Irrelohe – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer [sung in German with French surtitles]
Heinrich, Count of Irrelohe – Tobias Hächler
The Forester – Piotr Micinski
Eva – Ambur Braid
Old Lola – Lioba Braun
Peter – Julian Orlishausen
Christobald – Michael Gniffke
Fünkchen – Peter Kirk
Strahlbusch – Romanas Kudriašovas
Ratzekahl – Barnaby Rea
The Priest – Kwang Soun Kim
The Miller – Paul-Henry Vila
Anselmus – Antoine Saint-Espès
A footman – Didier Roussel
Chorus & Orchestra of Opéra de Lyon
David Bösch – Director
Falko Herold – Set & Video Designer
Moana Stemberger – Costumes
Michael Bauer – Lighting
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 19 March, 2022
Venue: Opéra de Lyon, France
When Franz Schreker composed Irrelohe in the early 1920s (premiered 1924) he had already achieved considerable success in Germany with a number of operas. But, although he used a mythical mediaeval setting again, this opera received a generally unfavourable critical reception, prompting him to experiment with newer musical styles. He was thwarted again by the wave of anti-Semitic sentiment as the National Socialists came to power, which then resulted in his being dismissed from his conservatory posts in Berlin.
Following his relatively early death in 1934 he has never really regained a foothold in the repertoire of opera houses or concert halls, although some re-appraisal and exposure of his output has been made in recent decades.
Even if Schreker has understandably remained in the shadow of Wagner and Strauss, Irrelohe (and particularly also his preceding operas) show him as a composer who fully digested Wagnerian themes and musical style, with more advanced tonal harmonies like Mahler and early to middle period Schoenberg and combining that with a more up to date Freudian psychological basis, couched in fairly terse dramatic form in his own libretto. In short, his compositions were a convincingly eclectic melding of many of the important influences at play in the European cultural scene in the period between the two Wars.
David Bösch’s new production for the Opéra de Lyon takes its cue from that contemporary milieu by partly featuring the characters in short cinematic sequences in black and white, like a silent German expressionist film of the 1920s, to draw out their actions, thoughts or dreams which are not made explicit in the drama itself, and similar stills of Irrelohe’s castle retainers as black-eyed zombies pre-empt the chorus’s appearance as such, like so many Cesares from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. If such filmic interludes seem a theatrical cliché, they do summon up the precise era in which Irrelohe was created, and they must surely take on particular resonance in Lyon, where the Lumière brothers lived and created the very first films in the world. The stage action itself mixes in a more modern setting, as Lola’s tavern becomes a more recognisably up to date German beer Stube for example. But in any case, as an accompaniment to the sizeable orchestral interludes of the continuous score for each Act the film passages draw together the rather episodic nature of Schreker’s tableaux.
That musical structure (if not style) rather recalls Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and perhaps that has also informed Bösch’s interpretation of Schreker’s later opera. In the latter there remains the possibility of redemption and love as Count Heinrich and Eva are married at the conclusion, despite the violence generally at work in the drama (the curse by which the Counts of Irrelohe are fated to assault a woman sooner or later; the incendiary revenge sought by Christobald for one such previous instance when Heinrich’s father raped his bride-to-be, Lola, resulting in the birth of Peter and Christobald’s temporary disappearance in ashamed disgust; and Heinrich’s murder of his half-brother). Bösch, however, has the characters operate in some degree of suspension and indifference, as though already seized by spiritual torpor and death, like the inhabitants of Debussy’s castle in Allemonde. Indeed, Eva and Heinrich also succumb to death at the end here, as they do not in Schreker’s original scenario.
Connected with that, Bösch perhaps also means to evoke two other French literary precedents, Les Fleurs du mal and À rebours. When Heinrich is first seen in Act Two, in ironic contrast with the background of a blossoming garden in the original, here he languishes in gloomy refuge in the castle to avoid the effects of the curse, within a grubby conservatory of wilting or dead plants, like Huysmans’s anti-hero Des Esseintes occupying himself with all sorts of unworldly, aberrant paraphernalia as an antidote to ennui. If Wagner’s ‘Im Triebhaus’ from the Wesendonck-Lieder is another oblique reference, and despite all the apparent allusions in Schreker’s own opera to various themes in that composer’s music dramas, here there is no Tristan-like redemption, through either love or death, nor even through fire to herald a new world, as in Götterdämmerung. Although the castle is set alight (the ‘flames of madness’ that puns on the name of Irrelohe in German) it lingers as the overriding idea in this production, as a dramaturgical symbol of a malign, brooding force.
Lioba Braun as Eva (the beloved of both Peter and Heinrich) is a solid, radiant presence, often cutting through the orchestra magnificently, where often the other singers sound somewhat recessed. Tobias Hächler has some of the qualities of a Heldentenor, particularly with a ringing upper register, but also with a certain edgy veneer in his performance that expresses the ambiguities and uncertainties of Heinrich’s character. By contrast Julian Orlishausen’s Peter is a rather more internalised interpretation, singing with a more inscrutable beauty of tone, exemplifying his taciturn nature – the reason that Eva decides to forego his relationship with him in favour of Heinrich.
Ambur Braid is ripe-voiced as Lola, perhaps a touch curdled at times, as she otherwise securely handles both her recurring waltz-like melody (wistfully reflecting on the fact that she was once young) and keeping her son Peter’s initial, probing questions at bay and then his torments after he has learnt the truth about his origins. Michael Gniffke certainly depicts’ Christobald’s menace in the film sequences, and to some extent on stage. But despite actively hankering after revenge, musically he exudes an air of resignation, or perhaps of sinister control (one might think, again in terms of Debussy’s Pelleas, of Golaud). His three arsonist henchmen, Fünkchen, Strahlbusch and Ratzekahl – doubling as musicians in the original, and so becoming 1970s punk rockers here – are each characterised with wacky idiosyncrasy, but not resorting to caricature.
Bernhard Kontarsky maintains a fairly measured grasp on the score, navigating this performance through the scenes and connecting interludes seamlessly. Although there could be a more dynamic, symphonic drive though the music, the Orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon sustain an admirable clarity in the texture, rather than sonorous heft, which enables the different timbres and registrations to come through and create drama more impressionistically, or perhaps with a more immediate, nervous responsiveness to the stage action like a film score. There is no lack of force from the Chorus as the marriage ceremony takes place (off stage) and the final climax of the opera, leaving an emphatic impression in the mind after the end of the performance, even if the libretto’s dialogue seems slight.
This is a worthwhile production of an all too rarely seen opera, combining a richly developed score with a particularly psychological drama of a type that Strauss rather declined to pursue after Salome and Elektra.
Further performances to April 2