Lethal Leitmotif

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In Berlin, a Musical Assault Against Anti-Semitism and Racism

Scrubbing parliament clean. Source: BERND UHLIG/STAATSOPER
Scrubbing parliament clean.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Christoph Marthaler wants his “Last Days” to pay homage to Jewish composers who were expelled or murdered during the Nazi era.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • In 2011, Christoph Marthaler won the prestigious Swiss theater award Hans-Reinhart-Ring.
    • He first staged “Last Days” in the historic Austrian parliament chamber.
    • “Last Days. An Evening Before” runs through September 7, at Berlin’s Schiller Theater.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Was it meant as a counterpoint, or was this start to Berlin’s classical season the result of bad scheduling? As the Berlin Philharmonic’s music festival began with Barenboim’s Brahms, the Berlin State Opera opened before its official start with the Swiss director Christoph Marthaler and his screamingly quiet musical evening, “ Last Days. An Evening Before.”

It was first staged in 2013 in Vienna, as a theatrical confrontation with a place that is now a relict, sitting most of the time deserted, while the voices of the past continue to echo inside.

Mr. Marthaler premiered “Last Days” in the historic chamber of the Austrian parliament, seating his actors and musicians in the rows once occupied by representatives from Bukovina to Dalmatia – once parts of the Habsburg empire.

Karl Kraus, one of Austria’s most prominent writers of the early 20th century, whose drama “The Last Days of Mankind” Mr. Marthaler alludes to in his title, often followed the parliamentary debates aghast: “How shall this state, with these speeches being delivered in its parliament, not perish?”

The historic location remains in Vienna, but Mr. Marthaler has brought the speeches to Schiller Theater in Berlin, where the Berlin State Opera is playing while its own building is being renovated.

The director, who in 2011 won the prestigious Swiss theater award, the Hans-Reinhart-Ring, has turned the place upside down. The audience takes their seats on a towering platform on the stage and looks in mild horror at the theater’s seats.

Some have had their screws loosened so they hang crookedly, plastic sheeting covers the upper tier, in the middle of which a scaffold rises. The whole thing is a construction site, in Berlin a worn-out metaphor, which is supposed to represent old Vienna’s parliamentary chamber.

Things would start becoming unwieldly, if it were not for the invisible wandering piano tones that have claimed the place for themselves.

The chamber needs to be cleaned for some commemoration day or another, without stirring up dust in the process. The cleaning ladies are only interested in their varicose veins until a speaker greets the Kaiser of Habsburg Europe and remarks that anti-Semitism has been declared Unesco World Heritage as an outstanding European characteristic, just like democracy before it.

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