FRANZ SCHREKER: Der ferne Klang [The Distant Sound] (Complete Opera) – Sally Du Randt, soprano (Grete) / Mathias Schulz, tenor (Fritz)/ Stephen Owen, bass-baritone (Dr. Vigelius)/ Kerstin Descher, mezzo-soprano (an old woman)/ Seung-Gi Jung, baritone (the Count)/ Seung-Hyun Kim, tenor (the Chevalier)/ Opera Choir of the Augsburg Theater/ Augsburg Philharmonic Orch./ Dirk Kaftan – ARS Producktion multichannel SACD ARS 38 080 (2 discs), 70:05, 74:17 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
Der ferne Klang was Schreker’s second opera and the work that launched him on a path of international success. As in his later operas, Schreker crafted his own libretto, not wishing to trust this task to what he saw as the reactionary literary figures of his day. Also, as with later Schreker operas, it combines elements of Symbolism and especially Expressionism and draws on the composer’s reading of trends in psychology and psychoanalysis. This includes a rather unfortunate embrace of ideas promulgated by Otto Weininger (1880–1903), a Viennese philosopher whose Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character) purported to be a study of human sexuality. The work reads like a misogynist tract though Weininger’s followers, including apparently Schrecker, thought it a work of genius.
Weininger’s thesis is that the male character is active, creative, and logical, suited for the higher cultural endeavors, while the female of the species is passive, illogical, unable to contribute to society except in sexual roles, as either mother or prostitute. To his credit, Schreker somewhat ameliorated Weininger’s thesis; his libretti seem to show that he felt the problem with humankind was that the lines between male and female were too rigidly drawn. Schreker’s male characters often fail because they don’t embrace enough of the feminine in their makeup. Bent on success of one sort or another, they destroy themselves and those they love through their unbending drive. That seems to be the message in the semi-autobiographical storyline of Der ferne Klang, which tells the tale of a young composer named Fritz who feels his destiny is to seek out the distant sound he hears inside of him, symbolic of artistic and material success. To do so, he leaves behind his village and his beloved, Grete, who immediately falls prey to the kind of fate we might imagine for a woman in Weininger’s cosmos: her drunken father bets her hand in marriage in a game of skittles, and when the winner shows up to claim his prize, Grete runs away. Deep in the forest, she’s accosted by a weird old woman who promises to lead Grete to a new and beautiful sweetheart.
The Second Act of the opera finds Grete ten years later in an extravagant bordello, Casa di Maschere, in the Gulf of Venice. As the most desirable “entertainer” in the place, she is the subject of rivalry between a Count and a Chevalier for her affections. By not-so-sheer accident, Fritz shows up, lamenting the hard times he’s lived through in his quest. Some of Grete’s old affection for him is awakened, but Fritz is appalled to learn of her occupation and leaves in high dudgeon. The scorned Grete asks the band to strike up a dance and then falls into the Count’s arms.
In the last act, the tables are turned, sort of: we find ourselves in a large city where Fritz’s new opera The Harp is being performed to great applause. Grete, now a streetwalker in this very city, has been in attendance and is so moved by Fritz’s music that she leaves the theater to get some air. At an outdoor tavern she meets an old neighbor, Dr. Vigelius, who protects her from the audience streaming out of the theater, now an angry mob unhappy with the way Fritz’s opera has ended.
The final scene finds poor Fritz, now sick and dejected, in his study. He is visited by his friend Rudolf; he tells Fritz of a mysterious woman who collapsed after leaving the theater. Fritz has an inkling that this is Grete, and just as soon as he thinks of her, he hears the sought-after distant sound (played offstage by piano and celesta). Presently, Grete and Dr. Vigelius appear. To the continuing strains of the distant sound, Fritz and Grete are finally reconciled; the ailing Fritz dies in her arms.
Softening Weininger’s misogynist thesis, Schreker proposes that if Fritz had not been so single-minded in his pursuit but had given in to his more “feminine” proclivities, tragedy might have been averted without sacrificing his dream. Whatever your reaction to the homegrown plot and to Schreker’s pop-psychological musings and philosophical message, he serves up a series of scenes guaranteed to explore a range of emotions, as well as provide a raison d’etre for his strong suit: brilliant orchestral display. Act II, set in the dance hall-bordello, is a tour de force of orchestration in the service of stagecraft. Like later experimental theater where the stage is divided into a series of cells in which multiple stage business is going on at once—O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra comes to mind—Schreker brilliantly juggles several layers of activity, onstage and off, as the sound of distant dance bands and dancers filter into the main hall. But in Schreker’s case, the multilayered activity involves musical sound, and this he handles in an almost Ivesian fashion, the competing musical forces clashing in polyrhythmic, polytonal overlay. It’s never as out of control as Ives’ mad gumbos of competing musical noise, but it is masterly and pretty much cutting edge circa 1910. That’s true of Fritz’s tortured solo in the final scene; its wooly chromaticism approaches Schoenberg on the cusp of atonality.
It’s not hard to see why Schreker’s flamboyant opera was a hit in turn-of-the-century Vienna or, indeed, some of the reasons for his falling into disfavor: half-baked psychology, characters and situations that are symbolic rather than true-to-life, and even perhaps Schreker’s latter-day Wagnerian music, which is continuous melody with a vengeance. As lovely and interesting as much of the music is, and as striking as the orchestration almost always is, this is really an opera that needs to be seen in the theater to be fully appreciated. It is such self-referential music—that is, it’s music about music—and I think its points would be much better conveyed in the flesh than on disc.
Which is not to say that there isn’t a good bit to enjoy and admire in this live recording from Theater Augsburg. South African soprano Sally du Randt is truly commanding as Grete, a girl who undergoes quite a number of transformations in the course of the drama. She handles them all well from the standpoint of sheer acting, and her voice is imposing, if a touch icy. Fritz, too, goes through the ringer during the course of the opera, so the singer portraying him must be attuned to his changing moods as well. I find that Mathias Schultz characterizes him fully and has a clean sonorous tenor voice that well suits Fritz’s wounded idealism. The lesser roles—including Stephen Owen’s Dr. Vigelius, Seung-Gi Jung’s Count, Seung-Hyun Kim’s Chevalier, and Grete’s bevy of “colleagues” at the Casa di Maschere—are all in good hands.
The orchestra members are on their toes throughout and play Schreker’s often difficult music very well. Strings are silky, brass and winds piquant, percussion punchy, thanks to the recording, which handles the complex layers of sound effectively, especially given its live-performance provenance. SACD technique is used subtly and well: some offstage sounds (including a Gypsy band with raucous clarinet and cimbalom) emanate from the back speakers; at other times the sound is so open as to place the listener more or less at the center of the action—at least that’s the impression.
There are rival versions of the opera on CD but not SACD. Given the excellent performance and lavish production values, I can’t imagine them matching the current recording. The booklet offers a synopsis, extensive notes, and the German libretto of the opera, as well as a number of color stills from the Augsburg Theater production. These just tend to confirm that Der ferne Klang is very much an opera to be seen as well as heard. Till the opportunity arises, this excellent package offers probably the best way to get to know the work.
This is a delightful holiday collection.