How easy it might be to overlook this lesser-known Schreker opera, composed in 1928 and dedicated to Schreker’s good friend Arnold Schoenberg, here in its recorded debut. It has a quite curious libretto, complex and multilayered, and Schreker moves between what are at times quite disparate styles. The whole thing comes off at first blush like a kind of soup made of the leftovers of earlier post-romantic and expressionist idoms, and were it not for our warming sympathies on repeated listening, we might have happily consigned it to the dustbin of history.
Repeated listenings have not been sufficient to entirely sort out the improbable libretto. The story, set in large part in a sort of composer’s atelier, concerns three principal characters, Anselm, Lisa, and Christoph. Anselm is at work upon an opera about the legend of St. Christopher, in which Anselm himself, Lisa, and Christoph, a fellow composition apprentice, are all to play roles. Christopher, Christoph, fiction, real life–the thing’s a narrative muddle, from the dramatic Prelude on. The story comes off like a befuddled Pirandello: half a dozen characters, having found a librettist, now desperately in search of a composer.
Despite the curious nature of the narrative–no let’s get this straight, indeed uninhibited by the narrative–Schreker is in close to full form here. The score is well turned, moments of Berg’s Wozzeck blended with the later Strauss–Ariadne or Arabella . The characters are probable, believable in a kind of irritating way, since they demand a better story line. Anselm’s character, in its developing anger and cynicism, is a model of modernism, and his impassioned interactions with Lisa in Act I are very good operatic duets.
The opera is in two short acts, the first act and its dramatic prelude running just shy of an hour, the second running on 40 minutes. The latter is the tighter of the two: it contains several scenes of good drama and the run away characterizations of the first act settle down here into real persona. Throughout the opera, there is an unusual amount of dialogue, much of it accompanied–a sort of modernist melodrama, where spoken lines are cushioned by a lush, often quietly dissonant orchestral pad. In the whole of Act II, in fact, there is really only one “number,” per se, Scene 3 (track 4), Rosita’s lied. This is Schreker’s portrait of jazz (worthy of comparison with jazz portraits by Weill and Stravinsky), with lisping saxophones and a limpid barrelhouse piano. The lied, in fact, is structured like a duet, and set to a divided stage, on one side Rosita, on the other Christoph in a kind of evaporated opium dream that gradually takes over the stage. Elsewhere operatic “numbers” make an initial appearance, seem to hesitate, and then morph into something else. Now this is nothing new; in German opera, it has been going on at least since Weber’s Euryanthe . But Schreker turns it to his own modernist advantage. Scenes 5 and 6 constitute a lengthy operatic conjuring with a half a dozen characters (and what sounds like a theramin [but may be only a musical saw] and a creepy mandolin obligato) that, in its intensity, harkens back to Weber’s Freischutz Wolfglen scene. And there is a tiny Kinderlied (scene 8), reminiscent of Wozzeck , as well as a lengthier song for child’s voice in the Epilogue, responding in similar fashion to a hazy lied-like passage for Christoph (tracks 14 and 15).
The orchestral writing throughout the work is nothing short of excellent. Orchestral interludes, motivated or not, crop up repeatedly, and beg symphonic treatment. One of the longest of these extends from the end of scene 8 into scene 9 and then moves smoothly into a curious orchestral recitative of a selection from Lao Tzu, before moving into the conclusion of the opera.
On the whole the performance is smooth and competent, if the voices are mostly unexceptional. Hans Georg Ahrens does a most sympathetic Anselm, Susan Bernhard an occasionally uneven Lisa, and Joerg Sabrowski a rather cardboard Christoph. Two voices stand out as very good: Roland Holz, in a speaking role as the critic Starkmann, spoken with a lovely Berliner nasal, gritty and nicely irritating; and Hans Georg Ahrens, bass, as the composition master Johann, with a deep, noble resonance. The live recording is sensitive, with a minimum of boots clumping around on stage and a good set of microphones in the pit.
The booklet is of good use here, explaining the opera’s misfortunes in terms of the years after the First World War, Schreker’s career, the stylistic turns of fortune in which the opera got caught up, and a nice excurse on the stylistic politics of the day. For good measure, the booklet reproduces an “Introduction” penned by the composer, which would seem to explain the need for this twisted narrative (sometimes in unabashedly personal terms), but instead merely adds to the confusion. Schreker’s introduction reads like an apology, but in truth the only thing to be regretted here is the storyline.
It would be a shame to make this work simply an historical artifact, a product, warted, of its day and its composer’s traumas. There is enough good writing here, however, to make the opera worthy of our admiration without recourse to history. What we need now (now that most of Schreker’s opera are available in modern scores and good recordings) is a critical overview. It would be good to compare Christophorus with the “hits,” the better known Schreker operas such as Der ferne Klang , Die Gezeichneten , and Der Schatzgräber , not merely in historical terms (a subject interesting in their own right) but as possible entries into the canon of twentieth-century opera.
This recording stems from a three-part Schrecker cycle at the Kiel Opera from 2001 to 2003, under the artistic director, Kirsten Harms, the other two operas being the premier in full score of Die Flammen , Schreker’s first opera, and Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin from 1913, perhaps the moment at which Schreker’s career was in fullest flower. The latter two operas are also available on the CPO label.
University of Ottawa