Utterly Misconceived Staging Spoils the Re-Opening of Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden

GermanyGermany Schumann – Szenen aus Goethes Faust: Soloists, Actors, Chorus (chorus master: Martin Wright) and Children’s Chorus (chorus master: Vinzens Weissenburger) of the Staatsoper Unter Den Linden, Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 3.10.2017. (MB)

Szenen aus Goethes Faust (c) Hermann and Clärchen Baus


Faust, Doctor Marianus – Roman Trekel
Gretchen, Una Poentitentium – Elsa Dreisig
Mephistopheles, Böser Geist, Pater Profundus – René Pape
Marthe, Sorge, Mater Gloriosa – Katharina Kammerloher
Not, Magna Peccatrix – Evelin Novak
Mangel, Mulier Samaritana – Adriane Queiroz
Schuld, Maria Aegyptiaca – Natalia Skrycka
Ariel, Pater Ecstaticus – Stephan Rügamer
Pater Seraphicus – Gyula Orendt
Soloists – Narine Yeghiyan, Florian Hoffmann, Jan Martiník

Faust, Herold – André Jung
Mephistopheles, Lieschen – Sven-Eric Bechtolf
Gretchen, Astrolog, Engel, Türmer – Meike Droste
Zueignung – Anna Tomowa-Sintow


Jürgen Flimm (director)
Markus Lüpertz (set designs)
Ursula Kudrna (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Gail Skrela (choreography)
Detlef Giese (dramaturgy)

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; as Daniel Barenboim said, in a speech at the reception following the performance, the Opera has avoided the fate of Berlin’s new airport. 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, to think that Germany does not have it so bad after all. It made me proud, indeed, to have found sanctuary, if only for a Augenblick (‘moment’), in a country that prides itself upon its status as a Kulturnation. There may be many problems associated with that; there are problems, after all, with anything and everything – this side of Heaven, death, communism, or whatever flavour of realised eschatology one may favour. (Please, please do not say ‘Brexit’.) Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus stands as one of many warnings to us on that; so too does the Bebelplatz, site of perhaps the most notorious, even infamous, book burnings in history, immediately behind the Lindenoper. Germany, however, is the country of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (‘coming to terms with the past’) par excellence; it is never a completed work – Wotan, kindly take note – and yet, compared to anywhere else on earth, or at least in Europe, I can think of, there remains a sense, to quote Angela Merkel, of ‘Wir schaffen das’ (‘we can do it’).

Merkel was one of those in attendance, although she did not speak. The President, Franz-Walter Steinmeier did, however. And in this country, this city, he could speak meaningfully of the crucial, life-giving importance of art. It is not just a hope, not just a slogan, not just an idea, but a reality – and a ‘reality’ in something approaching the complex notion offered thereof by Hegel, whose Humboldt University bust lies only a few hundred yards away. It is not even a personal matter; it would, of course, be impossible for the British Head of State, let alone her Prime Minister, plausibly to utter such words, and it is impossible to imagine either trying. However, even if one were to find a more personally and politically sympathetic figure to the arts, such as the current Leader of the Opposition, they would sadly, tragically, remain almost absurdly remote from reality, however conceived. I wished then, to return to that idea – I almost wish to capitalise it, but shall refrain – of the Augenblick; or, in the subtitle of this opening performance of Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes Faust, ‘Zum Augenblicke sagen: Verweile doch!’ (‘Say to the moment: tarry a while!’)

Alas, it was, with the best will in the world – and I should like to think mine was well intended – difficult to say the same about much of what took place on stage. And whilst I do not wish to rain on anyone’s parade, critical honesty entails here a considerable degree of throwing one’s hands up in the hair and asking ‘why?’ Rarely if ever have I seen so many people leave the theatre and not return after the interval; that was doubtless partly a matter of ‘celebrity’ guests, and so on, 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 Intendancy, 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 proved 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, shall we say, 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 most, even all, operatic tendencies.

It might have worked; alas, it did not. 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 – and not in an especially productive way – 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 his 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 should 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 either reconciliation (let us say Hegel) or radical negative failure to reconcile (let us say Adorno). Spoken and sung characters sometimes looked the same, sometimes did not, sometimes appeared in stylised ‘period’ (for Goethe) costume, sometimes not, or less so. Words were held up on placards. Indicators of metatheatricality were to be seen: seats from the theatre 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 or not. Was there something of autobiography, or at least a summation of a (semi-Faustian) career in the theatre? 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.

Enough of that! The orchestra often sounded wonderful, recognisably the same band as we hear on Barenboim’s (outstanding) 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 symphony 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. (I am not sure that I necessarily liked it that way, but it had conviction and, I think, its own justification.) Passages that have much in common with the symphonies seemed – or perhaps this was my imagination – subtly underlined, as if to suggest a commonality of purpose that yet did not disrupt Schumann’s musical forms. (We had Flimm for that.) 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 theatre 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 belonging somewhere else entirely, whereas André Jung’s shouty Faust (again, perhaps this was Flimm’s intention) slightly baffled in itself too. 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 Hoffmann 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 amongst 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, the work to which I alluded above, 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 Coronation of Poppea. A tour of the splendid new rehearsal facilities augurs well. There is, then, everything to play – and everything to hope – for. We can aim for Wagner’s ‘artwork of the future’, or aim to ‘fail better’, as Beckett would have had it; the two are far from mutually exclusive. One of the very oldest orchestras in the world, arguably the very oldest, founded as it was in 1570, was sounding at least as good as ever. Opera is not solely a musical art, but it remains a musical art nevertheless. The house should and doubtless will build on that – in as many senses as possible, and then some. For crucially important though buildings may be, the real business of building, the real business of Bildung too, is not principally about them at all.

Mark Berry

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