Franz Schreker: Flammen (1902/1985)

Opera in one act. Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

I seem to be doing a lot of German operas lately! I know, I am surprised too! I threw in the Mercadante review earlier this month because I had finished it two years ago and I thought an Italian opera would ironically break up the emphasis on Northern Europe which seems to be directing me this year. I will admit that when I started this blog, I thought German opera was boring (e.i. Wagner). I have since discovered a diversity of composers (many of them Jewish) who were composing in the early 20th century.

The second part of our trilogy presents its tenor lead, a bard, more as a tempter than seducer. The operas of Franz Schreker are know, if at all today, for their highly sexual plots, usually combining sex and death and madness, and that is very obvious here.

Franz Schreker was, for most of the quarter century prior to the rise of the Nazis in 1932, (two years before his death from a stroke in late 1933), the second most popular living composer in Germany, (the most popular was Richard Strauss, obviously). His musical style, from his earliest works, include strong chromatic and polytonic elements. His first phase, approximately from 1895 to 1912, was marked by a combination of Wagner and Debussy and chromatic and chordal experimentation. His second, generally considered to have started during the First World War and ending with the comparative failure of his 1924 opera Irrelohe (a gothic-horror opera about sex and hereditary insanity with a comparatively modernist score), expanded beyond these elements to also include instrumental experimentation as well. These include his two most important and successful operas (apart from his first professionally performed opera 1912’s Der ferne Klang): Die Gezeichtneten (1918) and Der Schatzgraber (1920). His third and final phase, the last decade of his life, was marked by a struggle between more traditional music and something resembling Strauss’ Elektra. Der Schmied von Gent, his final opera, was marred by right-wing demonstrations at its premiere directed at his Jewish ancestry, although his last three operas all have distinctly Christian themes. Over the decades after the Second World War, Schreker has been reappraised in both the German-speaking world and in the United States, as well as, in the 21st century, in France, with all nine of his operas being given revivals within the last two decades.

The libretto was by Dora Pollak, daughter of Siegmund Pollak, the personal physician of Viennese author Ferdinand von Saar, who introduced Dora to Schreker (who was around five years older). Composition took some seven months in 1901, followed by a single piano-accompanied performance in 1902, which did not inspire any Viennese theaters to take up the work, which was never performed again until 1985, and only excepts (two of the soprano arias) were published within the lifetime of Schreker. Dora Pollak was a Holocaust victim, having been killed at Auschwitz-Dachau in 1942 at the age of 61 or 62, a little less than a decade after Schreker died from the aftermath of a stroke at the age of 55 in 1934.

One reason for this revival might be that all of Schreker’s operas seem to revolve around sex, death, and insanity. Popular themes to say the least.

Although this review is of the 2001 recording released by CPO, a copy of the libretto is available in the form of the booklet for the Marco Polo release of the 1985 first performance (which used a string quartet instead of the full orchestration, which was not heard until the 2001 performance). https://www.chandos.net/chanimages/Booklets/MP3422.pdf

The opera is divided into an overture and 17 scenes, all but three of which are around 5 minutes or less.

SETTING: A castle in Germany, 1099. Three years before the action, the Prince (baritone), made a covenant with G-d that when he returns from the First Crusade, should his wife Irmgard (soprano) have fallen in love with another man, her welcome kiss will cause him to instantly die. Irmgard is hurt by her husband’s lack of confidence in her, and for three years his sister Agnes (soprano) and mother Margot (contralto) remind her daily of the covenant. She eventually becomes intrigued by an unnamed minstrel (tenor) who takes up residence in the castle and whose songs about love and passion as omnipotent forces causes Irmgard to weaken. When the Prince returns, she orders the minstrel away. In order to avoid the death of her husband, Irmgard drinks a poisoned toast to him and, after revealing how unhappy she has been, dies.

LOOK OUT FOR:

0: The overture ** starts off with a three note theme which gets repeated as a sort of leitmotif for the Death-Covenant. It is followed by a series of further leitmotifs from the opera, but this three note theme is the most repeated and the most obviously dominate from the structure of the overture.

5: O welcher Glanz umfloss The first song of the Minstrel (thanking the castle for welcoming him so brightly) ** is interrupted by Irmgard calling the servants to prayer (holy tones). References to holy fire and the return of the Prince from the Crusade.

9: Auch heute tone in Euch fort The three note theme appears in a frightful aria for Old Margot ** as she goes over the backstory of the vow (see Setting section for more details). What follows is a conversation between Irmgard and Agnes (more three note theme) as both have differing feelings about the Prince (Irmgard is hurt, Agnes wants to see her brother again).

15: Lieblich berauschender Rosenduft Surrounded by all the angst, Agnes gets a gentle aria about the sweet scent of flowers ** .

18: Mein Haupt, das bot ich The Minstrel gets his second song ** marks his first references to the word “flammen” and Agnes comments on how sweet it is. The scene (fourth longest in the opera at just over five minutes) becomes a dialogue about the heat behind the words of the song between the Minstrel and Agnes. The Minstrel is shocked that Agnes appears at first to understand the sexual longing behind his lyrics, thinking her too young and innocent to understand the full meaning (he is correct).

23: Und wie die Blume The second longest scene (nearly eleven minutes) is a trio modeled on the love duet in Tristan **. Its theme is ultimately a three way dialogue (The Minstrel, Irmgard, and Agnes), on the identity and nature of love. The more beautiful passages go to the Minstrel, the sopranos mostly provide declarative questions which the tenor answers in a combination of cryptic poetry and passionate frankness (hinting that Irmgard needs to give in her to amorous feelings).

34: The explosive fanfare as a message arrives that the Prince is about to return after three years * (this continues into the mono-cant presented by the bass herald. Brief jubilation from the chorus is countered by a sharp return of the triple note theme as everyone leaves, excluding the Minstrel and Irmgard (including Agnes, who is confused and asks her sister-in-law to go with her and make herself ready).

40: So wird die nächste Stunde The nine minute love duet *** (Minstrel-Irmgard) as he begs her not to throw their relationship away. She believes that she can only offer him misery and death, he, however, counters her argument, claiming that she gives him nothing but love and joy and light. They decide to fly from the castle and make love.

49: Zum Himmel fleht Agnes gets another good soprano aria and prays that her brother will not die as a result of the covenantal kiss ** (references to the triple note theme).

53: Die trennte uns in Ewigkeit The post-love duet between the Minstrel and Irmgard in which she gives him the brush off is a musical low point *. It is not bad, just of a lower level of interest and focused on the stage action. The 1985 performances appears to have made cuts in this scene, deemphasizing the negative reaction of the Minstrel, as he leaves, declaring his eternal love for her.

58: Zieret das Schloss Suddenly, the orchestral pulls off a bit of angst rather well as the Prince slowly arrives, but not before Irmgard orders Margot to help dress her. Schreker throws in three numbers: the first a glorious choral about preparing the castle for the festive occasion ***.

61: Mit uns war der Herr Second, the a cappella hymn of the Crusaders *** which turns nuclear in its second go.

65: Burg meiner Vater An arioso for the Prince * (who finally shows up for the last twenty minutes). Many Wagnerian references (particularly Tristan) and to the good lord, but not one reference about his wife.

68: Wir streuen die Rosen The finale ** starts off with a chorus of maidens and Agnes as roses are strewn on the ground and Irmgard arrives at the main gate. She stops her husband, telling him that before he enters the castle, she must drink a toast to him (it is poison). She collapses, but is still alive for a ten minute death scene. References to the three note theme abound.

71: Mit jedem tag Irmgard confesses all ***: 1) how hurt she was at her husband’s lack of faith in her 2) how the song of the Minstrel awakened in her longings she knew not she had. 3) Now, to protect the life of her husband she goes to her death surrounded by flames. The opera ends with a repeat of the Crusader chorus. Curtain to much orchestral fanfare.

COMMENTS:

I found this opera to be enjoyable. It isn’t great, and in many ways it is rather slight, but the plot is able to hold interest and the music is able to propel it to its conclusion successfully. The best portrayed characters are Irmgard, Agnes, and the Minstrel (these also get the best music), although the chorus also gets some attractive melodies. The orchestration is lush and even exotic, if not erotic, in places. If I could fault the opera it would be for the cold portrayals of its male characters. The Prince, for instance, is weirdly absent for most of the opera, even though most of the dialogue is about him if it isn’t about the sexual tension between the Minstrel and Irmgard, the Minstrel is cryptic in his words (perhaps to protect himself?), which have to be romanticized by Schreker’s ardent music. Nevertheless, the sexual tension does have a sort of school girl romanticism to it, which makes sense since the librettist was a 22 year old woman. It is never graphic, even with its illusions to flames (which comes off more as an alliteration for Hell than sexual passion and longing). Agnes seems to be an author insert. Nevertheless, Irmgard is the center of the drama. Any criticism aside, this opera is well worth a listen (the performances are masterly) and I hope to review more of the Schreker operas shortly, specifically I am planning Die Gezeichneten, Der Schatzgraber, and Irrelohe. A-.

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