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Der Schmied von Gent
Dreissig, Kuhn; Zwarg, Riemer, Randall, Gäbler, Sawaley; Oper Chemnitz Choir and Children's Choir, Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie, Beermann. German text with English translation. CPO 777 647-2 (2)
With this two-CD set of Franz Schreker's Der Schmied von Gent (1932), we are one step closer to a complete discography of the late-Romantic composer's considerable opera output. Of his nine operas, only one, Der Singende Teufel (1928), remains to be recorded.
But those who respond to the shimmering sensuality and hothouse melodrama of Schreker's early and middle-period operas are likely to feel a sense of letdown and disappointment here. By this point in his career, Schreker had shifted his focus to spiritual and folkloric themes and was attempting to write music more in line with contemporary central-European tastes. Although he still shied away from the dodecaphonic style of the Second Viennese School, he was aiming here for the astringency and neoclassicism found in the works of Stravinsky, Hindemith and even some of his own students, such as Krenek and Goldschmidt. The result, as evidenced in the already-recorded Christophorus (1933) and in this document of a series of 2010 performances in Chemnitz, is a musical style altogether drier, colder and more cerebral than his early masterworks Der Ferne Klang (1912) and Die Gezeichneten (1918). Basing his libretto on a comic Flemish legend about an insouciant village blacksmith who makes a pact with the devil but outwits him and gains access to heaven, Schreker rejected the feverish eroticism of his early operas. The result is a busy, cacophonous score with little emotional thrust. Larded with musical references and in-jokes, its tuneless meanderings inspire little more than a kind of cold admiration. Schreker himself admitted that he had sought to please the public with this work and hoped it "would not be boring." But it's clear that he should have stuck with the Freudian abandon of his earlier original librettos, which brought out the best in his very personal art.
Conductor Frank Beermann cannot be faulted; he and his forces, which include the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie and the Chemnitz Opera Chorus, do their level best to lend excitement to the piece. Der Schmied von Gent is not an uninteresting score, but it is one that will inspire few repeat listenings. The Chemnitz Opera soloists are, by and large, a provincial lot, with the exception of Oliver Zwarg in the title role. His baritone is light but well articulated, falling pleasantly on the ear, and his diction is sharp. His voice carries a sizable amount of personality and charm, which are key components of this role. As his wife (who, like Strauss's Färberin, is not given a name), Undine Dreissig wields a small-scale utility mezzo of little distinction. Tenors André Reimer and Edward Randall are adequate as, respectively, the blacksmith's employee, Flipke, and nemesis, Slimbroek. Soprano Judith Kuhn acquits herself well at forte levels in the cameo role of Astarte, an emissary of the devil.
At a time when recordings of obscure operas rarely come furnished with much more than an inadequate synopsis, CPO must be commended for including a thick booklet with an informative essay by Janine Ortiz, as well as full libretto with English translation. Unfortunately, the overly literal translation is clumsily unidiomatic and does this already cryptic opera no favors.
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