Franz Schreker: Der Schatzgräber (1920)

Opera in prologue, four acts, and epilogue. Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

I wanted to complete Die Gezeichneten first, but I ended up completing this one first.

The operas of Franz Schreker only make sense when they are watched in performance. This probably becomes more and more progressively apparent as one takes each opera chronologically. Flammen is probably the most accessible when one only has the option of listening and the operas become more difficult to access as time goes on. The reason for this was Schreker’s early compositional style, which was strongly based on Tristan und Isolde. Such is the case with Der Schatzgraber, which, in the 1920s, was actually the most performed contemporary opera in Germany, with some 385 performances between 1920 and 1932, just before the Nazis came to power and banned it, (and everything else written by Schreker) in 1933. It was also the last of Schreker’s operas to be successful, with only three of his remaining operas even being performed in his lifetime. The first of these was Irrelohe in 1924, the first score by Schreker which started to abandon traditional tonality. This received a mixed reaction as it was neither avant guard like Schoenberg nor traditional like Richard Strauss. In 1928, Der Singede Teufel was a disaster with critics, although it actually had a positive audience reaction. Finally, Der Schmied von Gent survived four performances before being shut down due to right-wing anti-semitic demonstrates.

The opera is in six tableaux, of which only the second, third, and fifth actually involve action, the other three are situations. Another factor in why the Schreker operas started to not work is because of how bizarre the plots became over time: Die Gezeichneten is already about orgies and deformity (in various forms), and although Schatzgraber is slightly cleaner, it also has a murderous and thieving anti-heroine whose primary virtue is her ability to avoid getting caught until act four. Irrelohe is about genetic insanity and rape, and Teufel is about a mesmerizing monastery organ and the conflict between Medieval Catholicism and Germanic Paganism. Schmied is comparatively about a goldsmith who sets up an inn outside the gates of Heaven until they finally let him in.

Another thing I am finding with Schreker is that it is hard to find highlights in his music beyond classifying massive blocks of music as a single item. Schatzgraber is the most musically accessible of his works, so let’s give it a go!

SETTING: A Medieval Kingdom. The King (high bass) commissions his Fool (tenor) with finding Elis (tenor) who can recover the stolen jewelry of the Queen, who has lost both her beauty and her fertility with their theft, with the help of his magic lute. Meanwhile, the jewels are in the possession of the murderous Els (soprano), the daughter of an Innkeeper who has already had three fiancés murdered by her henchman Albi (lyric tenor). The local bailiff (baritone) is in love with her and has Elis arrested and sentenced to death in an attempt to win her. Meanwhile, Els has fallen in love with Elis, while the Fool has fallen for Els himself. Els saves Elis from death, and eventually she gives him the Queen’s jewelry, but theirs is a love which is never meant to be.

LOOK OUT FOR:

PROLOGUE: A room in the palace. (9 minutes).

5: Also hort, Herr Konig The prologue goes over the basic conflict of the plot (the need to recover the Queen’s jewels because she has lost her beauty and fertility) in the form of a dialogue between the King and the Fool. The music flows the entire time (there is no prelude and the conversation starts within the second measure of the score. The one highlight is a long lyrical passage for the Fool around the mid-way point when he introduces Elis as a potential recoverer of the jewels *. This causes the King to get hopeful (there is a quote from the Dance of the Apprentices from Meistersinger) as he promises the Fool any woman as his wife should he secure the services of Elis and recover the jewels and the Fool rejoices at the thought of having a wife.

ACT 1: An Inn in the Forest. (28 minutes)

3, 11, 14, 20: Und ich werd’/Schon’ Abend/Hort much zu End’/Was will der Mann? The scene opens with Els struggling with her brutish fiancé, who rebukes her for her prudishness (on the day before their wedding she refuses him so much as a kiss even though tomorrow night he will ravish her on the floor if necessary). She tricks him into fetching for her the last piece of the Queen’s jewels (a gold neckless with emeralds) which will impart to her eternal beauty *. She gets her henchman Albi to go out and murder this fourth fiancé of hers in exchange for the promise of sexual favors. The Innkeeper tells his daughter that he is sure that she will eventually grow to like this fourth choice of husband he has sent her (she rejects this as she hates brutishness). Els tells the Bailiff how she feels and gets sympathy (sort of, since he too lusts for her). Things really only heat up when Elis arrives suddenly greeting the bailiff * and sings three songs (the first is rather agitated), his second song ** is better ask he starts singing about love (it even quotes Die Gezeichneten). During the third song (which is even better), he reveals that he has found the neckless which Els had been wanting to have retrieved which causes a brief bit of ecstasy. Albi returns screaming that a body has been found, murdered. Everyone runs out except Els, Elis, and the Bailiff who tells Elis to get away. Elis and Els are left alone; she attempts to convince him that she is attracted to him **. The Innkeeper interrupts their conversation and is horrified when Els declares that she is in love with the minstrel. The bailiff returns and arrests Elis on murder charges. Els, self-accusedly having fallen into her own trap, tells the bailiff that she will appeal to the King before falling into a fit of weeping as the curtain falls.

ACT 2: A public square with a scaffold, early morning. (29 minutes)

0, 4: Was wollt ihr? The prelude ** is in fugue form and gives a vivid depiction of the staging. The Fool shows up and looks around the gallows. His encounter with Els ** is rather positive once he identifies himself for her (although he doesn’t completely trust her, with good reason). Eventually he gets out of her enough information about who is about to be hanged to realize that it is Elis and resolves to rescue him (naturally).

10: Tibi soli peccavi The chorus of monks ** comes on (there is a cut scene of two townspeople who mention, among other things, that Elis has the eyes of a child, that Els probably did it or was behind the murder, and that the Bailiff is corrupt (all true). Elis, who is blindfolded, encounters Els who gives him the good news that his death sentence will not be carried out (at first, he mistakes her for his mother).

16: Endet die dumpfen The Bailiff gives Elis the offer of one last request: Elis responds that he wants to sing until he dies and he takes off into a glorious song about the freedom to be able to live life on his own terms ***. Els breaks down, she can not let Elis be murdered for something she did and of which he is completely innocent. She throws herself at the guards in an attempt to stop them from restraining Elis before the King’s herald arrives with the declaration of innocence. The Herald charges Elis with the finding of the Queen’s jewels (if he succeeds he will be given anything he asks for, if he fails he will be publicly flogged and banished), and Els (calling out to the Virgin Mary) realizes that eventually the man she is in love with will discover the truth about her. Elis promises to visit her tomorrow and the Bailiff threatens Els, vowing to find who actually murdered her fiancé (foreshadowing).

25: Er kommt, er kommt morgen Els realizes that she will be discovered **, not just as the thief of the jewels but as a serial killer, and resolves to soften the blow for herself and save Elis yet again. Albi returns, asking Els for sexual favors, and she promises him nothing unless he can steal the magic treasure finding lute from Elis and bring it to her without harming the minstrel in any way.

ACT 3: The chambers of Els, richly ornamented in oriental finery. (34 minutes)

0: Klein war ich noch The act is the highpoint of the opera and consists of four parts (two arias and two duets, only Els and Elis are seen in the entire act). The first aria, for Els, is delicate and beautiful *** with a strangely late 19th century air to it as she longs for the arrival of Elis by singing about a lullaby her mother used to sing to her as a child.

4: Els! Els! The first love duet starts off a little threateningly ** as Elis goes into details about how the lute was stolen from him, and how, having seen the suffering of the Queen, he finds himself afraid of being declared a fraud for being unable to save her in time without the lute. She tells him that although she can not help him about the lute, she can help him with the jewels (which is more important in any case). At first he thinks she is joking before she goes behind a curtain and a rubato orchestral intermezzo plays out for a little over a minute.

12: Geheimnisvoll kundet die Nacht Elis embarks on an enchanting aria of anticipation ** (the off-stage chorus of spirits helps) as Els bedecks herself with the jewels off-stage.

15: Kein Grauen, Freund! The climactic love duet as Els presents herself to Elis while wearing the jewels ***. The moon disappears and they make passionate love as the orchestra plays on (so says the libretto) until dawn when Els removes each piece of jewelry and lays it at the feet of Elis.

25, 32: Du sollst mich nie fragen/O Himmel, Wie fass ich Much of the next seven minutes consists of orchestral tableau *** as Els gives the jewels to Elis. Eventually, she tells him not to ask any questions but take the jewels to the Queen, revealing that they are what he has been tasked with finding. At first he does not believe this, but she tells him to take them to the palace and ask no questions of her, warning him that one day he might have cause to not believe her ***.

ACT 4: A hall in the royal palace during a great feast. (27 minutes)

0: The act opens with an allegro prelude ** and we come up all of the four major players and the courtiers as the King announces Elis as the newest knight of the realm. Rejoicing is interrupted when, during a toast to the beauty of the Queen, Elis breaks his wine glass. The Chancellor then asks the King if, since Elis found the jewels, if it is possible for him to identify the person who stole the jewels in the first place.

9: Am Ilsensetin in uralter Zeit Elis goes into a very long story *** about a Princess named Ilse who was loved by a dwarf who possessed immense jewels which spiritual forces eventually revealed to him, no one else could gain access to them. He then goes into some suggestive wording about “soft breasts” upon which body and jewels are “united as one” which are obvious references to his night of passionate love making with Els. He then tells the Queen to return the jewels to him and is threatened with execution for this.

18, 25: Halt, o König!/Leb’ wohl, Geliebter The Bailiff arrives, accusing Els of the murders and of the theft of the jewels (along with witchcraft and the return of the lute to Elis), Albi having confessed all to him **. Els admits her guilt, pleading for mercy from the King on her knees. No clemency is granted and she is sentenced to be burnt. The Fool then reminds the King of his promise to him that he can have any woman he chooses as wife: he has chosen Els! The King thinks he is crazy, but grants her life as marriage to the Fool is a fate worse than death. Elis is broken hearted, Els tells him that she did everything out of love for him alone ***. He walks away as the Fool takes Els with him from the palace.

EPILOGUE: The hovel of the Fool in the mountains, a year later. (14 minutes)

2: Am mir lag’ mich The Fool has invited Elis to see Els, who is slowly dying *. Els is sleeping as the scene opens and Elis is almost unable to recognize her. Doctors have been unable to determine if her loss of Elis or the jewels is the cause of her rapid decline.

4: Els! Wer ist da? Much of the rest of the opera consists of a long duet ** between Elis and Els as he tries to convince her that they are still in act 3, but she realizes the situation quickly although she remains confident in his love for her.

8: Du legst dein Köpfchen Elis comforts the dying Els in his arms with a vision of the two of them happy in the court of the dream-king *** (Schreker uses a lot of dream-music here and the tenor vocal line is appropriately lilting). The Fool gets the final word as bells toll, announcing the atonement of Els. The curtain falls to a sudden burst from the orchestra.

COMMENTS:

Some of the motivations (particularly those of Els) make little to no sense. Why did she want the jewels in the first place, and why suddenly, after meeting Elis, does she love him passionately to the point of saving his life twice and returning the jewels to him, asking him only to not ask her any questions about how she got them. How exactly the jewels make Els or the Queen more beautiful is completely unknown, and it is impossible to stage such a concept. However, this is also precisely the point.

Schreker does use his vocal casting effectively. Casting both the Fool and Elis as tenors allows for scenes which could be even more dark to have a lighter quality. Three out of the six main characters are tenors, and with only the lone soprano, this makes for a less sinister sounding performance.

Overall, in spite of its weird structure and a plot which defies reality at every turn, Der Schatgraber is probably the most accessible opera Schreker ever wrote. The references in the score to Wagner and Die Gezeichneten lend a certain amount of passion to the music, which can at times come off as too placid or even comedic. The tone is never as serious as Die Gezeichneten which can be a far more overwhelming an experience than the comparative children’s tale of Schatgraber, with its Tristanesque level of passion. However, perhaps this is exactly the point of this opera, it isn’t about sex orgies in Renaissance Genoa, it is set in a fairy-tale land where magic jewelry lend beauty and fertility to women.

An alpha minus.

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