Franz Schreker’s Neglected Masterpiece


SCHREKER: Die Gezeichneten / Franz Crass, bass (Duke Antoniotto Adorno/Captain of the Guards); Thomas Stewart, bar (Andrea Vitelozzo Tamare); Ernst Wiemann, bass (Podestà Lodovico Nardi); Evelyn Lear, sop (Carlotta Nardi); Helmut Krebs, ten (Alvanio Salvago); Julius Katona, ten (Guidobald Usodimare/A Youth/First Senator/Father); Manfred Schmidt, ten (Menaldo Negroni); Walter Hauck, bar (Michelotto Cibó); Hans Herbert, bar (Gonsalvo Fiechi); Herbert Klomser, bass (Julian Pinelli); Erich Wenk, bass (Paolo Calvi/Second Senator); Maria von Ilosvay, alto (Martuccia); Donald Grobe, ten (Pietro, a cutthroat); North German Radio Chorus & Symphony Orchestra; Winfried Zillig, conductor / Walhall 376

In the era of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and the similar rubbish he wrote that followed it, Franz Schreker wrote this astonishingly musical, powerful and symphonically constructed work. Die Gezeichneten, or The Stigmatized, tells the story of a deformed, hunchbacked Genoan nobleman of the Middle Ages, Alviano Salvago, who has no illusions of being with a woman but who, out of the goodness of his heart, donates the island paradise he created called Elysium to the people of Genoa for their use. Unfortunately, the island is already being used by his dissolute friends as a site for orgies, and so they go to Duke Adorno to stop the transfer of ownership. One of them, Count Tamare, has set his sights on Carlotta, daughter of the Podestà. Carlotta rejects him, as she is only interested in Salvago, whose soul she wants to paint. Infuriated by Carlotta’s rejection, Tamare swears to Adorno that he will take her by force. He also reveals the secret of the grotto to Adorno. Not wanting Salvago to become more popular than himself as a result of the gift, Adorno decides to use the existence of the secret grotto as an excuse to veto the transfer. From Wikipedia:

Not wanting Salvago to become more popular than himself as a result of the gift, Adorno decides to use the existence of the secret grotto as an excuse to veto the transfer. While Salvago is sitting for Carlotta, she complains that she can’t paint his soul if he keeps avoiding looking at her. To which he responds that ugly as he is, he still has the feelings of a man in the presence of a beautiful woman… Eventually Carlotta confesses that she loves him, but faints in his arms as both are overcome with emotion.

The citizens of Genoa go to the island for the first time and are awed by what they see. Salvago asks the Podestà for Carlotta’s hand in marriage. She evades him, wanders off alone, and in the grotto finally succumbs to Tamare who’s wearing a mask. The Duke accuses Salvago of masterminding the abductions. Salvago, beside himself with worry for Carlotta, leads everyone to the underground grotto. Carlotta lies senseless on a bed, while Tamare prides himself on his conquering abilities. Salvago stabs him. Carlotta awakens, Salvago rushes to her side, but with her dying breath she calls for Tamare. Salvago, completely deranged, stumbles over Tamare’s body as he makes his way through the stunned crowd.

The music in which Schreker wrapped this sad and somewhat ugly tale of unrestrained lust vs. the pure intentions of Salvago is very much in the late-romantic tonal language of the time, but unlike the later Strauss operas (Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariane auf Naxos, Intermezzo, The Egyptian Helen, Arabella, Die schweigsame Frau), Schreker’s music is much better constructed. Once past the lush overture, the opera moves in an interesting sound world, using rhythmic motifs not only in the orchestra but also in the vocal lines. Although he never quite abandons conventional tonality, there are touches of Mahler in the score. Like Strauss, the music is continuous within each act and each character gets his or her own particular style to distinguish them. There are passages that one can point to as semi-parlando, but Schreker’s long experience in writing songs serves him well in his sense of construction. Although the music does not “reach for the high notes” the way Puccini and late Strauss often did, it is somewhat difficult to sing, as the musical lines tend towards the strophic and are often quite complex. In short, it’s the kind of opera that only exceptional singing-actors can perform. As one can imagine, the modern productions of this opera (one such is on YouTube) tend to stress the prurient interests in the story, with lots of naked women running around with their junk hanging out.

From what I can tell, and I may be wrong, this seems to have been a non-staged recording made for broadcast by Hamburg radio between May 9 and 11, 1960. I admit to not having heard Winfried Zellig before, but he seems to have been a composer and music theorist as well as a conductor. He studied law before moving into music, which he studied with Hermann Zilcher before becoming a private pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. In 1927 he became the assistant to Erich Kleiber at the Berlin State Opera, and so may have encountered Schreker’s opera at that time. He was also the one who completed Schoenberg’s oratorio Die Jakobsleiter at the request of the composer’s widow. (Would that he had also finished Moses und Aron!) Thus he was uniquely qualified to lead this performance. Sadly, he died only three years later, at the still-youngish age of 58. He leads a supremely taut performance that does not ignore the sometimes exotic orchestration, and his talented cast includes the wonderful light tenor Helmut Krebs, noted for his singing of light roles ancient and modern (he was also a noted David in Die Meistersinger). The American darlings of Germany at the time, soprano Evelyn Lear and her husband, baritone Thomas Stewart, sing Carlotta and Tamare respectively, and the lineup also includes such lesser-known but equally excellent singers as Maria von Ilosvay, a mainstay at Bayreuth during this period and beyond, Walter Hauck, Herbert Klomser, Franz Crass and another American, tenor Donald Grobe.

The second act is the most “parlando” in style, not as lyrical or attractive as the first and particularly the third act, which is the best and most interesting of the three. Thus, it is sad that many modern performances—even the Decca studio recording, conducted in a dull and uninteresting manner by one Lothar Zagrosek, and featuring a strangulated, unsteady tenor (Heinz Kruse) as Salvago—make cuts in the last act and not in the second, where a few minutes’ excision would not harm the musical structure nearly as much.

It’s really a shame that modern productions tend to focus on the sexual aspects of the opera (which, of course, are an essential component of the plot, but not the way Schreker intended), or that the modern “singing actors” who perform it exude plenty of acting but not much in the way of voice. The best cast of any of them is, sadly, an incomplete performance conducted by Kent Nagano, which includes the superb soprano Anne Schwanewilms, tenor Robert Brubaker and baritone Michael Volle for EuroArts in 2005. Thus you almost have to own, or at least hear, this recording in order to fully appreciate the complexity and beauty of the music. The best way I can characterize it is as a somewhat lighter and less grotesque Salome in style. Had this opera been written by Strauss, I’m sure it would be world-famous buy now.

Of all the singers, it is Lear who stands out for her subtlety of interpretation. Her voice was still exceptionally beautiful in those years. She later complained that singing too many performances of Berg’s Lulu ruined her voice, and she was probably right. A lyric soprano, she really only had the extreme high range that Lulu called for as extra notes she could vocalize to, not a range she could sing comfortably in performance after performance. Lear should have made discretion the better part of valor and given the role up, pressure to continue it notwithstanding. Interestingly, her husband’s voice also became drier and a bit hollow in later years (I saw him in the early 1970s, at the Metropolitan Opera, as the villains in Les contes d’Hoffmann), and he had no similar excuse for his vocal deterioration…but he remained a riveting and compelling vocal actor.

Yet for all the recording’s excellences, a caveat: the sound is quite muddy, particularly for the orchestra. I strongly urge that you acquire this recording via downloads if you can or, lacking that, rip the CDs and enhance the treble by 2.2 db. This gives the singers’ voices a bit more brightness, which is not unwelcome (particularly in the case of Lear), but greatly enhances the orchestral sound. In every other respect, this is clearly the performance to own of this unjustly marginalized gem, a sort of German Pelléas und Mélisande with sex and gore thrown in.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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