23 March 2014

CD REVIEW: Franz Schreker – DIE GEZEICHNETEN (R. Brubaker, A. Kampe, M. Gantner, J. Johnson, W. Schöne; Bridge Records 9400A/C)

Franz Schreker - DIE GEZEICHNETEN (Bridge Records 9400A/C)

FRANZ SCHREKER (1878 – 1934): Die GezeichnetenR. Brubaker (Alviano Salvago), A. Kampe (Carlotta Nardi), M. Gantner (Count Andrea Vitelozzo Tamare), J. Johnson (Duke Antoniotto Adorno/Captain), W. Schöne (Lodovico Nardi), B. Gibson (Menaldo Negroni), J. Sorensen (Guidobald Usodimare), H. Yun (Michelotto Cibo), E. Brancoveanu (Gonsalvo Fieschi), M. Burns (Paolo Calvi), B. Wager (Julian Pinelli), K. Jameson (Pietro), R.N. Miller (Martuccia), C. Bix (1st Senator), J.A. Pérez (2nd Senator), C. Colclough (3rd Senator), V. Vinzant (Ginerva Scotti), D. Walker (Maiden), R. MacNeil (1st Citizen/3rd Youth), M. Moore (2nd Citizen/Father/1st Youth), K. Kellogg (3rd Citizen/2nd Youth/Giant Citizen), H.S. Kim (Youth), G. Vamvulescu (Youth’s Friend/Servant), E. Brookhyser (Mother), D. Montenegro (Son), R. Tomlinson (Servant Girl), C. Lane (Tenor solo), R. Hovencamp (Baritone solo), and G. Geiger (Bass solo); Chorus and Orchestra of Los Angeles Opera; James Conlon, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances at Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, California, USA, in April 2010; Bridge Records 9400A/C; 3CD, 170:21; Available from Amazon, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​When Franz Schreker was felled by the effects of a stroke in 1934, both his music and his reputation had been subjected to the stain of the Nazi actions against what was deemed to be 'degenerate' art. Possessing one of the most original voices among the generation of composers who came of age in the first decade of the 20th Century, Schreker was an easy target for National Socialist 'cleansing' of Germanic music: stylistically diverse, Schreker's scores exhibited unmistakable social undertones, particularly his operas, which, however fanciful their actual settings and plots, examined the societies into which they were born with pointedly analytical sensibilities. Thus, the 1918 première of Die Gezeichneten shone the unflattering spotlight of allegory as much on contemporary Vienna as on 16th-Century Genoa. Their Renaissance costumes and Italian names notwithstanding, the debauched denizens of the seedy underworlds of Die Gezeichneten were—and are—recognizably fin-de-siècle Viennese: the disquiet of social orders teetering at the edge of destruction pervades every page of Schreker's score, and the unraveling of individual and collective moralities is as evocative of Freudian Europe on the brink of total war as of the height of republican corruption in Genoa. After the success of its first production in Frankfurt, Die Gezeichneten was performed throughout German-speaking Europe in the fifteen years before Nazism silenced it in 1933. Inexplicably, the opera was not heard in the United States until 2010, when the production by Los Angeles Opera that produced this recording confirmed for 21st-Century audiences that Schreker's score is a work of great power. There is poignant symbolism in the brilliant success of the LA Opera production of Die Gezeichneten: perhaps it would have been in Los Angeles that Schreker, like Schoenberg and other German and Austrian expatriates, sought refuge from the mounting perils of pre-Anschluß Austria had he not been prevented from immigrating by the illness that took his life just before his fifty-sixth birthday. Without question, it was in Los Angeles that the legacy of Schreker's genius and the searching vividness of Die Gezeichneten were given the introduction to the new millennium that they deserved. Not a homecoming in the truest sense of the term, Los Angeles Opera’s Die Gezeichneten was nonetheless a second coming for one of the most intriguing scores of the Twentieth Century.

Schreker’s score could not have been entrusted to more capable hands than those of James Conlon, Los Angeles Opera’s Music Director and one of the most intuitive advocates of neglected masterworks of 20th-Century opera. Under Maestro Conlon’s baton, this performance of Die Gezeichneten undulates engagingly, the cinematic scope of the score conveyed with extraordinary immediacy. Unfortunately, the somewhat one-dimensional quality of the recorded sound deprives both Schreker’s orchestrations and the voices of impact, but stage noises come through with often startling clarity. Despite these distractions, the power and poetry of Maestro Conlon’s insightful shaping of the performance are apparent in every scene, and his leadership inspires both the Los Angeles Opera choristers and orchestra players to performances of vitality and uncompromising musicality. In both the extensive Vorspiel and the Prelude to Act Three, the instrumentalists play sonorously, and throughout the opera the Orchestra and Maestro Conlon create sound worlds that entice and repulse in equal measures. Schreker’s Interludes are played brilliantly, transforming the sonic landscapes to match those depicted on stage. Employed by the composer almost as an extension of the orchestra, the chorus contributes memorably to the tense atmosphere of the opera, especially in their lines as ‘drohendes Gemurmel’ (‘menacing murmurs’). Maestro Conlon’s approach to the score ensures that lyrical episodes are allowed to blossom unhurriedly without the energy and dramatic propulsion of the performance waning, and the mystery and mysticism of the music are imparted whether the drama is at full throttle or whispering in tones of dulcet deception.

Die Gezeichneten requires an unusually large cast, and staged performances limit opportunities for employing singers in multiple rôles. A marvel of the Los Angeles Opera production is the high standard of singing of secondary parts. Among many fine performances, the Senators of Corey Bix, José Adán Pérez, and Craig Colclough are stand-outs, their individual and ensemble singing resonant and aptly authoritative. Ronnita Nicole Miller’s Martuccia is similarly assured, and Valerie Vinzant is an alert, unabashedly emotive Ginerva Scotti. A wonderfully vital septet was assembled for the gentlemen—whose not-so-gentlemanly proclivities are portrayed in their names as deliciously as in Dickens’s Uriah Heep—of Genoa: Beau Gibson as Menaldo Negroni, Joel Sorensen as Guidobaldo Usodimare, Hyung Yun as Michelotto Cibo, Eugene Brancoveanu as Gonsalvo Fieschi, Matthew Burns as Paolo Calvi, Ben Wager as Julian Pinelli, and Keith Jameson as Pietro all sing strongly and often superbly, with Mr. Brancoveanu’s brawny timbre cutting through ensembles with welcome presence. It merits restating that the supporting cast is of uniformly excellent quality: not one comprimario lets the team down, and this reliability among smaller parts markedly enhances enjoyment of the performance as a whole. Los Angeles Opera’s casting unintentionally raises a gnawing question, however: if such richness of ensemble is possible in Die Gezeichneten, in which even singers in secondary rôles have daunting music, why do so many productions of a standard-repertory piece like Rigoletto feature such poor Borsas, Cepranos, Marullos, and Monterones?

Bass-baritone Wolfgang Schöne is one of the few singers in the world with a veteran’s acquaintance with Die Gezeichneten, and his experience informs every note that he sings as the Podestà, Lodovico Nardi. The insinuation with which Mr. Schöne inflects the Podestà’s description of his daughter, Carlotta, ‘Ich fürchte, Signor, allzufreien Sinns mögt Ihr sie finden’ (‘I fear, my Lord, that you might find her too free-spirited’), is appropriately suggestive, and his singing of lines such as ‘Ihr zeigt uns den Himmel, so nah und berückend, daß wir unfroh werden der Erde und ihrer Macht’ (‘You show us heaven, so near and inviting that we are no longer satisfied with the Earth and its power’) reveals an intensely thoughtful understanding of the nuances of Schreker’s symbolism-laden libretto. Mr. Schöne portrays a Podestà whose comprehension is wide-ranging but ultimately superficial. Vocally, Mr. Schöne’s singing is no longer as firm as it once was, but the voice remains a forceful instrument, and his performance is gratifyingly steady and accurate of pitch. Baritone James Johnson is also a commanding presence as both Duke Antoniotto Adorno and the Capitaneo di Giustizia. Though the rôles were sung by different singers in the 1918 première of Die Gezeichneten, Mr. Johnson’s performance proves that assigning the Duke and the Captain to the same singer is a credible practice. The two parts are facets of Schreker’s notion of corrupt, easily-manipulated authority, and though he takes care to differentiate his portrayals of the rôles Mr. Johnson convincingly evokes the dangerous aura of compromised jurisdiction. Mr. Johnson’s singing as the Duke has a gnarly nobility, and his Captain possesses a bracing sternness. In both rôles, Mr. Johnson’s voice is robust and secure throughout the range.

The fulcrum upon which the perverse drama of Die Gezeichneten pivots is the triangle that forms among the lecherous Count Andrea Vitelozzo Tamare, Carlotta Nardi (daughter of the Podestà), and Alviano Salvago, the hunchbacked nobleman whose deformity deprives him of realizing so many of his artistic and amorous ambitions. Much of the histrionic energy of Schreker’s opera is derived from the fact that, to a significant extent, these people are not what they seem to be: certainly, the full magnitudes of their agendas are carefully disguised. Singing with unstinting fortitude but also hints of vulnerability, baritone Martin Gantner makes Tamare an unexpectedly sympathetic figure: his actions are despicable, but this is clearly a man whose feelings for Carlotta transcend carnal desire. In fact, the dignity of Mr. Gantner’s singing virtually transforms Tamare into a tragic hero, even his confession of crimes in the final scene detracting little from the sense of Tamare sacrificing himself for Carlotta. The beauty and clarity of Mr. Gantner’s singing would upset the balance of a performance with weaker colleagues, but his unconventional interpretation of his part is ultimately very rewarding. There is no weakness in the Carlotta of soprano Anja Kampe. Indeed, the flexibility with which she allies toughness with femininity is remarkable. Ms. Kampe has been heard in the United States in rôles as diverse as Mozart’s Donna Elvira and Wagner’s Sieglinde, and her scintillating Isolde at Glyndebourne was a portrayal that beat many of her more gargantuanly-voiced rivals at their own game. Senta in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer is one of Ms. Kampe’s best rôles, and her singing of Carlotta highlights the similarities between Schreker’s and Wagner’s heroines. Carlotta lacks Senta’s naïveté, but her bold spirit engenders a dogged pursuit of her artistic vision that resembles the singularity with which Senta follows her perceived destiny. Both tenderness and cruelty are heard in her invitation to Alviano at the end of Act One, ‘Wollt Ihr kommen, in meine Werkstatt, daß ich das Bild vollende’ (‘Will you come to my studio so that I may complete the portrait’): the sincerity of her purpose is apparent, but there is no doubting the effect that her words have on Alviano, whose judgment is skewed by his passion for Carlotta. The playfulness of Ms. Kampe’s singing in Act Two does not diminish the hazards of her seductiveness. Her Carlotta’s shock that the deformed Alviano loves her is not so much a malicious rejection as a guileless reaction to an unexpected divergence from her own concept of her social order. Ms. Kampe makes Carlotta’s death harrowing and strangely moving. Throughout the performance, Ms. Kampe sings with lyrical grace and unstinting vocal stamina. She is the most adversely affected by the claustrophobic sound, the voice as recorded taking on a hard edge, but neither this nor the occasional struggle with intonation disfigures her absorbing, skillfully-sung performance. In the three hours of Die Gezeichneten, she is Donna Anna, succumbing to her seducer with equal measures of resistance and willfulness; Brünnhilde, disillusioned but finally reconciled with the part that she must play in the fate in which she is ensnared; and Lulu, unconcerned with either heaven or hell but adherent to her own peculiar values. Above all, despite the paucity of competition, Ms. Kampe inhabits Carlotta with greater depth and sensitivity than any other singer yet recorded in the rôle.

Facing tessitura as maddening as the circumstances of his tormented existence, Alviano receives from tenor Robert Brubaker a domineering performance that matches the intelligence of Mr. Gantner’s Tamare and the vigor of Ms. Kampe’s Carlotta. Physically and emotionally, Mr. Brubaker’s Alviano is bent but not broken. Like his colleagues, Mr. Brubaker devotes greater integrity to his performance than has been heard in the music in past, both in looking beneath the surface of the character and in endeavoring to sing the music cleanly. The lack of strain with which Mr. Brubaker scales the heights of his music is commendable in its own right, but it is the telling dramatic use to which he puts his soaring vocalism that is the greatest accomplishment of his performance. There is a disarming, almost disturbing sense of innocence in the opera’s opening scenes, and the sweetness of Mr. Brubaker’s singing makes Alviano’s actions appear to be responses to a desperation for human connection rather than depravity. When Carlotta seems to accept and even return his love in Act Two, the subdued ecstasy of Mr. Brubaker’s Alviano justifies what on the page seems a mystifying channeling of his ardor into restrained, almost protective affection. In Act Three, as the bliss that he has conjured for himself is gradually dismantled with each hedonistic revelation and realization, madness seems the only possible course: like Donizetti’s Lucia, the violence that is so contrary to his nature obliterates his emotional equilibrium, and only in a retreat from sanity is any sort of survival possible. There is an unusual beauty in Mr. Brubaker’s reedy timbre, and he exploits every verbal nuance, artfully-managed feat of phrasing, and unerringly-placed top note to create an Alviano who is both pathetic and sympathetic. Schreker gave Alviano extraordinary music, and Mr. Brubaker meets every challenge honestly and unflinchingly.

More than many of the 20th- and 21st-Century scores upon which opera companies have lavished resources in recent seasons, Die Gezeichneten deserved a production of the quality of the one it received at Los Angeles Opera, and Bridge Records’ recording confirms that the investment of musical riches in this production was handsomely repaid. Whether performing the score for the first or the fiftieth time, each musician involved with this production—chorister, instrumentalist, comprimario, principal, and conductor—was not content until she or he had understood the music at hand on the most discerning level possible. Verdi and Puccini will likely always be the composers whose operas can fill theatres, but surely there is room for a Gezeichneten of this dramatic profundity and musical preeminence among half-hearted Traviatas and routine Toscas. For the better part of a century, Die Gezeichneten has been an opera in search of true friends to accept it on its own terms, without prejudices, preconceptions, or apologies. The artistic team assembled by Los Angeles Opera clearly approached Die Gezeichneten not as an opera to be revived but as one to be lived, and in their midst what an unforgettable, alluringly effective work Schreker’s score proves to be.