn't been used in German opera before. Freudian dream journals mix with slangy chitchat; one scene melts into another with cinematic ease. There are fascinating effects of distancing: often, a character will sing in elegant phrases about something horrible—in “Ge-zeichneten,” the soprano lingers lovingly on the word Hässlichkeit, or “ugliness”—while attempts at wholesome passion are undercut by dissonance. The music vacillates between melodies of Mediterranean grace and textures of otherworldly complexity. Schreker never abandoned tonality, but he made the triad a nucleus around which extra notes move in flickering orbits. Periodically, his late-Romantic orchestra dematerializes: heavy instruments recede, and chiming tones of harp, xylophone, and celesta (the sound of Tchaikovsky's Sugar Plum Fairy) take over. One minute, you are standing on solid ground; the next, you are dancing on mist.
Anything but a Romantic reactionary, Schreker was nevertheless seen as a throwback in the foxtrotting nineteen-twenties. The fashion was for hard, dry sound; he could not let go of his gossamer textures. A brilliant teacher, he watched sadly as his own students disavowed him. He got a secret revenge in “Christophorus,” which was too far-out and meta-operatic to be performed in the composer's lifetime. (The Kiel Opera has made a good recording for the CPO label.) Master Johann's star students are Christoph, a strutting prodigy beloved of the critics, and Anselm, an ambivalent, watchful youth. Christoph ends up a murderer, a drug addict, a disciple of brute strength. Anselm finds virtue in truth, simplicity, “female weakness”—everything that Germany was preparing to reject.
If “Der Ferne Klang” is Schreker's most inspired work—the Venetian party scene in Act II, with its layering of choruses, Gypsy bands, and singing gondoliers, is worthy of “Don Giovanni”—“Die Gezeichneten” is the one that takes you by the throat. The plot, which Schreker initially concocted for his RomanticImpressionist colleague Alexander Zemlinsky, sets up a love triangle among three habitués of Renaissance Genoa: Alviano, a hunchbacked aesthete, who builds an island utopia called Elysium; Count Tamare, handsome and heartless, who, with fellow-squires, converts Elysium into a hotbed of sexual depravity, taking the daughters of Genoa's merchant class as victims; and Carlotta, a diffident painter, who falls in love with Alviano, or at least the idea of him, only to give in to Tamare's advances. The Schreker scholar Gösta Neuwirth has found that the scenario contains various cunning portraits of fin-de-siècle personalities. Alviano resembles the industrialist Friedrich Alfred Krupp, who built a gay pleasure den in a grotto on Capri. Tamare seems to have been based on Tamara von Hervay, an accused bigamist and witch. And Carlotta, who rightly fears that sex would kill her, is probably a stand-in for the perpetually keening Zemlinsky, as well as for the less sentimental Schoenberg, who painted in his spare time. The libretto supplies a description of Carlotta's painting of a glowing hand: it precisely resembles one of Schoenberg's pictures. The transposition of gender roles is typical of Schreker's devious psychology.
The music, too, is full of deceptive surfaces and tricky allusions. It is itself a kind of magic grotto, designed to lure the unsuspecting ear. A splashy, hummable melody linked with Tamare functions like “La donna è mobile,” the ditty that the Duke sings in Verdi's “Rigoletto”; it is the charming face of a vicious man. A complementary melody, wavering between major and minor, represents Carlotta's moody yearning. It collapses in on itself as the opera goes on, until it becomes nothing more than a D-major triad superimposed on D-minor: a clotted, shivering mass. These unearthly sounds appear in conjunction with a finale of shameless melodrama. Some twists are predictable—Alviano kills Tamare in a rage—and some are not. When Carlotta, nearly dead in the wake of a rough night with Tamare, looks up to see Alviano, there is no tearful reconciliation. Instead, she screams, “Away, away! A troll!” Alviano goes mad. Curtain.
Lehnhoff, in his production, takes Schreker's sadistic manipulations a step further. In the first two acts, an austere, ominous landscape unfolds: characters crawl over the surface of a gigantic broken statue, which makes for a dramatic sight amid Salzburg's rock-hewn Felsenreitschule stage. In Act III, we enter Elysium, which here becomes a mechanical sexual ritual, not unlike the boring orgies in Pasolini's “Salò” and Kubrick's “Eyes Wide Shut.” In Lehnhoff's vision, the girls who have been abducted into Elysium are not teen-agers but mere children, and they are not only raped but murdered. It is a grisly tableau out of Egon Schiele or Otto Dix. European opera stages are full of such unspeakable acts nowadays, and they usually have no dramatic point. Lehnhoff, who in other productions has proved anything but a sensationalist, knows what he is doing: he is following to the logical extreme Schreker's cultivated understanding of the worst in human nature.
The musicologist Christopher Hailey, who has long campaigned for a Schreker revival, observes that the operas work best if they are done in the highest possible style. The Salzburg performance, despite a series of awkward cuts, came close to the ideal. Kent Nagano conducted the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester of Berlin, applying the same priestly devotion to Schreker that he brings to Mahler and Messiaen. Robert Brubaker sang the taxing role of Alviano with unflagging intensity, perhaps missing some lyric nuance along the way. Michael Volle was a charismatic and brutal Tamare. Above all, Anne Schwanewilms was transfixing as Carlotta. With her hotly expressive stage presence and coolly beautiful soprano voice, she caught the ambiguities of Carlotta's character and, by extension, all the fire and ice of Schreker's world.