The Berliner Philharmoniker, Der Schatzgräber and Jenůfa with Elektra to come.
A change of plans around the Jubilee bank holiday weekend meant that I had four days off work with nothing to do apart from twiddle my thumbs. And given flag waving was strictly off the agenda, I debated whether to go away or not, and if so – where to. Given the ongoing Brexit-induced chaos at Heathrow and Gatwick, my chosen destination had to be one that was served by London City Airport, so that narrowed my options down to a few key European cities. I also wanted some classical music and opera, so I started searching the schedules. Within a relatively short space of time I worked out that Berlin ticked all the boxes. And although I’d already paid the German capital a visit in March, the allure of a four night visit in which I could see the Berliner Philharmoniker and three operas spread across performances at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Staatsoper Berlin was too enticing to resist.
Given two of the operas were coming to the end of their runs, I splashed out on buying tickets – don’t worry, you can get decent seats at a fraction of the cost over here, so it didn’t break the bank. And where else, over four evenings, could you see a world premiere at the Berliner Philharmonie, Franz Schreker’s Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Hunter), Jenůfa with Asmik Grigorian and Evelyn Herlitzius, and Patrice Chéreau’s staging of Elektra with Waltraud Meier and René Pape? As this was the first night of Elektra, I was given a press ticket, so that gets a full review – coming up.
It dawned on me as I took my seat in the Berliner Philharmonie, behind the orchestra, that I’d been to this magnificent concert hall several times, had heard the Berliner Philharmoniker on many occasions, but never on their home turf – only as visitors to London. The main draw, for me at any rate, was the world premiere of Gerald Barry’s From Petra von Kant’s bitter tears, concerto for double bass and orchestra. Drawn from his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which I saw at its premiere at English National Opera in 2005, the Irish composer takes us on an unremitting musical journey, full of his usual dark humour, and repetitions – rising and falling scales feature prominently – which also makes huge demands of the soloist, here the excellent Matthew McDonald. Conductor John Storgårds marshalled his forces effectively, and the playing of the Berliners was without reproach. I’m not sure the audience really got it though, as they seemed quite bemused at the end. I thought it was fantastic, however, and can’t wait to hear it again. The second half of the evening was a fine, if a hardly remarkable account of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, but maybe I’d been spoilt the week before. And to be fair, sitting behind the horns did skew the balance. Next time I’ll splash out on one of the posh seats.
“…the allure of a four night visit… was too enticing to resist”
The next evening was a real rarity – Schreker’s Der Schatzgräber at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Over the last few years the company’s been re-examining operas by composers whose music was banned under the Nazis. This ban not only included Schreker, but Korngold and Zemlinksy, to name but two as well. With highly acclaimed stagings of Der Wunder der Heliane (Korngold) and Der Zwerg (Zemlinsky) already under their belt, this sensational staging of Der Schatzgräber is yet another feather in their cap. Trusted to director Christoph Loy, those familiar with his stagings will know what to expect. Always stylish, and handsome to look at in Johannes Leiacker’s single set drawing room, Schreker’s opera is a mix of fantasy, fairy tale and skulduggery for which he wrote his own libretto. With too many named characters to mention here, its plot is quite complicated – so kudos to Loy and his team for telling the story in such a straightforward and unfussy manner. I must confess that my homework consisted of a quick read through the plot summary on my way to the opera house, yet despite my lack of preparation I could still follow what was going on. Usually, for revivals, German opera houses don’t allocate much rehearsal time. But as this was a new production with a run of six performances (revivals often get three or four), it was evident that everyone had enjoyed many weeks of intensive rehearsal, which had really paid off, apparent in the superb orchestral performance under the expert baton of Marc Albrecht.
He and his players revelled in Schreker’s lush, post-Romantic idiom – indeed I’ve never heard this orchestra play so well – which glittered and shone like freshly polished jewels. The cast, drawn mostly from the company’s ensemble, was without a weak link. With most to sing, Elisabet Strid, Daniel Johannsen and Michael Laurenz were outstandingly good as the three main characters. Although he doesn’t have much to do in this, I was eager to hear Jordan Shanahan, as he’s The Royal Opera’s forthcoming Jokanaan in Salome – his firm, resonant baritone sounds perfect for this role, so his debut at Covent Garden promises to be something to look forward to. There’s one performance left of Der Schatzgräber on 11 June – if you can, grab the opportunity to see it, as who knows when this startling opera will next see the light of day.
From a real rarity to an opera that’s now firmly established as a repertory piece, and is always in my top ten – Jenůfa, by Leoš Janáček. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen it – I saw Claus Guth’s Royal Opera staging in the autumn three times alone, maybe I’m a Jenůfa junkie – yet despite my familiarity with the work, it never fails to deliver an emotional punch. Even Damiano Michieletto’s stylised, cool and slightly aloof staging at the Staatsoper Berlin couldn’t temper the blazing musical performance, and exceptionally strong cast. The three generations of Buryja women were entrusted to three generations of opera singers, all at the top of their game – Hanna Schwarz (Grandmother), Evelyn Herlitzius (Kostelnička) and Asmik Grigorian (Jenůfa) – and it’s hard to imagine the roles performed better today.
Herlitzius is a force of nature, dominating the stage, and singing with unfettered abandon. I couldn’t take my eyes off her – add Grigorian’s achingly beautiful Jenůfa to the mix, and you have the perfect mother/daughter partnership. By the close of Act II, I was an emotional wreck, my tears all too real. Conductor Thomas Guggeis (who’s only 29) led a propulsive account of the work, very much in the Mackerras tradition, and the Staatskapelle Berlin responded with vividly assured playing. He clearly has an amazing career ahead of him as he’s about to take up the reins at the Frankfurt opera. And as Daniel Barenboim has withdrawn from the Elektra performances, he’s stepping in to conduct those as well.
It may have cost an eye watering amount of money to refurbish the Staatsoper, but it looks fantastic once you’re inside. I was taken aback by how small it is, but the acoustic is magnificent. All in all, this has been a fantastic trip to the German capital, and the weather was perfect as well. Where else can you experience such musical and operatic diversity, over four nights in Europe? Berlin – it’s been a blast.