In recent years, Leon Botstein has been prefacing his Bard Music Festivals with elaborate opera productions at Bard’s Fischer Center. This year, his choice —reprising a concert performance from the 2007 season — was Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang.
Critics have been hailing this work as a forgotten masterpiece. So what follows is acknowledged as a minority report. However, this skeptic hears a pseudo-masterpiece, not a real one. My central problem with Schreker’s work is one of attitude. The composer wrote his own libretto, which is so often a mistake. The story and text are saturated with narcissistic self-pity that sabotages this listener’s ability to become emotionally involved. Poor Fritz, the young composer, abandons his home and his True Love Grete (ruining her life in the process) to pursue “the distant sound,” some kind of ethereal harp music he wishes to capture in his work. If he’d had the sense to take her with him, he might have achieved his objective, as well as saving the one he loves from a life of degradation. But no, he has to pursue his dream on his own, and winds up looking rather foolish in his failure.
In addition to its emotional and moral problems, the libretto is quite garrulous, with most of the scenes lasting a good deal longer than they ought to. In the excessively lengthy Act II, the display songs of Fritz and the Count go on for at least twice as long as they need to, and being through-composed they are probably unable to be cut.
There are original touches in the score, but many more aspects that seem decidedly second-hand. Since Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë was first performed the same year as Der ferne Klang, the great similarities of some scenes in the use of both orchestra and chorus to Ravel’s work may be coincidental. The basic idiom of the music seems obviously to be Wagner-by-way-of-Strauss, with a few suggestions of Stravinsky. However, Schreker lacks an element of genius that both Wagner and Strauss had: the ability to create memorable tunes. Lacking these, the score seems just one long series of recitatives without enough striking features to capture the listener.
Thaddeus Strassberger’s direction also had some problems. I was particularly troubled by the setting of Act 2, which might have been effectively gaudy and bizarre if it were not for the combination of mirrors and bright lights (and eventually a barrage of camera flashes) which seemed designed mostly to blind the audience.
The strongest element of the event was the musical performance. As Grete, Yamina Maamar has the most central role and carried it with flair and power. She was able to deliver on Schreker’s Wagnerian challenges without flinching, and her demeanor captured her character’s deterioration effectively. Mathias Schulz as Fritz was a powerful presence, and even managed to be affecting in his character’s overwrought death scene. Smaller roles were all sung well. The chorus, trained by the estimable James Bagwell, sounded absolutely wonderful. The three (!) stage orchestras in Act II were virtually inaudible (the fault of a composer who, although an experienced conductor, somehow imagined that guitars and mandolins would be audible above loud brass), but otherwise the orchestra played with fine sound, cohesion, and power under the direction of Leon Botstein.
In the end, despite all my reservations, perhaps Der ferne Klang was worth experiencing once for its manic, decadent grandeur. It may not be great music but it’s certainly Something Else. For these ears, though, once will be enough.