Schreker’s “Die Ferne Klang”

SCHREKER: Die Ferne Klang / Jennifer Holloway, sop (Grete); Ian Koziara, ten (Fritz); Anthony Robin Schneider, bs (Wirt); Iurii Samoilov, bar (A bad actor); Magnús Baldvinsson, bar (Old Graumann); Barbara Zechmeister, mezzo (Graumann’s wife); Dietrich Volle, bs (Dr. Vigilius); Nadine Secunde, mezzo (An old woman); Julia Dawson, sop (Mizi, a dancer); Bianca Andrew, sop (Milli, a dancer/Waitress); Julia Moorman, sop (Mary, a dancer); Kelsey Lauritano, sop (Spanish dancer); Gordon Bintner, bar (The Count); Iain Macneil, bs (The Baron); Theo Lebow, ten (Chevalier); Sebastian Geyer, bar (Rudolf, a doctor); Hans-Jürgen Lazar, ten (A dubious person); Anatolii Suprun, bs (Police officer/Servant); Opera Frankfurt Chorus; Frankfurt Opera & Museum Orch.; Sebastian Weigle, cond / Oehms Classics OC 980 (live: March-April 2019, Frankfurt)

Having reviewed and been impressed by Franz Schreker’s other opera, Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized), I decided to take a chance on this one, which I hadn’t heard before. Die Ferne Klang or The Distant Sound, written over most of a decade and premiered in 1912, is an equally dismal plot that’s sort of like a dark version of Adolphe Adam’s Der Postillon von Lonjumeau.

This opera concerns Grete, the daughter of a retired minor civil servant who fritters away his pension at the local bar in booze and bets, and Fritz, an idealistic young composer who is searching for a new sound which he can partially hear in his mind but cannot quite grasp. After Fritz goes away in search of his Lost, Chord, Grete’s father gambles her away at the bar to his landlord who she now must marry. Bristling against this, Grete splits and ends up sleeping at the edge of a lake. When she wakes up, she thinks she is drowning. She is approached by an old woman who is actually a Madame and entices her into a life as a prostitute.

A decade later on, Grete is now queen of the demimondes who is approached by a Count to be his lover, but suddenly in the crowd—you guessed it—she spots Fritz, who goes to her and says that he wants to marry her but still hasn’t found his damn “distant sound.” Five years later, Fritz has finally found his sound and puts it in an opera called Die Harfe (The Harp). Act I goes well, but during Act II the audience walks out because no one likes the music. By this time, Grete and the Count have split up and she is just a common whore. Fritz sits at home depressed because he realizes that not only has he wasted his life chasing after his Lost Chord but also Grete’s life as well. His friend Dr. Vigilius brings Grete to him, she and Fritz embrace, and lo and behold he FINALLY hears his “distant sound.” He happily begins rewriting the end of his opera but dies in Grete’s arms.

So the plot is a bit heavy-handed and silly in addition to being rather dark, but the music is fascinating. As in Die Gezeichneten, Schreker writes in a late-Romantic style that sounds halfway between Mahler and Scriabin. The score is full of interesting coloristic effects, and in this case they are caught perfectly thanks to the modern digital sound. Some of the secondary characters (the old woman/Madame, for instance) are poorly sung by wobbly vocalists, but thankfully most of the roles are well served by good singers, particularly Jennifer Holloway as Grete and Ian Koziara as Fritz. Sebastian Weigle, always a good conductor (I raved about his Martha recording a while back), does an excellent job with this complex score in which Schreker uses a variety of interesting coloristic effects.

The real question is whether or not an opera like this, with a fanciful, somewhat silly yet dark plot, can appeal to audiences nowadays. Judging from the three photos we have in the booklet (one of them the cover photo), the director seems to have done a tolerable job of presenting this work set in the 1920s with just a bit of fanciful costuming and props. By today’s standards, it’s almost normal-looking. Of course, the real problem as far as conventional operagoers are concerned is that the music does not contain set-pieces (arias, duets, etc.), conventional melodic lines or high notes for the gallery to applaud, so I doubt that it will catch on anywhere. It’s just a bit too fanciful and esoteric a plot for anyone, even musicians and composers, to find valid or interesting despite the extremely creative musical setting. In short, it makes for an interesting listening experience without giving the audience much in the way of anything they can relate to, and this is its fatal flaw. At least Die Gezeichneten had a plot that could act as an allegory for any deformed or otherwise isolated member of society trying to be accepted, sort of a kind-hearted Rigoletto story. My readers may recall that I had similar misgivings about Poul Ruders’ opera The Thirteenth Child. His music was superb and very sophisticated, but the plot was a fairy tale geared primarily for children and not something an adult could relate to, which left it in a sort of no-man’s-land. An audience of children would be utterly bored and confused by Ruders’ music while an audience of adults would be put off by the silliness of the fairy tale plot. Thus is the fate of certain operas that, based solely on musical merit, should have found a place in the repertoire but cannot.

Still, as an auditory experience Die Ferne Klang is worth hearing at least once. Schreker’s musical invention was clearly operating at a high level throughout, even if its dramatic premise was silly and flawed.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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