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Opera review: Franz Schreker's 'The Stigmatized' at Los Angeles Opera

April 11, 2010 |  5:57 pm
Stigmatzed
It’s taken close to a century, but the ugliest man of Genoa has at last crossed the Atlantic. He is Alviano Salvago, who is also described as “an ugly hunchback, about thirty years old, with large shinning eyes.” He is stigmatized, branded, marked, drawn. He is weak and revolting in a society obsessed with physical pleasure. He also happens to own an island where there are all manner of nasty goings on from which he gets some sort of creepy vicarious thrill in the name of the classical pursuit of beauty.

He is the pathetic protagonist of Franz Schreker’s deliriously dissolute “Die Gezeichneten,” which Los Angeles Opera presented as “The Stigmatized” on Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This was the first staging of any Schreker opera in our hemisphere. It was also the most ambitious work, and the most persuasively presented, thus far in the company’s “Recovered Voices” series.

“The Stigmatized” had its premiere in Germany in 1918 and proved a popular sensation in the German-speaking world for the next dozen years. But the composer, born to a Catholic mother and Jewish father who converted to Protestantism, was himself stigmatized, branded, marked, drawn by the Nazi racial laws. His works were banned under the preposterous general rubric of degenerate art.

Then again, “The Stigmatized” actually is, in a sense, degenerate art. Perhaps audiences retired to their coffee houses after performances for deep discussions about the nature of beauty, but the fact is this opera fit right in with its era’s preoccupations with sex, immorality and ravishing music.

And yes, some patrons even today will be exercising their own forms of censorship. Parents may not want to take their children to an opera which ends in an orgy. Ian Judge’s staging lacks a big budget, and one petite young woman having her clothes torn off and being raped on the Chandler stage does not a full-fledged operatic orgy make, but we get the point.

The opera revolves around the self-loathing hunchback who, fearing that his friends in 16th century Genoa have gone too far in their lascivious escapades on his private “Elysium” by abducting the daughters of aristocrats, decides to donate the island to the city.

Along comes Carlotta, the alluring and free-spirited daughter of a Genoa official. A painter with a spiritualist bent, she attempts to capture Alvaro’s soul on canvas. After much discussion and enthralling music, she seduces him. But ultimately, Tamare, a callous young nobleman in the Elysium crowd, seduces her. It all ends badly.

As a composer, Schreker straddled many styles. He was a post-Wagnerian in the Richard Strauss mode. He enjoyed the frisson of bi-tonality. He also had a Puccini streak, if not the Italian composer’s sense of dramatic concision. “The Stigmatized” is rightly noted for the special shimmer that Schreker got from the orchestra, a shimmer that effortlessly ushers the listener into the naughtiest corners of Elysium. There are musical themes in this lush and often complex score that may stick as earworms with you longer than you like.

“The Stigmatized” is a big opera with a big subject and big cast, but it had to be molded onto Achim Freyer’s “Ring” set, which is too cumbersome to easily tear down and rebuild.  When the original director, Olivier Tambosi, found such conditions impossible, Judge was brought in at the last minute to save the show.

He pretty much does. He clearly fights with the rake and its revolving disc, which he has unhappily inherited from Freyer. But at least he has Wendall K. Harrington projections to help him create the illusion of early 20th century Vienna, the period of his otherwise straight-forward updated production. The designer supplants scenery with literal and playful projections. The visual concept is fairly ordinary but the realism can be stunning. Judge even amusingly thumbs his nose at the scrim by using a projection of the Chandler sunburst curtain at the opening.

The best selling of “The Stigmatized” came, as always with the "Recovered Voices" project, from the pit. Music director James Conlon’s passion for the work meant a convincing emphasis on the sumptuous atmosphere and dramatic character of the score.

A small controversy has arisen over the size of the orchestra. Conlon commissioned a reduction to fit the Chandler pit. Scholars say Schreker wanted an enormous band, 120 or more, not that he necessarily got it. Conlon, though, says that with a standard string section, the 72 members in the Chandler pit are only seven fewer than asked for in the published score. But given how the Chandler acoustic tends to generalize orchestra sound and muffle details, this is hardly worth arguing about.

Anja Kampe’s magnificently sung Carlotta was the dominating presence onstage and reason enough for a trip to the Music Center. Judge may have asked the German soprano to portray her captivating character as overly psychotic and calculating, but she remained the ineffable force of nature she should be.

Robert Brubaker has little competition as Alviano. He was extraordinarily moving in the role as a tormented cross-dressing outsider in a Salzburg Festival production conducted by Kent Nagano five years ago. Hobbling on crutches this time, he was less intriguing but no less affecting.

Other important singers – Wolfgang’ Schöne’s warm Podestá (Carlotta’s father), James Johnson’s authoritative Adorno (Genoa’s Duke), Martin Gantner’s hot-headed Tamare and Ronnita Nicole Miller’s formidable Martuccia – managed surprisingly well on an empty stage with little sound reinforcement. The many youths and senators and citizens and servants managed less well. The chorus, kept offstage throughout, made a too distant sound. But the essence of Schreker’s opera was nonetheless palpable.

A widespread Schreker revival is possible but uncertain. So catch the ugliest man in Genoa (the English title I’d suggest for the opera) while you can.

-- Mark Swed

“The Stigmatized." Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 2 p.m. April 18; 7:30 p.m. April 22 and 24. See www.laopera.com for casts. $15 to $125. (213) 972-8001. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.

Photo: Robert Brubaker, left, Martin Gantner and Anja Kampe in the final scene of the Los Angeles Opera production of "The Stigmatized." Credit: Robert Millard / L.A. Opera

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