Erwin Schulhoff’s Opera “Flammen”

SCHULHOFF: Flammen / Raymond Very, ten (Don Juan); Iris Vermillion, mezzo (La Morte); Stephanie Friede, sop (A Woman/A Nun/Marguerite/Donna Anna); Salvador Fernández-Castro, bs (Commendatore); Markus Raab, bar (Arlecchino); Gabriela Bone, Nina Bernsteiner, Anna Peshes, sop; Christa Ratzenböck, Hermine Haselböck, Elisabeth Wolfbauer, alto (Shadows); Karl-Michael Ebner (Pulcinella); Arnold Schoenberg Chor; Members of the Vienna United Theaters Band; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orch.; Bertrand de Billy, cond / Capriccio C5382 (live: Vienna, August 5, 7, 10 & 14, 2006)

From Wikipedia:

Flammen (Flames) is an opera in two acts and ten scenes composed by Erwin Schulhoff, his only opera. The original libretto in Czech was written by Karel Josef Beneš. The opera had its world premiere at the old National Theatre (Národní Divadlo na Veveří) in Brno on 27 January 1932 in Czech under the title Plameny. It was not heard again until the mid-1990s, when it was performed in its German translation by Max Brod as Flammen. Its story is a surrealist retelling of the Don Juan legend with elements from the legend of the Wandering Jew, and heavily influenced by Freudian psychology. Unlike the title character in Mozart’s Don Giovanni based on the same legend, Don Juan is not punished by being dragged down to Hell, but instead is condemned to live forever.

The opera is not a straight narrative, but rather a loosely connected set of ten scenes, each with its own name. Don Juan is in love with Death personified by La Morte, the only woman he has not been able to seduce. The Shadows (six women) function as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action and on Don Juan’s past life.

And herewith the very complicated plot, also courtesy of Wikipedia:

Act 1

Scene 1 Nocturne

The Shadows sing of Don Juan’s sexual exploits and La Morte’s passion for him. To the sound of a solo flute, he enters a dark abandoned house to seduce yet another woman. Her moans of ecstasy are heard.

Scene 2 Fire Song

The Shadows sing of a woman whose desire for Don Juan is so great that she imagines his body to be the colour of fire.

Scene 3 Midnight Mass

Determined to reform his libertine ways, Don Juan enters a church for Midnight Mass but is seduced by a nun. La Morte plays a Gloria on the organ while the sound of foxtrot music is heard outside.

Don Juan climbs a mountain of naked female bodies. At the summit he finds La Morte waiting for him.

Scene 5 Gallery

Don Juan enters a sculpture gallery filled with statues of men. The men are his dead ancestors, who unlike him managed to find happiness.

Scene 6 Dialogue

Don Juan talks to a woman, the same one who had previously appeared as a nun. Their dialogue is interrupted when Don Juan has a vision of another woman whose body is the color of fire.

Scene 7 Tempest and Dialogue with the sea

Marguerite and Don Juan make love during a storm. La Morte appears and kills Marguerite. Don Juan stands before the sea and tells of his longing for death.

Act 2

Scene 8 Carnival Night

It is Carnival Night. Amidst a troupe of commedia dell’arte mimes, Don Juan and Donna Anna dance a foxtrot. Arlecchino foretells scenes of horror which will occur at midnight. Donna Anna rejects Don Juan’s advances telling him “You are the very image of death.” He then murders Donna Anna’s husband, the Commendatore, and she commits suicide.

Scene 9 Banquet

Don Juan tries in vain to revive Donna Anna as a group of naked women begin dancing around him. Unable to stop them, he cries out to La Morte expressing his desire for her. She tells him that he will be closer to her as a living man rather than a dead one. The Commendatore then pronounces a curse on Don Juan, condemning him to live forever. On hearing the curse, Don Juan shoots himself, but instead of dying is turned into an even younger man.

Scene 10 Nocturne

Doomed to desperately repeating the cycle of his life over and over again, Don Juan enters the same darkened house where the opera began, accompanied by the same solo flute, to seduce yet another victim. La Morte and the Shadows lurk in the darkness singing, with the final words of the opera given to La Morte: “Salvation is so distant—again”.

So this is clearly a strange work, which one would expect from Schulhoff, the man who interwove foxtrots, jazz rhythms and complex modern harmonies all together in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Interestingly, the music sounds only slightly like other Schulhoff works. The opening, in which one hears a solo flute playing as the Shades are heard singing, is a very strange one but not outside the realm of what we now accept as “modern music.” Don Juan is the first principal character to sing, and just one syllable (“Ah!”) as the Shades continue. Eventually the rest of the orchestra enters, and this is indeed in Schulhoff’s most complex style, creating an eerie backdrop for the bizarre tale to be told. Unlike other modern operas of the period, in which grateful vocal lines are set to complex modern orchestral accompaniment, Schulhoff shows his singers little mercy. Their music, though not difficult in terms of tessitura, is bitonal and atonal in turn, matching the strange, dark orchestral web that surrounds it. I found it utterly fascinating, though I am sure that the majority of “opera lovers” (and I put quotes around that term because what they really are are voice, high note and tune lovers) will be turned off by it.

Schulhoff does toss a few melodies into his pot of music, but these are brief and almost immediately absorbed into the bitonal web beneath. Yet he keeps his orchestra light and transparent; nothing in it is thick and cluttered. In this respect, he seems to have taken a page from Debussy, whose Pelléas et Mélisande was built along similar but not identical lines.

Since the accompanying libretto in the booklet is in German only, I had some difficulty following the actual dialogue. Sure, I recognized a word or a phrase here and there, but not knowing German I found myself more lost than found. Our lead tenor, Raymond Very, has a bright voice with just a bit of strain and unsteadiness but an attractive timbre. All of the Shades have fine voices, though it was my impression that Schulhoff wanted them to sound as individual strands rather than singing as a chorus (i/e/. the Flower Maidens in Parsifal.) And as it goes along, one notes that the music is developed symphonically, making Flammen a cousin to Berg’s operas but not a copy of him. Schulhoff had his own style and “voice,” and that is what you hear in Flammen. Indeed, there were places in the score where I also heard hints of Bartók and even a whiff of Szymanowski. There is indeed some strong rhythms in Flammen, but they are of the Stravinsky variety, almost like stiff parodies of march rhythm.

Indeed, I’d say that in this opera the orchestra and orchestration is very much the star of the show, yet another thing that would set most “opera lovers” off. What this implies, to me, is that there is some stage action going on during these passages that are unfortunately lost in an audio-only recording, but one can use one’s imagination. Certainly, Schulhoff does not clutter up the opera with continuous or even very frequent singing. The characters only sing when there is a reason to do so.

Which brings us to my biggest complaint with modern opera productions: they are NOT imaginative in the best sense of the word, but generally perverted and aesthetically confused. A DVD I recently reviewed of Prokofiev’s The Burning Angel was just one of dozens I’ve seen that have no relationship to the composer’s or the librettist’s intent—worse, they distract from the librettist and composer by being so weird that one is distracted from the crux of whatever drama is meant to be shown. True, there are some happy exceptions, and maybe this 2006 performance of Flammen was one of them, but alas I have no way of knowing this. There is a performance of Flammen uploaded on YouTube, but it, too, is audio-only, the 1994 Decca recording with Jane Eaglen as Donna Anna/Marguerite/A Nun, Vermillion as La Morte, and Kurt Westi as Don Juan. Both the sung performance and the conducting, by John Mauceri, are equivalent to this one.

It’s probably just my impression, but there seemed to me a certain dream-like quality about Flammen—albeit a bad dream—that permeates the score.

Even giving it all my enthusiasm as a musico-dramatic creation, I don’t see Flammen ever coming close to being a repertoire opera. It’s just too strange and too orchestrally-driven. But I think it should be, at the very least, a concert opera like Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust (which is sometimes staged) in which the listener uses his powers of imagination which, I am sure, would be a considerable improvement on most directors’ insane stage ideas. As for the present recording, as I mentioned earlier I can’t say that it’s considerably better than the Decca release but it’s clearly equivalent to it. I will say, though, that if you enjoy modern opera and/or Schulhoff, you should definitely add this work to your collection.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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