Sunday, August 8, 2010

Accidental Coincidentals

This weekend was the performance of Franz Schreker's Der Ferne Klang at Bard College, under the direction of Leon Botstein, who not only has to get points for utter stamina, conducting a long, difficult work; but also for the perspicacity of programming this opera in the first place. I have known DFK for a while, and have enjoyed it; have also heard Der Spielwerk und die Prinzessin and have the score to Die Gezeichneten (to which you must say "God blesshyou" whenever someone mentions it out loud).

Der Ferne Klang, from Act II as staged at Bard.

Der Ferne Klang was staged by Thaddeus Strassberger, who staged Bard's successful Les Huguenots last year, and one could see where he took the rather prosaic libretto and made it more meaningful; whether that was what was needed is another, debatable point, but generally his work illuminated the dreamy, crazy, angst-filled fantasty with something approaching historicity. When I say the libretto is prosaic, I mean that if you look at Schreker's actual stage directions and scene settings, we see depicted a common room, a forest, a restaurant. In scene I, Herr Strassberger has given us not just a bourgeois living room, but a scene from Un Chien Andalou, with the protagonist dragging a rope into his fiancée's parlor, onto which is tethered an armoire, a sofa, a chaise longue, a bed - all on wheels. Buñuel would have loved it, but would have added a few grand pianos, not to say donkeys and priests.

Scene from "Un Chien Andalou", Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí, 1929.
From Act I of Der Ferne Klang as staged at Bard. The living room has already been dragged in. The mousy women on the right look as though they stumbled in from Bayreuth's Lohengrin, (see below).

But the more poignant rethinking of the setting was the second scene, which (in the original libretto) is supposed to take place in a dark wood; but in this staging it takes place in a cinema. Even more Hitchcockianly, we, the real audience are behind the screen, looking through it at the actors playing the audience watching the film. Neat idea. On the screen between these two audiences is a mélange of scenes from Fritz Lang's Der Müde Tod (1921) (above), which had a huge influence on--Luis Buñuel (as well as Ingmar Bergman). Even more interesting.

Der Müde Tod = "Weary Death"; Der Ferne Klang = "The Distant Sound."

The idea of the cinema screen playing simultaneously with the opera was the most engaging element of the staging, but sometimes was much too much stimulus at one time for anyone to absorb and make sense of. Der Müde Tod made sense as counterpoint; but later on shots of German military preparing for war was rather a bollocks. I am so tired of all German opera being regied to death, comparing the simple plot being sung before us to incipient agression, military buildup, Naziism and sausage-eating.

However, a further coincidence chimed in this scene. Now that we are looking through the screen, we are watching not only Lang's film about a woman contemplating suicide and meeting Death (à la Seventh Seal), but hearing our singing operatic heroine Grete also contemplating suicide. To further muddy the waters, in the cinema's back row seats we can see a very unexpected interplay of a male patron receiving the oral/intercrural attentions of a woman who was sitting by him when the scene began, and now has disappeared under the seats. At this point of sensual overstimulation, my ears seemed to deceive me: what Grete was singing was from I Gioielli della Madonna, the opera we saw in May that I helped tangentially to get produced in New York City. How could that be?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, the notes don't lie. My ear actually served me well in this instance.
Der Ferne Klang, by Franz Schreker, 1909-1912.

I Gioielli della Madonna by Wolf-Ferrari, 1911.

Yes, different harmonies, but the exact same notes, same rhythm, same pitch-values. OK, the jig is up. Who cribbed whom? Both German composers, both same year, both same measure. Was Schreker giving a two-measure hommage? Did both composers draw from some the same cultural reminiscence, perhaps? Did their nannies sing them this ninna-nanna at bedtime? For Schreker, it seems to symbolize the release of Death. For Wolf-Ferrari, it is the longing for real love. What is most remarkable for me is that W-F's opera is full of melody, full of local Neapolitan color and song; Schreker is not about melody, really. (A colleague said to me, 'yes, it's nice enough, but when it's over you can't remember a note.') This snatch of melody stands out in the whole opera as something you can remember.

I find that quite interesting, especially since around the same time Richard Strauss was accused of plagiarizing Gnecchi's opera Cassandra in Elektra But there are diverging opinions on this. However to me there is no doubt of it when you hear the two of them! -- but Strauss won out, and no one hears the Gnecchi any more.

Yet Herr Doktor Richard Strauss also aspired to Stravinsky's maxim, to 'always steal from the best.' While conducting opera throughout Germany he probably heard or presented Massenet's Sapho in the 1890s; one theme in it, very uncharacteristic for Massenet became -- magically -- a very important and characteristic theme in Strauss's Salome, representing her longing for the man she has had slain.

from Sapho by Jules Massenet, 1897.

from Salome, by Richard Strauss (1905).

I suppose one can say that such hommages or coincidences are forgivable when the composers are living in the same timeframe. But what do we do with this one?

from La Fanciulla Del West, Giacomo Puccini, 1910 

from The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber, 1986

This one is a little harder to see, and if you don't read music may be somewhat hard to appreciate, but they're in similar keys (G-flat/D-flat), and the melody is over the same harmony. When accused of 'sounding like Puccini' - Webber remarked "It's supposed to sound like Puccini!" One can see how well he succeeded! Personally, I'd like to see Webber write a new version of Tosca. It could be totally different, and be titled: Tosca!

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