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Szenen aus Goethes Faust 

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

In Review Berlin Goethe Faust hdl 1017
André Jung (Faust), Elsa Dreisig (Una Poenitentium), Roman Trekel (Faust/Doctor Marianus) and Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Mephistopheles) in Jürgen Flimm's staging of Szenen aus Goethes Faust at the newly reopened Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Hermann und Clärchen Baus
In Review Berlin Faust lg 1017
Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Mephistopheles) and André Jung (Faust)
Hermann und Clärchen Baus
In Review Berlin Faust lg 2 1017
Roman Trekel (Faust/Doctor Marianus), Meike Droste (Gretchen) and the Staatsoper Chor
Hermann und Clärchen Baus


FOUR SEASONS BEHIND SCHEDULE and 200 million euro over budget, the renovated Deutsche Staatsoper Unter den Linden finally opened its creaky doors on October 3.  

The flavor of the evening was Deutsch. The appointed date was German Unification Day, everyone’s favorite holiday. There were speeches by Germany’s President, Minister of Culture and the Mayor of Berlin; Chancellor Angela Merkel was in attendance. Local talk show hosts posed for paparazzi on the red carpet. German wine of dubious drinkability was dispensed. Guests to the after party suspiciously eyed an hors-d’oeuvre called “Blutwurst Bonbons.” And, oh yes, there was something resembling an opera to christen the refurbished stage: Schumann’s oratorio Szenen aus Goethes Faust, conducted by Daniel Barenboim and handsomely cast entirely with ensemble singers. Dignified playing from the Staatskapelle and radiant singing from the Staatsopernchor sounded especially lustrous with the house’s improved acoustics. 

Yet an evening that should have showcased this distinguished, long-exiled company in all its glory was sabotaged by a dull, interminable production directed by outgoing intendant Jürgen Flimm, who interpolated lengthy dramatic scenes from Goethe’s epic between Schumann’s seven quasi-operatic movements. Not even the acting prowess of Sven-Eric Bechtolf as Mephisto or Meike Droste as Gretchen could save the show from prolixity and tedium. Imagine going to the Salzburg Festival and finding out that, in a cost-cutting measure, the performances of Rosenkavalier will be periodically interrupted by Jedermann. It’s difficult to understand why Flimm chose to re-open this historic opera house as a dramatic theater. More’s the pity, because Flimm’s previous experience with staging an oratorio, Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, was one of the highlights of the Staatsoper’s seven-year-long residency in the Schiller Theater, the formerly-disused west Berlin venue whose future now hangs in the balance.

The production’s bright spot was Markus Lüpertz’s bold set design. One of Germany’ leading artists, Lüpertz was originally tasked with illustrating Wolfgang Rihm’s new opera Saul, whose world premiere has now been pushed back until 2021. Repurposed for Faust, Lüpertz’s designs and sketches lacked specificity—the two giant statues flanking the nearly empty stage appeared to represent Faust and Mephisto, but could also conceivably have signified Saul and David (or Castor and Pollux or Romulus and Remus, for that matter). That being said, Lüpertz’s naïve, totemic style, which often straddles the line between figurative art and abstraction, was particularly well-suited to this spiritual and human allegory. 

Lüpertz’s colorful backdrops, including those inside a cube that served as a platform for the actors, and large Styrofoam props were plopped down on the vast expanse of the Staatsoper’s newly mechanized stage. Those mechanisms, however, won’t be up and running for another two months—which is why the newly re-opened Staatsoper closed again shortly after the Faust premiere. (It will remain closed until mid-December.) 

The wide-open space was not always kind to voices, especially the low ones. Singing Faust, Roman Trekel harnessed his lyrical baritone effectively for much of the evening, faltering only during the lengthy Transfiguration scene, but his voice often failed to carry in the house. Even René Pape seemed to be straining to make himself heard as Mephistopheles, which is a surprisingly small role. In contrast, Stephan Rügamer’s robust tenor rang out effortlessly in his two appearances as Ariel and Pater Ecstaticus. The women tended to fare better. Elsa Dreisig, a recent Operalia winner and brand-new ensemble member here, was a pure-toned yet impassioned Gretchen. Katharina Kammerloher, the company’s consistently dazzling mezzo, put her dark and bewitching voice to excellent use in a quartet of small roles. 

During the musical half of the evening, Barenboim drove his musicians to steely excellence. Their playing was consistently inspired, dramatically driven and had a velvety patina. While it felt great to be back inside this elegant theater for a single evening after so many seasons in the unloved Schiller Theater, we will have to wait until the back-to-back premieres of Hänsel und Gretel and L’incoronazione di Poppea in December for this old-new house’s full potential to be unlocked.  —A. J. Goldmann 

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