‘Distant Sound’ resonates anew
Schreker opera from 1912 in US premiere
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — Let’s appreciate it before it’s gone. The Austrian composer Franz Schreker is, finally, having a moment in this country.
New productions of his operas, earlier this year at the Los Angeles Opera, and right now at Bard’s SummerScape festival, are giving American audiences their first opportunities to experience the work of this vertiginously gifted composer, a truly original voice that rose to prominence in the years before and after the first world war. It was a heady time, when composers were sifting through the cultural inheritance of the 19th century and dreaming of new pathways to music’s future.
These days his name is often met with blank stares, but Schreker’s sumptuously scored operas once earned him a reputation in the houses of German-speaking Europe that rivaled that of Richard Strauss. The 1912 premiere of his opera “Der Ferne Klang’’ was hailed as a historic event and as the most significant opera since Wagner’s “Parsifal.’’ He repeated the success with subsequent works.
But even during his lifetime, Schreker couldn’t keep up with the mercurial fashions of the Weimar Republic. He was also one-half too Jewish for the Nazis, and was forced from his academic teaching posts, his music banned. He was 55 when he died of a stroke in 1934. His complex and lavish stage works slipped still further into oblivion as the musical avant-garde embraced the more puritanical strains of modernism pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples.
But the case of Schreker may not yet be closed. In recent years, as the myths of musical progress that tended to limit our views of the past became themselves part of the history books, Schreker’s operas have begun returning to Central European opera houses. And here on Friday night, the curtain went up on the first US staging of his early masterwork, “Der Ferne Klang’’ or “The Distant Sound.’’
Suddenly, there it was, not distant at all. The composer’s vision — a potent cocktail of gritty realism, surging expressionism, gauzy symbolism, and late-Romantic opulence — came roaring off the stage, with all the pent-up energy of the years. Listeners at the intermissions could be heard remarking on the fierce drama and strangely alluring beauty of the score.
In a way, “Der Ferne Klang’’ was the beginning of it all. Schreker’s progress as a conductor and composer in Vienna had been fitful, but the work’s 1912 Frankfurt premiere was an instant sensation. Schreker wrote the libretto himself, drawing from his own youthful wanderings. Its story tells of a young composer named Fritz who abandons his fiancee, Grete, to embark on a quest for an elusive shimmering music he hears in his head but cannot quite grasp.
Much of the opera tracks the disastrous consequences that befall Grete, who leaves her home to search in vain for Fritz. She eventually becomes the star of a bordello cabaret on the Gulf of Venice, where Fritz meets her once again and rejects her, sending her reeling toward a life of prostitution. Fritz meanwhile finds his own creativity stillborn until his final hours, after his opera has premiered and failed, when he realizes that his yearning for Grete was all along the source of his distant music.
Schreker was a man of the theater, and as evidenced on Friday, this is an opera that really holds the stage. Even the stock tropes in the plot are made engrossing by the composer’s kaleidoscopic mastery of the orchestra. Credit also goes to director Thaddeus Strassberger, who has mounted a compelling new production. Building on the opera’s autobiographical resonances, he maps the action roughly onto the timeline of Schreker’s own life, which lands most of it in the interwar period. Costuming and the visual language take cues from George Grosz and Otto Dix, and the staging makes poetic use of projected imagery from Fritz Lang’s 1921 film “Der müde Tod,’’ released in this country as “Destiny.’’
The opera’s second act is dizzyingly complex in musical terms, as Schreker calls for three distinct onstage ensembles and various off-stage forces to summon the swirling cacophony of the cabaret. Strassberger and his team here rose to the challenge, offering suavely organized visual chaos, a spectacle of glitter and mirrors.
Soprano Yamina Maamar gave an excellent performance as Grete, singing with fierce intensity, a lustrous upper range, and enough vocal power to slice through Schreker’s sometimes dense fields of orchestral sound. Mathias Schulz was an uneven Fritz, dramatically committed but often sounding vocally strained. Among the large and capable cast was Corey McKern, who wielded an elegant baritone as the Count.
In the pit, conductor Leon Botstein led with missionary zeal, drawing a forceful performance from the American Symphony Orchestra. There are moments when Schreker could have used a good editor yet overall, despite its decades in deep storage, this music still pulses with a kind of sensual immediacy and restless yearning. Like so many utopias, Fritz’s own distant music is ungraspable, but this score is finally coming into focus, and demanding once again to be heard.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.