Music: Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942)
Libretto: Karel Josef Beneš (1896–1969)
Reconstruction of the Czech libretto: Jitka Slavíková
“Schulhoff’s stage directions are specific in their demands concerning an all-pervading darkness, punctuated by revealing shafts of light and colour,” thus wrote the critic Michael Eagleton in his review of the production of Flamnen (Flames) presented in 2006 at the KlangBogen festival in Vienna, aptly rendering the essence of the unique opera: oscillation between light and darkness, perdition and redemption, which permeate the piece throughout. The very opening tones in solo flute magically pull the audience into the story, replete with phantoms and unfurling to engrossing music that comes across as though from distant cosmic spheres. With the Rubicon of your imagination crossed, there is no way back.
Erwin Schulhoff was informed about the Czech writer Karel Josef Beneš’s unconventional depiction of the Don Juan story by the Prague German author and translator Max Brod, who would pen an original German libretto from Beneš’s literary work. In ten loosely linked scenes, the legendary libertine is shown in different episodes of passion – from lovemaking in a church or amid a sea storm to an ecstatic experience during a Carnival night, with Donna Anna rejecting Juan’s proposals with the words: “You are a true image of Death.” Yet Don Juan is not portrayed as a rake or sexual predator, he is a man driven by eternal desire. Appearing throughout the story is the mysterious figure of La Morte (Death), the one and only woman Juan really loves, but who withstands his wooing and ultimately condemns him to live for ever … The opera evokes the inseparable pairs of perennial contradictions: the flame of life and the flame of death longing for union, man and woman, hope and resignation. In Flammen, Schulhoff masterfully reflected these dualisms in a fantasy, almost surrealistic composition, fusing elements of opera, mime and symphonic poem. The music engrosses the audience from the very first scenes, with the Shades singing about Juan’s lust and La Morte’s passion for him. To the sound of solo flute, Juan enters an abandoned house so at to seduce yet another woman. Groans of ecstasy are heard …
Schulhoff worked on the opera between 1923 and 1929, following his return to Prague from Germany. He probably initially wrote it together with Brod for a German-language company. The piece was intended to be staged in Berlin in 1933 under the conductor Erich Kleiber, yet the plan fell through in the wake of the Nazi power grab in Germany. The opera received its world premiere at the Regional (today Mahen) Theatre in Brno on 27 January 1932, under the Czech title Plameny. Specially for this occasion, Karel Josef Beneš created a Czech version of the libretto, which, however, has not survived. When working on the opera Flammen, Beneš and Schulhoff could not have had the slightest inkling of the tragic fate that would befall them: as a member of the anti-Nazi resistance, Beneš was sentenced to death, which would ultimately be replaced by imprisonment (1941–1945), while Schulhoff did not live to see the end of World War II – as an “undesirable” Jewish artist and a national of a “hostile power” (he was granted Soviet citizenship in 1941), he was incarcerated in the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria, where on 18 August 1942 he died of tuberculosis.
Flammen would only enjoy renewed interest in the mid-1990s, yet attention merely focused on the opera’s German version, which was first performed in 1994 in Berlin (in concert, world premiere), followed by Leipzig, Amsterdam, Vienna, Los Angeles and Kaiserslautern. Ninety years after its premiere in Brno, the State Opera will within the Musica non grata project present the piece to the Czech libretto. The current production, staged by the controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieito, will feature a superb international cast. The text of the Czech libretto has been reconstructed from period sources by Jitka Slavíková, a dramaturge of the National Theatre Opera and the State Opera in Prague.