On the carcass of Achim Freyer’s ill-conceived, ugly “Gotterdammerung,” director Ian Judge and brilliant Broadway projection designer Wendall K. Harrington (“Grey Gardens,” “The Who’s Tommy”) have created a shimmering, multileveled fin-de-siecle Vienna for the U.S. debut of Franz Schreker’s 1918 opera “Die Gezeichneten,” or “The Stigmatized.” The Wagner and Schreker works are playing in repertory this month on the same unit set, and operagoers who saw any of the four Ring operas will recognize that commonplace raked stage, turntable, scrim and cyclorama. But with the Schreker opera, the mundane has been magically transformed through Harrington’s lush, colorful images, which perfectly match the composer’s tone paintings. If “The Stigmatized” is not quite the masterpiece that lovers of lost operas are always in search of, this handsome production makes it very much worth seeing.
Before the Nazis put an end to his career in the early 1930s, Schreker was an immensely popular opera composer in Germany, and it’s easy to see why. While he was no Richard Strauss as a composer, he knew how to deliver a first-rate libretto that was every bit — and then some — as lurid in its fixation on ugliness and moral corruption as “Salome” or “Elektra.” Schreker, however, had no need to go trolling through the works of Oscar Wilde or Sophocles for his source material. The original story of “The Stigmatized” is a real doozy, and anyone who has been following the ongoing Vatican scandal of pedophile priests can relate. It’s no wonder European auds of the early 20th century were also fascinated with this tale of power abused.
A group of noblemen have set up a veritable child prostitution ring on a nearby island, abducting some of the city’s better looking girls for their own sexual purposes. Their pit of pleasure is threatened, however, when (sorry, there’s no PC way to put this accurately) the crippled hunchback Alviano (a heartbreakingly vulnerable Robert Brubaker) donates the island to the city. Meanwhile, he’s fallen in love with the gorgeous painter Carlotta (Anja Kampe), who finds he has a beautiful soul encased in a very ugly body. She decides to paint his soul, only to realize that you can’t go to bed with a painting. Horny as only a virgin can be, she immediately joins one of the more corrupt but handsome noblemen, Count Tamara (Martin Gantner), for a final blowout orgy on Alviano’s island.
Never mind the Nazi opposition to Schreker; there are a few right-wing talking heads on Fox News who’d likely take a torch to this score.
Written in the early days of silent film, Schreker fashioned his libretto like a screenplay, one that begins with lots of quick glimpses at a decadent culture and ends with a few extended scenes of total moral depravity. Judge also works the movie magic by placing his actors between the downstage scrim and the upstage cyclorama, which are always alive with Harrington’s constantly moving vintage photographs and paintings, which recall Klimt and Bosch. This production is also blessed with three superb singer-actors — Brubaker, Kampe and Gantner — and Judge’s staging of the noblemen’s sinister machinations, as well as the very graphic rape scene, is nothing short of brilliant.
Aficionados of Broadway musicals well know that a second-rate score can be salvaged by a great book, but sometimes the reverse is not true (examples: “Camelot” and “Merrily We Roll Along”). Schreker’s instrumental colors are often breathtaking. But just as often that music, especially the vocal line, tends to support rather than carry the action.
In a 2005 staging, the Salzburg Festival gilded this hothouse plant by portraying Alviano (again, Brubaker) as a closeted transvestite. Yes, it’s that kind of a fun night at the opera.