UNDER THE GUIDE OF ITS DIRECTOR Alain Perroux, the Opéra national du Rhin continues the fascinating exploration of rare operas: after Vogel dies (Les Oiseaux) by Braunfels last season, another opera from the Germanic repertoire that enjoyed great success across the Rhine in its day and well beyond, is being performed for the first time in France: The Schatzgraeber (The treasure hunter) by Franz Schreker, created in 1920 in Frankfurt. Surprisingly, it was also in Strasbourg, in this same hall, that ten years ago the French premiere of another famous opera by this composer took place: Last Klang (The distant sound). The libretto of this “bitter tale”, in the words of Alain Perroux, that is The treasure hunterit is also based, like that of Sound far away, on the idea of the power of music. As if, in these years of the early twentieth century in the Germanic world, the roads traveled by German romanticism found their culmination in this rather cruel fable, which celebrates the powers of love and music, through the character of a minstrel out of medieval tales, while retracing the episodes of the career of a beautiful thief, whose apparent cynicism masks desperation and the desire for happiness. This rather complicated story, with multiple twists, imagined and written by the composer himself, required a rich score, capable of unfolding not only the world of the story, with its particular musical ingredients, but also that of a theater of conversation, since many scenes bring together a group of characters involved in conflicts that require long exchanges. Not to mention the great scenes of solitude and a masterful lyrical architecture for the great scene of the amorous encounter and erotic exaltation at the end of the third act.
The Strasbourg production is presented in all the brilliance of a brilliant vocal and orchestral cast, but with a staging that seems to waver, like the work itself, to tell the truth, between different perspectives: that of pure narration, with the its conventional characters (the queen, the minstrel, the jester, etc.), its sharp edges and its tone breaks, its symbolic stakes and its apparent plot. That of depth psychology, where the greed and cynicism of the Els character are revealed only impulses that take the place of noble aspirations. Finally, that of pure tragedy (Eros and Thanatos sublimely intertwined in the very matter of music). But in a certain way, if the composer has made the choice, through the cross roads of his libretto and the contrasts of his score, of a work with multiple stakes and references, the staging of this somewhat unclassifiable lyric object as it is The treasure hunter encounters a great aesthetic difficulty, which is mainly visual: which world to represent on stage, anchored to which era, with what point of view – ironic and distant, or naive and sentimental?
The very first scene of the opera appears from the beginning in a pause, deliberately desired and accentuated, it seems to me, by Christoph Loy: between the representation of a contemporary social scene (with its polite boredom, its convention of laughing, its orderly domesticity) and that of a somewhat disturbing dream, where a woman with the flexibility of a contortionist (the Queen, suffering from languor for the theft of her jewels, a silent role excellently played by the dancer Doke Pauwels) bends her body to the ground in this elegant living room, as if to express the madness of all this pomp. At the center of this half realistic, half dreamlike scene, the character of the jester, decked out with a monochromatic hood at the tip of an opaque burgundy red, points and thus disqualifies the medieval reference with a single gesture, in a rather ferocious way. I felt like I was taken for the whole show, between the fascination for an extraordinarily moving, efficient, original, dense score, and the boredom I felt listening to a story that didn’t hold up enough for a modern opera, and that would have been far too complex. for a story worthy of the name.
Thus the lyrical power of the score, its instrumental alloys full of invention, the tension it installs almost permanently, the superb heritage of the German romantic lay in the modeling of vocal lines, like that of the works of Wagner or even Richard Strauss: All this, oddly enough, it falls relatively flat when the stage gets involved. As if the work were so rich, from a purely auditory point of view, that no staging could exhaust its evocative powers, nor a fortiori work on the components one by one, at the risk of making prosaic what, in music… is just pure musicality.
Ancient or modern?
To avoid the pitfall, perhaps it would have been necessary to choose one of the fields opened by the composer and stick to it: for example that of an old story, and decline the particular parameters while remaining within this framework. . Or, on the contrary, to take today’s gaze as a basis, to make the story the spring of a dream all the more powerfully unfolded when contemporary reality has lost its keys. Because if music can afford the great gap between the subtle sounds of the minstrel’s lute and the unbridled post-romanticism of the great lyrical scenes, the spectator’s eye and imagination do not have the same capacity for flexibility … jester in the modern world that is represented here – for example homosexuality manifested royally, in the great erotic scene, by every type of couple accompanying the main heterosexual couple, as in a very contemporary celebration of moral freedom, which clashes with archetypes of the story, in fact …
Photo: Klara Beck
Franz Schreker: The Schatzgraeber. Thomas Blondelle (Elis), Helena Juntunen (Els), Paul Schweinester (The Bouffon), Derek Welton (The King), Doke Pauwels (The Queen), Thomas Johannes Mayer (The Bailli). Director: Christof Loy, sets: Johannes Leiacker, lights: Olaf Winter. Chorus of the Opéra national du Rhin, Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor. Marko Letonja. Opéra national du Rhin, 28 October 2022. Upcoming performances: 8 November at the Opéra national du Rhin. 27 and 29 November at the Filature de Mulhouse.