So, finally... seven years and over €400m later, the Staatsoper unter den Linden has reopened. At least temporarily – it closes again for a couple of months after this week’s celebrations before the season kicks off again for good in December. 

Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Mephistopheles) und André Jung (Faust) © Hermann und Clärchen Baus
Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Mephistopheles) und André Jung (Faust)
© Hermann und Clärchen Baus

These reopening celebrations were supposed to have centred around a new Saul by Wolfgang Rihm, cancelled when the composer fell seriously ill. After scouting around for an alternative Intendant Jürgen Flimm plumped for Schumann’s Faust-Szenen, bolstered by segments of Goethe’s play, the whole thing rebranded under the title, taken from one of Faust’s most famous lines, “Zum Augenblick sagen: verweile doch!” (Say to the moment: do not pass away!).

The choice certainly plunged us deep into the heart of German ideas and culture, but to stage a hybrid of an oratorio and a play for the reopening of an opera house is, at best, eccentric. At this festive occasion on the Day of German Unity, with Chancellor Merkel among the guests, the two disparate elements of the evening resolutely resisted coming together into a coherent or compelling whole. And by the end I was left doubting the theatrical judgement of anyone who ever thought they might do so.

Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Mephistopheles), Katharina Kammerloher (Sorge) und Roman Trekel (Faust) © Hermann und Clärchen Baus
Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Mephistopheles), Katharina Kammerloher (Sorge) und Roman Trekel (Faust)
© Hermann und Clärchen Baus

Schumann’s Scenes, composed backwards over a period of several years and drawn from both parts of Goethe’s vast work, were never conceived dramatically. Their pace is gentle and reflective; the chosen episodes, in which Mephistopheles becomes less the spirit that negates than a neutral enforcer of laws, are set with a moving and uncomplicated sincerity.

Flimm apparently has little patience with that, though. He jostles it along with the inserted scenes and stages it all with a cynicism that is anathema to Schumann’s work. Singing and speaking versions of the principals – operating in different temporal orbits – vie for our attention without ever holding it; the music, forcibly repurposed, is done no favours at all, holding up action it was never meant to accompany.

If the basic concept sets intractable problems, these are only exacerbated by Flimm’s production. The designs, by the veteran artist Markus Lüpertz, offer striking sculptural figures and sweeping canvases; a revolving cube, dimly reminiscent of that which features in Terry Gilliam's staging of Berlioz's Damnation, takes centre stage in the first half. A few touches seem expressly designed to show off the space and revamped machinery of the Staatsoper stage.

Roman Trekel (Faust/Doctor Marianus), Meike Droste (Gretchen) and Chorus © Hermann und Clärchen Baus
Roman Trekel (Faust/Doctor Marianus), Meike Droste (Gretchen) and Chorus
© Hermann und Clärchen Baus
 

But it's a messy, often ugly affair, non-committal about its tone and time. Gretchen’s death is followed by the sound of helicopters, the collapse of rubble onto the stage and the arrival of paramedics and men in hi-viz pumping out dry ice onto the stage – and into the pit. Period costumes (by Ursula Kudrna) are stripped off in the final scenes to reveal modern dress. Unexplained extras and props are wheeled on and off throughout, including at one point some rows of replica Staatsoper chairs – one of several clichés the production seems keen to tick off. 

In purely musical terms matters were variable. Daniel Barenboim launched into a fiercely impulsive, taut and swift account of the Overture that offered encouraging signs – not least with regard to the wonderfully clear and lively revamped acoustics of the theatre. As the evening progressed, however, the urgency and focus diminished, even if the quality of the Staatskapelle's playing remained high, as did that of the choral singing. 

The need for the show to be cast from the house's ensemble brought mixed results, too. Elsa Dreisig offered exquisitely bright, crystalline tone as Gretchen, reincarnated in the final scene as a doll-like Una Poenitentium. René Pape, though he tired as the evening progressed, was on sturdy, resonant form as a half Joker, half Beetlejuice Mephistopheles. The other various roles were well taken. But Roman Trekel’s effortful and muted Faust really wasn’t up to scratch for such an event, and his underwhelming vocal performance was compounded by the fact that this protagonist spent large swathes of the first half absent as his speaking double took over.

René Pape (Mephistopheles), Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Mephistopheles) and Childrens Chorus © Hermann und Clärchen Baus
René Pape (Mephistopheles), Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Mephistopheles) and Childrens Chorus
© Hermann und Clärchen Baus

As that actorly alter ego, André Jung struck me as shouty and unsympathetic. Sven-Eric Bechtolf was better as a wily, cynical Mephistopheles, and top marks to Meike Droste as a Gretchen visibly trying to enliven proceedings. None of them ever seemed to know really where they existed in the dramaturgical ragbag Flimm had produced, though – even less so Anna Tomowa-Sintow. Her heavily accented reading of the Dedication further held-up a start already delayed by a series of speeches by, among others, Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmaier and the Berlin Mayor.

They made powerful points about the importance of opera and the necessity of generous investment in the arts. The renovated building will, one hopes, back those arguments up. What a shame, though, that this production – ill-conceived, unwieldy, profligate with resources and impractical to revive – so singularly fails to do so.