A single subway station separates the Deutsche Oper Berlin from the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, the long-running “temporary home” for Berlin’s oldest opera company, which is expected to transfer back to Unter den Linden in October. (I, for one, am not holding my breath).
For a while now, it’s become increasingly difficult to tell the companies apart. Neither seems to be making much of an effort at differentiating itself from the other – and I wonder if geographical proximity has exacerbated this problem over the past six seasons. Neither Jürgen Flimm nor Dietmar Schwarz – the Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper’s intendants respectively – has shown any interest in sharply defining an identity for the house: a far cry from the situation over at the Komische Oper, where Barrie Kosky has succeeded brilliantly in giving his house a clear mandate in terms of repertory choices and production philosophy – and has done so with a panache and intelligence that goes far beyond branding.
The most refreshing thing to come out of the Deutsche Oper lately has been their new Meyerbeer cycle, whose second installment, a powerful “Les Huguenots” starring Juan Diego Flórez, was the undisputed highlight of the opera season here. The Staatsoper has scored several musical and theatrical coups lately – not always at the same time – but I’m hard-pressed to find anything as singularly energizing over the past few seasons. The Staatsoper usually waits until spring to roll out their starriest productions during Daniel Barenboim’s Festtage, headlined this year by Claus Guth’s “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” a London-Milan coproduction that the Staatsoper, perhaps unable to afford a production of their own, has rented out. Three seasons ago, Sasha Waltz, Berlin’s most famous choreographer, often seen as a successor to Pina Bausch, unveiled a much-awaited “Tannhäuser” during the Eastertime festival. That production, which the feuilletons were quick to dub “Tanzhäuser,” has returned to the Staatsoper for its first non-Festtage performances, perfectly timed with a revival of Kirsten Harms’ production of the same work at the Deutsche Oper. Diehard Wagnerians can catch both shows this weekend, commuting on the U2 from the West Berlin company on Saturday to the Schiller Theater on Sunday. Each iteration has its share of tradeoffs, which makes it hard to endorse either wholeheartedly. The two productions oddly compliment each other, which makes one wish that the two companies could join forces.
Harms was nearing the end of her tenure as the Deutsche Oper’s intendant when she unfurled her phantasmagorical vision for “Tannhäuser” in late 2008. She took a decidedly epic approach to her material, serving up a grand fairy tale for adults featuring naked nymphs, flying gargoyles, a picture book medieval court for the Sängerkrieg and sinful pilgrims roasting in a fiery pit of hell. The current run features the magnificent heldentenor Peter Seiffert in the title role; aside from the enthralling staging, his searing interpretation is this revival’s main draw. The 63-year-old singer, a longtime ensemble member who appears frequently at the Staatsoper (including the first two runs of Waltz’s “Tannhäuser”), sings with inexhaustible vocal force and lyrical finesse, girding his performance with incisive dramatic commitment. Everything about his performance was spot-on perfection. On the minus side of the equation, none of the singers surrounding Seiffert is his equal. Ricarda Merbeth is full and ferocious in her double role as Elisabeth and Venus, but her powerful tones often lack focus; James Rutherford’s Wolfram was rather timid; Ain Anger’s Hermann has the vocal chops, but he was unable to bring his character into dramatic view. On the plus side, you get the superb Deutsche Oper Orchestra led by their fiery GMD Donald Runnicles and joined by the overwhelming house chorus.
Inside the Schiller Theater, you find a slick but static production that tentatively incorporates dance and movement, never quite knowing how to bridge opera and ballet. This time around, the orgiastic Bacchanal choreography didn’t seem as ludicrous as it did three seasons ago: although no one would ever claim that this music, devised for the work’s 1861 Paris premiere and clearly rolled out by Barenboim for the director’s benefit is top-shelf Wagner. At the performance I attended several weeks back, tenor Burkhard Fritz was suffering from a throat infection that prevented him from getting through Act II. (He ran out of breath at the climax of the singing contest). When he returned refreshed at evening’s end, he miraculously brought the performance to a mighty conclusion with a penetrating and clarion Rome Narration. If his vocal chords hold up on Sunday, there’s no reason to expect Fritz to disappoint, although I doubt he’ll best Seiffert’s white-hot performance. Neither Anne Schwanewilms (Elisabeth) nor Marina Prudenskaya (Venus) is especially gripping, although they do provide more lyrical and dramatic variety than Merbeth. René Pape’s regal Hermann and Wolfgang Koch’s anguished Wolfram provide the two best reasons to catch this revival. The Staatsoper’s chorus sounds lovely, if not quite as thunderous as its Deutsche Oper counterpart and the Staatskapelle plays with fine-tuned care, although Simone Young often struggles to find a consistently appropriate tone.
With the insanely high expectations of the premiere far behind, I didn’t find Waltz’s production quite as terrible as it had seemed to me in 2014
. Still, her “Tannhäuser” is one of the weaker installments in the Staatsoper’s new Wagner cycle, the first to supplant Harry Kupfer’s ten stagings from the late 1990s and early 2000s. The high points of the new Wagner crop – complete but for a “Tristan” (like the Energizer Bunny, Kupfer’s 17-year-old staging keeps on going and going and going) – have been Stefan Herheim’s marionette-filled “Lohengrin,” perplexingly unseen since its 2009 premiere, Philip Stölzl’s grandly Victorian “Holländer,” and Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Freudian and Dostoevskyian “Parsifal,” which will return, for the third consecutive year, during the Festtage in April.
Tannhäuser – Deutsche Oper Berlin – Saturday March 18, 2017, 6pm
Tannhäuser – Staatsoper im Schiller Theater – Sunday March 19 2017, 5pm