Schulhoff: Flammen review – vivid operatic colour from ‘degenerate’ composer

Andrew Clements
·2-min read

Czech-born Erwin Schulhoff died of tuberculosis in a concentration camp in Bavaria in 1942; he was 48. His only opera, Flammen (Flames), had been composed between 1923 and 1929, and was first performed in Brno in 1932. Schulhoff’s music was condemned as degenerate by the Nazis, and it was not until the 1990s that Flammen was staged again (in Leipzig), and also recorded in Berlin under John Mauceri for Decca’s Entartete Musik series. The Capriccio set comes from a production in Vienna in 2006, which was recorded by Austrian Radio.

Although it’s based on the legend of Don Juan, with a libretto by Karel Josef Beneš (and translated from Czech into German by Kafka’s friend and biographer Max Brod), Flammen is a surreal reworking of the story, interwoven with elements of the legend of the wandering Jew. There’s little sense of linear narrative running through the 10 scenes, which depict Don Juan as a haunted, eternally condemned figure; four of his victims are sung by the same soprano, while La Morte, the one women Juan did not seduce, is his ever-present nemesis, with six female Shades acting as Greek chorus.

Though the dramaturgy is sometimes creaky, the range of Schulhoff’s score is fascinating. His music is distinctly eclectic, with the expressionism of Berg (some passages echoing Wozzeck, others anticipating Lulu) alongside clunkier moments of Hindemith-style neoclassicism, and with occasional forays into jazz. And despite the intrusive stage noise, it’s the vivid orchestral music that comes out best in this performance under Bertrand de Billy – even if that’s sometimes at the expense of the voices, which are not always as far forward as they might be.

The tenor Raymond Very copes valiantly with the hugely demanding central role of Don Juan, Stephanie Friede sings the quartet of victims, and Iris Vermillion is wonderfully compelling as La Morte. Vermillion took the same role in the Decca recording of Flammen, and that earlier, more refined version remains the one to hear.

This week’s other pick

BIS’s new recording of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle is based on concert performances that Susanna Mälkki conducted in Helsinki in January last year. Orchestrally it’s magnificent; the Helsinki Philharmonic creates a sumptuously detailed sound world, which Mälkki focuses exactly on each unfolding layer of the drama, and by and large the two protagonists, bass Mika Kares as Bluebeard and mezzo Szilvia Vörös as Judit, are excellent. Perhaps Kares is perhaps a bit too likable, and Vörös’ top notes are a bit precarious, but otherwise their performances are utterly convincing.