Monday, May 11, 2009

Full tilt up the Venusberg

Monday 11 May, and I’m getting my Berliner breath back.
You know all that talk about ‘how did I ever leave all this behind?’ Well, I’ll tell you how. Because I’m not 20, nor 30 nor even 60 years old any more, and the pace! The pace of big-city highlife, bright-life and theatre-life is a ten-carat killer. Last night, by 11pm I was (not literally, of course) on my knees.
Mind you it had been a simply enormous day. A lovely, green morning walk in the northern Berlin parks (Fliessthal, Tegeler Fliess) and woods (Tegeler Forst), a first-class lunch by the canal at Wedding where I tasted Sülze – with Czech beer! -- for the first (and definitely not the last) time, an hour wandering through the colourful Tiergarten fleamarket on the Strasse des 17 Juni which reminded me so much of the Nice Monday markets of my French years, and then … the opera. My ‘re-entry’ into the world of opera which once, for a few years, was my world too, with a production of Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper. My first visit to the opera in Germany, and also one of the few major Wagner operas I have never seen. I was a little apprehensive. Something ‘easier’, I thought, might have made a better pipe-reopener, but I worried unnecessarily. I enjoyed it enormously.
I liked the sparse, well-focused 1960s auditorium, I liked the theatre in fact altogether, I liked the fact that the ‘production’ was not one of those banal ‘look-at-me-mummy’ ones set in a gentleman’s lavatory on the moon, but more or less retained the author’s period and setting, and neither it nor the design intruded too much or too often on the actual and all-important dramatic and musical business of the evening. I also – the nitty gritty for me -- liked most of the singers, most particularly a glorious baritone by the name of Markus Brück in the role of Wolfram. After listening to his delicately beautiful Song to the Evening Star, I wondered how once, forty years ago, I had dared broadcast my own fortissimo rendering of the same piece. Kevin and I both howled our bass-baritone 'bravo's in his direction at the final curtain.

The Tannhäuser (Norwegian Ivar Gilhuus) was – if I understood the operatically inevitable pre-curtain cast-change announcement -- a replacement. I wonder whom he replaced, because I liked him a lot. He played the role on a 3-act crescendo of sound, saving his richest and ringingest moments for the dénouement. It is a shame that the designer condemned him to play his whole role in a grey pajama suit which looked particularly funny when he climbed out of ‘bed’ with the ‘naked’ Venus (a new kind of contraception perhaps?).
The roles of Venus and Elizabeth were both played by Nadja Michael. It is an understandable double, if the director succeeds in making the ‘two faces of woman’ point involved. This lady is attractive, slim, a fine actress and has a grand soprano voice. The others liked her Venus (hair down) better than her Elizabeth (hair up); I having no idea how either role is usually played, preferred her Elizabeth (she died magnificently), but somehow neither the Greeting nor the Prayer produced the big shiver I wanted.
In fact, my favourite musical moments came in the ensemble music, and most especially in the first-part male sextet (or is it officially a septet?), in spite of the fact that the evening’s principal bass sported a violent and woofy wobble, seemingly a good tone wide, that needed to be drowned in ten tons of gelatine.
But, for me, the singing was mostly splendid, and the choruses were simply superb.
So, on the whole, I came out of my operatic re-baptism decidedly pleased and happy. If there were more ‘uncampy’ stagings like this about, casts full of Markus Brücks and always choral and ensemble singing of such beauty, I could even be inveigled back into the opera house on a regular basis.
Three hours of opera (and an hour of intervals) took us through to 9pm and my biorhythms were starting to tremble. But it was Bert-Jan’s last night in town for the moment, so a post-opera dinner at the Café Florian was a sine qua non. I’m afraid I rather limped through my boulettes d’agneau and Pouilly-fusé (not cold enough) and was rather relieved to curl up in the back seat of Bert-Jan’s Chrysler and let myself be chauffeured sleepily back to Alt-Wittenau.
Next time I come to Berlin, I shall go into training for six months first.

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