Franz Schreker: Irrelohe (1924)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes.

Irrelohe was designed to be the next big thing in German opera in the mid-1920s, and it flopped abysmally. This was mostly because Schreker attempted, and failed, to please literally everyone. Conservatives found it too modern-sounding (it does start to resemble Bartok in places), and the German avant-guard found it too conservative (most of the dissonance and polytonality comes off as artificial and deliberate). The score is mostly conservative, although Schreker was obviously attempting to sound more modern (particularly in the first act), and this, combined with the rather formulaic and predictable plot (which strongly resembles 19th century gothic horror novels and 1930s Hollywood horror movies) spelled the downfall of the opera and Schreker’s operatic career.

The title is actually the result of miss-hearing the name of an actual town in Bavaria, Irrenlohe.

SETTING: Irrelohe, a fictional German town, in the 18th century. Thirty years earlier, Lola (mezzo-soprano) was raped on her wedding day to her fiancé Christobald (tenor) by the now deceased Count of Irrelohe, resulting in the birth of her son, Peter (baritone). The counts of Irrelohe apparently suffer from a form of mental illness which results in them savagely raping village girls. The new count, Heinrich (tenor), is very shy and studies all day and night, but has somehow managed to convince Eva (soprano) the fiancée of Peter to marry him instead (in spite of the fact that he earlier attempted to rape her in the woods). Eventually, Peter attempts to rape Eva on her wedding day to Heinrich and Christobald sets fire to the castle, ending the curse of the Irrelohes.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Lola’s Tavern. (40 minutes)

0: The overture ** immediately announces its sound world with three bangs from the timpani and a series of brassy chromatic chords (a theme depicting insanity and pyrophilia). It dissipates and flows on in a struggle between chromatic and diatonic features for five minutes. Much of the chromaticism is used to denote insanity, and this is counter-balanced with diatonic sanity.

5: Einst war ich schon Lola gets a sweet diatonic song as she remembers her lost youth **. Peter asks her about the castle, which requires a longer patch of exposition about how the count a century ago had married a water-spirit and their male descendants have been mad (usually manifested in the raping village girls). Peter asks of the new count, Heinrich, who is studious and shy and appears to not be mad. Lola says that it is only a matter of time (she is correct). When Peter asks who his own father was, Lola goes back to her song and refuses to answer him. He embarks on a begging monologue which gets him no further than he already was.

21: ‘s gibt bald Hochzeit dahier Christobald shows up to a weird melody in the woodwinds but much of the later orchestral accompaniment is rather gentle. Much of this scene is diatonic, although Schreker throws in chromatic bits every once in a while, especially as Christobald tells Peter that there is soon to be a wedding at the castle ** (which Peter knows nothing about). Christobald then goes over his own wedding to Lola (which out specifically naming her directly) and goes into detail about how the rape occurred in front of everyone. When Christobald finally reveals her name, Peter realizes that he is the product of rape, by the former Count of Irrelohe.

28: Was ist denn? Lola returns ** and takes Christobald into her bedroom with her, which disgusts Peter for some reason. It is followed by a long, but charming, orchestral intermezzo.

34: Peter, Peter so mach doch auf! Eva comes on scream for Peter (who has fallen asleep during the intermezzo) to open the door *. She relates how Heinrich attempted to rape her in the woods earlier and how she managed to escape (although Peter starts to go into graphic details) and Eva realizes that she has Stockholm Syndrome and has fallen in love with him. He orders her out as she begs him not to try to kill Heinrich and Peter resigns himself to his eventual death as the curtain falls.

ACT 2: (47 minutes)

Scene 1: A crossroads near Irrelohe.

0: The prelude * is oddly a combination of sinister and placid. Most of it is rather gentle. The entire scene which follows is a collection of brief scenes which does little than introduce various characters

3: Prachtiges Korn, Muller! The parson and the miller have a brief conversation to a Straussian orchestral accompaniment * as the miller mentions in passing that his mill has been burnt down and that about the same time each year, someone is a victim of fire in the town. The forester (the father of Eva) asks to speak with the parson and they go off.

7, 14: Ihr habt’s leicht mit eurem/Es Sind die Traume The furious song ** of the three musicians: Funkchen, Strahlbusch, and Ratzekahl, is followed by Eva (who has been watching them as they make their way to the Castle) as she expresses her obsession with Heinrich and her fear that the musicians are up to something. Finally, Lola and Christobald come on. She wants to put everything behind them (after all, the count is long dead) but Christobald has thirty years of pent up revenge on his mind (references to the first act prelude * and its chromatic madness pop in).

17: The orchestral intermezzo ** as the scenery is changed includes a series of themes from earlier in the opera. Eventually there is a waltz-like theme that pops up which gives us a hint to our coming upon aristocratic places.

Scene 2: A room in Irrelohe Castle.

23: Ah! Dies musste sein! After a conversation between Heinrich and his advisor Anselmus about Eva as a potential countess, we finally get Heinrich’s side of the love affair **: he wants to break the curse of Irrelohe by marrying the woman who excites his overwhelming flame of sexual desire before he gives into the curse by fornicating with her.

26: Eva! So erhieltet ihr Schreker abandons atonality for a while as he uses sonorous tonality to depict the love of Eva and Heinrich ***.

30, 44: Am Kreuzweg, for wo die Buchen steh’n/O Herr, der Brief The love duet: Eva-Heinrich ***, one of the longest passages in the score and one of the most beautiful. It is only when Eva throws all abandonment to the wind and offers her body to Heinrich without matrimony that the music, briefly, turns back to the chromatic, but this just as quickly subsides as Heinrich proposes marriage to Eva and they declare their undying love for each other. Christobald comes in rather oddly and asks if there is to be a wedding like he is Jessica Fletcher searching for a new murder. Heinrich satisfies his curiosity and Anselmus is brought back on to make wedding announces as the chorus roars with jubilation, but this dies away as Christobald is left in almost silence, his thoughts on the last words of Heinrich that Irrelohe will be as a single fire…. The orchestra pulls off one last go at the pyrophilia theme and roars down the curtain. A brilliantly foreshadowing act end ***.

ACT 3: The Town Square, Irrelohe, near the church. (40.5 minutes)

0: The third prelude is also the most unassuming musically *. This is followed by a conversation between Lola and Peter (mostly Lola). A very tonal , and Teutonic, march tune can be heard over the hunting horns (a common sound over this section of the opera).

6: Ich bin gekommen Eva comes on and confronts Peter (whom she mostly pities and is afraid for). Their duet is a combination of subdued (Eva, mostly) and energetic (Peter, Eva later). Strangely, Schreker uses tonality here * until a whirlwind springs up in the orchestra. More hunting horns as Lola calls Peter away. The parson and forester come on again talking about Peter and Eva as well as all of the recent fires. More jubilant music impregnates from the orchestra as the chorus comes on after a conversation between Anselmus and the Footman.

21: Heilige Stunde The Wedding Chorus *** is shockingly diatonic as the three musicians come back finally to perform at the reception. Schreker pulls off a very powerful orchestral theme at this point which continues for some five minutes. Christobald floats about in the background.

25: Hoch Graf Heinrich! The last fifteen minutes can be divided into three sections: 1) Jubilation, love duet, and dance music ***. The Chorus acclaims the bride and groom, Eva and Heinrich sing a waltz, and the Bavarian music plays on.

29: Einst war ich schon 2) Lola comes on with Peter, who ends up crashing the wedding reception *** and attacks Eva and Heinrich. The brothers fight after Peter attempts to publicly rape Eva and Peter is killed as Lola reveals that the two men are brothers. Christobald cries out that Irrelohe is burning (since he set it on fire). The villagers flee the scene, leaving only the four principals (one deceased).

34: Ich hab doch stets This is the Schreker Gotterdammerung *** as fire purges the town. Lola goes out as Peter’s body is carried off, leaving Eva and Heinrich who then sing a glorious love duet over the ashes of their castle. The timpani triad returns (without the chromaticism this time). Curtain.

COMMENTS:

This opera is actually rather amazing. The best features are the love music (which is a return to the opulence of the earlier Schreker era), the orchestral interludes (which are varied and numerous), and the choruses (when they finally pop in at the end of act two and in act three). The usage of chromaticism is restricted, thankfully, as a leitmotif for insanity, much of it mostly concentrated in the first act. This can, however, cause the opera to feel more like a switchback, while at the same time it seems as if what Schreker is trying to do is stretch chromaticism even further than he already had and do something that is technically impossible: an opera that is simultaneously atonal and tonal, with both servicing the theatrical narrative. In other words, Schreker here reached where Wagner only grasped in Tristan and subordinated polytonality to theatrical drama. IF it had been successful it probably would be known today as one of the greatest German musical achievements in the 20th century.

At the same time, this daring simultaneous agenda is also the greatest flaw of the opera, since it can musically satisfy no one. Schoenberg would probably have seen the subjugation of chromaticism to theatrical purposes as heresy, conservative critics as an unneeded flaw (forced by the composer to satisfy modernists) in an otherwise brilliant score which served as a continuation of the composer’s already provenly successful style and hallmark. Without the dissonance, the opera would actually be a late but potentially successful romantic era work, or at least it would have been with the conservatives. The plot is a bit cliched with its sexually insane half-brothers and a virgin who is ready to get herself deflowered to save the man she desires, but without the attempts at being experimental, it might actually have worked.

In all fairness, the opera was actually successful with audiences in 1924, critics attacked it. This was probably due to Weimar anti-semitism than the quality of the score or the unsurprising plot.

As is usual with Schreker, sex governs everything in the narrative. Eva is a horny virgin (to curtain, that is), Lola’s entire life revolves around her violent sexual initiation even though she (unlike Christobald) would prefer to forget how it happened. The half-brothers are both ready to rut the same woman until one kills the other (a case for polyandry?).

The failure of Irrelohe caused Schreker not to go back to where he was successful but to embrace his own take on the Second Viennese School, which blocked his last three operas from any chance of success.

Strangely, an alpha minus, and well worth looking out for. If there was an opera which deserved better, this is one for the short list.

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