Once upon a time... That's how many operas could begin, but with Franz Schreker's Der Schatzgräber (The Treasue Hunter), it really applies. Schreker began writing this fairy tale opera – to his own libretto – in 1915, making use of the novel Freudian associations of the time. It concerns the greed for gold and the human and metaphysical drive for erotic recognition that takes place in all societies and leads individuals to their perdition.

Doke Pauwels (Queen), Tuomas Pursio (King) and Michael Laurenz (Jester)
© Monika Rittershaus

A queen has her jewellery stolen and falls into a deep depression. Her beauty is gone, as is her will to live and her fertility. The court jester advises the king to seek out the troubadour, Elis, who can use his lute as a divining rod to find treasure. No sooner said than done. The troubadour finds the jewellery in the forest near the corpse of a nobleman and hands it over to the beautiful innkeeper's daughter, Els. She is the one, however, who had ordered the nobleman to steal jewellery for her as a sign of his devotion and then had him murdered. And this did not only happen the once. Nevertheless, the court jester manages to convince Els to return the jewellery to the queen. But the truth about Els' intrigues comes to light, and she is saved from the gallows by being married to the court jester and banished from court. In the epilogue, Els is wasting away, when Elis appears once more and sings her to her death, only to disappear again mysteriously.

Christof Loy, who has already staged six productions with great success at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, now turns his attention to this forgotten opera hit from the 1920s; after all, Der Schatzgräber was performed 354 times in over 50 opera houses across Europe after its 1920 Frankfurt premiere. Loy has his stage designer Johannes Leiacker set this story in a unified stage design, with noble black marble reminiscent of Art Deco palaces. Barbara Drosihn has designed elegant gowns for the ladies and dinner jackets and uniforms for the men of the chorus, well-rehearsed by Jeremy Bines, who comment on the action.

Daniel Johansson (Elis) and Elisabet Strid (Els)
© Monika Rittershaus

Loy tells the story as a sophisticated salon piece, a psychological drama rather than a dark fairy tale. An aesthetic, slow motion orgy is also staged, according to the motto “everyone with everyone”. It is a dignified, at times monotonous production, where it really matters that the audience must follow the libretto well (thanks to surtitles) to catch the many twists and turns of the unseemly plot.

Schreker's score is reminiscent of the stirring romanticism of the late 19th century with large orchestration. Undulating chromatic harmonies flow. Emotions are loudly orchestrated at an operating temperature that is always on the verge of a hysterical fit. Marc Albrecht succeeded in realising the full range of emotions transparently and colourfully in the orchestra, always a touch too loudly though, almost making it legitimate for the cast to sing downstage. Nevertheless, Albrecht is a stroke of luck for this piece because he masters the balancing act between opulent sensuality of sound and impressionistic lyricism.

Thomas Johannes Mayer (Bailiff), Clemens Bieber (Chancellor), Daniel Johansson (Elis) Elisabet Strid
© Monika Rittershaus

The cast did homogeneous justice to this work without any singer being considered absolutely outstanding. Elisabet Strid gave Els, one of the blackest female characters in operatic literature, a banal radiance that was frightening. Tenor Daniel Johansson embodied the mysterious troubadour Elis with elegance, although he had some difficulties in the high register. The king, who wants to see his queen happy again, was sung convincingly by bass-baritone Tuomas Pursio. In the mute role of the queen, dancer Doke Pauweis shone with her extraordinary elegance and physical agility. As the Court Jester, tenor Michael Laurenz stood out the most with his striking timbre and good diction.  Bass-baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer did justice to the role of the Bailiff with a powerful voice and acting. 

It is to the Deutsche Oper's credit that it repeatedly brings a genuine, forgotten rarity to the stage rather than just performing it in concert. Of course, this also brings the attraction to the audience of seeing something new and unfamiliar, especially gratifying when the director and conductor take the work seriously and there is a perceptible collaboration between stage and pit.