Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten (The Branded One) is an unsettling work given the storyline’s background of abduction and clandestine sexual abuse. Calixto Bieito, as expected, eschews ambiguity regarding what goes on behind the scenes, and casts even the titular cripple Alviano Salvago in a damning light. Bieito’s Komische Oper production, which opened in January, returned in the context of the season-ending summer festival. What might come across first as blunt and even forced revelation, however, is rooted in complex characterisation which mines the darker linings of Franz Schreker’s score. As found in so much art of the era spilling into the Great War, especially that which emerged from Vienna, luxurious, overly-ripe expression also often conveys fragility and the sense that something is truly awry.

Die Gezeichneten
© Iko Freese |

Alviano’s shadier personal desires are kept separate from the activities carried out secretly in the grotto by the other men of Genoa, about which the handicapped protagonist remains unaware, trapped within his own infantile world. This raises the question as to how fully conscious Alviano is of his impulses, or how capable he would be of committing crimes along the lines of the other men. Peter Hoare does an outstanding job of realising this not-quite-adult on the fringes of a sexually corrupt society, himself easily preyed upon by more manipulative individuals. The artist Carlotta, daughter of the city’s highest official, is portrayed as a long-standing victim, but Alviano does not seem able to sense her struggles at the time of their rendezvous in her atelier, her greater wisdom the tragic byproduct of personal trauma.

Carlotta’s endeavour to paint Alviano’s soul, her quest for artistic truth, is strongly driven by her own need for catharsis in this production. Aušrinė Stundytė’s intense portrayal rejects normative feminine vocalisation and bodily gestures for the most part – a convincing reaction to the violations carried out by her father and other men. Her subsequent yielding to Tamare is a heady mix of conditioned behaviours and calculated revenge, with the third act strongly focused on her story. As Tamare, Michael Nagy’s powerful vocal performance and beguiling lyricism convey obsession from the outset, while Joachim Goltz (Adorno) and Jens Larsen (Nardi) pursue a hefty, steely kind of control. 

Michael Nagy (Count Tamare) and Peter Hoare (Alviano)
© Iko Freese |

If the fleeting glimmer of love and traditional notions of artistic beauty are undercut in the Atelierszene and elsewhere, some of the more magical dimensions of the score take on a nostalgic hue as a longing for a world of untarnished innocence. A theme well-cultivated from the beginning, the production’s tendency to expose the ugly underbelly of Genovese society does not necessarily go against the grain of the score, but can be heard as rethinking it from a position of knowledge and experience. Stefan Soltesz’s penetrating engagement with Schreker’s kaleidoscopic textures and colours brings urgency to wistful glances on the past, and horrific energy to the Angst that erupts when different worlds collide.

The pivotal Atelierszene marks a stark turning point in the design aesthetic. With the first two acts unfolding on Rebecca Ringst’s claustrophobically shallow colourless stage, pulsing black and white images of perpetrators and battered victims keep reality at the foreground (video: Sarah Derendinger). Opening up the depth of the stage to show Alviano’s fantasy island Elysium, cheap and colourful fairground imagery hinted at in the beginning is writ large, with gigantic stuffed animals hung about. The bleakest of images, a train, snakes it way through this Neverland-like world bearing the lifeless bodies of children. Whereas Schreker’s opera pays overwhelming dramatic attention to the lives of perpetrators and facilitators, and to illusory worlds, Bieito’s interpretation does not hesitate to explore what lies beneath the deception.