Der ferne Klang, opera (1912) by Franz Schreker
American staged premier,
American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Old Graumann/2nd Chorister – Peter Van Derick
Grauman’s Wife/Waitress/An Old Woman/Spanish Woman – Susan Marie Pierson
Grete – Yamina Maamar
Fritz – Mathias Schulz
Innkeeper/Policeman – Matthew Burns
A Hack Actor – Jeff Mattsey
Dr. Vigelius/The Baron – Marc Embree
Mitzi – Aurora Sein Perry
Milli – Jamie Van Eyck
Mary – Celine Mogielnicki
The Count/Rudolf -Corey McKern
The Chevalier/A Dubious Individual – Jud Perry
This year Bard College’s Summerscape program is focussing on the composer Alban Berg “and his world,” which means the inclusion of an opera sometime prior to the retrospective itself. As has happened several times since the Fisher Center with its state-of-the-art operatic facilities opened in 2003, Leon Botstein and the ASO this year have chosen to perform a relatively unfamiliar opera which has a significant relationship to the main subject, but by another composer. (In the festivals devoted to Janacek and Shostakovich, it was possible to find less well-known works within the composers’ own oeuvre, while for the Prokofiev festival, a Szymanowski double bill with his ballet Harnasie and his important opera, King Roger, as well as an unfamiliar version of Prokofiev’s familiar ballet, Romeo and Juliet, filled this role.)
Berg’s two operas have entered the international operatic repertory and have become familiar through superb performances and varied productions. The choice of Schreker’s opera makes sense for reasons both practical and programmatic. Many of the same performers were already familiar with the work, having participated in the American premier, in concert form, several years ago. Schreker’s opera was premiered in 1912 during a period in Berg’s life when he was getting to know the dramas that would eventually take form as his own operatic output. He became intimately familiar with this work when he was assigned the task of creating the piano score. Schreker was known within the Schoenberg circle and conducted the first performance of Gürrelieder in 1913. He had a falling out with Berg over the reduction, believing that it was too difficult; Berg had typically attempted to retain the multi-layered complexities of many passages within the score. Nevertheless, knowing Berg’s two towering operatic masterpieces, one can see and hear many ways in which this opera foreshadows aspects and characteristics of them, to a greater extent than the works of Schreker’s contemporaries Richard Strauss and Alexander Zemlinsky. Briefly stated, Der ferne Klang shows us a (heretofore missing) link between Tristan and Lulu.
This was actually Schreker’s third opera, but it was the first to be conceived, and had a long and difficult genesis; he seems to have struggled with it over a 10-year period, bringing it to completion only in 1912 when the composer was 34. He went on to write seven other operas, but this remained his greatest success; for a brief time, it was hailed as the wave of the operatic future, and Schreker as the operatic man of the hour. It would be interesting to hear the composer’s later works (written after World War I) which did not achieve comparable success. The rise of the Nazis ended not only his career (he was deprived of his post at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik owing to Jewish ancestry) and his life (he died in 1934 following a stroke), but his reputation as well. The composer’s life and struggles are relevant to this opera, whose subject happens to be the life and struggles of an opera composer.
In act I, Fritz (the would-be composer) turns away from Grete, the young woman he loves, in order to wander the world in search of an elusive “distant sound,” abandoning her to her callous parents. Grete runs away, spends a night in the woods during which she experiences her own “distant sound,” representing a potential union with nature; falls into the hands of a procuress and in the course of ten years is transformed into Greta, a glamorous courtesan and toast of high society at a Venetian cabaret (portrayed in act II). When Fritz finds her there, he is horrified at what she has become and rejects her. Eventually he has some success as a composer and writes an autobiographical opera which is being performed during the first part of act III, which takes place five years later at a restaurant next door to the theater. The third act of the opera-within-the-opera, however, depicts the composer’s failure to find his long-sought “sound;” it disappoints the public and the work is judged a failure. Meanwhile, a prostitute, Tini, appears; she turns out to be the completely fallen version of Grete/Greta; she is ill and is mysteriously drawn to the restaurant, recalling her own distant sound. With her return, Fritz realizes the folly of his initial renunciation. In a Tristan-esque conclusion, he is reunited with Grete and discovers in his dying moments the sound he has long sought, the sound which would have enabled him to rewrite the final act.
Thus the opera is a musico-dramatic hall of mirrors, and its essential quality is that of elusiveness: of the sound, of love, of identity and character, of the purpose of creativity (union with nature/spirit or achievement of worldly success?) and of the musical language of the opera itself. Schreker was one of many late-romantic composers whose style sought a rapprochement with modernism without renouncing tonal harmony. In this he is aligned with his fellow German and Viennese colleagues: Richard Strauss, Mahler, pre-atonal Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Korngold, and Schmidt, as well as such non-Germanic figures as Debussy, Roussel, Scriabin, Szymanowski, etc, whose ultra-chromatic stage works often seek to convey forms of sensual or spiritual intoxication the corollary of which can be formal disorientation. Debussy’s Pelléas (premiered in 1902) offered a model for elusiveness on the operatic stage, while Strauss’s Salomé (1907) is a palpable influence on the amoral sensuality of act II.
Schreker possessed formidable harmonic and orchestral technique, as well as a virtuosic feel for events on-stage. His harmonic idiom is widely eclectic, drawing as needed from traditional tonality, impressionism, chromaticism, and exoticism. The scoring is kaleidoscopic; a particular trait is its ability to convey a sense of distance, using off and on-stage chorus and instrumental ensembles. Complex scenes, particularly in the second act, juxtapose layers of activity in carefully calibrated balances which can at times approach the effect of chaos without loss of control. In all this, the ballroom scene of Don Giovanni seems to have served as a model. Add to this the composer’s avoidance of a clear motivic plan. Very little of the melodic material sticks in the memory, even on an unconscious level; a few wisps of melodic arabesques from the overture that recur in the prelude to the second act, the chiming arpeggios that suggest the elusive “distant sound,” and the “nature music” that Grete hears upon awakening in the woods (according to the libretto, but not this production; see below) are the few fragments of dramatic significance that play a motivic role. Otherwise, the free-flowing score (whose principal means of continuity is the semi-recitative developed by Wagner and taken up by subsequent composers including those named above) is experienced as a hallucinatory succession of evanescent states which rhymes well with the complex and often disorienting events onstage.
The main danger of all this virtuosity is the possibility of narrative confusion. There are long stretches where very little external action takes place, where the focus is on the “soul states” of the protagonists; alternating with this are passages of frenetic, multi-layered activity with multiple speakers and subjects changing from moment to moment, as in the tavern scene of act I (forerunner of the tavern scene in Wozzeck, act II), the casino setting of most of act II (suggestive of Lulu, act III scene 1), and the restaurant scene of act III. In the static moments, the music speaks eloquently but its dramatic message is ambiguous, while in active moments, the dramatic messages come so thick and fast the listeners must attempt to sort out “meaning” as best they can. The vocal writing contributes to this problem. The few “set pieces” seem almost irrelevant to the narrative (or perhaps form a calculated distraction, such as the story contest of act II); vocal utterances tend to be discursive and usually express conflicted feelings.
Despite this elusive/discursive character, Der ferne Klang is a highly dramatic work well worth reviving not only for its historical importance, and the Bard performance was musically impressive. Leon Botstein has long held high regard for Schreker; I recall a performance he conducted about twenty years ago of the Chamber Symphony which served to introduce that wonderful work to many listeners. Here, the pacing was brisk, the dramatic events firmly delineated without sacrificing atmospheric moments. The balances were mostly good, although there were inevitably moments in such a complex score when details were obscured (such as the tambourine during the gypsy music); and the playing was warm, expressive, and dramatically eloquent. The singing was generally at a high level, with soprano Yamina Maamar outstanding in the role of Grete/Greta/Tini. Lyric tenor Mathias Schulz as Fritz seemed to struggle occasionally with his demanding role, and at climactic moments he had to push his high register attempting to meet Schreker’s Heldentenor demands, only to be mostly drowned out by the very full orchestral scoring. The supporting cast was strong; the two lyric set-pieces of act II, performed by baritone Corey McKern and tenor Jud Perry, almost stole the show.
It was in the area of Thaddeus Strassburger’s lavish production that problems of narrative coherence and dramatic meaning appeared. This opera attempts to revisit the dramatic (Schopenhauerian/Wagnerian) dichotomy of both Tristan and Pélleas: the tragic opposition between the soul and the world, the inner life of love, art and idealism on the one hand and worldly power, social rules, and artistic success on the other. As I hear the score, it attempts to maintain a balance between these two poles, portraying the idealism of both protagonists in act I, their disillusionment in act II, and their recovery (almost?) in act III. It was the loss of that balance that I felt marred this otherwise lavish and imaginative production. Grete’s idealism is shown in act I when she wakes up in a forest, after running away from her toxic family, to the sounds of a kind of beautiful nature music which she will recall ecstatically in act III. Strassburger reset this scene in a movie theater where what appear to be German newsreels from World War I are being shown, rendering Grete’s experience disorienting or ironic, depending on how you construct it. Then there is act II, staged as a glitzy spectacular, with mirrors, sparkling costumes, tuxes and canes, a Busby Berkeley spectacular with Straussian music (both Johann Jr. and Richard) portraying opulence and decadence. Part of the problem of coherence is Schreker’s (this was his opportunity to bring out his most complex forces) but it was exacerbated by the over-the-top production. The aforementioned set pieces were the lyrical focal points of the act, with the production offering little help in connecting them to the main narrative concerns. (The Count’s story is mythic and could be related to Fritz’s misguided idealism, while the Chevalier’s story is a smarmy bit of society gossip relatable to Greta’s superficial life of meaningless luxury.) Then in act III, there is a long instrumental interlude which seems to wordlessly recapitulate the feelings and aspirations of act I and bring them forward fifteen years. What we see, however, is waiters dismantling the set of the restaurant to the point of noisily folding up the tables and clearing them away. The symbolism is (I suppose) to reflect Fritz’s artistic failure and the collapse of his health which will lead to his death. But that doesn’t rhyme with the music, which seems to reawaken the possibility of redemption for Fritz and Grete, a possibility which emerges in the remaining scenes but which this production sought to down-play: the sense of possibility was undercut by staging their reunion as a hallucination of Fritz’s, with Grete actually arriving only after he has died.
The basic idea of the production (described in the program by Strassburger) is to move the time-frame to the fifteen-year period of the composer’s life from the end of World War I until his death. The autobiographical nature of the story might suggest this as an imaginative solution to the question of setting; but it places the story in a world more cynical and disillusioned than I think the composer intended, one where elusiveness is replaced by disorientation, cynicism and futility. The transformation of the rustic tavern of act I to a haven for cheerful-looking maimed soldiers returning from World War I with their nurses responds to no stylistic cues present in the score. It would have been less imaginative but more coherent to adhere to the composer’s description of a nineteenth-century tavern in which the drunkenness and brutality are a normal part of the milieu from which the main characters seek an escape. (Shades of the tavern scenes in Wozzeck!) Again in act II, the production’s emphasis on Greta’s panache as a courtesan and the glamour of her milieu minimizes the wistfulness of the recollections of her former life and the emptiness of her present one. Similarly, the recasting of the ending reduces the shock value of the final moment of tragedy and the oxymoron of apparent transcendence followed by actual death. In this case, however, the production’s reinterpretation offers an interesting alternative view of the final moment. If this were not the first staging to be seen here, its effect would be thought-provoking. As it is, it reduces the power of Fritz’s final moment of comprehension, making it all seem too late. It becomes an ending closer to Lulu than to Tristan, but the music tells me it ought to be the other way around. Schreker’s score hovers in a middle world in which nineteenth-century lyricism and harmonic warmth tantalize us continuously, and he is a master of the “distant sound” which his alter ego seeks. The more modern resetting of the production deprives the music of its power to charge the stage with its magic. But as is often the case in operatic productions, the music has the final authority, and Schreker is restored to us as a powerful operatic voice from whom we ought to hear more.