Thursday, 6 July 2017

Munich Opera Festival (1) - Die Gezeichneten, 4 July 2017

Foreground (in white): Duke Adorno (Tomasz Konieczny) and Count Tamare (Christopher Maltman); Staatisterie of the Bavarian State Opera
Images: Wilfried Hösl

Nationaltheater, Munich

Duke Antoniotto Adorno/Capitaneo di giustizia – Tomasz Konieczny
Count Andrae Vitelozzo Tamare – Christopher Maltman
Lodovici Nardi – Alastair Miles
Carlotta Nardi – Catherine Nagelstad
Alviano Salvago – John Daszak
Guidobald Usodimare – Matthew Grills
Menaldo Negroni – Kevin Conners
Michelotto Cibo – Sean Michael Plumb
Gonsalvo Fieschi – Andrea Borghini
Julian Pinelli – Peter Lobert
Paolo Calvi – Andreas Wolf
Ginevra Scotti – Paula Iancic
Martuccia – Heike Grötzinger
Pietro – Dean Power
Youth – Galeano Salas
Friend/Servant/Giant Citizen (!) – Milan Siljanov
Girl – Selene Zanetti
Senators – Ulrich Reß, Christian Rieger, Kristof Klorek
Little Boy – Soloist from the Tölz Boys’ Choir
Servant – Niamh O’Sullivan
Father – Yo Chan Ahn
Mother – Eleanor Barnard
Citizens – Harald Thum, Thomas Briesemeister, Klaus Basten, Burkhard Kosche, Tobias Neumann, Sebastian Schmid

Krzysztof Warlikowski (director)
Malgorzata Szczęśniak (designs)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Claude Bardouil (choreography)
Denis Guéguin (video)
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Children’s Chorus (chorus master: Stellario Fagone) and Chorus (chorus master: Soren Eckhoff) of the Bavarian State Opera
Bavarian State Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)



There is a host of fine operas out there languishing more or less unperformed (in some cases, quite unperformed). A few of them might even qualify as ‘great’. (Feel free to remove inverted commas, should that be your thing.) Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, whatever its proponents might claim, is certainly not one of those: not even close. Nor, however, is it a piece that fails to merit the occasional outing. Whether it merits the torrent of productions seemingly in store is rather less clear. For what it is worth – and this is partly a matter of taste, or lack thereof – there is not a single opera by Mozart, Haydn, or Gluck I should not rather see before sitting through this again. That said, I was immensely grateful not only for the opportunity afforded by the Bavarian State Opera not only to see the opera staged, but to see and hear it performed and staged so well – so much so, indeed, that the whole experience was enjoyable, absorbing, very much more so, I think, than the intrinsic merits of the opera might suggest.

That might sound odd, but it is not really so very odd – at least not necessarily. A peculiarity, indeed a fascination, to the opera is that almost every charge one might lay at its door might conceivably meet with the rejoinder: ‘that is the point’. It depends whose point, really: it is less often the point if we focus narrowly on ‘intention’, but why should we? Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production seems to nod to this thorny question by interpolating, immediately after the interval, before the third of the three acts, Schreker’s own character sketch of 1921, in which he presents – even, to an extent, ‘reclaims’, as we might say – accusations thrown at him and his art. It is, we may be reasonably sure, intended ironically or, perhaps better, with understandably vicious sarcasm, having been constructed from criticisms he had received:
  I am an Impressionist, Expressionist, Internationalist, Futurist, a musical purveyor of verismo; Jewish, and rose through the power of Jewishness; Christian and was ‘made’ by a Catholic clique under the patronage of a Viennese arch-Catholic countess.

 I am a sound artist, sound fantasist, sound magician, sound aesthete, and have no trace of melody (other than so-called short-breathed empty phrases, newly known as Melodielein). I am a melodist of the purest blood, as a harmonist however, anaemic, but perversely in spite of this a full-blooded musician! I am (unfortunately) an erotomaniac and work balefully upon the German public (eroticism is obviously my innermost contrivance, despite Figaro, Don Giovanni, Carmen, Tannhäuser, Tristan, Walküre, Salome, Elektra, Rosenkavalier, and so on). ... 

 
The rest, in which he continues, to explain that he is not of the true modernistic ‘left’ (Schoenberg and Debussy), owes something to Verdi, Puccini, Halévy, Meyerbeer, et al, and so on, may be read here. (It is well worth doing so, if you have the German.) It made for a powerful moment, or rather few moments, in the theatre, not least since Warlikowski has it read by the tragic, ugly hero-artist (the libretto was originally intended for Zemlinsky), who thus becomes at least in part an explicit realisation of Schreker’s plight. The problem, however, remains that, insofar as we may dissociate criticism of Schreker from anti-Semitism – perhaps it is impossible historically, but it need not be so now – many of the criticisms levelled tend actually to be born out; either that or the comparisons (Figaro, Tristan, etc.!) are rather embarrassing, doing neither composer nor opera any favours at all.

Carlotta (Catherine Naglestad) and Salvago (John Daszak)

What we have, then, is an evening in the theatre in which that problem is, if not worked out, at least explored. The slipperiness of artistic creation and agency is embodied in Alviano Salvago. Is he a good artist or a con artist? There are many other possibilities; we do not end up necessarily falling short of Mozart and Wagner because we are not trying. Salvago has created a garden of delights, an island park of Elysium, which he wishes to give to the people of Genoa. Is the suspicion of its establishment justified? In part, perhaps. Dark things clearly go on there. Are they the creator’s doing? Not intentionally, but they can be readily understood, made out to be, especially by other, more attractive noblemen who wish to be able to pursue something far more dastardly, indeed truly shocking – such as to leave our aesthetic-moralistic sniping at Schreker-Salvago look at best misguided. Do we really want to be the ones to say ‘yes, I’m sorry, your music is overblown, verging on the formless, an illustration or at least a piece of evidence, moreover, that Schoenberg was right: once a certain point of chromaticism has been reached, there really is nowhere else to go other than somewhere you would not…’, and so on? Of course we do not, especially when we know with whom we are allying ourselves, especially when we know how the crowd may be swayed – either by Salvago or by his opponents. On the other hand, Goebbels is not the only option: there is Schoenberg too; there is Moses und Aron, where we can see and hear these antinomies, or better dialectics, actually treated with the seriousness they deserve.

Give ourselves a third hand, though, or, Blair forbid, a ‘third way’, and perhaps we may wish to tarry. It is not as bad as Korngold, say. There is genuine fascination in the harmonic and instrumental colour: evidence of the most extraordinary ear. Alas, there is such an utter lack of variety that it all sounds more or less the same. One may like the sound; I might, for a few minutes. But for three acts? Three acts, that is, intruded upon only by a strange vulgarity in the third: dramatically effective, to a certain extent, as a suggestion of crowd dynamics, yet ultimately incongruous and, more to the point, unconvincing. The lack of ‘traditional’ melodic invention is not the end of the world in itself, but let us not convince ourselves that this is replaced by the still well nigh incredible perpetual self-transformation of Erwartung. Nor is the lack of musical characterisation necessarily fatal, although it is clearly a flaw, for this is not Fidelio, in which characterisation is simply not the point. Returns, however magnificent they sound in themselves, diminish all the time, without ever being replaced by something which, in that old Romantic way, we might consider to be true inspiration. Contrivance is all very well; who cares, ultimately, if the result is good. But is it?


Warlikowski proves himself, unsurprisingly, a dab hand at the erotomaniac side of things. The burlesque dance performed before the angry Schreker-Salvago is not the half of it, although it is perhaps the most memorable side. He shows also, quite unsparingly, how evil one side of the accusers is: that is, the party of Vitelozzo Tamare. Rich, unscrupulous, deceiving, plausible, violent: it is they who do the real harm, who have kidnapped and abused Ginevra Scotti, whilst framing the poor Salvago. How many other productions manage to incorporate a boxing training session into proceedings, as if to underscore the lavish obscenity of the violence? The humanity of the genuine artist, Carlotta, is underscored equally well, not least given an exemplary, heartfelt performance from Catherine Naglestad. She looks for the soul and perhaps she finds it: or perhaps, given her fate, she realises there is none at all, and is better off out of the game entirely. In that, encasing herself, she becomes an installation, perhaps an artwork of her own. The raging rodent crowd – more than a nod to Hans Neuenfels’s Lohengrin – would neither understand nor care. Salvago does though – we think.


The Bavarian State Orchestra under Ingo Metzmacher played with such glorious golden tone that it might have been the Vienna Philharmonic in Strauss – other, that is, than the score itself not having Strauss’s sense of drama, of direction, of characterisation, and so on, and so on. There was no sense of hurrying, which may or may not have been an unalloyed advantage. I think it was pretty much an advantage, for one certainly gained the impression of the score being permitted to speak for itself, even if to be hoist by its own petard. John Daszak gave a deeply moving account – like so many of the performances, seemingly moving beyond the limitations of the work ‘itself’ – of the central role. Christopher Maltman proved diabolically irresistible as his wicked opponent in love, art, and so much more; there was more than a hint of an ultra-decadent Don Giovanni here (definitely without the idealism – or Idealism). Tomasz Konieczny gave a magnificently forthright performance as Duke Adorno: duly ambiguous as to whose side he was on, if any, never anything but fully committed, though, in vocal terms. The doubling of his part with that of the Capitaneo di giustizia – gleefully ripping off his mask to confirm what we suspected – only heightened the troubling implications. The huge cast did not, so far as I can recall, have a single weak link to it; this, and the equally fine choral contribution showed just what an opera house and company can achieve. The extraordinarily self-reflexive quality of the evening and its aftermath will, I suspect, continue to intrigue. The Vorspiel zu einer Drama, the concert version of the opening Prelude, says it all - and yet, in another way, says none of that.


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