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Rare opera spotlight: Die Gezeichneten

Charlos Workman as Alviano. Photo by Christian Michelides, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Franz Schreker may be getting a long-overdue revival. Both Der ferne Klang and Die Gezeichneten have seen a promising wave of performances in recent years after decades of neglect. Alex Ross glibly writes that Schreker is “better on his best days than most great composers are on their off days,” but I would make a stronger claim. Die Gezeichneten is as good an opera as many of those in the standard repertoire (presumably the works of great composers on their not-so-off days). Schreker wrote the libretto himself in 1911 and completed the score in 1915. The Frankfurt premiere in 1918 was a smashing success, and at least two dozen productions followed over the next fifteen years. But Schreker was Jewish, and his music was banned in Germany in 1933. His legacy never recovered.

Schreker’s music defies consistent characterization. Ross writes that Schreker “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.” In contrast, The Opera Platform’s introduction to their stream of Die Gezeichneten mentions that Schreker is “often called the most worthy heir of Richard Wagner.” His scores alternate between bombast and understatement, blasts of densely textured sound and a cappella vocal moments. They play with dissonance and melody, teetering on the edge of atonality without ever quite falling. They move quickly—much more quickly than Wagner—and pack a lot of drama, but they deal with people (artists, nobles, citizens) rather than myths (quests, dragons, gods). The overall feel of Schreker’s soundscape is silky, but the silkiness of the music often gives way to wild danger.

Franz Schreker

The plot of Die Gezeichneten is as dark as its sound. Like many of Schreker’s operas, Die Gezeichneten is about art and aesthetics—the cost of creation and the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. Alviano Salvago is a hideous, hunchbacked nobleman. He has created the island of Elysium, a place of perfect beauty. But Elysium hides a dark secret in its caverns: Alviano’s friends have turned its underground into a brothel of kidnapped young girls. When Alviano decides to donate Elysium to the people of Genoa, the Podestà comes to congratulate Alviano on his generosity. The Podestà’s daughter, Carlotta, also has a special request for Alviano: she wants to paint his soul. He initially thinks she is mocking his deformity, but he is won over by her earnestness and agrees to sit for a portrait.

Count Vitelozzo Tamare, a handsome and wicked nobleman, has proposed marriage to Carlotta but been rejected. He swears he will have her as his whore. He also tells the Duke of Adorno about the existence of the grotto on Elysium and implores the Duke preserve the island for the nobility. The Duke agrees. As Carlotta paints Alviano, she tells him about a friend from art school who painted hands. This friend (evidently Carlotta herself) had heart problems, which felt like a hand gripping her heart. She painted her pain. Carlotta becomes frustrated with Alviano for evading her gaze and tells him she cannot paint him so. Alviano apologizes, and the two declare their love for each other. Carlotta feels a pain in her heart and faints.

The Genoese people explore Elysium as Alviano joyfully prepares for his wedding to Carlotta. Carlotta wanders alone on the island and runs into the masked Tamare. The Duke announces that Alviano is the one who has been abducting citizens’ daughters. Alviano pays little attention to the accusations, as he is worried about the missing Carlotta. Searching for her, he reveals the secret of the island’s grottos. There, he finds Tamare and a sleeping Carlotta. Tamare brags of his conquest, and Alviano kills him. Carlotta wakes up. Fatally weakened by the excitement of her encounter with Tamare, she rejects Alviano and dies by Tamare’s side. Alviano goes mad, calling for his fiddle and his fool’s cap.

Magdalena Anna Hofmann as Carlotta. Photo from The Opera Platform

A Frankfurt revival in 1979 marked the beginning of the opera’s resurgence. Recent years have seen a production in Salzburg (2005), the U.S. premiere in Los Angeles (2010), and performances in Palermo (2010) and Lyon (2015). Cologne and Munich both have productions scheduled for 2017. If you can’t travel to Germany to catch this opera, the full video of the Lyon production is currently available on The Opera Platform. Director David Bösch offers a modern but true-to-the-score staging. “Missing” posters for the kidnapped girls fill the stage. The dissolute nobles laughingly film their rapes. Carlotta advertises her rebelliousness with dyed hair and a leather jacket. Elysium is a sea of fairy lights, contrasting with the dark grotto of stained mattresses and terrified, suicidal girls. Charles Workman (Alviano) and Magdalena Anna Hofmann (Carlotta) tackle Schreker’s tricky vocal writing with true, powerful voices and give dramatic performances that make this Die Gezeichneten moving to see and hear.