Theater Bonn – Schreker’s Der singende Teufel – Mirko Roschkowski, Anne-Fleur Werner & Tobias Schabel; directed by Julia Burbach; conducted by Dirk Kaftan


Der singende Teufel – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by the composer [sung in German with German and English surtitles]

Amandus Herz – Mirko Roschkowski
Lilian – Anne-Fleur Werner
Pater Kaleidos – Tobias Schabel
Alardis – Dshamilja Kaiser
Sinbrand von Fraß – Pavel Kudinov
Der maurische Pilger – Carl Rumstadt
Lenzmar – Tae Hwan Yun
Abt – Boris Beletskiy
Erste Alumne – Ava Gesell
Zweite Alumne – Alicia Grünwald
Erster Laienbruder – Wooseok Shim
Zweiter Laienbruder – Hyoungjoo Yun
Ein Heide – Algis Lunskis
Die Vermummten – Jae Hoon Jung, In Hyeok Park, Justo Rodriguez, Christian Specht, & Jonghoon You

Theater Bonn Chorus

Beethoven Orchestra, Bonn
Dirk Kaptan

Julia Burbach – Director
Dirk Hofacker – Set Designer
Max Karbe – Lighting
Andreas K. W. Meyer – Dramaturg
Cameron McMillan – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 28 May, 2023
Venue: Theater Bonn, Germany

The Austrian composer Franz Schreker worked for much of his professional career in the shadow of Richard Strauss, and in a similarly late-Romantic vein in his compositions, especially his operas. However, in his fairly-late Der singende Teufel (The Singing Devil, premiered 1928 in Berlin) he adopted a terser, more pared down musical style more akin to the New Objectivity aesthetic of the 1920s (with extended and modal tonality rather than the more advanced developments of Schoenberg and his circle) but retaining somewhat Wagnerian themes in the drama. In this case there are several parallels with Parsifal as a sort of Bildungsroman set in the Middle Ages with its central character, Amandus Herz, seeking some deeper meaning in his life, but also harking back to Schreker’s earlier opera Der ferne Klang in making music itself as the symbol for that. As an allegorical drama, it addresses religious and ideological fanaticism (naturally a pressing subject in 1920s Germany) and argues for the superseding of such organised systems, as Parsifal does with its message of compassion.

The singing devil of the title is in fact an organ which the rather Hamlet-like, thoughtful Amandus is asked to finish building by Father Kaleidos, having been started by Amandus’s father. The arresting tones of the organ are regarded by the zealous Kaleidos as an important piece of artistic propaganda in the Christians’ war against the pagans (such a confrontation surely recalling Lohengrin). But, despite Amandus’s Schopenhauerian yearnings, and the fact that he becomes a monk, he is perturbed to discover that his father went mad trying to complete this particular organ. He is horrified further when he learns that Kaleidos’s aim is to enchant the pagans by its music and then have them slaughtered in the monastery.  To allay his grief that his work was turned to such violent and divisive ends, Lillian sets fire to the monastery which causes the organ to produce yet more celestial tones. That releases the curse but the price of that is Lillian’s death.

Julia Burbach’s production, at least, avoids any suggestion of resolution (and therefore too close a parallel with Wagner) but brings the drama into closer alignment with Schreker’s score which dwindles to a quiet, inconclusive chord, as Amandus continues searching desperately through his books to find answers, apparently unaffected and unredeemed by Lillian’s death here. Burbach seems to draw a connection then with the themes of Thomas Mann’s contemporaneous novels and stories, frequently reflecting upon the phenomenon of the artist in society and the world, and his or her endless striving to make sense of those. Or, more potently, she highlights a link between the opera and that most Germanic of legends, the story of Faust (Mann’s own Doktor Faustus not appearing until nearly two decades after Schreker’s work) – even if Amandus is neither exactly saved nor damned at the end.

The production takes the work out of the mediaeval monastery and into a roughly contemporary setting with the Christians’ evening dress like a dinner party. The organ is actually rendered on stage as a grand piano in just a couple of scenes, and so any facile realisation of the opera’s symbolism is jettisoned – just as Schreker uses the actual sound of an organ very sparingly himself – though the ranks of plain chairs piled up around the sides of the stage for the walls of the monastery perhaps vaguely evoke the keys of an organ’s manuals. There is colour in the dress of the mass of pagans, with their adapted form of headgear and cloaks seen in late mediaeval and early Renaissance northern European paintings, and just a few sinister sartorial and choreographic elements hinting at the nightmarish vision of a Hieronymus Bosch picture. If the production’s dramaturgy is somewhat muted, without any particular overarching concept of its own, the abstract and dark atmosphere is effective enough, and it seems sensible to allow the audience to make its own interpretation of this fairly complex, philosophical work that few will have encountered before.

An excellent cast certainly engage with the drama’s human dimensions. Mirko Roschkowski’s tenor voice is both ringing and light, bringing clear musical expression to Amandus’s introspection and naivete. Anne-Fleur Werner’s Lillian starts tenderly and demurely – suitably as the virgin appointed to lead the pagans’ rituals – but she becomes more impassioned in her dialogue with Amandus, mediating as she does between two different competing groups like Kundry. And, multi-faceted like that character, in her extended monologue towards the end Werner modulates into a delicate, Straussian lyricism. Dshamilja Kaiser, by contrast, is more capricious, even almost playful as Alardis, one of the pagan ringleaders.

The respective Christian and pagan leaders are similarly well contrasted – where Tobias Schabel’s Kaleidos conveys the dogmatism of the former with a tonal bleakness and almost robotic regularity, Pavel Kudinov depicts Sinbrand with a certain wildness and vigour, both doing justice to their music. Carl Rumstadt is a cheery Moorish Pilgrim, a part which comes to function like the wise fool or jester of Shakespearean drama, or Momus in Classical literature. He appears with vocal buoyancy, praising love and win as though he has just stepped out of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, but stirs up further mischief – like one of the even more outrageously unconventional Arab poets such as Abu Nuwas – in defying all expectations and refuting that there is any God or any point in religion at all in a robustly deadpan style. Mention should also be made of Tae Hwan Yun’s Lenzmar, and Wooseok Shim and Hyoungjoo Yun as the two Lay Brothers, demonstrating the remarkably cogent vocal proficiency of singers coming from Korea, happily also encountered increasingly in British opera houses and festivals as well as elsewhere.

Dirk Kaftan conducts a well-paced account of the score – it leaves room for it to breathe with the mood of melancholy thoughtfulness which pervades the music, principally carried by the lean sonority of the strings here. But it also builds up quite a head of steam in the more dramatic scenes, forcefully carrying the narrative forwards. Plenty of instrumental details make their own articulate contributions along the way, often giving an impression of chamber music, not least at the opening of Act Three as the two Alumni list the different types of stop on the organ, which Schreker characterises in the orchestra. The chorus are in good voice without overwhelming the performance – the male chorus of Christian monks calmly intoning their liturgy, surely again recalling the community of knights of Parsifal.

This is an intelligent, rewarding contribution to the ongoing rediscovery of Schreker, for the moment mainly taking place in Germany. It reveals a composer with a distinct voice of his own – if not the most progressive of the time, then certainly not an also-ran to Strauss either and a notable exponent of German opera in the first part of the twentieth-century.

There appears to be no complete recording of this opera, but this production would more than adequately fill that gap if it were preserved on record.

Further performances to June 16

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