Schreker: Die Gezeichneten on DVD
Franz Schreker premiered this opera in 1918. The production I'm watching is from the Salzburg Festival in 2005, conducted by Kent Nagano, with the Deutches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The title means 'the stigmatized' or 'the branded ones.'
Impecable technical quality of the DVD with 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, linear PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1 (I love it when there is DTS). Subtitles in German, English, French, and Spanish. Image and sound are simply gorgeous, almost blu-ray quality. The text in the liner insert is insightful but short and there is no synopsis. Camera direction by Andreas Morell is expertly done. One regrets that such a quality DVD doesn't have extras, interviews, documentaries. Oh well, we can't have it all. The running time is 135 minutes.
Conduction and orchestra are phenomenal, making the best out of Schreker's outstanding overture which is said to, in itself, justify his claim to fame (I'd agree).
It is profoundly regretful, however, that there are approximately 20 minutes of cuts in the orchestral parts. There is no third act pantomime, and second act vocal lines about the painting of Alviano's portrait have been eliminated.
Sound balance between singers and orchestra is good, but sound engineering is one of the only faultive aspect of this EuroArts DVD with microphone placement in the huge stage not always capturing the singers' voices with the same relative volume when there are too many characters singing simultaneously. The problem doesn't happen when only one or two characters are singing.
Stage design by Raimund Bauer is strikingly beautiful. Direction by Nikolaus Lehnhoff is impressive, in the matter of placement of singers on stage as well as the dynamics of the various spaces. Costumes are creative and interesting. But then, there are problems. The original opera does start with the main character engaging in cross-dressing, but the staging takes this too far by continuing it beyond the initial scene (not the case in the original opera) and makes the painting scene unrecognizable - instead of painting Alviano on a canvas, Carlotta instead removes his pieces of feminine clothing, leaving him wearing a body stocking. It is interesting in terms of conveying the baring of his soul (which *is* in the libretto) but for those who don't know the plot, it all becomes quite incomprehensible - the inevitable bit of Eurotrash staging.
Acting is first rate. There is very good casting in the sense that the singers very much look their parts. Singing is mostly of high quality, with some exceptions.
Robert Brubaker as Alviano is particularly good with a powerful, sonore voice very well projected above the very extensive orchestral forces, and also nuanced with good musicality, as well as excellent articulation. He does falter in a couple of moments but when you consider the fact that he's got a lot of stage time, he does extremely well. Michael Volle is Tamare and does his part very well too, with a sort of raw brutality, but he seems to be less musically savvy than Brubaker (or maybe his vocal writing is just less subtle, given the character's boorish persona).
The numerous secondary male roles for the most part do a very good job - Robert Hale, Wolfgang Schöne, and various others.
The leading soprano in the role of Carlotta is Anne Schwanewilms. She looks very classy and is fairly attractive (a bit too old for the role), although her singing is less pleasant to my ears than that of her male counterparts (she has her fans, but I'm not one of them and I don't find her voice to be particular beautiful, it is actually a bit unpleasant in parts, too steely). Upon warming up she does get better, but I'd still say that for me she is the weakest link (those who like her voice will disagree), which is a pitty given how mostly everything else goes well for my tastes in this production (minus the incomprehensible Eurotrashy changes made to the second act painting scene, and the musical cuts).
Musically speaking this opera is quite spectacular, with incredible tone-painting, and an ever-moving through-composed score with parlando vocal lines that sometimes soar up in beautiful effects. This opera seems to sit pretty in the middle of the modernist movement, and plays like a cross between Wagner, early R. Strauss, and Berg, being both melodious and fractured (the former especially in the first act, and the latter especially in the chaotic and maddening third act).
Talking about the third act, yes, there are boobs, but Alma's Boob-O-Meter didn't show a high reading. The boobs are cute enough, but the way they are presented is not really erotic. It works, though, it's a Venice carnival kind of thing (but this is Genoa?!?!) and they add to the exoticism of the costumes. But unlike this writer's usual disposition, the boobs didn't really add a lot to his (my) enjoyment of this production. Oh well, it's always better to have boobs than not.
Boobs or not, the third act *is* outstanding, delivering some of the best operatic moments of the 20th century. After seeing this, I won't say that it has dislodged Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District as my favorite 20th century opera, but it got close to doing it.
The theatricality of the libretto is strong, with good character development and psychological depth. The plot is the story of an ugly man, Alviano (tenor), and his struggle to find his place in the world among those who are lucky to be beautiful. Carlotta is a consumptive painter who wants to draw his portrait, and in her artistic enthusiasm she seems to fall for him, which quite overwhelms him. However once she finishes the painting, the magic is broken, and she falls instead for the viril Tamare (baritone). Alviano goes mad, kills Tamare, and Carlotta dies calling for Tamare (hehehe, one of the rare cases in which the soprano falls for the baritone).
The are some more plot elements (involving Alviano's island, the people of Genoa, dissolute friends, orgies - one of the reasons why the Nazis banned this opera as 'degenerate Jewish art') but the above is the lowdown.
This is a fine example of modernist opera, packed into a high quality DVD product. It may function as a good transition for those who want to migrate from baroque, classical and romantic opera to modernist and contemporary opera.