If ever an opera did not need updating, it’s Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang (The distant sound). It premiered in 1912 with shockingly modern content – vices like gambling, prostitution and domestic abuse, artistic despair, Freudian psychodrama – and a visionary score that combined elements of Romanticism, avant-garde experimentation and the forthcoming cinematic style. But at Prague National Theatre, Russian director Timofey Kulyabin transposes everything he does into the present, and so this production features shifting time frames, a female antihero and an entirely different ending. If you can keep up with it all, it’s a provocative facelift.
Following in the footsteps of Wagner, Schreker wrote both the libretto and music for a through drama of creative obsession that opens with Fritz, a composer, explaining to Grete, his young pupil and lover, why he can’t stay with her. Only after he discovers the chimerical “distant sound”, an aesthetic ideal, can he come to her fulfilled and whole. After he leaves, a troubled family situation forces Grete to flee from home and by the time Fritz sees her again in the second act, she is a celebrated courtesan at a brothel in Venice. Another five years pass before their final meeting in the third act, a tragic culmination of Grete’s downfall and Fritz’s fruitless quest.
Kulyabin complicates a straight chronological narrative by staging some of the scenes in flashback, with Grete (Svetlana Aksenova) watching a double of herself (Kristýna Štarhová) suffer pain and humiliation. A wall between them suggests a psychological divide, though Aksenova sings all the lines (the double is a non-speaking role), which muddles the message... if there is a message. Mostly Kulyabin seems to like the unsettling effect of time displacement, reinforced by a rotating set and choreographed comings and goings through endless doors. It’s a clever device, though ultimately one that detracts from the emotional impact rather than adding to it, keeping both Grete and audience one step removed from the story rather than experiencing it.
Kulyabin also has a very different take on who, exactly, is the genius composer in Der ferne Klang. A subplot that he introduces during the lengthy musical interludes suggests that the pupil has more talent than her teacher. Grete may sink to the depths of moral depravity, but in Kulyabin’s treatment it’s questionable who has made the right and wrong choices, and which add up to success or failure. Without giving away the ending, it’s worth noting that an ailing Fritz does not die happily in the arms of Grete, who walks off the stage a thoroughly liberated woman.