2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
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Carlos María Solare (from February 2018) 

The renovation of the staatsoper has been one of Berlin’s ongoing sagas since, and even before, the house was closed for major repair work seven years ago. The reopening was postponed repeatedly: new productions of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (in 2015) and Fidelio (in 2016) were successively earmarked for the festive occasion, but they both ended up being performed at the Staatsoper’s interim quarters of the Schiller Theater. After a new work by Wolfgang Rihm failed to be delivered on time, the old house at Unter den Linden was eventually reinaugurated with Robert Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes ‘Faust’. Shunning the first night, a glamorous affair attended by Chancellor Merkel and Federal President Steinmeier among many dignitaries, I went to the second performance, on October 6.


As its title suggests, Schumann’s oratorio sets several isolated scenes from both parts of Goethe’s magnum opus, including some but by no means all of the expected ones (by which I mean those familiar to opera-goers from the Faust operas by Gounod and Boito). In his last production as the house’s Intendant, Jürgen Flimm interpolated several scenes from Goethe’s play, performed by a cast of actors, between the sections of Schumann’s work. This intriguing concept, which made for a rather long evening, might have worked better if the actors had been as charismatic as their singing counterparts. In the event, only the Mephistopheles of Sven-Eric Bechtolf was on a level with his operatic equivalent, the sonorous René Pape. Whoever came up with the idea of asking the former in-house diva Anna Tomowa-Sintow to recite the drama’s introductory ‘Dedication’, which she did in a broad Bulgarian accent, didn’t do anyone any favours.

The trio of singing principals—Pape, Roman Trekel as Faust and Elsa Dreisig as Gretchen—are members of the house’s ensemble, as were the singers of the numerous minor parts; they all did the Staatsoper proud with their eloquent singing of Schumann’s music. Trekel’s dreamy rendition of Faust’s final monologue was a thing of the greatest beauty, as was Dreisig’s singing in Gretchen’s prayer and the Cathedral Scene. The Staatsoper’s chorus, trained by Martin Wright, came into its own here and in the work’s final, transcendental tableau. Flimm’s production, in Markus Lüpertz’s colourful, early Picasso-inspired sets, held no surprises (except perhaps for the inclusion of Buddhist monks in the final apotheosis), emerging instead as an inoffensive gallery of Regietheater commonplaces. From where I was sitting (far left of the front stalls, under the first balcony) it was hard to judge the house’s revamped acoustics, the sound being rather bass-heavy and slightly opaque (this impression was confirmed at a symphony concert I attended during the inaugural week). I am told that the best seats are—as they always were—in the first and second galleries. Be that as it may, the Staatskapelle players under Daniel Barenboim vindicated Schumann’s much-maligned orchestration skills in an astutely laid-out reading, doing their best to bridge the gaps across the extensive spoken scenes.

After the first week, the Staatsoper closed again for fine-tuning and reopened for good in December. In the meantime, the house’s alternative stage, the neue werkstatt, situated in the neighbouring building, presented the premiere of Lucia Ronchetti’s Rivale (seen on October 20). Ronchetti has set her own selection from Antoine Danchet’s Tancrède (a libretto written in 1701 for André Campra) as an hour-long monologue for soprano. We see the Saracen princess Clorinde as the crusaders’ prisoner, then searching for Tancrède in the enchanted forest of Saron and finally in her last moments following the fatal combat. Amira Elmadfa was overwhelming in a role that required her to cover an unusually wide spectrum of vocalism from groaning to pure song and she projected Danchet’s Baroque effusions with telling force. Isabel Ostermann’s production needed no more than a few props to suggest the various settings, and rightly left Elmadfa’s expressiveness to do the job. Not inappropriately, Ronchetti’s score draws on Baroque models while being very much of our own time. Vividly realized by Staatskapelle members led by Max Renne, the unconventional orchestration (brass, percussion and a solitary viola) brought to mind the recitatives and toccatas of the age of Monteverdi but I found some Mahler quotations harder to comprehend.

After being the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Artist in Residence during the 2015-16 season, Peter Sellars has returned several times to the philharmonie. His latest visit was dedicated to The Cunning Little Vixen (seen on October 14), a piece close to the heart of the orchestra’s still-principal conductor, Simon Rattle. Back in 2011, Rattle had presented the opera’s final scene in concert form with Gerald Finley as an immensely moving Forester. Finley returned to the part in a Sellars staging that was mostly confined to the stage’s apron but also relied rather too much on projections shown on television screens. In spite of some amusing detail—a close-up of Lucy Crowe as the Vixen eating chicken nuggets comes to mind—these projections proved in the end too distracting. Nor were they necessary, since the pictures from nature that they showed were vividly present in Janáček’s score as revealed by Rattle and the orchestra.

Crowe was extremely sexy in the title role; this Sharp Ears was unmistakeably a love interest of the Forester’s, which of course gave unusual credibility to his wife’s animosity. The chemistry between the two was steaming hot and at least as evident as that between the Vixen and the Fox later on. Crowe sang with a clear, expressive voice and her acting as an innocently amoral Vixen was charming, meeting her death as if, in Jorge Luis Borges’s words, ‘she didn’t care’. Angela Denoke was seductively suave of voice and manner as the Fox, movingly covering the eyes of the youngest foxcub child when the Vixen died. The children were a lusty bunch, and among the smaller roles Burkhard Ulrich was his usual sophisticated self as Schoolmaster, Mosquito and Rooster, while Willard White was both a warm-sounding Priest and a bad-tempered Badger. Pauline Malefane sang passionately as the Forester’s Wife, and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, wandering onto the stage from the Philharmonie’s highest gallery, was a blustering Harašta. But top honours must go by rights to Gerald Finley, whose warts-and-all portrait of the Forester touched the heart.

Between them, Berlin’s opera houses put together what amounted to an Aribert Reimann Festival in all but name. Just before the summer break we had Die Gespenstersonate at the Staatsoper and Medea at the Komische Oper, and in the autumn the deutsche oper followed suit with the premiere of L’Invisible (seen on October 25). The octogenarian composer’s ‘lyric trilogy’ brings together three short dramas by Maurice Maeterlinck into a 90-minute, interval-less evening about different aspects of death, ‘the invisible one’ of the title. In L’Intruse, Death enters a house, noticed only by a blind old man, and takes the life of a woman who has just given birth. In Intérieur, two men stand outside a house, watching a family at their Christmas dinner through the window and discussing how to break the news of the daughter’s suicide. Finally, La Mort de Tintagiles shows the last hours in the life of a king’s son who is murdered on orders of his grandmother, his sisters unable to save him.

Reimann has welded the three dramas together by giving the principal singers roles in all of them, but otherwise created three different, complementary soundworlds. The first piece is written just for strings, with the woodwinds entering only to signal the mother’s death with a dissonant chord that retains the semantic character of a ‘death chord’ for the rest of the opera. Contrastingly, Intérieur is scored for woodwinds only, before the whole orchestra comes together for the last piece. The three operas are joined by two interludes featuring a trio of countertenors who in La Mort de Tintagiles turn out to be the evil Queen’s servants.

The Deutsche Oper pulled out all the stops to honour a composer who has been connected to the house since he worked there as a staff pianist more than 60 years ago. Vasily Barkhatov set the trilogy in Zinovy Margolin’s permanent set, which for the last opera became a hospital room where the terminally ill Tintagiles was being nursed through his last hours. The moment he died his bed was vacated for the next patient, just as it had been for him at the beginning, in a never-ending dance of death. The Kapellmeister Ido Arad, conducting in place of an ailing Donald Runnicles, shaped Reimann’s detailed score astutely and obtained the greatest transparency from the orchestra. Rachel Harnisch was most expressive in the roles of Ursula, Marie and Ygraine, and Stephen Bronk, also appearing in all three operas, sang authoritatively as the Grandfather, the Old Man and the faithful servant Aglovale. The fiendishly eerie countertenor trio singers were Tim Severloh, Matthew Shaw and Martin Wölfel. The ensemble members Annika Schlicht, Ronnita Miller, Seth Carico and Thomas Blondelle took the remaining roles but none was more impressive than Salvador Macedo, a member of the Deutsche Oper Children’s Choir, with his almost unbearably moving characterization of the doomed Tintagiles.                                                                                                                              carlos maría solare


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