Raymond Very, Iris Vermillion, Stephanie Friede; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Bertrand de Billy
Capriccio C 5382 127:31 mins (2 discs)
The premiere of Erwin Schulhoff’s only opera, in Brno 1932, was not a success. In time the Nazis banned his music and he died of tuberculosis in an internment camp in 1942. It would be 60 years before his Freudian reworking of the Don Juan myth with a libretto rendered into German by Franz Kafka’s biographer, Max Brod, remerged in the theatre. Audiences today have fewer problems with a music drama that abandons conventional narrative for ten loosely connected scenes in which Don Juan struggles to seduce La Morte, the one woman who has eluded his charm. A chorus of female shadows dissolve in and out of this never-ending drama of desire and death.
Flammen begins as it ends with a flute solo suggesting Debussy, while the string writing reminds us that Schulhoff was close to Alban Berg. It’s soon apparent that Schulhoff is a dazzling musical collagist. Quotations from Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase and Wagner’s Tristan partner perky foxtrots and jazzy rhythms. Bertrand de Billy is in his element, whether it’s on the dance floor, ushering in the Dies Irae or leading a battery of orgasmic bells.
Raymond Very is a handsome Don Juan, at his best in the lament that ends Act I. Iris Vermillion is stretched to the limit as La Morte, and if Stephanie Fried never quite characterises the other women in Don Juan’s life then perhaps that is because the orchestra always leads.