Franz Schreker’s magnum opus Die Gezeichneten (“The Branded” or “The Stigmatised”) has been hovering around the fringes of the repertoire for a few decades now, but with this new production at the Bavarian State Opera one senses that it has finally arrived. Or, more strictly, returned. The opera was premiered in Frankfurt in 1918 and reached Munich less than a year later, but despite its recognition as one of the most significant stage works of its time and Schreker being considered as Strauss’s chief rival, it, along with so much from the period, met with the wrath of the Nazis for its decadence and supposed degeneracy, and completely fell from the repertoire until modern times.

Catherine Naglestad (Carlotta Nardi), Bavarian State Opera Chorus
© Wilfried Hösl

At the helm in Munich was a master of this kind of early modernism, Ingo Metzmacher, who showed that he really knows how to pace the expanses of the score with its constantly changing perspectives and colours – the Bayerisches Staatsorchester played magnificently for him, sounding opulent, febrile and searing by turns. The conductor, making his belated house debut with this production, crucially gave the singers the space they needed to get the text across and the big ensemble scenes, such as those that open both the first and last acts, have rarely been presented musically with such clarity.

The advantage of a house such as this taking on Die Gezeichneten is that it can call upon A-grade singers for roles that are unlikely to already be in their repertoire. John Daszak brought pathos and unfailing tone to the cruelly deformed Alviano Salvago, the focus of the story, whose ugliness has led him to pursue beauty by sharing a paradise island he has created with the people of his native Genoa, much to the annoyance of his fellow noblemen, who have been using its grotto for nefarious sexual purposes. As Carlotta, the Podestà’s daughter whose artistic goal of capturing Alviano’s inner beauty in her work he misinterprets as love, Catherine Naglestad sang with burnished tone and a true sense of the text she was projecting. A distinguished bevy of Genoese noblemen was led by Tomasz Konieczny’s handsomely sung Duke Adorno and Alastair Miles’s sympathetic Podestà Nardi, but it was Christopher Maltman’s rip-roaring portrayal of the irredeemably manipulative Count Tamare that stole the show in what must rank as one the finest performances of his career – rich in colour and powerful in dramatic engagement.

Catherine Naglestad (Carlotta Nardi)
© Wilfried Hösl

Die Gezeichneten might have been made for the more adventurous among today’s generation of opera directors. While not being flawless in his dramaturgy, Krzysztof Warlikowski manages to convey the story with clarity – no mean feat, given its multitude of characters and competing confrontations – yet offers plenty of comment on and insight into the themes that underlie the drama. Principal among these is the relationship between artist and subject, epitomised no more strongly than at the very end when Carlotta, the artist, lays herself out in a display case to die, as if now one of the exhibits in Alviano’s “Elysium”. Elysium itself is more a museum than an island in Małgorzata Szcześniak’s monumental set, which rather negates the theme of nature tamed by man’s artistic endeavours. It’s more a repository of experiences, and with Alviano’s deformity nodding to John Merrick the “Elephant Man”, there’s a long film montage shown to the populace of scenes from old black and white classics featuring the Golem, Frankenstein’s monster, the Phantom of the Opera and Nosferatu in tragic scenes to rub the point home about Alviano’s personal fate.

John Daszak (Alviano Salvago)
© Wilfried Hösl

In a move typical of this director, the chorus and many of the minor characters are anonymised by wearing mouse-head masks – the allusion is apparently to Kafka’s last short story Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk, about the relationship between an artist and her audience – and there are probably other cultural references in the staging that the programme book didn’t so openly explain. The idea of Alviano himself as artist – creator of the man-made paradise – is certainly emphasised, not least by having him begin Act III by narrating Schreker’s own, self-deprecating description of himself and his art – as an Impressionist, Expressionist, erotomaniac “creator of sound”, who could stand for a composite of characters from his own opera. But in the end it was Schreker’s music itself – in all its multi-textured, hyperactive, soaring late-Romanticism and encompassing all those qualities from his self-portrait – that won the day here.