Els lives in a sordid world and dreams of glamour and salvation. She has the men who try to marry her murdered and she collects stolen jewels. Then she meets Elis, the troubadour.
There is a weak King, an ailing Queen, a wise Fool, an Innkeeper and a Bailiff; all are enmeshed in the drama of Franz Schreker’s 1920 Der Schatzgräber, one of the most popular operas of its time. As Nazi power grew, Schreker’s popularity waned. He was expelled from his post as director of Berlin’s Musikhochschule, his music was banned, and he died of a stroke in 1934, escaping what followed.
Ivo van Hove’s new staging for the Netherlands Opera translates Schreker’s medieval world to a nightmarish present, a surreal somewhere-in-America inspired by David Lynch, Lars von Trier and Debra Granik. The King and the Fool are men in suits. The Innkeeper’s customers are hairy Hell’s Angels and tawdry transvestites. Elis, in a snakeskin coat with a stringless lute, is a misfit in both worlds. Jan Versweyveld’s pop-up-book set wheels different rooms (country pub, execution cell, bedroom) in and out of cut-out arches, while Tal Yarden tells another layer of the story through simultaneous video projections. Hyper-reality as postmodern fairy-tale: it is as good a translation as any.
While Yarden’s videos are sometimes too explicit (a lager-than-life love scene that verges on pornography; a flashback narrative of Els’s childhood dreams and traumas that leaves too little to the imagination) and van Hove’s direction does not always convince, Schreker’s score also veers perilously close to kitsch or loses itself in post-Wagnerian excess.
On the podium, Marc Albrecht turns all of it into gold. Only a combination of good taste, absolute clarity, solid structure and joy in sensuality can transform Schreker’s music from too much of everything to balanced bliss. Albrecht has all of this. The Netherlands Philharmonic plays superbly, and the singers have room to breathe. This is how Schreker ought to sound: a kind of aural ecstasy that leaves you sated but wanting more.
The cast ranges from good to excellent. The latter category falls to Manuela Uhl as the ambivalent Els. Uhl has all the vocal variety and stamina that the role demands, and gives us a damaged, complex character who makes an Isolde-like journey to self-knowledge. Graham Clark, as the Fool, is also compelling, a strong, cynical figure who ultimately finds grace. Raymond Very steers a safe course through the vocal demands of the title role.
This is a bold start to the season for the Netherlands Opera, and a worthy revival of an equivocal masterpiece.