Our times are full of peculiar things,” Carlotta sings in the first act of Franz Schreker’s 1918 expressionist psychothriller, “Die Gezeichneten.” She is referring to a woman who paints hands—delicate ladies’ palms, fat workingmen’s fists—but by the end of the evening she will have found herself (at least in Calixto Bieito’s new staging at the Komische Oper Berlin) engaged in a 15-minute sex scene with a nine-foot-tall, Kelly green, stuffed bear. That this scene doesn’t feel gratuitous, that I didn’t laugh—that instead, in combination with a smoke-filled stage, green lighting, and Schreker’s thick harmonic taffy, the ursine tryst became a poignant evocation of a woman trapped by a lifetime of using sex as currency—is a tribute to the commitment of the performers and the success of this staging.

Expressionism arose from a young intelligentsia’s disappointment and disillusionment with the corrupt elites of early 20th century Europe. Angered by those elites’ betrayal of liberal ideas for economic advancement and their submission to feudal power, expressionists advocated for and created art that presented extreme and subjective emotional states, viewing themselves (in many cases) as part of a geistig or spiritual elite that would enact cultural transformation. In Die Aktion, a left-wing expressionist journal, just before World War I, the poet Iwan Goll described the Geist as the creative part of life struggling against all that is old and debased, “against the father who is named but no longer wills, against laws which are only written but no longer will.” The geistig artist would act, create, and express according to his (and almost never her) will, and not according to customs or laws. In this Nietzchian vision, the will of the artist was necessary to guide the people forward; it was important that the artist not be constrained by laws or morality. This vision, as it turned out, had fascistic as well as socialistic and humanistic implications.

Now consider the plot of “Die Gezeichneten,” which translates to “the branded” or “the stigmatized”: a hunchbacked count, Alviano Salvago, has created an island pleasure dome called Elysium. It’s a paradise full of “fountains and magnificent gardens, unheard-of wonders of art and treasures, bounteous nature.” He wants to donate it to the people of Genoa, but his friends, a group of dissolute noblemen including the virile count Vitelozzo Tamare, have been using a hidden grotto on the island to torture and rape young women. The noblemen attempt to stop the transfer of ownership. Tamare wishes to seduce Carlotta, a painter and the daughter of the mayor, but she rejects him, instead falling in love with Salvago and wishing to paint his soul. The people of Genoa see the island for the first time and are astonished. To claim Carlotta, Tamare reveals the existence of the grotto. Salvago is blamed for the abduction and rape of the women. To prove his innocence, he leads the people to the grotto, where he finds Carlotta unconscious and Tamare celebrating his conquest. Salvago loses his mind, stammering derangedly about hats and fiddles. Enormous suspended brass chord. Curtain. Right there in the plot sit both expressionism and its undoing, an allegory of art and pleasure seducing people into evil wrapped in a score of shimmering, silky, chromatic, shuddering, ultimately ravishing music.

“Die Gezeichneten” and the rest of Schreker’s oeuvre have undergone something of a renaissance in the last few years. Banned as degenerate by the Nazis, the work was first revived in the 1960s and has received two high-profile new productions this year alone: the one being reviewed here and a production by Krzysztof Warlikowsi at the Bayerische Staatsoper this summer. While Warlikowski (as far as can be told by pictures and description) leaned into the work’s lushness and decadence, the Komische Oper’s team of conductor Stefan Soltesz and director Calixto Bieito presented the work dispassionately, almost clinically. Claiming to be presenting the libretto without revision or resetting, Bieito read the libretto’s description of “young women” and cast Salvago as a pedophile whose Elysium is a representation of a lost (and perhaps never-experienced) happy childhood. It is implied that Salvago has never abused children on the island but that the other noblemen have. The first two acts play out in front of a white wall on which ghostly images are projected: sad and haunted children’s eyes, ferris wheels. Groups of happy children with balloons greet Salvago’s entrances. Carlotta’s painting consists of carving a hole into the wall. Here is art as a kind of destruction of boundaries, an act of psychological revelation that eventually destroys its own subject. When she seduces him, she strips off her painter’s togs to reveal an outfit identical to an abused child-figure that has made regular stage appearances since the prologue. In Act III, when the action moves to Elysium, the stage fills with lights, green smoke, enormous toys. A train full of sad children spins in endless circles. Carlotta enacts Tamare’s seduction with the aforementioned enormous toy bear. As the people of Genoa discover the grotto and turn on Salvago, the smoke fades, the twinkling lights shut off, and the end plays out in front of a pile of plastic trash. This was genuinely moving: so much stage magic being invoked after two acts of spare psychological direction and then fading out like a deflating balloon.

Schreker filled his own libretto with descriptions that could serve his music: “the beauty of awful magic”; “glowing purple veils of a thousand colors, iridescent, glowing mists.” The opera unfolds in a series of shimmering tremolos and ecstatic modulations, the music never sits anywhere for long. The orchestra of the Komische Oper and conductor Stefan Soltesz managed to find and present shape and structure. Schreker’s music can easily turn bombastic. Under Soltesz’s baton, the orchestra played with translucency and clarity, moderating when necessary to make the enormous act-end climaxes land with shuddering, wrenching effect. As Carlotta, soprano Ausrine Stundyte acted with detail and fervent energy and sang with an enormous and warm soprano. Her floated high pianissimi are still hanging in my head. After a slightly blustery first aria, Michael Nagy sang Tamare with impeccable intonation and a generous, round baritone. Tenor Peter Hoare’s Salvago was a remarkable characterization as well: harrowingly acted and sung with beautiful phrasing and not a hint of strain.

Many stage pictures will stay with me from Bieito’s dark, disturbing vision. Presenting the sexual deviance on the island as child abuse made it genuinely shocking—shocking in a way that nudity, whips, and chains would not have been. While clarity was not always this staging’s strong point, I consistently followed it as it dissolved into its own fantasies. Schreker’s characters sing of “souls that wrestle and torture themselves, that sacrifice and suffer,” “obsessed with evil spirits.” I was possessed, wrestled, and ultimately deeply moved by this peculiar evening of music theater. ¶

Ben Miller is a writer and historian, an opera queen, a regular contributor to the New York Times, and, with Huw Lemmey, the author of Bad Gays: A Homosexual History (Verso, 2022).