It was at Berlin’s Komische Oper Berlin in 2004 that Calixto Bieito unleashed one of his most notorious stagings, the production of Mozart’s Die Entführung auf dem Serail that returns to the house later this season. One might have imagined the director would go to town with the perversions and neuroses that underpin Franz Schreker’s 1918 Die Gezeichneten, an opera big on glistening, swooning musical climaxes and profoundly unlikeable and troubled characters. What he gives us, though, is distinctly understated – at least in terms of spectacle – and resolutely avoids offering any sort of visual equivalent to the sensuousness and decadence that drip from every bar of Schreker's score.

Michael Nagy (Count Tamare) and Peter Hoare (Alviano) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Michael Nagy (Count Tamare) and Peter Hoare (Alviano)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

In the composer's original scenario, set like so many such works of the period in the Italian Renaissance, the deformed Alviano tries to create his own oasis of beauty on a Genoan island, ‘Elysium’, which fellow noblemen take over and populate with abducted daughters of the city’s upstanding citizens. Here, however, Alviano’s deformity is recast as a shameful secret: an attraction to children.

The other noblemen are gradually revealed as straightforwardly abusive. Alviano clutches a doll version of the boy he’s obsessed with and partakes in disturbing birthday parties, but we see him constantly trying to repress and overcome his urges. His love for the weak-hearted (in all senses) artist Carlotta offers hope of salvation, dashed when she is seduced by the dastardly Count Tamare. When ‘Elysium’ is finally revealed in Act 3, it is filled with enormous toys. Six-foot teddy bears hang limply from a frame; a fairground train occasionally circles onto the stage, finally delivering a clutch of children – used up and lifeless.

With occasional exceptions, Ingo Krügler's costumes are straightforwardly contemporary, and in the first two acts – elided to make up the evening’s 90-minute first half – Rebecca Ringst’s set offers little more than a white cardboard background for Sarah Derendinger’s oversize projections. We see a disused Ferris Wheel, men’s faces leering back and forth, and neglected children. At the end of the second act, Ausrine Stundyte’s Carlotta produces her portrait of Alviano by hacking out his profile with a knife, creating a doorway to a brighter future that never materialises.

Michael Nagy (Count Tamare) and Ausrine Stndyte (Carlotta) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Michael Nagy (Count Tamare) and Ausrine Stndyte (Carlotta)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

Bieito's conviction, conveyed in a programme interview, that he’s essentially true to Schreker’s scenario strikes me as a little disingenuous, but he certainly presents his own concentrated and disturbing psychodrama well. At the twisted heart of it is Peter Hoare’s brilliantly observed and shockingly real central performance as Alviano. Though stretched at the extremes, the British tenor meets the taxing demands of the role well. But it is his acting that is truly superb, capturing the shame, the humiliation and the glimmers of folorn hope that define this tragic character.

Stundyte is a fearless Carlotta. Though her soprano can be unwieldy and a little clotted, she sings with total commitment while presenting a complex character who’s hardly any less troubled. A tomboy for the first two acts, she removes her artist’s overall at the climax of Act 2 to reveal the same uniform as the boy who is the object of Alviano’s obsession; she reappears in Act 3 in full vamp mode, having her wicked way at one point with an oversized green teddy bear.

<i>Die Gezeichneten</i> at Komische Oper © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Die Gezeichneten at Komische Oper
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Michael Nagy is a powerfully charismatic presence as Tamare and delivers his notes impressively and forcefully. There are strong performances in the rest of the large cast from, among others, Jens Larsens as the Podesta, Carlotta’s father and, it seems, pimp – there’s no escaping abuse of one sort or another here.

Underpinning it all there is terrific playing from the Komische Oper orchestra under Stefan Soltesz’s swift direction. They might not command the same luxuriousness and lushness of sound as the Bayerische Staatsoper’s band, as heard in Germany’s last high-profile production of this work, but they bring, if anything, a greater dramatic urgency and brilliantly maintain a taut, sinewy tension throughout.  

But I remain less convinced by Bieito's staging. Its new focus muddies a great deal in Schreker’s already elusive action, entirely rearranging the motivations of his characters, not least at the denouement. The show’s reduced running time – by my reckoning some 20 minutes of music is cut, with the third act the main victim – seems also to result in the loss of much of what little contrast the composer introduces into his hothouse score. The director stages his own drama impressively enough. But I’m not sure that how well Schreker comes out of it all.

***11