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After 102 years, a lost gem sparkles again: Schreker's Der ferne Klang in Prague

Von , 28 März 2022

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.

Svetlana Aksenova (Grete) and Ivo Hrachovec (Baron)
© Zdeněk Sokol

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.

Svetlana Aksenova (Grete) and Aleš Briscein (Fritz)
© Zdeněk Sokol

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.

Svetlana Aksenova (Grete) and the State Opera Chorus
© Zdeněk Sokol

A realistic study-cum-library nicely grounds the first and third acts, which otherwise offer spare sets – a bare-bones flat and totally imaginary forest in the first, and just a hint of a pub in the third. All of which make the second act seem even more wildly extravagant. Kulyabin is fond of cinematic references, and this one is lifted directly from the orgy setting in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut – same dark costumes and intimidating masks, somber atmosphere and cold nudity, here spun into a cultish sex ritual. Grete is a goddess in gold lamé, not just feted but seated on a throne and worshipped. The visuals are compelling but incongruous, a phantasmic detour sandwiched between two slices of verismo.

Much more satisfying was the work of conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens, who did a brilliant job of bringing a difficult score to life. The music is no mere accompaniment. It stands on its own, a symphonic/soundtrack hybrid that adds another dimension to the opera, painting broad brush strokes of mood, texture and color, and sharply accenting and embellishing emotional high and low points. Schreker was fascinated by the possibilities of pure sound – critics dubbed him a “Klangzauberer” (sound wizard) – and Steffens skillfully integrated a stream of offstage music in the second act, including choral effects that lent an ethereal, almost surreal glow to all the earthy sex.

Karel Pěnkava (Host), Jiří Rajniš (Actor) and Ivo Hrachovec (Landlord)
© Zdeněk Sokol

A solid cast helped as well. Aksenova carried the evening with pain and heartbreak in almost every note, and Aleš Briscein offered a convincing counterweight as an impassioned, often frustrated Fritz. The National Theatre company provided a strong foundation in the smaller roles, in particular Ivo Hrachovec as the Baron, Miloš Horák as Dr Vigelius, Jiří Rajniš as the bad actor, Václav Sibera as the Chevalier and Jiří Hájek as Rudolf.

The last time Der ferne Klang played in Prague was 1920, with Schreker’s colleague and friend Alexander Zemlinsky conducting, so simply reviving the opera is an update in itself. Also noteworthy: Kulyabin brought dramaturgist Ilya Kucharenko and a Russian technical crew with him to stage this production, and they posted a message on the National Theater website decrying the invasion of Ukraine and calling for a diplomatic settlement. It would be hard to be more contemporary than that.

****1
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“the visuals are compelling but incongruous, a phantasmic detour”
Rezensierte Veranstaltung: Prague State Opera, Prague, am 26 März 2022
Schreker, Der ferne Klang
Prague National Theatre Opera
Karl-Heinz Steffens, Dirigent
Richard Hein, Dirigent
Timofey Kulyabin, Regisseur
Oleg Golovko, Bühnenbild
Vlada Pomirkovanaya, Kostüme
Taras Mikhalevsky, Licht
Prague National Theatre Orchestra
Prague National Theatre Chorus
Svetlana Aksenova, Grete
Daria Rositskaya, Ein altes Weib
Veronika Hajnová, Graumanns Frau
Aleš Briscein, Fritz
Daniel Scofield, Der alte Graumann
Miloš Horák, Dr. Vigelius
Ivo Hrachovec, Baron
Václav Sibera, Chevalier
Jiří Rajniš, Schmierenschauspieler
Jiří Hájek, Rudolf
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