The first thing to notice is the snazzy new logo for the Berlin Staatsoper, set to move back into its historic home on Unter den Linden in October, four seasons behind schedule. Make that four and a quarter, since the opera company won’t be 100% settled in by October 3, the traditional start of the Staatsoper’s season on German Unification Day (Tag der deutschen Einheit). But it seems that longtime music director Daniel Barenboim and outgoing intendant Jürgen Flimm wouldn’t miss it for the world. Which is why for two nights only (October 3 & 6), a staged version of Robert Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes Faust, directed by Flimm and starring an assortment of Staatsoper ensemble members, will all-too–briefly light up the house before it is shuttered again until December (!)
Schumann’s two-hour-long oratorio, completed in 1853, is nowadays considered the summit of his choral and dramatic achievement. It lacks, however, the narrative drive of Berlioz’s Damnation, written several years earlier, a work that today abounds in fully staged productions (including Terry Gilliam’s magnificent Nazi-themed one, transplanted from London for the company’s final season in the Schiller Theater). It’s a challenge that Flimm, whose production of Handel’s Trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, imported from Salzburg, was one of the high points of the Staatsoper’s exile to the west, should be up to.
Two months later, the move should be complete (one hopes) and the company will finally inaugurate a full-time opera season with back-to-back premieres of Achim Freyer’s Hänsel und Gretel (on December 8) and Eva-Maria Höckmayr’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (December 9), timed to the Staatsoper’s 275th birthday.
Barenboim will sit out both. Humperdinck will be in the capable hands of Sebastian Weigle, a first-rate maestro, no matter what the New Yorker says (what do they know, anyway?). Once more, the cast is mostly drawn from the company’s ensemble, with exciting newcomers like Elsa Dreisig and Evelin Novak (switching off as Gretel) joining old hands like Anna Samuil and Roman Trekel. Freyer, a legend of the German theater scene, needs no introduction. At the Staatsoper, he’s had two very different productions over the past decade: a 2007 Onegin that was painfully static and out-of-synch with the material, and a winningly surreal vision for a true operatic rarity, Emilio de’ Cavaliere’s Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo, which bowed at the Schiller Theater in 2012. If his Dresden Zauberflöte is any indication, Freyer’s colorful, carnivaleque sensibilities should be an exciting match for Humperdinck’s Grimm-inspired masterpiece.
It would be difficult to read any sort of deeper meaning into choosing Hänsel und Gretel to inaugurate the Staatsoper’s uninterrupted 2017-18 season. Not so with Poppea, the company’s first Monteverdi outing since their winning transplant of Sasha Waltz’s Orfeo three seasons ago. 2017 marks the 450th anniversary of the composer’s birth and is being celebrated all throughout Europe with a plethora of concerts and productions. The Staatsoper’s young shooting star Anna Prohaska makes her debut in the title role, surrounded by fellow ensemble members, including Narine Yeghiyan, Evelin Novak, Katharina Kammerloher and Gyula Orendt and complimented by promising guest singers, including bass-baritone Franz-Josef Selig, countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic and mezzo Lucia Cirillo. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin can be relied on for a crisp, exacting performance, although René Jacobs isn’t on hand until later in the season. Diego Fasolis, a Swiss conductor and polymath (organist, composer, baroque specialist) is in the pit. Director Höchmayr, last seen at the company in 2015 with the Telemann rarity Emma und Eginhard, will have to work hard to best Barrie Kosky’s shattering production down the block.
The company’s first new Tristan und Isolde in nearly two decades promises to the Staatsoper’s most important premiere of 2017-18. In a departure from recent years, Barenboim won’t unveil the production – the very last installment in the company’s new Wagner cycle, which replaces Harry Kupfer’s clunky stagings from the 1990s – during his Eastertime Festtage, with its added dose of glamor (not to mention premium ticket prices). Dmitri Tcherniakov, who has already given the Staatsoper a fine Parsifal (to return, somewhat irritatingly, for the fourth consecutive year to the Festtage) and is booked to direct their new Ring cycle (replacing Guy Cassiers’ tedious production), is one of the best choices that the company could have made, although personally I was hoping that Robert Wilson might have been tasked with this abstract, transcendent work.
As far as casting is concerned, Anja Kampe will sing her first Isolde in Germany since withdrawing very last minute from Bayreuth’s 2015 production, reportedly due to disagreements with Christian Thielemann, who also sparred with Kirill Petrenko (Kampe’s partner at the time, so it seems).
So much for gossip. Kampe has turned out excellent portrayals of Tosca, Kundry (both at the Staatsoper) and Brünnhilde (at the Salzburg Easter Festival), so there’s reason to be excited. At her side will be Andreas Schager, the young Austrian tenor who has been singing Parsifal at the house for the past three seasons and was a committed Florestan in this season’s opener Fidelio. Reports from Schager’s role debut in Paris last year were mixed. (One British journalist I spoke to said the tenor ran out of steam in the final act, a not uncommon problem). Hopefully the long rehearsal time (six weeks for new productions) will work in Schager’s favor. There’s no need to worry about Stephen Milling’s Marke or Ekaterina Gubunova’s Brangäne, both of which are known quantities. Boaz Daniel is a bit of a wild card as Kurwenal, while Stephan Rügamer, possibly the Staatsoper’s finest house tenor, should be counted on to sing Melot with imperious menace. Tristan is Barenboim’s favorite opera and he never tolerates anything less than perfection from the Staatskapelle. If you catch one opera in Berlin next season, let this be it.
Poor Harry Kupfer. First they get rid of his Tristan, then they go after Salome. At this point, all of the veteran directors’ classic stagings for the Staatsoper have kicked the proverbial bucket. Hans Neuenfels, another German Regie legend, shows no sign of slowing down in his old age. In 2013, he subjected the Schiller Theater to an excruciating production of Mozart’s early Finta Giardiniera, only to redeem himself two years later with an elegant and witty Ariadne auf Naxos that is the company’s most successful Strauss production of the moment, excepting the well-travelled Chéreau Elektra that arrived last fall.
Salome is one of those operas directors love to sink their teeth into. Over the past decade here, we’ve seen Freyer’s big-top production be replaced by Claus Guth’s severe, psychologically-penetrating vision at the Deutsche Oper. The Komische Oper also took a stab at the work, in a loopy Thilo Rheinhardt production unseen since its 2011 premiere. Kupfer’s staging, which has returned every few seasons, dates from 1979, making it quite possibly the Staatsoper’s longest-running production. Its industrial, subterranean look resembled Chéreau’s centenary Ring, with a pervasive sense of menace and gloom owed much to dim lighting and a clattering, metal set of walkways and grates. When it was last revived in 2014, with Zubin Mehta – who will lead next season’s premiere – in the pit and a bold Camilla Nylund in the punishing title role, the production clearly showed its age.
Neuenfels has a penchant for putting large rodents (Lohengrin), bumblebees (Nabucco) and phalluses (Zauberlföte) on stage. Let’s hope that his take on this seminal shocker will be less irreverent or outlandish. Once again, Mehta should draw an elegant and dramatically full-bodied performance from the Staatskapelle (his recent Frau ohne Schatten here was disappointingly low on momentum). The powerful Latvian soprano, Ausrine Stundyte, last seen in Berlin as Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle at the KOB, will make her role debut as the Judean princess.
The Festtage kicks off in March with a new production of Falstaff, which will mark Barenboim’s first time leading Verdi’s final work. Italian film and opera director Mario Martoni, making his house debut, can be counted on for a lavish, if somewhat traditional, spectacle. Let’s hope that the formidable Michael Volle doesn’t growl his way through the title role the way he did here with Scarpia three seasons ago!
After the Festtage, the Staatsoper (and Barenboim) will take a hiatus from new productions until June, at which time another one of Verdi’s Shakespearean masterpiece will light up the stage. The dream pairing of Plácido Domingo and Anna Netrebko alone guarantees that this will be the season’s hottest ticket. But the supporting roles, filled out by Kwangchul Youn, Fabio Sartori and Evelin Novak, provides added incentive to catch this summertime premiere. The new production from Harry Kupfer (remember him?) can’t possibly be any worse than Peter Mussbach’s insect-themed insult to Verdi and Shakespeare that was revived twice at the Schiller Theater.
Over the past seasons, Salvatore Sciarrino has emerged as the Staatsoper’s favorite living composer. In 2014, Jürgen Flimm broke into the construction site on Unter den Linden to perform Sciarrino’s 2002 chamber opera of Macbeth in the company’s old rehearsal hall (now part of the Pierre Boulez Saal); around the same time, the composer’s 1982 reimagining of Lohengrin told from Else’s point of view bowed at the Schiller Theater’s Werkstatt; and last year, the Staatsoper closed its season with Luci Mie Traditrici, an astringent 1998 work inspired by the mad Renaissance duke and composer Carlo Gesualdo.
The world premiere of Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo, about the tragic life of baroque composer Alessandro Stradella, will take place in November at La Scala, which co-commissioned the work along with Berlin. The opera travels to Berlin eight months later, with its premiere cast – Laura Aikin, Tomas Tomasson, Michael Schade and Otto Katzameier – intact. After opening the season (or more accurately, the season’s “prelude”) in October, Jürgen Flimm will have one final opportunity to bid the Staatsoper, finally returned to its rightful home, farewell.
Alongside the eight premieres during the company’s truncated first season back on Unter den Linden since 2010, the company will also present revivals of Staatsoper evergreens (Ruth Berghaus’s Barbiere and Pelléas; August Everding’s Zauberflöte; Lindy Hume’s Bohème) and some highlights from the Schiller Theater-era (Hans Neuenfels’ Ariadne; Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni and Turn of the Screw;), including a few of this season’s biggest hits (Sven-Eric Bechtolf and Julian Crouch’s King Arthur; Wim Wenders’ Pêcheurs de Perles).
Additionally, several of the houses biggest Schiller-days flops (Alvis Hermanis’ Tosca; the Jürgen Flimm / Frank Gehry Orfeo ed Euridice; Dieter Dorn’s Traviata) will return with casts that should enliven the dimmer inspirations of their directors.