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Secrets of the grotto

Peter Hagmann raves about Franz Schreker's hot and heavy opera "Die Gezeichneten" in Salzburg.

Is it a man, is it a woman? (S)he sits in rose red silk, with black tights and patent leather boots and puts on fresh make-up. The body ranges between the sexes, the pose extremely lascivious while the lustfully mounting tones of the overture are played slowly, to be savoured.

We're in the Felsenreitschule (the former summer riding school), at the first of three opera premieres on the programme this week at the Salzburg Festival: "Die Gezeichneten" by Franz Schreker. When the piece was first performed in 1918 in Frankfurt, it was a scandal, as was reported by the 14 year old Theodor W. Adorno, who was in the audience. The work appeared "mammothly billowing, excessive" and "something jumpy" happened to him during the "shockingly erotic scenes".

"Die Gezeichneten". Choir. © Bernd Uhlig

Indeed, there's plenty of those. In the text that Schreker had originally written for Alexander Zemlinsky but ended up putting to music himself, there is a mysterious pleasure garden which contains an even more mysterious pleasure spot. Alviano Salvago, rich in spirit and fantasy but with a crooked frame, built the garden out of a desire for beauty and sensuality. Vitelozzo Tamare, an animal of a man, together with his cronies from Genoa's gentry, uses it as a place to abuse women of high society. The two men end up in a fight over the beautiful painter Carlotta Nardi; the fight drives one to his death, the other to insanity.

Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff was faced with the question of how to tell this story, rooted in fin de siecle Vienna, in such a way that its shock value is felt in a contemporary world of Internet pornography. Together with his stage designer Raimund Bauer and costume designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, he found a solution that is as plausible as it is theatrical. In complete contrast to the Stuttgart production of "Die Gezeichneten" in 2002, for which director Martin Kusej made ample use of blood and masculine nudity, Lehnhoff tackles the problem from a psychological angle. Alviano Salvago is no Rigoletto, he's not at all deformed, just a small, thin-legged man with serious psychic trauma. Terrified of being exposed by any form of communication that love, for example, might demand of him, he hides his body and his sexuality in women's clothing. It's seen very intellectually, shown very aesthetically, but the effect is no less dreadful.

Robert Brubaker (Alviano Salvago). / Anne Schwanewilms (Carlotta Nardi), Chor. © Bernd Uhlig

The piece starts slowly. The Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, under the direction of its departing conductor Kent Nagano, performs the overture with precision, not yet exhausting the full spectrum of tones that will be heard in the course of the evening. After, the exposition of the drama with the trapped men in their baggy black costumes seems richly operatic. But the tension rises the minute Carlotta Nardi enters, this mysterious artist who is no less masked than Alviano Salvago, branded by his fear of body contact. And the evening begins to vibrate. This is mainly thanks to Anne Schwanewilms, the tall German soprano, who appropriates the role completely. She can be very quiet and flutey when she sings in the heights that Schreker wrote for her – it's as irresistible to the ear as it is to Alviano Salvago, who is so thirsty and yet, afraid to wet his lips, avoids water at all costs.

The painter knows exactly where she has to touch him; there, she tickles, strokes and entices him, until he agrees to visit her in her studio – in full masquerade, of course. What happens there, takes place on the belly of the toppled female statue that occupies the entire width of a stage otherwise devoid of sets - not a paintbrush, not a screen, only the vast stone hand in the background makes specific reference to the text. And it is one of the most gentle and at the same time horrible seduction scenes seen on an opera stage in recent years. Layer by layer the painter undresses her model, until her scrawny victim stands there without a stitch on – not literally, of course; it's a psychic undressing. Nobody dares take the last step. Carlotta can't, she opts to touch herself; and Alviano doesn't, he remains gently respectful. It's horrible and at the same time, a masterpiece of musical theatre. Not least thanks to the tenor Robert Brubaker, a real singer-actor. In the intermission of the premiere, the guests looked distinctly sheepish.

Robert Brubaker (Alviano Salvago), Anne Schwanewilms (Carlotta Nardi). / Anne Schwanewilms (Carlotta Nardi), Robert Hale (Herzog Antoniotto Adorno). © Bernd Uhlig

Then the climax. After the intermission, there is a lush tableau in the spirit of the Grand Opera. Here, at the opening of the elysium for the people, there is little ostentation on stage. Instead there is good use of the arcades in the Felsenreitschule, bridled but in no way unambiguous choreography (Denni Sayers), and most of all, overflowing musical sensuality created by the exceptionally large and superior vocal ensemble and the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor. Among all the black robed Renaissance figures and the half-naked ones, a man in a bright white suit stands out. It's Alviano who, perhaps thanks to the scene in the studio, has found himself and is now looking desperately for Carlotta.

He is interrupted by the Duke Adorno (Robert Hale), who launches a suit against him and his friends. The last victim of the band is a child – the second shock effect of the evening. "Die Gezeichneten" and the case of Dutroux (the notorious Belgian child molester and murderer – ed.). Schreker's opera not as a work from a turn of the century long ago, but as a paradigm with very contemporary relevance. That aslo applies to the no less pathological but extremely familiar masculinity obsession embodied by Vitelozzo Tamare. When the secret grotto opens, Alviano is forced to realise that Carlotte has given herself to the handsome muscle package. The "marked one" reaches for his revolver and shoots his rival down in one well-aimed shot; he, in turn falls down with a dreadful sneering laugh like Don Giovanni – the tall, handsome Michael Volle with his robust baritone is absolutely right for the role.

After Frankfurt in 1979, Düsseldorf in 1987 and Stuttgart in 2002, this interpretation is a further milestone in the most recent history of Franz Schreker's opera «Die Gezeichneten». Peter Ruzicka, who has made his contribution to keeping "entartete Musik" alive and well, took a certain risk with this opening premiere in Salzburg. His courage paid off.

"Die Gezeichnete" is playing at the Salzburg Festival until August 7.


Peter Hagmann is a music critic for the
Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

This article appeared in German on July 28, 2005 in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

translation: nb

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