Erwin Schulhoff: Flammen (1932)

Opera in two acts and ten scenes. Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

This is the first of five 20th century operas in German, by Jewish composers (apart from this one, all by Franz Schreker), which I plan on reviewing. Each presents its tenor lead in three distinct sexual roles: seducer, tempter, and victim. Two of the operas even have the same title!

This first entry is the only opera written by the Czech Jewish composer and pianist Erwin Schulhoff, whose style was known for its blending of neoclassical, modernist, and even jazz elements, with some similarities to Prokofiev. His early death, at age 48, was due to Tuberculosis at Wulzberg prison over a year after he was deported during the Second World War, more so because of his Communism as the death camps did not actually exist yet when he was imprisoned in 1941.

The opera itself is a Freudian study of the struggle between sex and death utilizing a combination of the Don Juan and Wandering Jew legends, which are actually closer to each other than people realize (as the legend of Don Juan actually has its origins in a Jewish critique of Christian soteriology), with commedia dell’arte. The libretto was written by the Czech novelist and poet Karel Josef Benes. The main musical sources appear to be Die Walkure and Salome.

Sometimes I wonder if I, as a 3o-sometime male whose virginity has outlived Angela Lansbury, have the ability to write vivid sexual imagery or to use it effectively, but I do know sometime about history and the people who made it.

SETTING: Spain, 17th century. Basically a tenor wet dream in ten seemingly random tableaux (or perhaps not). Don Juan (tenor) is seduced or seduces almost every female in the opera, excluding La Morte (mezzo-soprano) who, however wanting to boing him harder than a meat mallet, forces him to stay alive forever even though it makes him so miserable because he is worth more to her that way. The first scene (of ten) ends with Don Juan giving amazing sex to a woman who moans in ecstasy as he bangs her in a dark and abandoned house. He attempts to reform, but is seduced by a nun in a church. Eventually, he kills the Commendatore (bass), who is the husband, not the father, of Donna Anna (soprano) who in this opera commits suicide to avoid seduction by Don Juan. The Commendatore curses Don Juan, not to hell, but to live forever. When he attempts suicide, Don Juan is made to appear even younger and more handsome, and the opera ends with him seducing yet another young woman in the same dark and abandoned house from the first scene. The title is a reference to when, in scene two, the Greek Chorus of six Shadows (3 sopranos, 3 contraltos) compare Don Juan to a flame of fire.


ACT 1: (70 minutes)

Scene 1: Nocturne, before an abandoned house.

6: The opera starts off with a solo flute floating about as La Morte comes on declaiming her love for Don Juan. The six Shadows come on as well, commenting on the sexual exploits of Juan. Eventually, Don Juan himself can be heard going into the house where he is about to meeting up with a woman. The orchestra finally pops on for what feels more like an interlude * depicting female sexual ecstasy (it reoccurs as a leitmotif for sexual activity) as a result of having Don Juan. Eventually, the flute comes back.

Scene 2: Fire Song.

10: Roter Tropfen The Shadows sing a song about a woman who fantasizes about Don Juan having a body of fire as Don Juan and a woman are heard having intercourse **. The interlude going into the next scene is dream-like.

Scene 3: Midnight Mass, a Cathedral.

15: Es schweigt der Dom Don Juan enters the Cathedral as La Morte plays a Gloria on the organ **. Juan, who comes in as the Shadows disperse to a military march, attempts to reform himself and seek religion, but is then raped by a laughing nun who forces herself on him. The Shadows return with a foxtrot (the first jazz element in the score) in the background outside as La Morte continues on the organ.

Scene 4: Chimera, a mountain of nude female bodies.

26: Sonnenraume, Ewigkeit Don Juan ascends the mountain to some flying music *. At the top, finally, words of a hymn are sung as Don Juan comes face to face with La Morte.

Scene 5: Gallery of male statues.

33: Schon, steht ihr da und fest A festive melody appears which would probably find its way into a movie about the Roman Empire two decades later **. Don Juans and greets the statues of men (his male ancestors) who are shocked that he has not found happiness or love. The tenor dominates this scene more so than the earlier ones (the vocal line is oddly traditional, including a strong high note at the end before he runs off). The scene ends abruptly.

Scene 6: Dialogue.

43: Warum so lassig One of the shortest scenes: Don Juan has a conversation with a woman (the same soprano who played the nun earlier). They are interrupted when Don Juan has a vision of a woman whose body is the colour of fire *.

Scene 7: Tempest and Dialogue with the Sea.

49:Wie Regenborgen am Horizont This is the longest scene of the act and is divided into two main sections: Don Juan makes love with Marguerite (a Faust reference?) who is abruptly killed by La Morte out of jealously **. Don Juan throws La Morte to the ground when he upbraids her for killing the girl.

59: Laue Nacht Don Juan tells the sea of his death wish ***. This is the climax of the act, particularly the last five minutes.

ACT 2: (60 minutes)

Scene 1: Carnival Night.

0: The orchestral introduction ** contrasts a still summer night and the whirl of carnival music.

3: Bringt ihr Liebe oder Tod As a commedia dell’arte troupe performs (all mimes apart from a baritone Arlecchino, Don Juan attempts to seduce Donna Anna **. A furious scene opener.

7: Du gehst durch Nacht Don Juan and Donna Anna perform a foxtrot (the jazz element returns) *. Three minutes in Donna Anna reveals the arrival of her husband (there is a quotation of Don Giovanni here). He fights and kills the Commendatore, prompting Donna Anna to commit suicide.

15: Also dorch der alte Effekt Don Juan attempts to stop Donna Anna but she is dead *. Interlude.

Scene 2: Banquet.

28: Sprich, steh auf! Don Juan attempts to revive Donna Anna **.

33, 40: Der Wein zischt auf/Tod sitzt in meinem Gesicht A chorus of nude women attempt to distract him. Don Juan expresses his desire for La Morte ***. She tells him his life has more meaning to her than if he were dead: she is closer to him alive. The Commendatore, who is dying, curses Don Juan with eternal life. Don Juan attempts suicide, but it causes him to become younger and more handsome **.

Scene 3: Nocturne.

51: Einsam das Haus The flute theme returns from the beginning of the opera *. Don Juan continues his life cycle of seduction as La Morte and the Shadows make comments and the curtain falls. Much of this is the orchestra in free fall descent. La Morte declares that salvation is far away, and the opera abruptly ends.


The most striking element of the plot is the female sexual agency of the libretto. In the modern world this is frequently ignored due to feminist preoccupations with men always initiating sexual activity in heterosexual couplings. Men can actually be victims of sexual violence, and not only when perpetrated by other males. Ironically, and to the confusion of most people, this preoccupation with male sexual agency and female passivity is Patriarchal. Don Juan, in this opera, attempts to reform himself early on, resulting in a nun raping him in a church in the middle of the night. The first act has no actual plot just a series of scenarios, mostly involving either sexual encounters or expounding on how unfulfilling Juan’s life, understandably, is. The first scene does bookend effectively with the tenth scene in act two. Act two has more of a coherent narrative, partially because the last four scenes are significantly longer (usually double the length of any of the first six).

The music is very obviously modern, although there are traces of Wagner and Richard Strauss. The jazz elements contrast sharply with these and are immediately noticeable and able to date the work. B+.

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