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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

DVD Review: When the Children Cry

Die Gezeichneten from the Salzburg Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Die Gezeichneten, Act III
Photo © Bernd Uhlig/Salzburg Festival
Franz Schreker's most famous opera (the title translates to "The Branded Ones" or "The Stigmatized") finally comes to DVD in this Salzburg production filmed in 2005. Schreker was a composer of brilliant, shimmering operas that probed the psyche. Since he was half-Jewish, his music was banned by the Nazis and quickly sunk into oblivion. This is the first DVD of Die Gezeichneten and a compelling opera by a critically ignored composer.

Die Gezeichneten is a story of decadence and orgies in the Renaissance, and of the misfit nobleman Alviano's attempts to fit into society. He creates a private "pleasure grotto," with disastrous results. Nikolaus Lehnhoff's brilliant staging offers a fresh perspective on this work. In Schreker's libretto, Alviano is a grotesque hunchbacked dwarf.

Mr. Lehnhoff solves that little casting problem by making Alviano a cross-dresser (Robert Brubaker) surrounded by macho, black-clad nobles. This alters the opera's plot considerably, as does the final, horrific revalation that the grotto is populated with kidnapped, traumatized children. This is not what is in the libretto, but it makes for riveting, disturbing theater.

This is not the first time that Mr. Lehnhoff has re-written an opera to suit his theatrical purpose.  Here, the action is staged amid the rubble of a giant, broken statue, a ruin in the middle of the famous Salzburg Felsenreitschule Theater. The arches of the Riding School performance space become the grotto's twisted depths, and the whole statue cracks open in the third act to reveal the trapped, staring children. It is a horrifying moment, so effective that it almost derails the rest of the drama as Schreker originally planned it.

The cast is very strong. Robert Brubaker has made something of a career as Alviano. Brubaker has a pleasing, full tenor voice, and can act. And he makes a remarkable transition throughout this opera, from cross-dressing drag queen to a more masculine identity. When Carlotta (Anne Schwanewilms) paints his portrait (stripping him of his glad rags all the way down to a body stocking) it makes for compelling theater.

Ms. Schwanewilms sings with mesmerizing power as Carlotta, Alviano's love interest who, deep down, is just as twisted as the nobleman himself. Two star baritones, Robert Hale and Michael Völle lead the ensemble of depraved noblemen with strong, dramatic performances.

With all the twisted goings-on, it's a good thing that Mr. Nagano and the Deutsches Oper Berlin orchestra give an exceptional performance of this extremely beautiful score. (It should be noted that the work is shortened by about half an hour, as the opera was trimmed, Procrustes-like to fit the director's concept.) The 1995 recording by Lothar Zagrosek is complete.)

Although Schreker's music can (and has) been criticized for lacking rhythmic drive, his style can be described as Wagnerian chromaticism stretched to its absolute musical breaking point.  How ironic that this opera, a near-perfect expression of the artistic ideals of Wagner's "endless melody" technique, was banned by the Nazis and went virtually unheard for over sixty years.

Watch the opening scene of Die Gezeichneten here.

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