Schreker’s Schmied von Gent relayed from Antwerp

History was not kind to Franz Schreker. He was, during the Weimar Republic, a leading German composer and in the operatic repertory outshone only by Richard Strauss but, because he was Jewish, his works were banned by the Nazis and he died of a stroke in 1934.  Unlike other composers who were also victims of the Third Reich, the merits of his compositions were slow to be recognised after the Second World War and they are still infrequently performed.

Der Schmied von Gent, his last opera, did not have a chance to get established since its premiere in Berlin was disrupted by an anti-Semitic demonstration and it has been given only a handful of productions, most recently that of the Flemish Opera, currently available in a streaming by OperaVision. His earlier operas, such as Der ferne Klang and Die Gezeichneten, revealed a powerful expressionist musical style, viscerally underpinning the drama. Der Schmied von Gent is more opaque, less emotional, mixing questions of life and death with sharp, comic satire. It tells the story of a blacksmith whose business suffers when he is denounced for supporting the Flemish movement for independence from the Spanish occupation. To gain wealth and fame for a period of seven years, he makes a pact with the devil. When his time is up, he fails to persuade St Peter to let him into Paradise, but eventually his good deeds are calculated to outweigh his evils and the gates of Heaven are opened for him.

Certainly an allegory, but of what? The struggle between wealth and virtue? The need to reconcile personal ambition with social responsibility? It is unclear and the production in Antwerp by the notable young German stage director Ersan Mondtag – his first opera – did little to resolve the issue. Indeed, his interpolatory inclusion of historical material relating to the Belgian colonial experience in the Congo, although presumably intended to draw a parallel with the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries, inhibited rather than facilitated comprehension. It was nevertheless an exciting, vibrant show to observe. Colourful, exotic costumes (designer Josa Marx), displayed against a revolving angular set which matched well the spiky phrases and acerbic harmonies of the score, complemented the lively movement on stage.

The musical dimension to the performance was no less impressive. The conductor Alejo Pérez was not reticent in exposing the idiosyncrasies of Schreker’s orchestration. British baritone Leigh Melrose was the tireless blacksmith, sufficiently quirky to keep his audience guessing as to what was to come next and yet ready to reflect on the redeeming values of life and thus justify his eventual salvation. Kai Rüütel was his robust wife, her warm mezzo rising to compassion when all seemed lost. In smaller roles, Vuvu Mpofu and Daniel Arnaldos made their mark.