Der ferne Klang - Opernhaus Zürich, 9 May 2010
Franz Schreker remains oddly overlooked in London, but interest in his work continues to grow slowly but surely elsewhere. The new Zurich production of his 1912 opera Der ferne Klang isn’t the only one this year – it follows performances in Augsburg and Berlin, and there’s a US premiere in Bard this summer.
With its strong echoes of Strauss and Wagner, the music admittedly has a derivative aspect. And despite its fantastical expressionist trimmings, the plot (libretto by Schreker himself) is resolutely linear, the characters underdeveloped. But the opera, if not a masterpiece, is never banal, and moments of great beauty and sometimes startling originality easily justify its staging.
Jens-Daniel Herzog’s production sticks pretty faithfully to the telling the story as written, in an easily-read and realistic setting. Although giving each of the five scenes in Mathis Neidhardt’s ingenious revolving set the same layout is more than an aesthetic feature, there’s ultimately no real attempt to impose psychological insight. Herzog's main change is to extend the opera's fifteen year time span to fifty years - a liberty which tests the skills of the make up team but makes the failure of the principals to identify each other in later acts more credible.
The first act is set some time in the fifties and sees the young composer, Fritz, turn his back on his sweetheart, Grete, to purse the elusive ‘distant sound’ that has captured his imagination. Grete’s drunken father sells her to the local pub landlord to settle a debt; she escapes into the rainswept streets (real rain!) and falls into the clutches of a sinister older woman.
Act two finds her done up like Rita Hayworth, the undisputed queen of a high class seventies brothel, surrounded by latex and glitter, desired by all. Fritz wanders in by chance - despite the proliferation of thigh-booted lovelies, it takes him a while to cotton on where he is. When he realises what she has become, he is horrified and leaves. She, heartbroken, succumbs to her persistent suitor, the vicious and violent Count.
Grete and Fritz finally meet again in the present day, both by now convincingly and near-unrecognisably old and grey. Grete is (supposedly) by now a common streetwalker, though one of the drawbacks of Herzog’s attenuated timeline is that she resembles a retired librarian. Having wandered into a theatre and chanced on Fritz’s new play, which she realises is the story of their relationship, she seeks him out. Fritz is by now old and ill, but determined to rewrite the play’s unsatisfactory final act. When he is finally reconciled with Grete in his bare apartment, he realises that he wasted his life seeking out the ‘distant sound’, and he dies in her arms.
The hero of the evening was Ingo Metzmacher, who brought shape and clarity to Schreker’s lush, overlapping textures, and a perfect understanding of when to highlight the vocal line and when to let the orchestra wash over it.
Where the writing falls down is in the poverty of characterisation – it’s hard to understand who these people are, let alone develop any sympathy for them. Herzog’s detailed direction of the whole cast at least differentiated them, and made their actions clear. Juliane Banse and Roberto Saccà did their heroic best in the principal roles, skilled makeup aiding a totally credible transition from lovestruck teenagers to decrepit pensioners. Both have a narrow, hard tone that cuts through all but the heaviest orchestration – lack of colour was not really a disadvantage here, and neither was Banse's sometimes wayward intonation. Amongst a large and sterling cast, only Oliver Widmer's desiccated Count was any sort of disappointment.
It was a shame to see more than a handful of empty seats - this may be (just) a 20th century opera, but it's full of gorgeous melody and sumptuous orchestration - by no means hard work or 'difficult'.