275 years old and just (re)born. How is this phenomenon possible? Ask Maestro Daniel Barenboim, who is really happy with the renovation of “his” Staatsoper Unter den Linden and who celebrated the anniversary with a very special gala concert. As he said in an informal speech after the concert, the seven-year wait and the many, many additional millions it took to finish the job are all forgotten now that the result is so splendid. Especially splendid are the acoustics. Anyone who was in the old house will remember that the number one criticism was its dull sound. That has all changed now that the roof has been raised about four metres in order to prolongue the reverbaration time – the sound is now bright, clear and warm.

Daniel Barenboim at Unter den Linden © Christian Mang
Daniel Barenboim at Unter den Linden
© Christian Mang

Founded by King Frederick II of Prussia, a prominent supporter of the arts, the building was the first in Europe built as a free-standing edifice. The only element that still dates to that time is the classic façade with its six ionic columns. The 7th of December – traditionally the opening of the opera season at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan – also happened to be the date of the opening of the Staatsoper back in 1742. The current renovation is based on Richard Paulig’s designs in the early 1950s. He was the architect who oversaw the reconstruction of the opera house after the heavy damage it had suffered during World War 2. The indoor classic columns, gold-leaf applications, marble-inlaid floors and showy crystal chandeliers are all still there. The original colour scheme of white and soft Prussian Pink tones on the walls and deeper pink – not very comfortable – seats was also respected.

The gala programme reflected special highlights associated with the history of the Staatsoper: the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream had already been presented during Mendelssohn's tenure as conductor here from 1842–1846. Barenboim and the Staatskapelle made it sound as light as a feather, all gossamer butterfly wings.

Unter den Linden © Gordon Welters
Unter den Linden
© Gordon Welters

The Mendelssohn was followed by Notations I-IV and VII by Pierre Boulez. The contrast could not have been greater. These short pieces, which Boulez had started to compose back in 1945 for piano in twelve-tone technique, were reworked by him for very large and complex orchestra in the late 1970s. The stage was full to bursting – three harps, eight musicians working more than 12 percussion instruments, piano, celesta … And yet, during the course of these short pieces, never once did they sound like porridge, but each instrumental group came through crystal clear. Listening to these works with today’s ears, they seem almost permeated in nostalgic late romanticism, having lost their avant-gardist standing and been incorporated in the contemporary classic repertoire. Boulez, who was named Honorary Conductor of the Staatskapelle in 2005 and who was a personal friend of Barenboim, would surely have approved.

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin © Zenaida des Aubris
Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Zenaida des Aubris

After the intermission came Ein Heldenleben, composed in 1898 by Richard Strauss, who conducted this tone poem during his tenure as music director at the Staatsoper between 1899 and 1913. There was brilliant playing from the orchestra with Barenboim taking visible delight in the piece and its many emotional and onomatopeic shadings. The heroine of the piece was the Korean concertmaster Jiyoon Lee; her coquettish solo as the Hero’s Companion an homage to Strauss’ wife, Pauline. The last movement, the Hero’s retirement from the world, was especially moving, with its pastoral interlude followed by a last brass fanfare before the tranquil E flat major ending fading into nothingness and peaceful death.

With this gala concert, Barenboim and his Staatskapelle gave themselves the best birthday gift and an implicit promise was made that the repertory not only from the romantic symphonic period but also contemporary music would be cultivated in future programming.

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