Critic’s Notebook: Four Operas in Berlin Bring the Drama Down to Human Size

“Tristan” (which had its premiere in 1865), with its intense chromaticism and eroticism, begot a series of even more lurid operas, including “Salome” (1905), which Hans Neuenfels has directed for the Staatsoper. It portrays the ancient court of Judea as a repressed Addams family, with goth touches, but avoids any conspicuous moralizing or whiff of Christian salvation.


Hans Neuenfels’ production of “Salome” at the Staatsoper (starring Ausrine Stundyte) portrays the ancient court of Judea as a repressed Addams family, with goth touches.

Monika Rittershaus

If you do want salvation, you need to head to the Deutsche Oper for a rare outing of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “Das Wunder der Heliane,” from 1927. The logical end point of the decadence of “Tristan” and “Salome,” it travels even further down the road of chromaticism and sensationalism, with much of the sweeping drama of Korngold’s later film music (“Anthony Adverse,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood”).

The plot concerns a messianic Stranger who arrives and brings what the libretto euphemistically terms “love” to a tyrannical Ruler’s oppressive land. The Ruler’s wife, Heliane (the smoky-voiced soprano Sara Jakubiak), falls for the Stranger, first stripping for him and then eventually resurrecting him from the dead (the “miracle” of the title) to prove her own purity.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: DAS WUNDER DER HELIANE [Trailer] Video by DeutscheOperBerlin

The opera is a kitschy, exploitative sanctification of monogamy cloaked in gorgeous music, and Marc Albrecht conducted the Deutsche Oper orchestra with lush colors and outstanding sensitivity to the singers, even in the thickest passages. But the director, Christof Loy, stages this luridness with his typical restraint. Johannes Leiacker’s set is a plain courtroom; the dystopia seems to have doomed everyone to identical suits and cocktail dresses.

As with Mr. Tcherniakov’s “Tristan,” Mr. Loy’s austerity stands in sharp contrast to a ripe score. The eventual return of joy, love and happiness doesn’t get so much as a special lighting cue. The staging is so vague as to be toothless; this opera demands a stronger interpretive hand. It is tasteful in a way the opera is not.


Andreas Schager and Anja Kampe in the title roles of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s chilly production at the Staatsoper.

Monika Rittershaus

The Komische Oper offered a tart dessert to all this richness in the form of Offenbach’s operetta “Blaubart,” a comic take on the old tale of Duke Bluebeard and his serial marriages that parodies Wagnerian seriousness. While rarely produced, it is a signature piece for the Komische Oper, whose founder, Walter Felsenstein, directed a production thata was popular in the 1960s and ’70s.

The director Stefan Herheim has produced a kind of intellectual “Spamalot.” The show alternates cancan dances with interpolated allegorical figures of love and death arguing about the meaning of life and theater; numerous tributes to the Felsenstein production; and an aggressively updated libretto full of topical humor at the expense of Berlin’s perpetually disastrous construction projects. At its best, it’s anarchic fun, but at three and a half hours it tends to drag, particularly when the music stops. (The performance is streaming on the website Operavision.)

One of the operetta’s greatest assets is its heroine, Boulotte, a lusty peasant who is a welcome antidote to the eternal feminine embodied by Isolde and Heliane. In this version, she and her fellow wives haven’t been killed but are in hiding. They go on a crusade for revenge against Bluebeard — singing, in the updated titles, “crush his balls” — but the operetta lets Bluebeard off easy, demanding only repentance before forgiving him.

I wanted a more robust treatment of gender — in 2018, especially — from a production whose staging of corruption and power is quite sharp. But this failure is, sadly, perhaps the staging’s most realistic element.

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