Macbeth, former Staatsoper rehearsal hall, Berlin – review

This is not Shakespeare, not Verdi, and not Berlin’s Staatsoper as we know it.

In the dusty ruins of what was once a backstage rehearsal room, Duncan lurches into a shaft of sunlight, dragging the wounded Sergeant with him. A hundred-and-twenty audience members, now perched uncomfortably on wooden risers, have stumbled over puddles and rubble to be part of this strangely provisional occasion.

In another Berlin building fiasco (the never-opening international airport being the most famous), the renovations of the Staatsoper have crept so far past the projected opening last autumn that the powers-that-be have given up even trying to name a date. Just: not yet. That much is clear from the chaos surrounding this improvised performance venue.

The idea of a small-scale performance of a first-rate contemporary opera in the construction site of the Staatsoper’s once and future home is a fine one. This is one of two Salvatore Sciarrino chamber operas presented as part of the house’s Infektion! festival, and both are gems.

Sciarrino’s Macbeth recalls a half-heard account of Shakespeare’s story, told in thrilling whispers by an unseen crowd in a dark corridor. His sound world sets great store by sighs and inhalations, on the terrifying innuendo of scrapes and strokes. It is fragmentary, soft, yet packs a brutally strong emotional punch.

The bizarre location lends a strong element of magic to this new production, but the evening’s greatest strengths are musical. David Robert Coleman leads the assured players of the Opera Lab Berlin in a taut, engrossing account of the score. The title role was composed for Otto Katzameier, and if Saturday was any guide, he has only grown in stature since the first performance a dozen years ago. He lives and breathes each note, and imparts his lines in such a way as to make you feel as if he were telling you alone something of infinite import.

Katharina Kammerloher takes on four smaller roles with comparable competence, Timothy Sharp is a formidable Duncan/Macduff, and Carola Höhn makes a Lady Macbeth you wouldn’t want to mess with. Only Birgit Wentsch’s costumes, presumably inspired by Jürgen Flimm’s concept, bemuse: the “voices” all sport ballgowns and beards, like Conchita Wurst on a bad hair day, and at one point they don giant monster heads, recalling The Gruffalo, or Where the Wild Things Are. Flimm’s direction has none of the understated magic that Ingo Kerkhof brought to Sciarrino’s Lohengrin on the other side of town at the Schiller Theater’s small stage; instead he grasps for heavier metaphors, to weaker effect.

With performance forces totalling more than half of the audience, and clearly enough rehearsal time invested to ensure state-of-the-art outcomes, this Macbeth looks like an extravagance. But it is a beautiful one. Catch it again on June 25, 28, 30 or July 1.

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