October 21, 2001
Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Schreker's Der ferne Klang

A tale of love twice discarded and then found anew returns to Berlin


Franz Schreker
Der ferne Klang


Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Michael Gielen (conductor)
Peter Mussbach (director)

Grete: Anne Schwanewilms
Fritz: Robert Künzli
Der Baron: Wolfgang Newerla
Der Graf: Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Altes Weib: Uta Priew

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Schreker's Der ferne Klang

A tale of love twice discarded and then found anew returns to Berlin

by Nancy Chapple

An elegant and attentive premiere audience attended Berlin's first performance of Der ferne Klang since the 1920s (the opera premiered in 1912). Franz Schreker was Germany's leading composer in the 1920s, and his early success was built on his breakthrough with this opera. By the late 1920s he had fallen out of favor, as his naturalistic themes and late Romantic musical style seemed dated; in 1933 he was fired from his position as teacher of composition in Berlin and he died the year after. Rediscovered in the 1960s, his operas have been occasionally performed in opera houses in Germany and Austria ever since.

Der ferne Klang revolves around Grete, who is left behind by her secret lover, the composer Fritz, when he goes off in search of the "ferne Klang" - a mystical distant sound he wants to attain in his composition. Grete is then given by her father to a bar owner and his friends to repay gambling and drinking debts. Ten years later in Act II, Grete, dressed in furs and glitter, has become the celebrated star of the dubious La casa di maschere on an island near Venice. Among other suitors, Fritz appears and sings of his yearning for the distant sound; when Grete reveals that she has loved hundreds of men, he rejects her, cursing her as a whore. Act III takes place five years later: an opera by Fritz called Die Harfe is being premiered; in self-referential irony, Act III falls through and the opera ends in a scandal. The couple meet once again, and Fritz believes he has found the distant sound in Grete, only to die in her arms.

Schreker's texts came to him as the score developed, so text and music are intrinsically linked. Acts I and III are intimate chamber operas sung in Sprechgesang; Act II is a dreamlike extravaganza with the masked and whited-out chorus on stage and parts of the orchestra close by in the wings. The music is sensual, never dissonant, always intriguing. Schreker experiments, Debussy-like, with different scales: a whole tone scale, for instance, is repeated over and over until it becomes a minor scale - a spooky effect. Act III begins with the orchestra completely muted. The act's long orchestral interlude seems to describe everything Grete has gone through. When the distant sound is finally heard, it is amorphous: arpeggiated chords without harmonic sequence, as if the wind is blowing through the strings. A series of modulations give the impression of constantly modulating upwards. The instrumentation is high strings, xylophone, celesta, harp.

From the start Grete is a moody woman - now in control, now out of control - but her mood swings become more drastic over the course of the opera. Grete is almost always on stage, and Anne Schwanewilms (known for her performances of Wagner, Strauss and Berg) was riveting. The confident figure of Act II was always close to falling apart completely - trembling, not maintaining eye contact. Walking on a tight rope, she was completely vulnerable to men's wishes, as she could never be sure whether a loving gesture might turn into violence. She so dominated the stage that the other characters paled in comparison: it was fascinating to watch her every gesture.

(This review originally appeared at www.andante.com)