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Dead Director Doesn’t Help Opening of Berlin’s Schiller Theater

"Metanoia" in Berlin. The opera by Jens Joneleit, plays at the Berlin Staatsoper until October 16 and returns next July. Photographer: Monica Rittershaus/Staatsoper via Bloomberg

It is hard to stage an opera when the director dies six weeks before the premiere -- especially when it’s the world premiere of a work without a plot.

Christoph Schlingensief was meant to direct Jens Joneleit’s “Metanoia” at the Berlin Staatsoper’s temporary home at the Schiller Theater. While the decrepit Staatsoper on Unter den Linden is given a EU240 million ($329 million) overhaul, the company and its leader, Daniel Barenboim, have decamped across town for three years.

The premiere on Sunday, presented as a homage to the dead director, attracted Berlin’s cultural and political elite who joined a curious public for a muted event more uncertain than celebratory.

Battling lung cancer, Schlingensief produced so much work around his own decline that there always seemed cause to hope.

In the end, it was too late to find a replacement. Nor had the director left enough material for his team to realize his vision for Joneleit’s impenetrable opus.

The result, explained a disarming note in the program book, was “neither a requiem nor a new production, also not a production in the style of Schlingensief... we don’t really know what it is.”

After 70 minutes of Joneleit’s determinedly formless music, the audience was at least as confused as the production team. The opera, at Schlingensief’s instigation, is an exploration of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy From the Spirit of Music.”

Dreams, Delirium

Rene Pollesch’s libretto -- something about Apollonian dreams and Dionysian delirium -- comes over as a random collage of nonsense.

“Cheap coffee is just as good as expensive stuff!” sings the choir. “When your hand itches at night, who does it belong to?” asks the character tenor.

The idea is to present something so undefined that the audience itself can decide what it should be about. If it can be bothered.

The chorus stands in rows attired in spectacularly unflattering yellow body-stockings, while the five soloists wear flesh-colored baroque dress. The set which explores Schlingensief’s idea of independent internal organs includes snatches of black-and-white film (some of it vaguely pornographic).

Annette Dasch, Daniel Schmutzhard, Graham Clark, Anna Prohaska and Alfred Reiter all sing Joneleit’s disjointed lines with finesse, while Barenboim keeps the orchestra together and motivated.

The only clear success is the Schiller Theater, opened after a EU24 million makeover. Airy, comfortable, and with a warm, clear acoustic, it is everything the Staatsoper’s own building has not been. For an interim space in a bankrupt capital, this is luxury.

“Metanoia” plays until 16 October and returns next July. For further information, visit

(Shirley Apthorp is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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