Resurrection on Unter den Linden

Jesse Simon
martes, 10 de octubre de 2017
Berlin, martes, 3 de octubre de 2017. Deutsche Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Robert Schumann: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Jürgen Flimm, director. Roman Trekel (Faust, Doctor Marianus), Elsa Dreisig (Gretchen, Una Poenitentium), René Pape (Mephistopheles, Evil Spirit Pater Profundus), Katharina Kammerloher (Marthe, Sorge, Mater Gloriosa), Evelin Novak (Not, Magna Peccatrix), Adriane Queiroz (Mangel, Mulier Samaritana), Natalia Skrycka (Schuld, Maria Aegyptiaca), Stephan Rügamer (Ariel, Pater Ecstaticus), Gyula Orendt (Pater Seraphicus), André Jung (Faust), Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Mephistopheles), Meike Droste (Gretchen) and Anna Tomowa-Sintow (Prologue). Staatsopernchor. Staatskapelle Berlin. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Reopening of the Deutsche Staatsoper Unter den Linden

The grand reopening of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden after a seven year refurbishment was undeniably an event of the highest importance in the cultural life of Berlin, but it was also only the latest in a long series of resurrections. Berlin’s oldest opera house, which opened officially in 1743, was first destroyed and restored a century later when it was gutted by fire. During the Second World War it was damaged by a bomb and quickly repaired, only to be almost completely destroyed in an air raid three years later. Although the East German authorities of the post-war era cleared away the ruined shells of many buildings, the opera house survived and was restored in 1955 to a version of its neo-classical splendour.  

When the Staatsoper Unter den Linden closed its doors in 2010, it was due to nothing so drastic as bombs or fire, just the simple need for a quick refurbishment. While the renovations ended up taking longer than planned – and seemed to grow more ambitious along the way – the results more than justified the wait: the revived house features new seats, a new acoustic, and new high-tech stage machinery, but it also has the same opulent charm that has been a part of the building for nearly three centuries. Its reopening, on the public holiday to mark the day of German reunification, was celebrated with a gala event that drew notables and luminaries from throughout Europe. 

Pórtico de la Deutsche Staatsoper Unter den LindenPórtico de la Deutsche Staatsoper Unter den Linden © 2017 by Christian von Steffelin

The opening performance featured a work entitled Zum Augenblicke sagen: Verweile Doch!, based primarily on Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Of course Schumann’s settings were never intended as an opera and, in order to present a staged version, director Jürgen Flimm interspersed the scenes from the score with additional spoken passages drawn from Goethe’s play. Mr Flimm has directed many excellent productions during his tenure as managing director of the Staatsoper – perhaps most notably his extraordinary Figaro from a few years back – and his best work is characterised by thematic coherence and a light touch with his actors. His Faust however, unbound by the logic of a conventional libretto, ended up far more chaotic, an epic dump of ideas and images scrambled into a something closer to a work of visual art than a work of narrative theatre. During the Sunrise scene of Part Two, an enormous pile of unidentifiable rubbish fell from on high and hit the stage with a dusty thud, leaving the choir to sift through it all. It was, in its own way, a perfect encapsulation of the production itself. In Mr Flimm’s defiant parade of opaque images and utterances there was beauty and confusion in not quite equal measure, and finding the treasures required an awful lot of work. 

René Pape, Elsa Dreisig, Meike Droste, André Jung, Katharina Kammerloher y Coro
René Pape, Elsa Dreisig, Meike Droste, André Jung, Katharina Kammerloher y Coro © 2017 by Hermann und Clärchen Baus

Mr Flimm’s decision to double the three central vocal parts (Gretchen, Faust and Mephistopheles) with actors wasn’t merely a canny means of allowing for more spoken text; duality was an essential element of the production and the singer and actor versions of each role were deployed in various ways, sometimes holding an idealised mirror to the actions of the other, but occasionally also interacting. There was something genuinely affecting about the final moments where, during the ‘Alles Vergängliche’ chorus, actress Gretchen was united with singer Faust and vice versa, suggesting the righting of a cosmic wrong that had been plaguing the story from the beginning. It almost gave the work the transcendent conclusion it needed. Almost.  

If the first two parts had possessed anything close to the hypnotic simplicity of the final half hour, the evening might have been very different. But so much of the production came across as needlessly busy, despatching images at a frantic pace and trying to fit three or four ideas where one might have sufficed. (There were also, it must be said, a few moments that seemed conceived solely to show off the capabilities of the new stage: one set rose up from below, characters arrived suspended by wires and at one point the backdrop was removed to reveal the cavernous depths of the backstage). One could certainly not accuse the production of lacking imagination or invention, but after a while the overload grew wearying. When in the final scene the choir shed their costumes and the process of Faust’s purification began there was a serene determination and clarity of purpose to the action which, one realised, had been almost entirely absent from the first two parts.  

Evelin Novak, Roman Trekel, Katharina Kammerloher, Adriane Queiroz y  Natalia Skrycka
Evelin Novak, Roman Trekel, Katharina Kammerloher, Adriane Queiroz y Natalia Skrycka © 2017 by Hermann und Clärchen Baus

While the production was often confounding, the evening’s sense of occasion seemed to have inspired the singers, actors and orchestra, and the quality of the music was consistently high. Daniel Barenboim’s reading of the score was broadly romantic and occasionally grave during the first sections – the scene in the Cathedral, punctuated by the terrifying exclamations of ‘Dies irae, dies illa’ from the choir, was a high-point – but he guided the orchestra in a different, more reassuringly luminous direction starting from the death of Faust at the end of Part Two. The entire transfiguration scene was full of extraordinary moments and elegant turns (not least an exquisitely played cello introduction to the first lines of Pater Ecstaticus), but it was the sense that the meditative pace and inward calm were building gradually toward something triumphant that gave weight to Faust’s possible redemption.  

Elsa Dreisig sang a compelling Gretchen in Part One, capturing the conflicting emotions and demure giddiness during her courtship by Faust – the subtle gradations of hope in her repeated claims of ‘er liebt mich’ were a delight – but moving quickly towards longing in her beautifully phrased confession to the Mater Dolorosa, and outright despair in her magnificent dialogue with the Evil Spirit in the cathedral. She returned in the final scene as the penitent (who, in the production, was also Gretchen but in puppet form) singing ‘Neige, neige du Ohnegleiche’ with blank-slate purity, accompanied by some of the most rapturous orchestral playing of the evening. 

René Pape, Gyula Orendt, Stephan Rügamer y Coro infantilRené Pape, Gyula Orendt, Stephan Rügamer y Coro infantil © 2017 by Hermann und Clärchen Baus

Roman Trekel’s approach to Faust seemed to fall halfway between lieder and oratorio, with even the most lyrical passages hinting at a more declamatory edge; it worked especially well at the end of Part Two as Faust held onto his scepticism even as he was led towards death. Mr Trekel’s most distinguished moment may have been his appearance as Doctor Marianus, infusing the solo passage (‘Hier ist die aussicht frei’) with a sense of wonder. René Pape, who had a memorable first appearance as the Evil Spirit hidden among the choir of nuns, was a commanding, intelligent Mephistopheles – nowhere more so than in Faust’s death scene – but also provided the evening with an elegant and authoritative Pater Profundus.

In the smaller roles, Katharina Kammerloher sang a taut, well-crafted 'Sorge’ and Stephan Rügamer managed a gently rounded Ariel even while suspended above the stage by cables. Among the actors, Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Mephistopheles stood out consistently for his philosophical demeanour – he seemed far less interested in Faust’s soul than in the mysteries of the universe – and his natural feel for the rhythms and imagery of Goethe’s verse. His scene with the blind Faust during the third part and, especially, his probing monologue immediately following Faust’s death left one with a great desire to reread Faust Part 2. The brief appearance by the legendary Anna Tomowa-Sintow, who delivered the spoken prologue, was also a nice touch. 

Stephan Rügamer y Coro
Stephan Rügamer y Coro © 2017 by Hermann und Clärchen Baus

In 1942 and again in 1955 Die Meistersinger was chosen as the work to mark the reopening of the opera house. An obvious choice perhaps, but a reliable one. If Mr Flimm’s challenging production seemed almost wilful in its desire to avoid satisfying such expectations – perhaps an attempt to distance the Staatsoper of the twenty-first century from the immense historical burden of the building itself – Schumann’s music, with its magnificent setting of Faust’s transfiguration, proved an appropriate choice for the consecration of the new stage. On this evening the renewed opera house on Unter den Linden was undeniably radiant in its glory, and with its reopening it felt as though a part of Berlin’s soul had been restored.

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