Franz Schreker: Der Singende Teufel/The Singing Devil (1928)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes.

Schreker wrote this opera mostly because of his life-long love for the organ. It is a classic tale of Pagans vs. Christians. Although it was warmly received by the public in 1928, it was a critical flop, and his publisher, Universal Edition, initially refused to publish the score. By this point, Schreker had surrendered his compositional style to a modernist brutalism which, although perhaps appropriate to the subject, completely abandoned the lush harmonic textures and instrumental doubling which had made him so famous in the previous decade. Instead, Schreker utilizes here a series of features, such as fugues, canons, and counter-punctuation, as well as manipulation of the percussion section, to convey the clash between Christians and Pagans. The opera has had a single revival since 1930 (Stettin), in 1989 (Bielefeld), which was recorded and is the basis for this review. That production was in three acts, having combined the first two, or rather, performing the first two acts without an intermission (they total to about 50 minutes combined). Unfortunately, it is not available on YouTube, but it IS available for MP3 download from House of Opera. It appears to be cut by around 15 minutes. After the 1928 premiere, Schreker was forced to cut around half an hour from the opera, and at a 1929 performance at Wiesbaden, a further twenty minutes was cut. However, Bonn has announced a new staging in their 2022-2023 season where there will be performances in November and May.

SETTING: Germany in the early Middle Ages. The plot concerns one Amandus Herz (tenor) a young organ builder who is commissioned by the fanatical Father Kaleidos (bass-baritone) with completing the great organ in the monastery which was started by his father, who died of insanity, leaving the instrument incomplete. Meanwhile, the pagan priestess Alardis (contralto) and her followers are searching for the most beautiful virgin for their springtime ritual. This is Lillian (soprano), who, in love with Amandus, attempts to convince him to become the leader of the Pagans (as she can only be given in marriage to their leader). Amandus rejects this as he has sided with the Christians already. When the knight Sinbrand (bass) challenges him to a duel over Lillian, he again refuses involvement and is tied up as Lillian is abducted (although she returns in the following act apparently unharmed). The organ completed, the Pagans attack the monastery, but are awed by the instrument and surrender their weapons only to be slaughtered by the monks at the order of Father Kaleidos (who has intended to use the organ to subjugate and/or destroy the Pagans the entire time). Eventually, Lillian burns down the monastery along with the organ and, having thus freed Amandus, dies.

The score can not be downloaded since it is too recent for most copyright laws, but you can access the score of the first two acts on the Universal Edition website.

ACT 1: (27 minutes)

Scene 1: The Monastery.

0, 8: The opera starts out with about thirty-seconds of some off-stage organ music * before we are off into a conversation between Amandus and Father Kaleidos set to a slow recitative accompaniment from the orchestra as Kaleidos tries to convince Amandus that he should complete his father’s work (who went mad because of it). The orchestra plods along with various labored motions (including one which sounds vaguely Middle Eastern). The intermezzo * during the scene change continues this style, although it is too gentle to be called brutalist.

Scene 2: The Grove of Alardis.

12: Alardis gets her sales pitch to the Pagans * (one of the closest things in the opera to an aria) who all want Lillian to be the leader for the Spring Ritual. After Lillian accepts, and a brief dialogue between Alardis and Sinbrand, the Pagans storm off to the first remotely catchy (if brief) march melody.

18: The remainder of the act consists of a long dialogue * between Lillian and Amandus as she tires to persuade him to become the pagan leader and marry her. He refuses, saying that he has already sided with the Christians. Eventually, the march tune returns in a different form and Lillian departs (her calls heard in the distance). Amandus gets the last bit before the orchestra swells and the act ends.

ACT 2: (22 minutes)

Scene 1: An arched entry way in the cloister.

3: The act opens with Father Kaleidos speaking with Amandus again about completing the organ. A march is heard outside *, the pagans again. An intermezzo moves us to the next scene, a better piece than usual and the beginning of one of the longest streams of continuous music as opposed to the labored orchestral chords we have been subjected to previously.

Scene 2: The Pagan Festival.

6: Alardis leads the pagan rites **, shockingly one of the best things in the opera, and a continuous stream of music as the pagan chorus takes over for some five minutes. Lillian sees Amandus, who has come to attempt to take her from the pagans and bring her to baptism.

13: Amandus calls out Alardis and her pagan cultus *. The pagans call upon Lillian to decide between them or Amandus. Sinbrand tries to challenge Amandus, but the latter refuses to fight and is tied up by Sinbrand instead which leads to an angry climax from the chorus and orchestra (very brief) as he kidnaps Lillian.

18: Father Kaleidos shows up and unties Amandus to a holy accompaniment ** which resembles the old Schreker.

ACT 3: The Monastery. (32 minutes)

0: The act opens on the same chords as Gotterdammerung * and we come upon Amandus and Father Kaleidos after the completion of the construction of the organ. At this point there tends to be a more constant stream of music, and some good vocals for Amandus.

6, 11: A more lively than usual intermezzo * as Lillian escapes Sinbrand and finds Amandus in order to warn him of the coming pagan attack on the monastery. Although Schreker gives this a constant stream of music, it is shockingly ornery at first.

14, 18, 25: A gentler passage for Amandus and Lillian’s duet was something of the old Schreker comes out of hiding **, although it rapidly turns into Le scare du Printemps, although Amandus goes get a good high note before the pagans flood into the monastery effectively enough (thanks to the orchestra **). A dialogue between Fr. Kaleidos and two monks leads us to Amandus bringing about the climactic moment of the opera *** as he plays the organ and stops the pagans with its beautiful sound. Fr. Kaleidos uses the opportunity to have the monks set themselves upon the disarmed pagans, slaughtering all of them. Schreker produces this scene as a Kaleidoscopic sounds wave which turns from being diatonic to chromatic to atonal (with the strings remaining diatonic and the horns coming in for a Dies Irae effect. Amandus collapses in exhaustion and terror as to what his playing has done.

ACT 4: A random forested location close to the monastery, some weeks later. (33 minutes)

0: A random pilgrim pulls off a Weill-esque bit with the cymbals * as he comes upon Lillian (who is the sole survivor of the pagans as she was not present when the organ was playing) and asks how Amandus is doing and if he can fix his organ. Amandus, who has been psychologically traumatized by the events of the previous act and recovering thanks to Lillian, takes one look at the instrument and shutters. The best of the rest, for the longest time, is really just the vocal lines for Amandus. After a while, around eleven minutes in, the violins start to quote the opening of Parsifal but it falls apart as the notes ascend.

11, 15: Amandus prays to Jesus (or hallucinates) ** as Lillian looks on wondering what she can do for him. She resolves to burn down the monastery rather passionately (this is the closest thing she gets to an aria **) as she realizes that it is the only thing that can give peace to Amandus.

22: Lenzmar, who had been an ally of Alardis, comes on and tells Amandus how Lillian burned down the monastery and the organ now plays heavenly notes **.

28: Lillian returns ** and sees already that a positive change has overtaken Amandus and she falls to the ground, dead. Amandus cradles her body in his arms to a gently ascending background chorus as the curtain falls.

COMMENTS:

The score is far more brutalist than anything else Schreker had produced for the theatre. There are some moments of diatonic music, and Amandus himself gets a good vocal part (by far the most flattering in the opera because Lillian can be shrill), but much of the score sounds more like “wrong notes” than anything else, and at times, the orchestra is just plodding along. However, there are moments in which Schreker allows for the diatonic sun to come out, briefly. There isn’t so much of a plot here as a series of situations (the building of the organ, the pagan sabbath preparations, the war between the pagans and the monks, the internal struggle of Amandus, his relationship with Lillian, and briefly, the interest Sinbrand has for her), which center on the three main characters (Amandus, Fr. Kaleidos, and Lillian, who could easily be paralleled with Parsifal, Klingsor, and Kundry) whereas Alardis and Sinbrand are foils rather than true protagonists or antagonists. Having the pagan religious leader be a woman is rather strikingly modern of Schreker, although Alardis may well just be yet another of his highly sexual anti-heroines in the same vein as Carlotta, Els, or Eva. The first act, as is common with Schreker, appears to be the weakest, and the opera builds to a more melodic mode (although never shaking off its brutalist tendencies). The acts become progressively less brutalist and more diatonic but the score never shakes off a certain drowsiness.

Nevertheless, for a twentieth century work which sounds like it comes from the twentieth century, it isn’t all that bad. The scenario is interesting and enough to hold ones attention. The brevity of the opera helps, and although it lacks any great melodies (all of them are far too brief) there is at least enough here to find something interesting. A beta plus.

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