The Berliner Staatsoper Comes Home

By · Photography Alexandra Sell · Date 10/05/2017

And so, at long last, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden has reopened its doors to the public, its resident company’s long exile—seven years—in Charlottenburg’s Schillertheater over. It will close again at the end of the week, to re-reopen, as it were, in December, some final work to do, but let us not worry too much about that right now. Fasolt and Fafner have more or less completed their work, and the gods have more or less entered Valhalla without, it would seem, sealing their fate. We can but hope.

There was no rainbow bridge, but there was certainly a red carpet—and considerable security too. A host of dignitaries was present: gods, for better or worse, of this world. And hearing some of them speak beforehand, it was difficult, at least for this all-too-temporary exile from the United (sic) Kingdom, that Germany does not have it so bad after all. It made me proud, indeed, to have found sanctuary, if only for a moment, in a country that prides itself upon its status as a Kulturnation. It happened that the momentary nature of my stay here—my Augenblick away—would be reflected in the performance at the Staatsoper. The subtitle of the concert, of Schumanns “Szenen aus Goethes Faust,” was  “Zum Augenblicke sagen: Verweile doch!” (“Say to the moment: tarry a while!”)

Alas, it was, with the best will in the world—and I like to think mine was well intended—difficult to enjoy much of what took place on stage. I do not wish to rain on anyone’s parade, but critical honesty entails here a considerable degree of throwing one’s hands up in the air and asking “why?” Rarely if ever have I seen so many people leave the theater and not return after intermission; that was doubtless partly a matter of “celebrity” guests, but perhaps a few more would have stayed had this staging of Schumann and Goethe not proved so utterly misconceived and often, sad to say, tedious. Barenboim rightly paid tribute to Jürgen Flimm’s artistic directorship, prolonged so as to continue to care for the company during its prolonged exile, for Flimm unquestionably helped enable its return to Unter den Linden. As an opera director, however, Flimm’s record has proven mixed at best mixed here in Berlin. To take but a couple of examples, his “Orfeo ed Euridice” had a good few things to recommend it, his “Nozze di Figaro” rather fewer. There is, I think, little point moaning about what might have been, had the company returned to its home earlier; yes, of course it would have opened with another production, but so what? Still less would there be any justification in complaining about the lack of another anticipated premiere, thwarted by its composer’s serious illness. Nor need one rule out in principle staging a work that was never intended to be staged, although it is perhaps a little quixotic in reality, however construed, to reopen an opera house with a work that is not only not an opera but which seems in its very essence to resist all operatic tendencies.

What we saw—and heard—was an awkward padding of Schumann’s “scenes” with small pieces of Goethe; except it was not really padding, more two different things going on, with little relationship to one another, not even in any sense approaching the dialectical, let alone in a more conventionally “smooth” sense of drama. I suspect that anyone unfamiliar with Goethe would have wondered what was going on. Anyone unfamiliar with Schumann would, I fear, have wondered what the point of this exquisite, heartrending, yet exquisitely and heartrendingly fragile tribute to Goethe’s work was, so diminished did it seem in this context, however well performed (and in many, if not all respects, it certainly was).

Goethe follows the fond imperative, “Zum Augenblicke sagen: Verweile doch,” with the exclamation, “du bist so schön!” (You are so beautiful!) Apart from the music—and I am afraid it really felt as if it were quite “apart from”—what then was schön? The work of set designer (and celebrated painter, sculptor, poet, etc.) Markus Lüpertz could certainly lay claim to have been so. I would happily have seen it in its own right. Alas, Flimm seemed not to know what to do with them. Instead, we had an unclear relationship between actors and singers, drama and music, any number of potential dialectical opposites without reconciliation. Spoken and sung characters sometimes looked the same, sometimes did not, sometimes appeared in stylized “period” (for Goethe) costume, sometimes not, or less so. Words were held up on placards. The fourth wall never stood a chance: seats from the theater moved onstage, so that members of the chorus could watch and “interact”; music stands appeared, from which presumably some effort was being made to suggest characters learning music from the spirit of drama; the chorus suddenly appeared to sing from within the audience; and so on, and so on. There was an irritating prevalence of silly dancing, quite unconcerned with whatever music was being heard. Was there something of autobiography, or at least a summation of a (semi-Faustian) career in the theater? Perhaps, but frankly, I am on the verge of making it up as I go along. That would seem very much to be in the spirit of what I saw: essentially an expensive version of a university student’s staging, enthused with some big ideas from other plays or productions.

The orchestra often sounded wonderful, recognizably the same band as we hear on Barenboim’s recordings of the Schumann symphonies with them. There were occasional fluffs here and there, and it would be idle to say that Barenboim’s direction was always quite so commanding as on those performances in which he had clearly lived with the music for longer. He nevertheless conveyed a strong sense of the music, with ideas very much of his own about how it should go, not least a furiously driven Overture. Choral singing was likewise excellent—what a wonderful Children’s Chorus the company can boast too!—although, towards the close, there were a few passages in which chorus and pit were not entirely in sync. The acoustical work to the theater certainly seems to have paid off, the sound warmer than ever. (I was up in the Second Circle, so probably in a good position to speak of a lack of “distance” acoustically.)

If Roman Trekel’s performance, thoughtful and intelligent though it may have been, remained rather dry of tone, then René Pape’s rich bass, more sonorous than ever, pretty much stole the vocal show. Anyone would have been persuaded by this Mephistopheles, although Sven-Erik Bechtolf’s spoken version seemed quite at odds: not interestingly opposed, just inconsistent. It was splendidly acted, I think, but belonged somewhere else entirely, whereas André Jung’s shouty Faust (again, perhaps this was Flimm’s intention) was slightly baffling. Quite what Anna Tomowa-Sintow was doing delivering a reading at the beginning is anyone’s guess; I was very happy, for the first and presumably last time, to see her on stage, but was that enough? Perhaps it worked as a metaphor for the project as a whole. To return to the singers, Elsa Dreisig offered a clear, often radiant soprano, with intriguing hints, perhaps, of a bell-like “Tales of Hoffman” Olympia. I think Flimm may have been presenting Gretchen as an all too evident construction by Faust and Mephistopheles, a commentary worth pursuing on das Ewig-Weibliche (the eternal feminine), but that sense at the close was fleeting and seemingly unprepared. That was certainly not Dreisig’s fault, though. Katharina Kammerloher also stood out in a cast that was, rightly, drawn entirely from the Staatsoper’s own company.

This, then, was a surprising Prelude to what we might think of as the “real” reopening. Or rather, to return to more complex conceptions of reality, the house and company will continue to reopen, to develop; the task will never be completed, for it never can be, even when the builders leave. Much will have been learned, and once the present co-intendant Matthias Schulz has taken over the full reins of the company in the spring, we should begin to gain a stronger impression of the drama ahead. His first fully programmed season will be 2018-19. Wolfgang Rihm’s “Saul” will, it is hoped, still be heard in a later season. The house will re-reopen with a new “Hänsel und Gretel” and a new “Poppea.” A tour of the splendid new rehearsal facilities augurs well. There is, then, everything to play and hope for. One of the very oldest orchestras in the world, with the greatest of pedigrees, remains with us, sounding at least as good as ever. Opera is not solely a musical art, but it is a musical art nevertheless. The house should and doubtless will build on that—in as many senses as possible, and then some. For the real business of building is not only about buildings, crucially important though they may be. ¶