Springtime in Berlin means white asparagus and glimpses of sunshine but also the Berliner Staatsoper’s Festtage (“Festival Days”) tradition, normally presented in the lead-up to Easter. Festtage has been an awkward affair lately, for the Staatsoper’s traditional premises on the gracious Unter-den-Linden Avenue have been under renovation for the past seven years. After many long delays, the original house is expected to open this October, but exact details are unknown as of this writing (A press conference held by Music Director Daniel Barenboim on April 9 announced only the highlights of next season’s Festtage; no questions were taken about either the opera house or the rest of the season).
In the intervening time, Staatsoper performances have been concentrated in the style moderne Schiller Theater, a somewhat rundown and fairly stuffy dramatic theater across town in what used to be West Berlin. Located just down Bismarckstrasse from the Deutsche Oper, one of the capital’s two other opera theaters, it has nevertheless seen some stunning productions over the years in which it has substituted for the Unter-den-Linden venue.
My Festtage adventure started somewhere between East and West at Berlin’s modern Philharmonie, opened in 1963 at the edge of the city’s central Tiergarten, near to where the Wall used to be. On Friday, April 7, I witnessed Maestro Barenboim leading not the house orchestra, but rather the Vienna Philharmonic in a concert of two Mozart symphonies, which bracketed Arnold Schoenberg’s intriguing Chamber Symphony No. 1 (Op. 9). The choice of programming reflects Barenboim’s diverse interests in both standard classics and twentieth-century music. No matter what his musicians are playing however, one always detects Barenboim’s sensibilities at work. It was the piece closest to the Romantic works in which he excels—Mozart's Forty-First, or “Jupiter” Symphony (K. 551)—that set the tone for the entire evening. Played last as the second part of the concert, it resounded to the Olympian Heights with a majesty that no other orchestra today could likely equal. Transposing that spirit to the first half's lighter Thirty-Fifth, or “Haffner” Symphony (K. 385) felt less satisfying. Although the two symphonies premiered only five years apart (1783 versus 1788), the evolution of Mozart’s style from the simpler tonalities of his earlier life to the greater harmonic complexity of his maturity had in the meantime become an accomplished fact. This difference was entirely obscured, however, as a result of Barenboim’s aggressive reading of the earlier work. Obscured also was the atonality of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, which sounded almost like a logical extension of Mozartean exuberance.
The Festtage’s mainstay diet of opera came into full force over the rest of the weekend, with two ambitious presentations from the high German Romantic—a stunningly well-cast revival of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2015 production of Wagner’s Parsifal, and a new-to-Berlin showing of Claus Guth’s travelling production of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten.
At age forty-six, Tcherniakov is now probably the oldest enfant terrible in the history of opera, but his stagings still at least threaten provocation. His Parsifal is more a miss than a hit, but it is not completely without imagination. Sadly, this was little in evidence during Act I, in which the realm of the Holy Grail is represented the stale interior of a rundown building that could easily be a warehouse. The Grail knights look like urban squatters who have taken over the place. Gurnemanz reads his long narrations of their order’s history and recent trouble—the loss of the Holy Spear to the evil sorcerer Klingsor—while showing a crude slide projection of better days. The images are black-and-white stills of Parsifal’s first production, in Bayreuth in 1882. In my alienation from the concept, I associated this underwhelming effect with the decline in the art of stagecraft far more than the decay of the Grail knights. Parsifal’s buoyant entrance—as a witless millennial in t-shirt and cargo shorts, with one of those annoying oversized backpacks that ruins the center of every major European city between May and October—did not cheer me up. Neither did the reduction of the Grail rite—one of the most mystical scenes in opera—to a vampyric leadership ritual in which the knights find life affirmation in consuming blood extracted from Amfortas’s unhealed wound.
It was really only in Act II that the production rose to provocation. Here Klingsor and the seductress Kundry are reimagined as a dysfunctional modern married couple—an approach that is suggested by their psycho-sexual dialogue, but which has not, to the best of my knowledge, been explored before. Klingsor’s hideous self-castration is the root of their problem, naturally enough, but the Flower Maidens are cast here as a flock of rambunctious daughters, complete with pigtails and jump ropes. Despite it all, their troubled parents evince real affection for each other, with Kundry collapsing in tears when Parsifal—transformed by her attempt at seduction (here rather clumsy) into a mature man in trousers and leather jacket—runs Klingsor through with the Holy Spear. Act III returns us to the dim realm of the Grail. In a rather forced conclusion, the spiritual resolution that ends the opera is a tawdry reconciliation between Kundry and Amfortas, whom she had previously seduced and left vulnerable to Klingsor’s attack. They share a passionate embrace until Gurnemanz pulls out his switchblade and knifes her in the back, for little apparent reason other than to be gratuitous. In an obligatory swipe at personality cults—from which Tcherniakov’s unfortunate country suffers—the assembled knights swoon in reverence to Parsifal, even without sharing his blood, simply because he stands as their new king.
It was hard to sit through all of this tweaking, and the grim visuals did little to counter the utter lack of substance. But as is so often the case in Germany, the musical evening was worthwhile. Maestro Barenboim’s heavy touch on late-Romantic music thoroughly empowered Wagner’s score. The Berlin Staatskapelle, which serves as the Staatsoper’s house orchestra, can sound a bit rough at times. The balance definitely tilted in favor of the brass, but the reading was a fine one. In Andreas Schager the heldentenor repertoire has a shining new star: a voice not merely of clarion tones but of refinement worthy of the Golden Age. Not yet known on the other side of the Atlantic, Schager’s is a career to watch. In pure quality of singing, he was matched only by René Pape’s authoritative Gurnemanz, arguably the world’s best and now offering a much more practiced study than his original essays in the part some fifteen years ago. Tómas Tómasson sang a brutally effective Klingsor. Lauri Vasar’s Amfortas never wavered in pathos. Anna Larsson sang a throaty Kundry, but her raw authority made the role memorable. As Amfortas’s father Titurel, who appears on stage to be rejuvenated in this production (he is usually a disembodied voice), the stately bass Matthias Hölle added an element of luxury casting.
Luxury casting was certainly the watchword on April 9, when Berlin met Guth’s new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Arguably Richard Strauss’s most sophisticated opera, its fairy-tale abstractions and heavy symbolism create an enormous challenge for any director. With South Seas locales, cloudy heavens, descents into the realm of man, underground chambers, and magic waterfalls, any representational staging would be almost certain to fail. But what to put in its place? Guth took the easy way out in this rather oppressive effort, which places the Empress—who must either produce a “shadow,” i.e., a child, within three days or disappear back into the spirit realm—as a mental patient in a high-end clinic at roughly the time period of the opera’s composition. Everything that happens in the opera is her neurotic fantasy, often explored during violent dreams, almost entirely encased with large, heavy rosewood walls. Some projections and oddly costumed animals compensate for the soul-crushing surroundings, but the only intersection with reality is her real-life nurse, who easily turns into the nasty, manipulative Nurse character of the opera. When relegated to the Empress’s sickly mind, all of the opera’s very human dilemmas are reduced to the ravings of a psychopath. With a rising number of productions adopting this conceit—Vienna opened its own new production of Parsifal with a similar idea just days before Berlin’s Festtage opened—can it be that our theatrical intellectuals have become jadedly post-emotional? If so then let us pity them, because so many of these underserved works—this one perhaps more than any other—reach so deeply into the human experience that it would be truly sad if their insights eluded these directors. Spiritual catharsis, emotional growth, psychological transformation—all are being recast as mere idle dreams that afflict the very sick. Those seeking affirmation in this art would do better to close their eyes. Lord, hear our prayer.
And what they have to listen to! All the principal roles in this languid visual effort went to exemplars of European opera stardom today. Camilla Nylund has come a long way from her earlier Elsas and Elisabeths to deliver a stunning Empress. The voice has matured considerably, and the pathos that the character needs to succeed—even in dream form—was firmly in evidence. Burkhard Fritz’s Emperor is a lesser part but still benefitted from his brilliant, swelling heldentenor voice. Michaela Shuster’s Nurse hit malevolent lows accompanied by facial expressions as terrifying as any found in a horror film. It is arguably the mere mortal couple—the poor dyer Barak and his unnamed wife—who occupy the center of the drama. It is, after all, her childbearing ability that the others drive the plot by coveting. Capturing that drama requires the singers to express crushing bitterness followed by ethereal reconciliation. It would be hard to overstate the raw emotional power of Wolfgang Koch’s Barak, whose baritone voice resounded with an intensity that ranged from the saddened depths of the character’s early alienation to the lyrical heights of his concluding joy. For the Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin, already an accomplished Strauss and Wagner singer, no challenge was too great for an absolutely incandescent role debut that set her apart even from this exceptional cast. The conductor Zubin Mehta led a moving performance of true energy, balanced by lithe attention to the score’s potential for spiritual transcendence. One can only imagine Guth gnashing his teeth in frustration at how vastly the music compensated for his glum production concept.