Franz Schreker: Die Gezeichneten (1918)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 50 minutes.

I had meant to release this earlier, but after I initially reviewed the, cut, 2005 Salzburg production, I felt I needed for this to be much, much longer. I can only suggest the 1995 London-Decca Entratete Musik release for this one since it is the only totally complete performance of the score and, with cuts, the full effect of the music, and the epic-ness of the opera, can easily be lost. DO NOT bother with the reissue, try to find a copy of the original 1995 release, as there have been issues with the reissue involving low quality disc production.

This one people might not believe is real, but I assure you, it is! You will probably read over the plot and give it a few double takes because of how bizarre it is, but this is the plot. And believe me, the score is even more psychological and surreal!

Earlier this year Jeopardy (9 June, 2022 specifically) claimed that this holds the record for longest operatic overture (it actually doesn’t). Schreker did write an extended tone poem entitled Prelude to a Drama (approximately doubling the size of the overture to around 19 or 20 minutes in total) but this has never been the performing overture for the opera. The title translates roughly to “The Branded” or “The Stigmatized”. All three of the main characters are so in some way: Alviano through his deformity, Carlotta through her heart condition, and Tamare through his sexual addiction. Although all three would otherwise be considered normal, these are what cause them to be dysfunctional and “stigmatized”.

Although not his first major success, Die Gezeichneten is possibly the largest scale work Schreker wrote. Set in 16th century Genoa, it includes 33 (!) singing roles, although its main characters follow the rather traditional soprano/tenor good baritone/bass bad dynamic, although even this is twisted. The music, however, is grounded in Schreker’s middle period when the pseudo-Wagnerian and Debussy influences of his earlier operas gave way to experimentation in the usage of divided string sections, softened usage of percussion, and instrument doublings, along with central focus given to the vocal lines, and the juxtaposition of chromatic and polytonal melodies, essentially creating a reconstruction of romantic music. The story, based on the 1904 play Hidalla, is a tale combining both bittersweet sexual longing and murderous sexual violence, which is amplified by the Renaissance Italian setting. Schreker had originally been commissioned by Alexander Zemlinsky to write the libretto in 1911, but decided to set it himself and completed the score in 1915. The 1918 premiere boasted beautiful sets and costumes, photographs of which are included in the booklet of the Decca release of the opera which is well worth the price if you can get a copy (I managed to snag a copy just before prices suddenly went up on Schreker recordings around a month ago). There is a severely cut 2005 Salzburg performance on YouTube (which cuts essentially all of the sub-plots), however, the only real way to get to what Schreker wanted is to listen to the entire score, which is some 35 minutes longer.

I will pose here that the score is actually a war between Teutonic psychological orchestration and Italianate lyricism. Neither ultimately wins, but, similarly to the works of Wagner, in Schreker we do see a progression toward a new mode of romanticism up to Irrelohe. Here the chromaticism is lush, perhaps as lyrical as any composer could ever make dissonance lyrical.

SETTING: Genoa, 16th century. Alviano Salvago (tenor) is a hunchbacked and deformed nobleman and creator of an island paradise called “Elysium” which he plans to donate to the people of Genoa. His friends, including the wicked Count Vitolezzo Tamare (baritone), use an underground grotto on the island for sex orgies with the daughters of Genoese nobles that they seduce (yes, that actually is the backstory!). Tamare intervenes with the Doge, Duke Antoniotto Adorno (bass) in an attempt to stop the transfer of ownership to the city, which ultimately fails, exposing the orgy grotto at the end of the opera. Tamare plots to seduce Carlotta (soprano), the professional painter with a heart condition daughter of the podesta, Lodovico Nardi (bass), who is herself secretly in love with Salvago, whom she propositions as model for her new painting because so long as she keeps her virginity, she can see the beauty of his soul (yes, it is one of those Solitaire scenarios). As mentioned, there are a lot of other characters, but those are the most important to understanding the main plot. I will only reveal now that by the end of the opera, of the three members of the central love triangle, only Salvago remains alive. He is also the only one to remain a virgin, just saying.


ACT 1: (50 minutes)

0: The overture *** is a ten minute long tone poem which incorporates the various themes of the opera (also, the best music in the opera, basically the high points in the opera afterwards are rehashes of the material here). It also immediately introduces the listener to the dreamlike orchestration which dominates the opera (a theme representing madness which will immediately cast a musical spell), a quality which we today would probably call cinematic or even hypnotic but which was novel at the time. Schreker accomplishes this by doubling up instruments (giving melodies to two or more different instruments at the same time and with quick changes in the dynamics, which tricks the brain regarding the exact location of sound) and pulling off the same multi-division of the string section as Wagner did in the prelude to Lohengrin only here it has more of a sensual and fantasy element than a religious one (closer to the prelude to Parsifal although far more dramatic). Schreker quotes Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet briefly, just to reenforce the sexual themes. The usage of various percussion instruments, 2 harps, a glockenspiel, bells, celesta, and piano adds to this effect of dreaming. The basic themes are madness/Salvago, Carlotta/innocence, Adorno/Genoese Triumphalism (a march melody which borders into medieval or Elizabethan film territory), and Tamare/Sexual Desire/Lust. It ends on an almost iconically tomb-like ultra pianissimo gong sounding before the final chord (which returns at the end of the opera) and which will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Honestly, it is a masterful composition in itself.

Scene: A Great Hall in the Palace of Alviano Salvago.

17, 21: Es gab Fruhlingsnachte/Es gilt zu handeln The orchestra see-saws its way to a curtain opener with traces of menace. Much of the opening scene consists of exposition about the island and the goings on in the grotto, specifically how Salvago’s friends do not want to be found out for the perverts they are and how easily Salvago could expose all of them, because he is disgusted by them. Apart from a few bits in the vocal lines for the tenors (especially one ensemble bit about their sex-escapades), although Schreker is rather good at using the tenor voice manipulatively) and reminders of the prelude for Salvago around seven and a half minutes in as he contemplates how, should he attend their orgies, he would ruin them with his physical deformity *, which his friends attempt to tell him is not true because women are not into beauty (probably a lie?), there really isn’t anything noteworthy musically, although the scenario is set up for the sale of the island (which is terrifying for the sex-fiends) or new until Tamare shows up * (again, to a rephrasing of his theme from the overture, although it eventually gains traces of more Italianate melodies).

24: Meinen Gruss, Signori! The Podesta arrives with Carlotta and goes over some of the terms of sale for the island ownership transfer *. In the original production, it appears that Carlotta spent most of this scene sitting in a chair on the right side of the stage, visible, but saying and doing nothing for the longest time, with the male singers on the opposite side of the stage. There is a soaring melody that pops up briefly in the upper strings.

28: Ah, bei der Madonna The Carlotta-Tamare duet (the melody is based on his theme) ** in which he attempts to seduce her (he is actually the first person to directly speak to her, and her first words are in response to him, as he gets an earful on her fate should she suffer a man onto her (death by heart attack because of her weak heart). The music here is lush, with not a trace of the deaths that await both until Carlotta briefly says the word “Tod” although their entire conversation is about suffering and his initial hatred for her (which is obviously masking a sexual attraction because of course it is, this is opera!). The men continue to argue until the scene closes, with Salvago taking Carlotta into his garden to speak with her.

33, 37: Holde Martuccia!/Ihr seid kostlich, Signor Alviano After an intermezzo there is a four-minute long comic scene between Salvago servants Pietro and Martuccia in which the former attempts to warn the latter about the arrival of the kidnapped Genevra Scotti (who will be the next sex slave on the island) while she tries to get him out of the house because the entire Genoese Senate is visiting ** (most productions and recordings cut these two characters entirely), the remainder of the scene consists of a duet and series of mono cants for Salvago and Carlotta *** lasting some twelve and a half minutes. To lush orchestral strains from the overture she seduces him into promising to sit for her latest painting (although at first he thinks that he can only be painted as a king’s fool in cap and bells, he starts to believe her when she says that she is able to paint the goodness in his soul once he realizes that she has already painted most of the portrait of him already). She tells him of her studio, which is outside of the city and surrounded of poplars. He gives his consent, and promises to visit her studio.

ACT 2: (48 minutes)

Scene 1: A Hall in the Adorno Palace, Genoa.

3: Hast du gehort? After a jubilant but brief prelude, and an argument between the Podesta and three senators who are annoyed that the Doge is dragging out the decision to transfer ownership of the island to the city, Tamare has an audience with Doge Adorno about stopping the transfer of ownership of the island to rather stormy music **. The conversation starts off with Tamare providing a veiled rationale for his infatuation for Carlotta (who is thought of highly by the Doge), and then the orgies in the grotto are revealed as well as Salvago’s knowledge (although not participation) in them (a pulsating theme, which will return in act three, is introduced here). The Doge is furious about this, both at Tamare and Salvago, warning that they may both be destroyed because of the reckless sexual abandon demonstrated by Tamare and his companions. The mostly mild intermezzo, as the scenery is changed out, is based on the love theme.

Scene 2: Carlotta’s studio.

22, 40: Uns’re Zeit ist voll seltsamer Dinge/Ich bitt’ Euch The remainder of the act consists of a 27 minute long series of mono cants and duets for Carlotta and Salvago **. At first, she mostly talks about a former fellow art student who painted hands and who could never understand human emotions fully because she could not understand sexual love. This interaction, which is mostly Carlotta but includes interjections from Salvago, is mostly extremely gentle, until she starts to get angry with him and he pleads with her to forgive him. Then it goes back to being gentle. The best comes nearer to the end after Carlotta declares her love for Salvago, who is terrified and the dreamlike orchestration slowly comes back in full force *** as he stares at her adoringly and she completes the painting. Carlotta collapses into his arms as he kisses her, and there are around four minutes of a combination of stop-go, ending on a grand orchestral climax after Carlotta is alerted by her maid that the Doge has come to see her.

ACT 3: (72 minutes)

Scene 1: The Island of Elysium, a voluptuous garden.

0, 9, 12, 18, 23, 27: Ich bitt’ euch/War mir doch/Ach, denkt nicht schlock von mir/Ah, welche Nacht! The prelude * depicts two things, the arrival of the Genoese to the island, and a parade of Greek mythological creatures (who briefly flee to the distant sound of the Angelus) which flows into a series of scenes in which Genoese citizens (including a father, mother, and boy who show up again later) remark on the beauty of the island and its mythic inhabitants. The mystic quality of the music evaporates with the arrival of Martuccia, Pietro, and several young men *, who gag and abduct her. There is a long dialogue between the Podesta and Salvago * in which the former accuses the latter of being naive, before Carlotta gets a very long scene ** with Adorno (actually, it is two scenes: The Doge is just as mistrusting of Carlotta, who attempts to defend herself to him just as Salvago’s friends (Gonsalvo, Guidobald, Michelotto, Julian, and Menaldo, are transporting the abducted Ginevra Scotti to the orgy. Carlotta comments on the beauty of the night in an almost intoxicating way ** which is repeated by the orgy crowd in the background as the father and mother come on, having lost their son somewhere. The 3 senators pop in as well. A youth and a girl come on, he is about to kill himself unless she sleeps with him, and this time he actually means it, but she stops him and they go off. The ballet ***, which brings back the march theme in full throw, and which brings together the Ancient Greek and Genoese elements as Apollo and Venus arrive as fauns dance around frantically about them (yes, this is actually in the libretto).

29: Was fliehst du vor mir? Tamare comes on to seduce Carlotta ** (again, the best music is rehashed from the overture, although the scene has a lyrical effectiveness unique to itself). It ends with him stealing her away to the grotto to bonk her to death on a lilting descant. Meanwhile, this entire time, Salvago has been trying to find Carlotta, and keeps hearing, but not seeing, her. The Genoese praise Salvago, but he puts himself down as a cripple, a fool, and a monster. He wants to find Carlotta, that is his singleminded goal.

39: Hort ihr denn nicht? This is followed by a brief mono cant for Salvago, who is almost carried off by the populous before the police show up and declare that the Doge has ordered the arrest of Salvago for kidnapping and the seduction of virgins, even murder is among the accusations! The crowd is stunned as sentence comes down that the island is to be evacuated and completely engulfed in fire, Salvago declared in league with Satan. Nardi shows up looking for Carlotta and accusing Salvago of being the one behind the abductions. Eventually, they are heard off stage making love ***, which Nardi has revealed will cause Carlotta to die. Ginevra Scotti, who has been intercepted before violation, is brought out to testify against Salvago, although she actually implicates all of the other men apart from admitting that she had been kept in Salvago’s house as a prisoner before being brought to the island. Alviano realizes that Tamare is behind everything, including where Carlotta is. Maids of Carlotta are brought in, who testify that she was last seen by one of the guards disappearing with a man. Salvago realizes completely what has happened and tells everyone that he will take them to the grotto where all of the crimes are taking place.

Scene 2: The Grotto, Carlotta passed out on a bed, dying from coitus.

52: The Entr’acte has a shockingly jazz-like tempo *** as Schreker seriously starts to stretch the definition of tonality, many of the riotous themes from earlier in the opera, all references to the sex orgies going on the grotto like Schreker is pulling off the next Venusberg scene.

55: Du lugst! Salvago finds Tamare post-coital with Carlotta, and is horrified because he is in a quandary: either Tamare raped her, and Salvago now must kill him, or Carlotta gave herself to Tamare and so her love for Salvago was meaningless and he is left with nothing, not even jealousy *. It is a shockingly mid-19th century sounding scene.

61: Weil, weil, o du Teufel! Tamare gloats and goes into details about how he molested Carlotta **, how she begged him to give her death through his, you know…. Salvago is obviously horrified by all of this, after all, Carlotta is basically dead at this point, and Tamare is admitting that he knew that having sex with her would kill her, but he didn’t care. The Genoese are horrified at this revelation and he is bound in chains. Salvago stabs him to death out of disgust.

67: Wer schrie da? The finale ***: Carlotta awakens after Tamare is killed. Salvago attempts to embrace her, but she is (now deflowered) unable to see his soul, only his physical deformity, and rejects him, dying (having been sexed to death) with the name of Tamare on her lips. This drives Salvago off the edge and he runs off in the last two minutes in a delirium (much of it a cappella). The opera ends with a return of the overture themes, capped by sinister closing chords.


The plot is deliberately grotesque (after all, the soprano literally dies from having sex with the baritone), and there is no attempt at trying to hide this fact. Potentially, this can cause the opera to be alienating for many listeners. The music is a bizarre combination of highly inspired material and ennui, which may incline the listener to seek out highlights of the opera rather than the entire score. The opera has a very simple structure, and this can be amplified by the cutting of the side characters (the 2005 Salzburg production cuts around 35 minutes of material, mostly the Ginevra Scotti subplot and the comedic elements for Martuccia, the housekeeper of Salvago, and a hired murderer/kidnapper named Pietro, without harming the basic plot elements which make up the love triangle narrative).

The soprano dying from sex bit is part of the psychology of the plot. Sex is one of those weird things, like water and God, which both causes life and takes life. Here, it proves lethal and this adds to the overall symbolism of the opera: the only one of the three main characters to live to the end is the virgin tenor, similar almost to horror movie narratives. In fact, the opera itself has a sort of surreal, near horror, sense about it. Schreker will eventually push chromaticism so far, in Irrelohe, in his depiction of horror that it will bend music itself beyond the tonal breaking point, but here, the romanticism actually adds to the horror. Schreker was determined here to combine a Teutonic orchestration with a seductive, Italianate, sound, and he essentially succeeded. Certainly it proved more popular initially than what Strauss was about to offer, Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Salvago offers tenors a rather interesting anti-hero, someone who is, at the same time, sexually unattractive but who expresses strong sexual desires and is sexually vulnerable. The scenes with Carlotta in acts one and two can be extremely playful, whereas act three is a combination of whirlwind pageantry and tragedy. The moment when Carlotta and Tamare are heard in the grotto, just after Salvago (who is on stage and singing at the same time) is accused of corruption of minors, is really a rather unique scene in opera, and even mildly repulsive, although it is musically and theatrically a brilliant moment.

The score is almost constantly lyrical, even with its chromaticism, and this can become overwhelmingly so. It could easily come off as bombastic in a suffocating, Salome sort of way. Arnold Schoenberg was known to have told Schreker that he had pulled chromaticism so far within tonality that he (Schreker) would need to either abandon composition or adopt atonality (Schreker never did either in actuality). It is probably one of the closest scores to horror opera. If done correctly, using period sets and costumes, this could be one of the greatest operas ever written, and it is certainly Schreker’s masterpiece.

An alpha.

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