Franz Schreker’s opera Der Ferne Klang, premièred in Frankfurt am Main in 1912, made the composer one of the brightest stars in German operatic world before and during WWI until he was blacklisted as creator of Entartete Musik, what probably concurred to his early death in 1934. Although the shadow of names such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler has been large enough to cover contemporary composers, Schreker has had his advocates – such as Gerd Albrecht who recorded the work in Berlin in 1990 and Michael Gielen who persuaded the Lindenoper to stage it in 2001. This very production has been revived this evening.
Schreker’s main assets as a composer are his harmonic imagination, masterly orchestration and talent for writing declamatory music. It is a pity that melodic imagination and dramatic timing do not make into the list. As it is, many scenes overstay their effect and, although the music is precisely set to his own text, one must say that Schreker the librettist is no Hugo von Hofmannsthal. As a result, the opera, to use Hofmannsthal’s words, enthält Längen, gefährliche Längen… Strauss would have said that he might not be a first-rate composer, but then he would be a first-class second-rate composer. At any rate, one can certainly feel how inspired he seems even when he looses his way (as in FroSch’s act III, for example) in comparison to Schreker.
In any case, Die Ferne Klang is a work one should experience – its atmosphere of uncanny sensuousness is certainly noteworthy - although it is one opera one can only truly enjoy when the forces available are top class to make it work as it should. In other words, this is not a bad-casting-proof work. The Lindenoper cast has two notable singers in key roles: tenor Burkhard Fritz as… Fritz and Hanno Müller-Brachmann as the Count. Although he has been singing jugendlich dramatisch tenor parts such as Lohengrin and Walther, Fritz’s rock-solid voice shows great depth in the lower reaches and an unusually clean top register. It cuts through the orchestra without any hint of effort and he phrases with true legato, a rarity these days. Even if he was announced indisposed, one could only guess that only from one or two constricted exposed high notes many a healthy tenor would have produce anyway. Müller-Brachmann’s perfectly focused dark baritone is always a pleasure to the ears – and he seized the occasion to offer a detailed and varied account of the glühenden Krone ballad. One must also not forget tenor Stephan Rügamer, who sang the role of the Questionable Individual with liquid tone.
However, a great deal of a performance of Der ferne Klang depends on the singer cast as Grete. Anne Schwanewilms is an extremely gifted actress, is a beautiful woman and has a good way with words, but her “tubular” lyric soprano is not what this music requires. In her first scene, her Gretel sounds rather childish than youthful and her transformation in demimondaine does not bring about anything sensuous, let alone sexy with it. Although she seemed to be in very good voice, she was too often strained by the writing, ending on being covered by the orchestra too often and her vocal production was more than occasionally fluttery. Her habit of pecking at notes does not help her to produce any sense of passion either. I wonder how much her casting has influenced Maestro Pedro Halffter, who obviously love this music and never failed to produce the right color effects in it, to adopt a rather restrained approach. I know that the name of Gabriele Schnaut makes many cringe, but back in 1990 in Albrecht’s recording, she could offer something far more impassioned and thrilling. Her closing scene (with a mellifluous Thomas Moser and the RIAS orchestra in full power) is something that would hardly leave anyone indifferent.
When it comes to the staging, one should really close one’s eyes and enjoy the music. First of all, it all looked ugly beyond salvation – and kitsch. Second, if you haven’t previously read the plot, you would not understand the story at all – I know directors love to say that everybody already knows the story, but that is just an excuse for poor results. The places described in the libretto are replaced by multipurpose dingy-colored sets that add nothing to the experience – the same happens to the characters’ actions, who are also replaced by some pointless choreographies (this time, I must acknowledge, expertly handled by the cast, especially Schwanewilms) that involve lots of trembling and shaking. Worse: many singers take various roles without changing costumes. As they hang around on stage in scenes in which none of their characters were supposed to appear, the results are even more confusing. The playing with the story is particularly harmful to the closing redemption scene, which looks here just messy and dull. Schreker has all effects played by the orchestra – nobody can accuse him of lacking that ability – and creates mood wonderfully. He really needs no help in that department – and stage directors should take note of that.