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CD Review: Schreker's 'The Stigmatized,' a great moment in LA Opera history

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Off-Ramp contributor Marc Haefele reviews a newly released recording of “Die Gezeichneten,” by Franz Schreker. It's a 3-CD set from Bridge Records featuring the Los Angeles Opera and soloists under James Conlon, from the 2009-2010 season.

One of the proudest accomplishments in the 28-year history of the Los Angeles Opera has finally gone on the record, literally. It's a production brought to the Dorothy Chandler stage in an unprecedented, if controversial, demonstration of the company’s maturity, raising its international reputation as a leading-edge musical institution.

No, I am most certainly not talking about the notorious  Achin Freya-designed Wagner Ring Cycle, a $30 million fiscal sinkhole that, with a production that looked like a collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Pee-wee Herman, has hamstrung the company’s ambitions ever since. I'm talking about L.A. Opera’s courageous mounting, for the first time in the Western Hemisphere, of Franz Schreker’s  not quite forgotten three-hour masterpiece, “Die Gezeichneten,” or “The Stigmatized."

(Franz Schreker, c. 1911. Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Franz who? That we have to ask ourselves that question at all can blamed on Adolf Hitler’s rise, which coincided with the Monaco-born Schreker’s period of  renown. Throughout the 15 years after World War I, Schreker was second in popularity only to Richard Strauss in the German-language opera world.

But Hitler’s 1933 ascent put him on the Reich’s censorship blacklist, not just because he was half-Jewish, but because his work had a lurid sexual-political edge that the Nazis inevitably condemned thus: “There has been  no sexual-pathological aberration that Schreker has not chosen for a subject.”  The sudden, tragic destruction of Schreker’s career may have, in turn, destroyed his health. He died of a stroke in 1934 at age 55.

Had he not died just then, he might have gone on to have a magnificent Hollywood career as a film composer.  Certainly, his music has the magnificent (I mean this in a very positive way) filmic qualities of post-Romantic lyricism — akin to classical-cinematic contemporaries Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklós Rózsa — that makes him a lot more listener-friendly than that of many other 20th-century operatic composers.

The 2010 L.A. production was part of L.A. Opera conductor James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” series, dedicated to the work of great composers silenced by Hitler’s henchmen. This estimable project seems to have gone into hibernation lately, as the LAOC has regressed to racing a stable of tired thoroughbred warhorses in its recent and current seasons.

“The Stigmatized” (a better but less sexy translation would be “The Designated”) may have been the greatest of these retrievals. Its libretto, also by Schreker, is indeed lurid with Freudian and Nietzschean subthemes of sexual dominance and cultural sadism.

Set in a post-Renaissance Italy, it’s about a de-Sade-style Fantasy Island, secretly dedicated to men taking pleasure in the destruction of women, and the effect this institution has on the lives of those involved in it.  There’s a strong and central female character, the painter Carlotta (beautifully sung by Anja Kampe_ who is an amoral nature spirit like something out of Frank Wedekind.

Robert Brubecker’s Alviano, the dwarf nobleman who is responsible for the doings on the Island, is impressive enough to be almost sympathetic as Carlotta’s would-be lover. The remainder of the cast is good to excellent.

Conlon’s precise and affectionate conducting lends a leavening touch to what can infrequently become a turgid score. His direction of the amazing overture alone, finding and stressing all of its alluringly complex textures, would be worth the price of the recording.

The sound is spacious, and probably more detailed than what one heard from the back of the balcony of the Chandler back in 2010 (but of course you don’t get to see that terrific orgy scene). Bridge Records, a smallish East Coast label specializing in modern classical music, is to be commended for offering the overdue debut audio recording of the Los Angeles Opera. One hopes that the L.A. company will take heed and reconsider its recent decision to leave behind its once-promising future as a bold and innovative enterprise.

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