Wednesday, 4 October 2017

How to kill Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann Szenen aus Goethes Faust  conducted by Daniel Barenboim,  marking the re-opening of theStaatsoper Berlin on the Unter den Linden, Berlin, after years of  renovation. Last time I was there, Hans Werner Henze was in the audience - how time flies ! This time, though, the performance was livestreamed on the Staatsoper Berlin website.   (Please see here about the Open air Beethoven 9 concert)  Schumann's Szenen aus Goethes Faust isn't an opera in the conventional sense, so choosing it to start an opera season was a brave choice indeed. Would the Staatsoper Berlin pull it off ?

Schumann';s works for music theatre don't get the respect they deserve because Schumann died young, eclipsed by Wagner and Verdi and by French Grand Opéra.   But if we approach Schumann on his own terms, and from the perspective of Mendelssohn, Weber and the Singspiele tradition, his work for the stage comes into its own.  What a great opportunity this would have been to present Schumann as man of the theatre in a distinctively German tradition.   Musically this was good - Barenboim, René Pape and Roman Trekel all in good form, with good support. But the production was a joke, and not a funny one. A Cataclysm of Corny Clichés !

Schuman pointedly made it clear that he was setting scenes from Goethe's Faust as opposed to writing a piece which unfolds as dramatic narrative.  The son of a Leipzig bookseller assumed quite rightly that his audiences knew the story, just as Mendelssohn's audiences knew the Bible.  So  Schumann's Faust isn't like Boito's Mefistofeles or Gounod's Faust but a strange hybrid that owes much to oratorio.  Even Berlioz The Damnation of Faust holds together better as semi-opera.    Jürgen Flimm's production with designs by Markus Lüpertz is overkill.  It will appeal to those who think that opera exists to be looked at, without musical and emotional connection.  The Frock Coat and Crinoline crowd !  Barrie Kosky fans who are fooled by superficial appearances, and don't think beyond.

The stage is dominated by two tall figurs whose purpose is to add verticals to the generally flat horizontals.  Perhaps the figures represent Faust and Mephistofeles, or Good and Evil, but they don't contribute much.  At times, a hollow box appears on stage. These stage within a stage boxes are a good idea, which is why they pop up so often in the theatre. They focus attention on what's important, distancing the action from what is happening elsewhere. Here, though the biox is just a box, a toy theatre at best, which at least is a nod to early 19th century performance practice, which is valid enough.   But we've long outgrown painted flats but wooden acting was what we got here. No disrespect to the singers but to the direction. Stylized gestures and poses can be used effectively but here there didn't seem much purpose.   Gretchen (Elsa Dreisig) and Marthe (Katharina Kammerloher) are cliché maidens, the sprites and demons comic book caricature, the choirs nuns in cartoon wimples.

Goethe populates the Second Part with allegory : Doctor Marianus and Pater Profundis, for example, and the tale becomes metaphysical fantasy.  Thus it's perfectly natural for the singers to sing two "parts" but the parts aren't continuations of the drama that went on before.  The logic behind some of this staging might seem to grow from this duality, which Schumann  (and later Mahler) respected enough not to tamper with.  Translating it into visuals is tricky.  Pape and Trekel are shadowed by non-singing actors, again a stage device which can work fine sometimes, but here was confusing.  Pape and Trekel spend a lot of time changing costumes, which is OK, but not particularly necessary. Though the presence of choirs and multiple solo voices fills up the stage, too much busy-ness also distracts.  Stefan Herheim can get away with great detail, but his details are thought through and co-ordinated to meaning. Here we just had a lot of a lot.  Schumann's Szenen aus Goethes Faust is fascinating, even though London critics don't get it.  But I reckon this staging won't help much. Pity, since the singing was good and Barenboim conducted with great style.  I loved the dialogue - so important to full realization, especially Gretchen am Spinnrade, recited, as Goethe wrote it, delivered with poetic feeling.

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