Monday, September 24, 2012

Schreker Opera in Amsterdam: Der Schatzgräber

Der Schatzgräber, De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, September 23 2012

Director ..... Ivo van Hove
Conductor ..... Marc Albrecht

Els ..... Manuela Uhl
Elis ..... Raymond Very

 Der Narr ..... Graham Clark
 Albi ..... Gordon Gietz
Der Junker ..... Mattijs van de Woerd
Der Wirt ..... Andrew Greenan
Der König ..... Tijl Faveyts
Die Königin ..... Basja Chanowski
Der Kanzler/Der Schreiber ..... Alasdair Elliott
Herold / Der Graf ..... André Morsch
Der Magister/Der Schultheiss ..... Kurt Gysen
er Vogt ...... Kay Stiefermann
Ein Landsknecht ..... Peter Arink
Erster Bürger ..... Cato Fordham
Zweiter Bürger ..... Richard Meijer
Mezzo Sopran Solo ..... Marieke Reuten
Alt Solo ..... Inez Hafkamp   
Alt Solo ..... Hiroko Mogaki
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra
Koor van De Nederlandse Opera [Alan Woodbridge]

There were at least three important reasons to go to Amsterdam this Sunday: (a) visiting this fascinating city is always special, (b) visit De Nederlandse Opera (DNO) and experience one of their steadily high quality new productions, (c) to finally see Der Schatzgräber, a.k.a. the most successful opera by Franz Schreker

Amsterdam is still crazy, fun, charming and cosmopolitan as ever. DNO is still at the same place: adjacent to the City Hall, physically not far away from the Red Light District, yet far enough not to pester your brain with fundamental ethical questions concerning the industry of pleasure...

Pierre Audi is the artistic director of DNO since many years and his way to run the house should be a good example to follow. Every year they propose something exciting for every taste, unveil many new productions of which at least two are at the very top quality of what you can get in Europe. He regularly invites new/young directors and give them a chance to exhibit their talent and present their creativity to the broader audience. The musical quality of all the Dutch orchestras is always  impressive so whenever you go to DNO you will always be treated by the top orchestral quality you might find on the market worldwide. To that add the fact that the casts are --for the most part-- carefully and delicately composed, and you get enough reasons to go to DNO at least once a year. According to the Paris Opera Rumor Mill, Pierre Audi is short-listed for the position of the next director of the Paris Opera. I hope he gets the job, although Stéphane Lissner seems to be the favorite.

A new fact that corroborates the general praise of Audi's artistic management is that he (and his team) took a risk and opened the 2012-2013 operatic season by an unknown opera, composed by a lesser known composer, but lined up a superb team to build up the show. Considering the current economical difficulties, that was very audacious  [It was much simpler to start with yet another revival of Rigoletto or Lucia and secure the full house each night.] The result is not only successful but DNO created one of the most compelling operatic events in Europe this year -- produced by Ivo van Hove, no less!

So far I was able to see only two fully staged operas by Schreker: Der Ferne Klang at the Berlin Staatsoper, and Die Gezeichneten (on DVD). I loved the plots, and I always admire the symbiosis of music and the (post-)romantic thread in the plot that often lean towards surreal and yet helps uncovering something deeply human. To me Schreker belongs to the more creative branch of post-Wagnerianism [in contrast to the surgically formatted snoozefest-operas from the same era, such as those by Pfitzner or Hindemith, for example].
Operas by Schreker are costly to stag: (i) too many cast members (+ vocally demanding for at least 3 main roles), (ii) story-lines are too dynamical,  requiring several sets to be changed during the show. His operas were popular, highly esteemed by the crowds and critics until the Nazi regime decided his art was "degenerate", and banned his music altogether. Even after the end of WW2 his operas remained at the bottom of the pile. I guess they were just too expensive to mount at that time, too difficult to sing... and so, modulo several attempts to resurrect Die Gezeichneten, Schreker remains rarely performed even today. Der Schatzgräber was apparently his most popular opera between its Frankfurt premiere in 1920 and 1932, when it was banned. Today it is an absolute rarity. Apart from a few excerpts on YouTube, there is a bad-quality video of the production mounted in Hamburg in 1989, with Gabriele Schnaut in the role of Els (check out this link), and that's about it.

The synopsis of this cca. 150 min long opera, consisting of a Prolog, 4 Acts, and Epilog, is very well  summarized on the DNO website, which I copy/paste here:

The queen has felt ill since the theft of her jewels, and will no longer sleep with the king. If the court jester manages to solve the crime, the king promises, he may choose a wife as his reward. The wandering minstrel Elis has a magic lute that can locate hidden treasures. The king summons him.

Els, the daughter of an innkeeper, has been married off against her will to a wealthy nobleman. The day before their wedding, she dispatches him to the city to collect a gold chain from a middleman: it is the last remaining piece of the queen’s jewellery, the rest having already been hidden in her house. She instructs her servant Albi, who is in love with her, to murder the nobleman along the way, just as her two previous lovers. During a toast to the absent bridegroom, Elis enters and sings for the revellers. Els falls in love with him. On his way, Elis has found the chain and presents it to Els. Els is overjoyed at the discovery of the nobleman’s body, for now she is free for Elis. He, however, is charged with the murder.

Elis is to be hanged. Els is joined at the gallows by the jester, who is still searching for the minstrel with the magic lute. Els’s words convince him that the prisoner is in fact the man he is looking for. He rushes to the king. Els tells Elis to stall the proceedings by singing a farewell song. He professes his love for her. At the last minute, the king halts the execution. Elis accompanies him to the palace; tomorrow he shall return to Els. To prevent him from finding the jewels in her possession, she instructs Albi to steal his lute.

Els and Elis spend the night together. He is distraught: without his lute he is unable to carry out his orders. She promises to deliver the treasure to him on the condition that he not ask how she came to acquire it. Els emerges scantily clad but draped in the queen’s jewellery. At dawn she removes the treasure and hands it over to Elis.

The royal court celebrates the return of the queen’s jewels and with them, her youth and beauty. They pressure Elis to tell how and where he found the treasure. Angered, he insults the queen and demands the return of the gems. The bailiff enters, announcing that Albi has confessed. As evidence, he hands Elis his lute. Els is sentenced to burn at the stake. But the jester reminds the king of his promise and demands Els as his bride. She says farewell to Elis and goes off with the jester.

One year later. Els is dying in the jester’s secluded hut. He sends for Elis, who comforts Els in her last moments with a beautiful ballad about a blissful paradise.

Now, if from the above text you get the impression that some parts are awkwardly connected, you're on the right track. I believe the surreal twists in the story can in fact be a source of motivations for a talented director who needs to connect the dots and come up with his own interpretation of the libretto (written by the composer himself, by the way).

At first look Els might appear as a femme fatale (like Alcina, for example) who uses her beauty to seduce men and then make them do what she wants: steal the pieces of the royal jewelry. Each of her (three) lovers would come back with a precious piece, and each would end dead -- killed by Albi, her most loyal admirer. Van Hove gives his touch of depth to the story by placing the action to our time, among people that are best described as "white trash": Men with too many tattoos, long greasy hair, wife-beaters, dirty denim, long mustache...; women wearing the fishnet stockings, very mini dress, high heels, too much make-up...

Els is a damaged person: she fears and despises men at the same time, but is aware of her magic power to make them do what she wants. Van Hove suggests that the source of her attitude towards men lies in her childhood, and little by little as the story is progressing, we get to understand that she was actually abused by her (step-)father.  It is an edgy story because van Hove makes it ambiguous: from what is projected on the stage it is not clear whether the abuse she was subjected to was a source of her absolute suspicion towards men, or it's the fact that she was actually in a long and impossible love with the man who was her abuser (remember Nabokov? remember the Fritzl case?...)

Like Alcina, Els falls in love and the realization of that love is also her own tragedy. At least half of the opera is about the transition from her initial suspicion to Elis, to a total love for him -- masterfully sculpted on the stage. The jester in this production is an old man, a character similar to those surreal  roles encountered in the films by David Lynch. The whole story of jewelry is symbolic and is just a carrier of something more significant -- just like in the David Lynch movies -- its purpose in the story-line is hard to seize it and put it in a solid logical relationship. 
My (straightforward) interpretation of the jewelry is actually sex-related: it is aphrodisiac both for men and for women, for the King and for the Queen. It is simply a materialized object of their desire, the significance of which is mostly sexual. Els wanted it, hoping it would make her truly love the man she was supposed to love (Albi?). Only when the whole Royal Jewelry was in her possession and she met Elis, she understood that this was not enough, and that the jewelry meant nothing to her love for Elis. In the famous love scene, she did not want to sleep with Elis. He slept on the floor while she was in bed (Next morning she gave him the jewelry to return it to the King). King and Queen, on the other hand, grew old but when they regained their jewelry, they passionately kissed each other.

The stage is organized in a singer-friendly manner. It is not deep and two large wooden walls (forming a very wide angle) reflect the singing sound that easily flies over the orchestral tide-waves. Each wooden wall is cut in the middle so that a house-shaped piece can be moved through it from backstage as to define either the front of the stage: at first it is an inn, then a prison, then the Els' bedroom, the Royal court, and finally the backyard of a mountain house where Els will spend her last moments with Elis.

Manuela Uhl is a well known name for us who often go to the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where we could experience her beautiful interpretations of various Straussian roles. Here she totally exceled, both vocally and scenically. Her voice is rich, strong, her pronunciation is good and the character interpretation is exemplary as it remains ambiguous,  multidimensional. In addition to that she's very good-looking, which was definitely a big bonus for this role. Manuela must be terrific as Sieglinde, and her Isolde will be smashing when the time comes for that role.
I was pleasantly surprised by Raymond Very, who I never listened to in an opera production before. A good helden tenor that might be big in the years to come. I should also mention the King's Fool -- Old Man, interpreted by the phenomenal Graham Clark whose huge voice sounds very similar to that of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. All other singers were very good too.

Raymond Very, Manuela Uhl and Graham Clark

Marc Albrecht is a weird bird: I listened to his Lulu a few years back in Salzburg and totally  disliked it [I remember I thought it was hard to screw up the music to die for with such a great orchestra]. In retrospect, I guess it was more a problem of adjusting to the super-vast auditorium of the Felsenreitschule and the sound was dispersed before reaching the audience... How else could I explain his most memorable conducting of the Gurre-Lieder at La Salle Pleyel in Paris last year? His command of the orchestra yesterday was impeccable. His interpretation of the Schreker score is pleasant as he carefully toned down the moments that could dangerously cross the line and make this music sound like Korngold or Puccini, and yet each climax was properly emphasized. Great, great stuff!

Music-wise Schreker is Schreker. It is not revolutionary and the score can be somewhat uneven but  Schreker self-corrects whenever approaches the line of being too pathossy [it's not a word but you get the point] and returns to underlying the dramatic character of his music.  I read somewhere that the love scene in Der Schatzgräber can be paralleled with the one from Tristan und Isolde. I totally disagree with that statement, although I highly enjoyed them both. 

I understood a Dutch radio live broadcast Der Schatzgräber from DNO 10 days ago. If anyone of my readers recorded it, please let me know. Many thanks in advance!

Production photos [© DNO]

Two more of my pics:

Marc Albrecht

and the video clip

Gerard Mortier too was in Amsterdam yesterday, catching the last Schreker show at DNO. Pierre Audi was there too. No picks of them, but I give you three pics from Amsterdam  -- without comments :)


  1. "DNO is still at the same place: adjacent to the City Hall, physically not far away from the Red Light District, yet far enough not to pester your brain with fundamental ethical questions concerning the industry of pleasure..."

    Ethical questions? Really?

    Sex has been around forever and prostitution has been around forever. It is an unadulterated exchange of services, no more or less degrading for either buyer or seller than any other professional relationship in a civilized society.

    As I see it the same arguments against prostitution – buying or selling – could be made against any professional political, economical, or religious service – politician and soldier, doctor and lawyer, psychologist and priest – you name it.

    Sexual behavior is a positive, nurturing act, and whether it is given out of love or rendered as a service, as long as it is consensual it is still positive. I cannot fathom how one could think that making another human being experience pleasure for a fee could be degrading or demeaning unless it is degrading to make other people feel good.

    Everyone who works "sells" one or more parts of his or her body. Athletes, actors, actresses, construction workers, physicians "sell" their body. The body is what is needed to do physical work. It would be difficult to engage in any profession without the use and therefore "sale" of one's body.

    Sex and the desire to be touched in a nurturing way are human needs, like drinking water, eating and sleeping. If not a need, after enough time it's certainly high on the list of wants.

    Every employed person, in the entire world, is working out of 'economic necessity'. Sex workers are no more 'forced' to work than anyone else is. FORCED is being kidnapped, beaten, locked in a brothel and made to service men against your will. Going into sex work for any other reason - whether it's to save your children from starvation or to buy a brand new BMW - is a CHOICE. Yes, for some it's a choice they did not want to make and, perhaps, one they regret making. Yes, some sex workers hate their job and wish that they could leave it... but so do millions of other people in millions of other occupations.

    Right now, there are tens of thousands of lawyers, teachers, barstaff, soldiers, etc, crying themselves to sleep because they're desperately unhappy in their work, but can't leave because they have to feed their families. Do we pity the doctor who hates his work, but is 'trapped' by his $500,000 mortgage? Do we feel guilty about 'forcing' the broke waitress to serve us our food, or 'abusing' the hotel cleaner who scrubs our toilets?

    Why is job satisfaction only critical when the work involves naked genitals?

    1. It is more complicated than you appear to think it is, and in many parts I agree with you.

      I went through this argument many times with many different people and it always ends in a dead-end. One thing is what you're saying and another is to physically see people window-shopping in the Red Light District, and see the "underaged" girls staring at you from the windows.

      There is a part of it that is degrading to women and you cannot not to seize that 'detail' once you're actually there. There is a superb production of Die Entführung aus dem Seraglio by Calixto Bieito that you can catch at the Komische in Berlin, that treats that issue in a very compelling way.

      I very much appreciate your thoughts but that's not what I wanted to discuss here. Cheers :)

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