SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

FRANZ SCHREKER: Irrelohe (Complete Opera) – Soloists/Theater Bonn Chorus & Orch./Stefan Blunier -MD&G multichannel SACD (2+2+2)

Schreker’s Irrelohe is one wild ride. Climb aboard, hold on tight, and enjoy!

Published on January 13, 2012

FRANZ SCHREKER: Irrelohe (Complete Opera) – Roman Sadnik, tenor (Heinrich, Count of Irrelohe) / Ingeborg Greiner, soprano (Eva, the Forester’s daughter) / Daniela Denschlag, mezzo-soprano (Old Lola) / Mark Morouse, baritone (Peter, Lola’s son) / Mark Rosenthal, tenor (an old fiddler) / Valentin Jar, tenor (Fünkchen, a musician) / Piotr Micinski, bass (Strahlbusch, a musician) / Rafael Bruck, baritone (Anselmus, Caretaker of Irrelohe) / Martin Tzonev, bass (the Forester) / Boris Beletskiy, bass (the Parson) / Johannes Marx, bass (the Miller) / Josef Michael Linnek, tenor (a footman) – Chorus of Theater Bonn / Beethoven Orchester Bonn / Stefan Blunier – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, multichannel SACD (2+2+2) MDG 937 1687-6 (3 discs), 40:37; 45:54; 41:19 [Distr. by E1] *****:

Franz Schreker apparently had paradoxical feelings about the libretti he crafted for his operas. While he readily admitted he was a less accomplished poet than he was a composer, he read from his libretti in public, thus giving them the status of important literary creations. However, by the time he wrote Irrelohe, his fifth opera, Schreker had come to believe that a libretto should be streamlined to the point of utter simplicity. Writing in the music journal Musikblätter des Anbruch in 1924, the year Irrelohe was premiered, Schrecker said that the formula he followed was to craft a plot based on “primitive emotions” such as love, hate, and jealously, using simple straightforward diction that wouldn’t overtax the memories of his singers. “An economical text allows for the expansion of the word to a resonant, singing tone; its complete absence. . .brings forth the ‘speaking’ orchestra that assumes an autonomous role in the drama.” Schreker goes on to say that the streamlining of the text made it unnecessary to back up the voices with a massive wall of orchestral sound “since the orchestra has sufficient opportunity in the interludes to have its say. . . .” (Quoted in Franz Schreker, 1878–1934: A Cultural Biography, by Christopher Hailey, p. 184)

True to his word, Schreker produced a plot that is economical and characters that represent symbolic types rather than psychologically complex beings. Whether this is a step forward or backward in terms of theater is a matter for individual taste. But his thinking fits hand-in-glove with the Expressionism that ruled the stage in Central Europe during the teens and twenties. And it allowed the orchestra to assume an even more pivotal role in the opera and thus allowed Schreker to play to his own strengths as a master orchestrator. In fact, his magnificent way with the orchestra is what’s really striking about Irrelohe. From the first darkly foreboding measures of the Prelude through the atmospheric interludes that introduce the succeeding acts and scenes, the vast orchestra (including six horns, four trumpets, two sets of timpani, a huge battery of percussion, celesta, mandolin, and guitar, not to mention an off-stage orchestra of wind and percussion to portray the wedding music in the last act) and Schreker’s astounding skill in handling it is what I remember most about the score. In terms of sound, Irrelohe recalls the Strauss of Salome and Elektra in its dark violence and angularity. I’m tempted to say that Irrelohe is like Strauss without the melodies, but then Schreker’s musical language is harmonically more advanced. Not quite atonal, the music is dissonant enough to be pushing the envelope of tonality. In fact, Schreker consciously plays the very tonal music of the wedding scene against the near-atonality of other, darker passages in the score, which tends to heighten the pervasive gloom.

Schreker also outdoes Strauss in terms of sexual frankness, something that the composer’s critics took him to task for, though that didn’t tend to alienate his audiences, who clamored for more. Despite the symbolism and philosophy behind Scheker’s work, the plot of Irrelohe has more than its share of tawdry elements. It tells the story of the doomed household of Count Heinrich of Irrelohe, the male members of which household are first driven to assault a female member of the community and then driven insane. This happened thirty years before to the once-beautiful Lola, who was raped by Count Heinrich’s father on the day of his wedding. We learn this from Christobal, Lola’s former lover, who ran away in shame after failing to stop or avenge the rape. Cristobal shares the news with Peter, Lola’s son, who further learns to his horror that he’s the product of this heinous act. It dawns on him that he’s the half-brother of Heinrich and subject to the same family curse.

Peter’s uncertain paternity has made it difficult for him to advance his cause with Eva, the Forester’s daughter, whom he hopes to marry. While he’s contemplating the doomed castle of Irrelohe in the moonlight, Eva rushes in pursued by the Count. She’s afraid of him but also strangely attracted, and Peter realizes he’s about to lose Eva to his half-brother.

Somewhat ill-advisedly, Eva returns to the castle to see Heinrich, whom she finds she can’t resist. At Irrelohe, Heinrich is tormented by his dread of the family curse and by his thoughts of Eva, which are slowly eroding his vows to remain isolated from society in an attempt to stave off the curse. True to his nature, as soon as he sees Eva, he attempts to rape her; to his surprise, she doesn’t resist, and her willingness leads him to ask instead for her hand in marriage. (Giving a whole new meaning to the axiom “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.) The pair lose themselves in a dream vision of their future love, which is interrupted by the old fiddler Christobal, Lola’s former lover, who gallantly offers to play at their wedding. But in the meantime, Christobal has been exposed as the ringleader of a band of arsonists posing as musicians, who go around the countryside trying to burn things down. His motive? Revenge for the affront to his and Lola’s honor. His ultimate target? The castle of Irrelohe.

Well, things really get out of hand in Act 3, which portrays the day of the wedding. Eva tries to salve Peter’s wounded spirit so they can part amicably, but Peter is mad with jealousy, forbidding Eva to dance the wedding dance with Heinrich. Nonetheless, following the wedding, Christobal appears on the dance floor, running a bit late, and strikes up his band of arsonist-musicians. You see, up till then, he has been otherwise engaged—namely setting fire to Irrelohe castle. As the music starts up, Eva and Heinrich dance, at which point Peter rushes forward and grabs Eva. He lets the Count in on the family secret and then taunts Heinrich with the proposition that they share Eva in the spirit of brotherly amity. This rubs Heinrich the wrong way; he strangles Peter to death just as the castle goes up in flames. While Heinrich regrets having killed his half-brother, Eva assures him of her love. They may have lost some valuable real estate, but they still have each other. The curtain falls.

Sorry for my rather flippant retelling of Schreker’s story, which had its genesis in a chance encounter with a small town in Germany called Irrelohe (trans., “flames of madness”). Schreker’s Gothic tale probably isn’t any more or less implausible than one by Edgar Allan Poe. And it does have the redeeming quality of that wonderfully atmospheric music, at its most potent in Act 3, where the happy strains of the wedding music sound in ironic counterpoint to the music of doom that hangs over Irrelohe, climaxing in the wild music of the fire and death of Peter. I won’t even venture to examine the fractured psychology behind the work, based on Schreker’s reading of philosopher Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character. However, I do wish that MD&G had supplied an English translation of the libretto so that I could better judge its literary merits, unpromising though the synopsis may be.

Although I haven’t heard the one previous recording of this work (from Sony, no longer available), I can’t imagine it served Schreker’s endlessly colorful score or tortured drama any more heroically than Stefan Blunier and his forces. While Irrelohe features the same choral-orchestral forces and some of the same singers who appeared on MD&G’s recording of Eugen D’Albert’s Der Golem, my reaction to the two recordings is very different. I was less than overwhelmed by Der Golem, but I’m pretty much staggered by this Irrelohe. If there is a weak link in the cast, I can’t find it. The principle roles are all handled expertly. Ingeborg Greiner’s Eva is lightly and brightly sung, the innocence and vulnerability of the character very well captured. Mark Morouse perfectly conveys the tormented nature of Peter, whose social awkwardness and uncertainty turn frighteningly to madness. Roman Sadnik’s Count Heinrich proves Eva’s equal as his torment gives way to a growing tenderness and sensitivity. Daniela Denschlag’s Lola comes across as properly matronly and a bit dotty (and unfortunately a bit too much addicted to vibrato, one of my chief bugbears in opera performances). The lesser roles are all in capable hands.

The live recording is punctuated by some pretty loud thumping and bumping around the stage, but then this is an opera that employs large forces and lots of stage business, so the extraneous noise is understandable and forgivable—especially when the sound of the huge orchestra and cast are so well captured by the MD&G engineers. In the past, I’ve found the recorded sound from Theater Bonn to be variably distant and lacking in presence, but that’s not the case here. The sound is big (big!), bright, and enveloping in the best surround-sound fashion: while the rear speakers mostly provide a sense of ambience, placing the off-stage orchestra behind the listener is a perfect application of the technology. Bravo! I predict that Schreker’s Irrelohe will be an experience you won’t soon forget.

—Lee Passarella




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