The remarkable thing is that it has taken so long to reach a Berlin opera stage. Franz Schreker’s Der Schatzgräber (“The Treasure Hunter”) opened in Frankfurt in 1920. It represented the high point of his career; alongside Richard Strauss, the Austrian Jew Schreker was the most performed living composer in Germany. But his fortunes were to wane as the Nazis rose to power. His music fell from favour, he lost his Berlin jobs as director of the Hochschüle für Musik and professor of composition at the Akademie der Künste, and died at the age of 55 of a stroke.
Der Schatzgräber makes Wagnerian demands of its orchestra and singers; perhaps the sheer immensity of the piece has contributed to its subsequent neglect. Like his earlier Die Gezeichneten (“The Branded”), it is a heady exploration of eros and danger, of excess and cruelty, guilt and the intoxicating lure of love. Schreker’s perfumed late romanticism pushes at the boundaries of tonality; it seduces and sickens, and leaves you feeling slightly sullied.
On paper, this is a tangled medieval tale of knights and kings, of a jester and a minstrel and a queen who cannot live without her jewels. But the protagonist is a thieving maid with a penchant for murder, a femme fatale who wants both the minstrel and the jewels.
Christof Loy and his team set the production in the banqueting hall of a fascist palace, the men in suits or military uniforms, the women there to serve them. Hostile walls of black marble take the place of all the opera’s many settings; here intimacy and disgrace are played out under the cynical gaze of a tainted society. The production’s strength is the marvellous psychological detail of Loy’s direction; his characters are really live, complex and fascinating. Elisabet Strid plays a fantastically nuanced Els, seductive, callous, impassioned and ultimately pitiable. Daniel Johansson makes a bold superman of a minstrel as Elis. Michael Laurenz’s Fool is perhaps the most engaging character of all, growing from satirist to humanist as the piece progresses.
But the evening’s real hero is conductor Marc Albrecht. He has been fascinated by the piece for decades, and it shows. He knows just how to give full throttle to the score’s lush extremes without losing any of the detail; how to pull back for moments of whispering tenderness; how to hold his singers in the palm of his hand. The orchestra shows just how much more subtlety and refinement it can produce in the right hands. The piece lives and breathes.
Der Schatzgräber deserves more outings than this, and different takes on its strange story-line. But this is an excellent start, and the perfect way to hear an extraordinary score.
To June 11, deutscheoperberlin.de