Flammen, Opera by Erwin Schulhoff
In Prague this season, audiences have the chance to go back in time to the experimental 1930s when a host of avant-garde opera was created and premiered, only to be labelled ‘degenerate’ by right-wing regimes and kicked into the dirt. Such was the fate of Flammen (or ‘Flames’ in English) by Erwin Schulhoff, a creative, enthralling reinvention of the myth of serial womaniser Don Juan. It had its debut performance at the National Theatre in Brno, then-Czechoslovakia, on 27 January 1932 and under the original Czech title Plameny. Due to its experimental nature and the prevailing moods in Central Europe at the time, it did not take off and was largely forgotten until the 1990’s when a series of revivals in German as Flammen brought this rare and special opera back into the limelight.
The idea for Flammen’s predecessor, the Czech-language Plameny was born when Max Brod pointed Schulhoff to a new work by playwright Karel Josef Beneš, which was loosely based on the legend of Don Juan but also featured other myths, such as that of the Wandering Jew. The writer’s surrealist stylings immediately struck a chord within Schulhoff, and the two started work on the libretto. The result was not a linear narrative but a collection of ten scenes that depict the past and present of Don Juan. The legendary lover’s numerous conquests are apparent, but his greatest desire is to seduce Death – La Morte – herself. Against this background, his doomed affair with Donna Anna and his deadly duel with her husband, the Commendatore, take on a metaphysical quality. Instead of ending up in hell, Schulhoff’s Don Juan is punished with eternal life, forever stuck in a cycle of seduction, never achieving his desired romance with Death.
The original production of Plameny matched its text and music closely with sombre stage sets where bright beams of light would suddenly protrude the dominant darkness. The opera’s title refers to the numerous visions different characters have of a romantic encounter with a person who is the colour of fire. The music is similarly incendiary and wild. Revivals from the 1990’s and beyond are usually staged in German, after Max Brod’s official translation, under the title Flammen. This season, Prague invites you to observe Don Juan’s doomed rendezvous with La Morte, lit by the dancing flames.