There is a stereotype many have that “high” culture, such as William Shakespeare and opera, deals with refined “classical” subject matter, as distinct from what critic Pauline Kael called the “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” obsessions of pop culture, especially movies. But those who make this distinction forget that in Elizabethan England, Shakespearean dramas were largely performed for the masses. Hamlet, in fact, is a ghost story about murder most foul, incest, suicide and is as much a revenge tale as any film noir picture.
The same is true of opera. For instance, Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is, among other things, about a hunchbacked jester who apparently has incestuous desires for his sexy daughter Gilda (perhaps not coincidentally also the name of a sexy 1946 Rita Hayworth movie and character). Austrian composer Franz Schreker’s The Stigmatized is another case in point, a work of “high” art that is mostly about the “baser” passions.
The current production of The Stigmatized is the opera’s U.S. premiere and part of L.A. Opera’s “Recovered Voices” series, which, according to press notes, is “a multi-season initiative to revive the works of composers whose lives and careers were cut short by the Nazi regime.” (Perhaps this is a sort of compensation and penance for the company’s spending so much time, money and energy on presenting The Ring cycle by Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner, widely believed to be an ardent anti-Semite.) Schreker’s saucy work, set in 16th century Genoa, was originally presented in Germany in 1918, and can be viewed as being part of the edgy postwar culture of the Weimar Republic that included sexually charged works in various cabaret acts and by playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, this so-called “degenerate art” was banned due to its blatant sexuality. It didn’t help that Schreker was half-Jewish, as was Brecht’s wife, actress Helene Weigel. To make matters worse, Schreker’s lead character in The Stigmatized, Alviano Salvago (tenor Robert Brubaker) is hunchbacked and crippled, and with their “Master Race” delusions, Dr. Mengele and his cohorts despised the misshapen (unlike Schreker, who also wrote The Dwarf, which L.A. Opera mounted in 2008). In any case, Salvago is also a fabulously wealthy nobleman who has created an island utopia called, after Greek mythology, “Elysium,” which he has altruistically decided to donate to the people of Genoa.
Well, no good deed goes unpunished. It turns out that Salvago’s elite “friends” have been using Elysium’s grotto (holy Hefner and the Playboy Mansion!) to stage orgies at. These ignoble nobles have been abducting Genoa’s most beautiful women to participate in their sex-capades, and Salvago’s plan to donate their happy hunting ground to the city threatens this sexual cabal’s revels, so they conspire to thwart him. With “friends” like these…
Salvago, who is full of sexual angst largely due to his deformity, begins a romance with Carlotta Nardi (soprano Anja Kampe), the daughter of the mayor, Lodovico Nardi (bass-baritone Wolfgang Schone). In the words of another famous musician, Carlotta is “a hunk-a hunk-a burning love,” and she, too, is torn between her affection for Salvago and lust for the dashing Count Tamare (baritone Martin Gantner).
Carlotta is an artist who strives to be a sort of portrait painter of the soul. Her quest to give form on canvas to the true inner self reminded me of the 1981 Barbra Streisand movie All Night Long, wherein Gene Hackman’s character invents a mirror that shows people exactly how they are (instead of the image being reversed).
The Stigmatized raises the question of presenting sexual aesthetics onstage. An L.A. Times article about the opera prior to its debut at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion contended that: “L.A. Opera’s staging will contain explicit sexual situations and is intended for mature audiences only. Director Ian Judge said the production will evoke the ‘rank smell of bad sex’ for the orgy scenes.” Really? Most of the revels consisted of performers romping around a circular revolving stage in tophats, cloaks, suits, long dresses and the like. There is one nude scene per se with an actress who has sex with a partially clad male. But overall the orgies were pretty chaste and, for the record, did not have foul aromas.
As I have written many times before, in the past artists fought and suffered for the freedom to depict sex, nudity and other taboo topics in the arts, and it’s disappointing when today’s talents, who now possess those hard fought for rights, don’t use them. Having said that, to be fair L.A. Opera’s 2008 production of The Fly did feature the full frontal nudity of bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as scientist Seth Brundle, partially clad women and lots more sex than the 1986 film version, which was likewise directed by David Cronenberg. So it is strange that, like its character, this production of The Stigmatized seems sexually conflicted.
Schreker’s music, ably conducted by James Conlon, is sonorous, if not exactly toe-tapping. But what really stands out is this show’s visuals. Sets are almost characters in their own right in many L.A. Opera productions – the mad scientist’s lair in The Fly, the prison in Tosca, a piazza in Carmen or The Barber of Seville. There is not so much a set design as much as a projection design in The Stigmatized, imaginatively projected onto a scrim and overseen by award-winning Broadway veteran Wendall Harrington, who’s work includes what may be the first rock opera, The Who’s Tommy.
The images include a reference to Hieronymos Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, although for some reason the 16th century Dutch painter’s orgiastic images are not projected, while his edenic landscapes are, to suggest Elysium. Nevertheless, in lieu of sets per se, the projected imagery enhanced this production of The Stigmatized with a cinematic verve and flavor. Which seems appropriate, as so-called “high” and “low” art meet and mingle in The Stigmatized.
The Stigmatized is being performed at L.A. Opera in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., on Thursday April 22 and Saturday April 24 at 7:30 p.m. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.