Der Schmied von Ghent (with German libretto / 2 volumes / special format 27 x 38 cm)
(b. Monaco, 23 March 1878 – d. Berlin, 21 March 1934
Der Schmied von Gent
Große Zauberoper in drei Akten
Franz Schreker was once considered among the most important opera composers in Europe. Along with works by Berg, Korngold, and Zemlinksky, Schreker’s operas were central to the development of early-twentieth opera and widely staged throughout the continent. The rise of National Socialism, however, ended performances of Schreker’s works.
Born in Monaco to a Jewish father and Catholic mother from the Austrian aristocracy, Schreker studied violin and composition at the Vienna Conservatory. He founded the Philharmonic Chorus in Vienna in 1907 and led it until 1920, when he was appointed director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Two years earlier, the sensation caused by Schreker’s opera Die Gezeichneten in Frankfurt am Main had firmly established the composer as one of the leading voices of his generation. Schreker’s popularity reached its pinnacle in 1920 with the premiere of his fifth opera, Der Schatzgräber. At the time, Schreker was as popular with German audiences as Strauss, leading contemporaries to compare his success with that of Wagner. But Schreker’s next three operas were frostily received as he grappled with changing stylistic trends.
Der Schmied von Gent, Schreker’s final opera, represents the composer’s attempt to win back the German public. Schreker based the opera on Smetse Smee from Charles De Coster’s 1858 collection, Flemish Tales, naming it “an opera à la Breughel.” In light of the uncharacteristically comic material and subtitle, Große Zauberoper in drei Akten, many believed Schreker sought to piggyback off Jaromir Weinberger’s wildly successful and much-imitated folk opera, Schwanda, der Dudelsackpfeifer (1927).
Der Schmied von Gent, premiered in Berlin on 5 November 1932. It was the first and only new opera premiere of the 1932/33 season in Berlin and the last major opera premiere of the Weimar Republic. The performance, at the Städtische Oper, featured leading artists of the period: renowned bass-baritone Wilhelm Rode sang the title role, Schreker’s former student Paul Breisach directed, Rudolf Zindler staged, and Caspar Neher designed the sets and costumes. During the curtain call, audiences enthusiastically applauded Rode’s performance, but Schreker was greeted with hisses and whistles, apparently the result of a coordinated effort by fascists motivated by anti-Semitism. Reviews were largely negative. Critics commended the libretto, which Schreker wrote, as was his custom, but maligned the music as lacking the memorable melodies and the musical wit of its apparent inspiration, Schwanda. The production closed after just five performances.
Set in sixteenth-century Flanders, Der Schmied von Gent, tells the story of the titular blacksmith, who is slandered by the occupying Spanish forces and consequently loses his business. Desperate, Smee enters a Faustian pact, promising his soul to the devil in exchange for seven years of good fortune. As the due date approaches, Smee and his unnamed wife take in the Holy Family and are granted three wishes, each of which Smee uses to enchant objects around his home: a plum tree, an armchair, and a sack. Announced by chromatic, fantastical sounds, underworldly figures, including the Duke of Alba, then appear to collect the blacksmith’s soul. But Smee tricks them into the objects, where they are ensnared until they are driven back to hell. The third visitor, the devil’s mistress Astarte, is released only after returning the pact to Smee, allowing him to escape the hell.
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