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Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Flammen (The Flames), WV93 (1923-29 rev 1932)
Raymond Very (tenor) – Don Juan; Iris Vermillion (mezzo soprano) - Death; Stephanie Friede (soprano) – a Woman, a Nun, Margarethe, Donna Anna; Gabriela Bone (soprano), Nina Bernsteiner (soprano), Anna Peshes (mezzo soprano), Christa Ratzenböck (mezzo soprano), Hermine Haselböck (mezzo soprano), Elisabeth Wolfbauer (mezzo soprano) – Female Shadows; Salvador Fernández-Castro (baritone) – Commendatore; Karl-Michael Ebner (tenor) – Pulcinella; Andreas Jankowitsch (bass-baritone) - Pantalone; Markus Raab (bass) - Harlequin
Arnold Schoenberg Chor, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Bertrand de Billy
Libretto in German only
rec. August 2006, Theater an der Wien, live
CAPRICCIO C5382 [70:12 + 57:19]

Schulhoff’s The Flames (Plameny in Czech or Flammen in Max Brod’s German libretto) is a two-act ‘Musical Tragicomedy with ten scenes’. The original Czech text was written by Karel Beneš, and it was Brod who brought it to Schulhoff’s attention. It occupied Schulhoff for a number of years and though largely complete by 1929 was revised in 1932 just before its first performance.

It fits into a definable strand of Czech stage works that sit in a surrealist or dream state context. Given Brod’s friendship with Kafka it’s not hard to see those elements of Beneš’ original text that would have appealed - nightmarish visions, hyper-sexualised frenzy, confused realities. Some of these elements, some more benign than others, spurred Čapek’s text of The Makropulos Case – it’s no surprise that a number of recent stagings of Janáček’s opera stress, perhaps overstress, surrealist imagery. And these dream images reach their apotheosis in Czech opera in Martinů’s Julietta, first performed six years after Flammen’s premiere in Brno.

The work concerns Don Juan, and Schulhoff centres his drama on the Don, the Commendatore, Donna Anna – here his wife – and the figure of (female) Death, La Morte. The Don’s punishment is not death but eternal life, another feature that references, knowingly or otherwise, The Makropulos Case. Flammen doesn’t vest primacy in linear narrative – that would be altogether too old hat – but rather employs scenic devices like cinematic fades to depict the opera’s projection of the nature of the opposition of life and death, and between man and woman, and the fundamental irreconcilability of these oppositions. The more the Don fails and is punished, the more he lives, the attraction and repulsion between the opposing flames of the life-force (The Don) and death remaining eternally at odds.

If this summary makes the work seem a schematic pyscho-drama, heaving and throbbing with lascivious intent, then that’s to underplay Schulhoff’s music. There’s something sinuously Stravinskian and seductive about the opening flute solo in the Nocturne that begins (and ends) the work. There is expressionist and post-Debussian orchestral coloration, often chamber-sized, and a scene in which, in semi grand-guignol style, the Don is seduced by a Nun to the sounds of otherworldly swirling orchestral writing, Death playing the organ shortly afterwards, and a Weimar foxtrot emerging from some nightclub of the mind beyond. This pile-up of outlandish juxtapositions reflects the modernity of Schulhoff’s vision and the dramatic bravura he projects in other scenes shows real stagecraft. If the predominant feel is hallucination, he does write expressively from time to time though not with Zemlinskian fervour it’s true; rather, Schulhoff is compact, allusive, sometimes using the voices as colouristic devices in themselves. In the seventh scene, which ends the First Act, the voices of the central characters merge into the orchestral tapestry in what sounds to me, at least, like a kind of ecstatic Liebestod.

A Carnival scene as placid as a Venetian ball during a cholera epidemic opens the Second Act and off-key popular dances, slithering chromaticism, a murder-suicide, a Tango, the Commendatore’s curse and mocking cabaret dances pepper the last hour. It’s a work that functions by reiteration, by subversion and by presenting a scenario of lurid sexuality that varies from obvious to subtle.

This 2006 performance was recorded in the Theater an der Wien over several days. Raymond Very assumes the role of Don Juan with great resourcefulness, given some of the difficult registers asked of him, and Iris Vermillion’s La Morte is a perfect foil. Stephanie Friede is Margarethe and takes other smaller roles, whilst the Commendatore is Salvador Fernández-Castro. All the smaller roles are well taken. The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra evokes both the impressionist-expressionist elements, as well as its more knockabout demotic, with great fervour and clarity and Bertrand de Billy lives up to his reputation as a most astute and perceptive conductor of difficult works such as this – difficult structurally, musically, and in terms of the right kind of ‘tone’.

The work was premiered on disc in Decca’s Entartete Musik series nearly thirty years ago and I’ve not been able to make comparisons between the two recordings. The Decca is, in any case, out of print.

Capriccio provides a libretto but it’s in German only. My one reader will point out that it can doubtless be found in translation on the internet, but I don’t think that’s quite satisfactory, especially for a work that’s barely known and performed. Otherwise, apart from some vocal losses during stage movement when characters seem to be distant from the microphones, this is a convincing performance that sheds important light on Schulhoff’s approach to stage work. You’re very unlikely to come across a performance in the opera house so this is certainly the next best thing.

Jonathan Woolf

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