In the beginning was the deed

Robert Schumann
Berlin Staatsoper, until December 17

Aribert Reimann
Deutsche Oper Berlin, until October 31

Giuseppe Verdi
English National Opera, until December 2

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 27 October

Stephan Rügamer as Ariel and the chorus of Szenen aus Goethes Faust © Hermann and Clärchen Baus

“Meine Ruh’ ist hin” – “my peace is gone”: So says Gretchen, in wonder and anguish, all because she has fallen in love with one of European literature’s least likeable heroes, Goethe’s Faust. She has only just met him when she speaks these lines, but this is all the more reason to feel for Gretchen, whose lament for her lost equilibrium at the spinning wheel became one of the most frequently set passages from the play. Indeed, most of us probably know best the lines from Schubert’s song, “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, with its musical spinning-wheel poised just on the edge of running away with itself. The song was one of fifteen Goethe settings (including “Erlkönig” and “Der Fischer”) which the composer sent to Goethe in 1816. Schubert’s gift was never directly acknowledged by Goethe, who seems to have found the settings quite alien to his taste. That said, Schubert was neither the first nor the last of the thirty or so composers who have so far set Gretchen’s scene at the spinning wheel to music.

It is surprising, then, that Robert Schumann, Schubert’s great neighbour on music library shelves, didn’t include the lines in his Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Few composers have been as occupied – at times to the point of obsession – with the destabilizing effects of romantic love as Schumann was, nor as attuned to the central Faustian concept of restlessness. Goethe’s version of the story is often criticized for its vagueness around Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles. But Schumann understood well enough that the Satanic bargain was a foil for a fault already deeply rooted in the alchemist’s character – his unceasing thirst for new forms of knowledge, which ruthlessly transforms every experience and personal encounter into an experiment. This is Gretchen’s tragedy, and when she sings of her own lost peace it is in part a signal of her awareness of Faust’s own incapacity for peace, and that his restless desire will lead to her own unravelling.

Schumann’s seven Scenes focus on only three episodes from the play. Gretchen’s seduction and betrayal; Faust’s vision for a new city and his philosophical struggle with the incommensurability of power and freedom; and his final transfiguration. It has a mixed reputation, not least for the reason that it isn’t really a work so much as pieces of work. Schumann considered that the three parts should not be performed together, and never witnessed such a performance. Bearing in mind the uneven levels of musical inspiration, and the uneasy mixture of sacred and secular, private and public genres, it’s easy to understand why one might want to keep the fragments apart. Yet the work’s fragmentary and heterogeneous qualities also suit it to its task, in that it both echoes the generic unruliness and formal extravagance of the original at the same time as acknowledging the impossibility of the task of setting the play itself to music (Schumann was well aware of Goethe’s quip that only Mozart, long since dead, could set the play to music). Schumann’s Faust thus works on the basis of aspiring to illuminate fragments of a masterpiece that really, whether in spoken or musical form, exists fully only in the imagination.

It may have been thinking along these lines that led Jürgen Flimm and Daniel Barenboim, respectively Intendant (until early next year) and Music Director (“for life”) of the Berlin Staatsoper, to choose Schumann’s Scenes for the inaugural production of the company’s newly reopened home, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. On the face of it, it is a bizarre choice. Few works of musical theatre could be worse suited to the task of a grand opening, its premiere scheduled for the Day of German Unity with an audience of national and international grandees, Chancellor Merkel among them. But Flimm and Barenboim were evidently aiming at something rather different, and to say that is what they achieved is something of an understatement.

The title of the production is in fact “Zum Augenblicke Sagen: Verweile Doch”, an adapted quotation from the second part of the play when Faust is faced with the spectacle of impermanence as the architectural corollary of his restlessness. It translates as “Say to the moment: stay a while”, which sounds rather pretentious, but in fact captures the way the production assembles a collection of moments that resonate far beyond their allotted time on stage. The change of title also reflects the hybrid nature of the show, in which Schumann’s musical scenes are interspersed with spoken scenes from the play (including Gretchen’s lament). Beginning with the Dedication, read rather grandly by the great Bulgarian soprano and Staatsoper legend Anna Tomowa-Sintow, the lyrical flights of Schumann’s overture seem to flow directly from the “unsteady shapes” conjured by Goethe. The alternation of spoken and sung scenes doesn’t appear to aim for completeness, however, so much as at a kind of expressive extravagance and diversity. Even the production programme is drafted into the drama, with large-print quotations (from Schumann, Faust and elsewhere in Goethe) on the production programme designed to be read and mulled over during each scene, so that as many conceivable facets of the play as possible are presented together. Thus the principals, all well-known company soloists – Roman Trekel (Faust), Elsa Dreisig (Gretchen) and René Pape (Mephistopheles) – are doubled by (equally well-known) actors, André Jung (Faust), Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Mephistopheles) and Meike Droste (Gretchen). The pairs are dressed similarly but otherwise look entirely unalike, an intentional discontinuity which is enhanced as they frequently inhabit the same space on the stage, interacting in different ways and even assisting each other – the two Mephistopheles do this to great comic effect.

The result is a chaotic collision of representational styles, where Schumann’s orchestral score – beautifully rendered by the Staatskapelle, clearly happy to be back home – resonates fully in the memory while the actors undercut it with what looks like half-improvised larking around. Just as Mephistopheles and Faust mix coarse humour and philosophical grandeur in the original, the two elements jostle together with the spiritual heights of the later musical scenes such that it is often quite impossible to get to grips with the measure of the moment, let alone the whole piece. The set, designed by the artist Markus Lüpertz, follows this trajectory of increasing diffuseness, with giant, totemic sculptures initially looming large, framing the action, while a central revolving box, daubed with Goethe’s heretical motto, “in the beginning was the deed”, focuses the interior scenes. But throughout the evening the set elements retreat progressively. And then, just when you think, finally, it’s all gone completely mad, the music of the great choral scenes and the mass of bodies on stage (dressed in costumes from every conceivable epoch) somehow provides its own redemptive coherence, carrying everything up once more into the music. The emotions of the thing – messy, contradictory, frustrated, lung-draining charges of feeling – are quite overwhelming, and the spectacle stays with you for days. It’s not beautiful, but it certainly approaches the sublime.

Clearly, though, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and the production will probably go down in critical history as a terrible error of judgement. But one has to admire Flimm and Barenboim’s chutzpah in refusing to conform to “international” expectations in presenting something so uncompromisingly German in its experimental combination of grand oratorio and Brechtian theatre, and in resisting the temptation to commission international stars: the singers, though well known, are all company soloists. René Pape is in tremendously good voice, and Elsa Dreisig’s clear, wonderfully sweet soprano is exactly right for Gretchen.

There is something delightfully apt, too, about the fragmentary nature of the occasion, whether intentional or otherwise, because the renovations whose conclusion the production was intended to mark are not yet quite complete. Following Faust, the theatre will again close for a further three months while the production staff get to grips with their new backstage toys and the builders tie up their loose ends and exposed cables. And this is merely the latest in a series of delays which led the planned four-year, €200m rebuilding project to double in both duration and cost. The renovations themselves were necessary as the theatre, which has been rebuilt several times since Frederick II originally opened it in 1743, was becoming structurally unsound. But Barenboim also insisted that the period of closure be used to make improvements to the auditorium’s acoustics, and it is these changes which have led to the delays and spiralling costs. The proposal that won the original architectural competition was to construct an entirely new auditorium while preserving the building’s historical exterior, but this was eventually overruled in favour of a paradoxically much more ambitious plan to tweak the existing interior, which dates from the post-war rebuilding (1945–5) and whose clean lines and comparatively abstract ornamental vocabulary led to the coining of the term “socialist rococo”. What meets the eye, then, is merely a freshly-painted, sparkling version of what was there before, but the roof has been relined and raised by three metres to increase reverberation times, and the proscenium extended to enhance projection from the stage. While the improvements are significant – both orchestra and voices feel more fully present – one could be forgiven for suspecting the unseen hand of Mephistopheles at work in frustrating the ambitions of the architects. He would certainly have enjoyed sending in the bill.

The complications have had musical implications too. Flimm’s decision to stage Faust was in fact a hasty afterthought after a planned new opera, Saul, by Wolfgang Rihm, was cancelled when the composer fell ill. Rihm’s opera, now scheduled for 2021, was itself a substitute after the original commission of a new work by Aribert Reimann. Reimann completed his work on schedule, but found the theatre for which he had written it was anything but. In the end, he grew tired of waiting and sent the score a few miles down the road to the Deutsche Oper Berlin. And it’s lucky he did because the resulting opera is much better suited to the wide-angle stage and clean acoustic of the Deutsche Oper. Though it shares a focus on the same theme of ruptured equilibrium and death – Gretchen’s reflection “Meine ruh ist’ hin” could equally well be the motto here – the work is a masterpiece of an entirely different kind to Faust.

L’Invisible is based on three short marionette plays by Maurice Maeterlinck, L’Intruse, Intérieur and La Mort de Tintagiles. All are concerned with death, and in particular with the way the presence of death among the living represents a passage from one world to another, or from one sealed state of knowing to another. The first is largely concerned with the premonition of this liminal structure – a blind grandfather is the only member of his family aware that his daughter, who is resting after giving birth, is about to die – while the second deals with the moment of knowledge, as a man observes a family through the window before bringing them news that their daughter has been found drowned. Tintagiles, by contrast, dramatizes the experience of death itself as something whose spiritual causes (as opposed to putative medical ones) lie entirely outside the possibility of conscious knowledge.

Reimann’s orchestral score, immaculately realized by the Deutsche Oper orchestra under their music director Donald Runnicles, has the same crystalline aspect as the libretto, which is in French and sticks closely to Maeterlinck’s original. Its gestures are taut and precise but continually bulging with the controlled violence implicit in its central gesture, a crashing cluster chord which breaks through the texture at the moment of death in each scene, but in a way that makes you realize that all its constituent parts have been present since the beginning. The gesture is further sharpened by Reimann’s instrumentation, which is restricted to string instruments for the first act (L’Intruse), and to wind instruments for the second (Intérieur), but with full orchestra employed for the death-chord in all cases.

The vocal parts have a Debussyian flavour to them, despite the underlying harmony being very different, and the text emerges clearly, and is paced so that the words and images linger on. The singing is exemplary – particularly that of the soprano Rachel Harnisch and the bass baritone Stephen Bronk – as is the stage direction, by the young Russian director Vasily Barkhatov. Zinovy Margolin’s set takes the form of a single elevation which, in moving (sometimes imperceptibly) back and forth subtly alters the distinctions between interior and exterior space and plays an active role in representing the liminal structure of death. Robert Pflanz’s clever animations in the second and third acts enhance the fine ensemble action and pay subtle homage to the puppet-theatre origins of the original plays.

The idea of death and its threshold is of course also central to Verdi’s Aida, and is cleverly represented in English National Opera’s new production of the opera, with which its current, worryingly pared-down season has recently opened. Directed by Phelim McDermott to set designs by Tom Pye – the pair behind one of the company’s greatest latter-day successes, Philip Glass’s Akhnaten – the staging centres on a tomb-like edifice whose heavy rectangular entrance separates the realm of the high priestess from the secular realm of the Pharaoh. In the final scene, however, it is the condemned lovers who are entombed, the inevitability of their death represented by the closing off of a corridor of light projected higher up. It’s the emotional and vocal high-point of the opera, of course, and provides the one occasion during the evening in which the two leads – the American soprano Latonia Moore as Aida and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Radames – really feel as if they’re alive in their roles. For the rest, however, despite some excellent singing (particularly from Moore), and animated musical direction from Keri-Lynn Wilson, the evening fails to take off. The effect of the great choral scenes is hampered rather than enhanced by the use of a dance troupe, while Edmund Tracey’s lumpen translation throws a spanner in everyone’s works.

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