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Die Gezeichneten was originally commissioned by Alexander Zemlinsky, who asked Franz Schreker to write a libretto for him to set to music – a libretto that would tell “the tragedy of the ugly man”. However, Schreker was so taken with the material that he used it as a basis for his own major operatic work. The triumphant success of the premiere established Schreker for once and for all as one of the leading operatic composers of the early 20th century. Until being outlawed by the Nazis, this work even went so far as to rival Richard Strauss’ operas. Die Gezeichneten faded into obscurity for many decades and was only rediscovered thanks to a performance in Frankfurt in 1979. This forgotten masterpiece has now assumed its rightful place on the world’s stages and has since been seen more and more often in opera house repertoires.
Although not written until between 1913 and 1915, Schreker’s opera Die Gezeichneten is a fin de siècle drama in which, alongside moments of decadence, the focus is on the essential contrast between art and life. The opera is based on Frank Wedekind’s play Hidalla oder Sein und Haben and takes place in Renaissance-era Genoa. Ugly and crippled nobleman Alviano Salvago has a paradise called Elysium built on an island near the city, to be devoted to art and beauty. On account of his own ugliness, however, he has never set foot on the island himself. He would like to gift this paradise to the city of Genoa and to make it accessible to all its citizens. Against Alviano’s will, the dashing and confident aristocrat Tamare has set up a brothel on the island in which Genoese noblemen abuse kidnapped girls. The two men are both vying for the affections of painter Carlotta. Recognising the noble soul beneath Alviano’s deformed exterior, she expresses a desire to paint him, he agrees, and the two fall in love. However, Carlotta is also attracted by Tamare’s good looks and allows herself to be seduced by him. Alviano catches them both red-handed and kills Tamare. As Carlotta dies of despair next to his dead body, Alviano loses his mind.