Thirty years after the Wall fell, the historic center of Berlin remains a hodgepodge of renovation and rebuilding. The famed Unter den Linden, the central avenue that leads eastward from Brandenburg Gate, remains dotted with cranes and shudders with the vibrations of jackhammers in a city that does not quite seem to know what to do with the legacy of its imperial downtown.
The Berlin Staatsoper, once the theater of Prussia’s royal court, has been a focal point for this uneasy legacy. The smallest of Berlin’s three opera houses despite its grander history, which dates back to its opening by Frederick the Great in 1742, it was rebuilt at the spartan mercy of East Germany’s communist regime after bombs gutted the theater in February 1945. A recent renovation, which lasted seven years and came in significantly over budget at some €400 million, has restored the building’s gleaming Baroque legacy, enhanced its superb acoustics, and preserved the intimacy of its performance space. With a reduced 1,356 seats, its capacity is less than one-third that of the Metropolitan Opera. Where better to hear Wagner, at least outside the composer’s custom-designed theater in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth?
The Staatsoper’s interior may be small, but its ambitions are large. Led since 1992 by the famed conductor Daniel Barenboim, whose contract was recently renewed despite allegations of professional misconduct, it is this year taking advantage of Berlin’s warm summer days to present free televised broadcasts of its performances outdoors, in a BMW-sponsored event called “Staatsoper für Alle,” or “the State Opera for All.” The outside crowd for this five-and-a-half hour performance of Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s masterpiece of impossible love that can only find resolution in death, was far from overwhelming, but the intentions were good, and the performance inside the theater even better.
Barenboim can be hit or miss in performance. Tristan was his long overdue Met debut over a decade ago, and his direction then was rather uneven. But in his home theater, he brought uncommon focus and delivered a slow but deeply contemplative reading of the score from the company’s resident orchestra, Berlin’s superb Staatskapelle. It was one of those Wagner performances where time seems to stop, with hours of music seeming like mere minutes spent in the presence of greatness.
The Austrian tenor Andreas Schager is rapidly becoming the Heldentenor of our time. Having just thrilled New York with his Met debut as Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, he has returned triumphantly to his home turf, where he has also performed Parsifal to great critical acclaim. Schager started in operetta. Ten years in, the genre has given him incredible breath control, a technique of near-perfect precision and refinement, and a bright, clarion sound that resists the rougher baritonal timbres that other singers can bring to the heftier Wagner parts. Schager rolled effortlessly along, meeting the torturous demands of the role of Tristan with only a warble on a couple of syllables in one of the character’s intense Act III monologues.
Schager was brilliantly paired with the soprano Anja Kampe, who has risen from lighter Wagner parts to the summit of leading roles in the composer’s oeuvre. Her approach is sensible, with surging highs reserved for just the right moment, while intelligently deployed middle and lower register tones matched the part’s dramatic demands. She ended the famed Liebestod, the opera’s concluding resignation of love in death, with a well-practiced pianissimo.
The lesser roles were staffed by a dream team of luxury casting. As King Marke, Tristan’s uncle and Isolde’s intended husband, the bass René Pape only seemed to grow more sensitive over time, focusing more on the cuckolded old man’s pain than on his anger. Violetta Urmana once had a formidable international presence as Isolde, but, after some audible decline, she has wisely downgraded to the role of her servant Brangäne. The volume is still there, however, and this brought the role to greater life than usual. The Israeli baritone Daniel Boaz was a stentorian Kurwenal, Tristan’s trusted retainer.
The Russian director Dmitry Tcherniakov used to have a reputation as an enfant terrible, staging productions that often seemed too over-the-edge to be taken seriously. So it was with his first stab at Tristan, which premiered at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in 2005 and marked the opera’s return to the Russian stage for the first time since before World War I. In that staging, the “ship” that carries the captive Isolde from Ireland to Cornwall was a claustrophobic submarine. Her assignation with Tristan took place in a sleek modern hotel room. Tristan’s exile and death transpire in a country house bedroom, with specters of his dead parents arriving to haunt the action.
Tcherniakov’s sensibilities have changed somewhat in this new production, which the Staatsoper mounted first only last year. The ship is now a luxurious drawing room aboard a modern yacht, perhaps one of those enviably monstrous ones that Russian oligarchs float all over the Mediterranean these days. Tristan and his chorus of lackeys are sharply dressed associates of King Marke.Elena Zaytseva has costumed them in that 1990s-vintage Brioni look that now seems dated anywhere west of the Rhine. Tristan and Isolde’s assignation no longer happens in a perfunctory hotel room, but rather more elegantly at a villa shooting party, in a series of stolen moments behind the scenes. Their physical contact is a bit restrained, but recognition of their joyful predicament emerges in liberating laughter rather than the usual maudlin gestures and grimaces. Oddly, given the heavy presence of firearms, Tristan’s death blow comes in an awkward wrestle with his traitorous friend Melot rather than from any obvious wound that would allow his lifeblood to flow. And, curiously, Tcherniakov chose to retain the final act almost exactly as I recall it from his St. Petersburg production in the early years of this century. Perhaps he ran out of ideas, time, or energy, as many of his colleagues now seem to do when reaching the final acts of grand operas. Or maybe he thought no one would notice. Greater directors, including the recently deceased Franco Zeffirelli, left bigger marks by revisiting works altogether at different times in their careers. Tcherniakov, who is not without talent, could have striven for more.