Reviving an important but neglected opera is one of the ways the Bard SummerScape festival paints a faithfully nuanced portrait of each past age, and this year’s exploration of “Berg and His World” is no exception. To enrich its evocation of Viennese modernism, Bard presents the first fully-staged U.S. production of The Distant Sound (Der ferne Klang, 1910), by Berg’s compatriot Franz Schreker, in its centenary year. Returning to oversee the landmark production is the visionary Thaddeus Strassberger, who also directed last season’s resounding success at Bard, Meyerbeer’s grand opera Les Huguenots. The opera’s four performances (July 30, August 1, 4, & 6) feature the festival’s resident American Symphony Orchestra under music director Leon Botstein, who gives a free Opera Talk before the August 1 performance. This summer, Bard also offsets the gravitas with an authentic taste of Vienna’s lighter side, offering nine performances of Oscar Straus’s charming operetta The Chocolate Soldier (1908), directed by Will Pomerantz and conducted by James Bagwell (August 5–15).
There is a tendency today to identify musical modernism primarily with the Second Viennese School, and particularly with Schoenberg. Yet consideration of the period’s operas suggests that the reality was more complicated. “To tell the story of Viennese modernism through its operas would necessitate redrawing the city’s artistic faultlines,” writes Christopher Hailey, editor of the forthcoming volume, Alban Berg and His World. Two of the genre’s leading lights were Franz Schreker and Alexander von Zemlinsky, both of whom, Hailey explains, “had a profound influence upon Alban Berg, who prepared the piano vocal score of Der ferne Klang. Wozzeck and Lulu are unthinkable without their example. Indeed, Zemlinsky, Schreker, and Berg represent an aesthetic and musical triumvirate at least as compelling as the more familiar constellation of Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern.”
From 1901–03, the young Schoenberg was based in Berlin, where, like fellow Viennese composer Oscar Straus, he conducted Germany’s first cabaret, known as the “Überbrettl” (or “super music hall”). Co-founded by playwright Frank Wedekind, whose two “Lulu” plays would form the basis of Berg’s seminal opera of that name, Überbrettl was intended to raise the standard of variety theater, and Schoenberg and Straus – like Zemlinsky – were among those who made musical contributions. Schoenberg’s expressionist masterpiece Pierrot lunaire (1912) reveals cabaret’s enduring influence on his work, and cabaret songs predominate in the oeuvre of operettist Oscar Straus, who wrote more than 500. The story of musical modernism, then, rather than tracing a linear path, must embrace the complex web of relationships and ideas that flourished within the burgeoning artistic community of the time. Bard’s Schreker and Straus revivals play a pivotal part in representing Berg’s world in all its heterogeneous richness.
This year’s opera presentation, Franz Schreker’s The Distant Sound, though familiar in Europe, has never yet – in the century since its composition – been fully staged in North America. Hailed early in his career as the most significant musical dramatist since Wagner, Schreker (1878–1934) studied composition with legendary pedagogue Robert Fuchs, whose students included Mahler, Zemlinsky, Korngold, and Sibelius. Schreker’s music came to be characterized by aesthetic plurality, blending elements of Romanticism, naturalism, expressionism, and Neue Sachlichkeit (“new objectivity”), perhaps reflecting his sense of being something of a mixture himself, as the offspring of a controversial marriage between a Catholic aristocrat and a Jew. According to Hailey, who is also founder and director of the Franz Schreker Foundation, “Der ferne Klang – the distant sound – is a fitting metaphor for Schreker’s own struggle to find his voice because it captures something essential about the nature of his search, the quality of his aural experience.”
It was Botstein who gave The Distant Sound its long-overdue U.S. premiere in concert form, during the American Symphony Orchestra’s 2006–07 season, prompting Musical America critic Peter G. Davis to write: “Botstein’s sympathy for the score was apparent everywhere. … The spirit and sweep of the music could scarcely have been more fully captured.” Anthony Tommasini called the work an “arresting masterpiece,” noting in his New York Times review, “Below its melodramatic surface the opera teems with sensuality. Mr. Botstein brought sure dramatic pacing and fiery commitment to his account of this thick and complex score.”
“The premise of Der ferne Klang is simply told,” Hailey explains. “A composer forsakes a woman’s love for a chimeric sound that is but the distant echo of her presence. It is a tidy plot for an opera, a love story of tragic deferral and a paradoxical meditation upon the vanities of ‘l’art pour l’art’.” Besides telling the story of the composer and the elusive ideal shimmering beyond his grasp, the opera addresses the plight of his loved one, a woman exploited by the society she lives in, who survives by retreating into her dreams. Like Wagner, Schreker wrote his own libretto, and his masterful melding of disparate dramatic devices and psychological and cultural forces, along with the beauty and brilliance of his score, makes The Distant Sound one of the most moving and groundbreaking works of 20th-century opera.
Thaddeus Strassberger, director of last season’s lavishly praised Huguenots presentation and winner of the 2005 European Opera Directing Prize, returns to direct, with set designs by Narelle Sissons, whose credits include Babes in Toyland at Lincoln Center (2008), and costume design by Mattie Ullrich, who created the costumes for SummerScape’s productions of The Sorcerer (2007) and Les Huguenots (2009). Tenor Mathias Schulz stars as Fritz, and soprano Yamina Maamar plays Grete, in which role the New York Times described her performance as a “triumph.” The Distant Sound’s four performances (July 30, August 1, 4, & 6) will be sung in Schreker’s original German with English supertitles, and conducted by music director Leon Botstein.
Opera and operetta at SummerScape 2010
Franz Schreker (1878–1934)
The Distant Sound (Der ferne Klang, 1910)
Libretto: Franz Schreker
American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger
Grete: Yamina Maamar
Fritz: Mathias Schulz
Old Grauman: Peter Van Derick
Grauman’s wife: Susan Marie Pierson
Innkeeper: Matthew Burns
Actor: Jeff Mattsey
Dr. Vigelius: Marc Embree
The Count: Corey McKern
The Chevalier: Jud Perry
July 30 and August 6 at 7 pm
August 1 and 4 at 3 pm
Tickets: $25, $55, $75