Having premiered in 1918, Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten became one of the most frequently performed operas in Germany and Austria until 1934, when the Nazis brought both the Jewish composer’s work and his life to an abrupt end. In an uncanny premonition, Schreker had written this at the end of World War 1, “And now the branded ones! I, the Heathen, created them… In the music, in the degenerate character of this work, the collapse of Germany, even the downfall of our culture, much like a warning sign, is clearly recognisable."

The opera’s plot revolves around erotic transgression, isolation around physical disfigurement, and all order of abuse. The physically deformed nobleman Alviano Salvago has realised his dreams of artistic beauty by creating a venue of pleasures, the “Elysium”, on an island near Genoa. He skirts the playground himself, but a clique of noblemen regularly uses it to stage orgies and violate the young bourgeois daughters they’ve abducted from the mainland. When Alviano decides to make his art museum accessible to the greater public, all hell breaks loose. Revealing the venue’s location and pursuits would limit them, so instead, the men destroy the innocent Alviano to be able to continue their escapades. 

Rufus Didwiszus’ wonderful stage design is loaded with associations. In Act 1, a true glut of iconic Antique and Renaissance sculptures cramps the stage. The Three Graces, and Dancer with Cymbals have their places; Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women perhaps best fits the thread of Schreker’s libretto. Meant to stand for “a pursuit of beauty”, the sculpture park contrasts markedly to an otherwise empty, monochromatic and minimalist backdrop, one so brightly lit in Act 3 that the accused protagonist, Alviano, held hostage at the “void” of centre-stage, is seemingly even more exposed and emotionally violated. 

The lead character’s physical deformity might have taken any number of forms – dwarf, cripple, man scarred by fire – yet Barrie Kosky opted to strip his Alviano of hands, such that the man’s forearms end in log-like, veined stumps. With any ability to enjoy precious “touch” thwarted, his beloved Carlotta’s fashioning him a pair of spidery hands from a huge glob of clay was a poignant gesture. That said, being “only” handless allowed the lead role an athleticism that other kinds of physical limitation might well have precluded. 

Tenor John Daszak was brilliant as Alviano. Stripped, wounded and abused in Act 3, his character stood helplessly on the same round and rotating platform where he had posed earlier as Carlotta’s model. Now underserving victim, he had lost all face, been ostracised, spat upon, refused by his only love. Even after he fatally bit his handsome rival Tamare in the neck, there was no respite from the abuse; I’d venture that few singers could meet such physical demands and still sing as brilliantly as this Alviano did.

In the other lead roles, Catherine Naglestad sang a strong-willed and modern Carlotta, artist and “painter of souls”. She first professes love, then turns her affection away from Alviano. At the start of the opera, the singer’s middle voice lacked lustre, and her upper range was somewhat monochromatic, but later her powerful voice opened and relaxed, her vocal fabric, becoming more richly textured. Ms Naglestad must also be commended for her mastery of the delicate – and absolutely critical – transfer of the two sculpted clay hands she fashioned at the potter’s wheel and attached to Alviano’s stumps. Had that operation gone awry, all would have been lost! As for her handsome counterpart, Tamare, Thomas Johannes Mayer was as steady of voice as he ably portrayed the perfect combination of pompous youth and heartless noble. 

Albert Pesendorfer was well cast as the mighty Podestà, and as the gullible duke Adorno, baritone Christopher Purves gave a clean and compelling vocal performance. To see his character assigned a masturbation sequence while hearing of delights with young women was disparaging, though: Such a compelling performance hardly needed a hackneyed, cheap thrill. 

In his debut at Zurich Opera House, conductor Vladimir Jurowski spurred the Philharmonia Zürich into the shifting moods and changing colours of Schreker’s score, while sometimes at overpowering volumes. Over and beyond identifiable traces of Wagner, Mahler and the Impressionists, the rich sonorities of Schreker’s works place them somewhere between Late Romanticism and Expressionism. Nevertheless, someof thesimpler sequences might just as well serve as an MGM Western movie soundtrack.  

Finally, the opera house choir had to wait for its appearance, but it made a rich visual and tonal body at the end of the opera. Its members morphed into an emphatic mob and slowly slid the palms of their hands along the transparent backstage wall behind Alviano, adding a surreal component to the defamatory accusations.