Saturday, August 29, 2009

Getting Around in Germany, or No, No, Mr Poe

A colourful day on Thursday. First, a stroll around the Reinickendorf-area in northern Berlin, through the Rathauspark, and ending with a quick beer at the very companionable and cosy Zur Dorfquelle, an old inn in Alt Wittenau, alongside the village green and church, and just around the corner from my 'home' at the house of Kevin's parents. I struck up conversation with Michael from the Nordgraben (a little river round the corner), who breeds German shepherd dogs and somehow the quick beer turned into more than one…
Come evening, Kevin and I headed for the fashionable, East Berlin Prenzlauerberg and there we lucked upon a new restaurant, the Zum dritten Mann on the corner of the Kollwitzstrasse. A delicious and sophisticated dinner, the best of its kind I’ve had in Berlin (gaspacho with watermelon and a tiger prawn, Seeteufel with spinach and wild rice, a light Austrian rouge…), which ended with an almost embarrassing hiccup. They don’t take Visa cards, no matter how platinum!
From there, lured by the promise of a performance of Offenbach’s Les deux aveugles, on to the splendidly reconstructed Konzerthaus (ex-Schauspielhaus) in the Gendarmenmarkt. There was no Offenbach, but instead we promenaded in the impressive main hall during a performance of the Die Meistersinger overture, energetically played by an orchestra made up of members of the public. A great atmosphere…
At 11pm, we were to be found on the forecourt of the Hall, making music (?) on a giant set of resonating metal tubes…



NO, NO, MR POE!
.



Friday, Kevin, Alessandro and I went even further afield. A two-hours plus drive south to the Saxon city of Halle, the birthplace of Handel, lured this time by the ‘world premiere’ of a new musical, directed by a friend of Kevin’s and Alessandro’s (thus the pilgrimage). Halle must have been a beautiful city in the 18th century. It has some spectacular buildings and some really characterful corners. Alas, it has been aesthetically murdered during its past half-century under East German socialism: every building constructed since the war is of a coarse ugliness scarcely to be believed, and as a result Halle has become a city with something of a split personality.





We visited the Moritzburg – an exhibition of German art, much of it 20th century, housed in a very neatly adapted group of 16th-century buildings -- we passed by the Birthplace of Handel and through the Marktplatz with its several-spired church and its ‘Red Tower’, before ending our cavalcade at the splendid local Opera House.





The Opera House, understandably, specialises – though far from exclusively -- in the production of the works of Handel, but -- having had some success with the production of a musical -- they decided, this year, to produce another. But not a tried and true musical, a virtually untried one.

I wonder who is going to shoulder the blame for Edgar Allan Poe.

Here it would undoubtedly be kinder to say nothing more, but I was in Halle to see and report on the production, so here goes.
I cannot imagine why Eric Woolfson, the author and composer of the musical, thought that the life story of Poe had in it the material for a theatrical piece. It doesn’t. People stand around and talk. A few of them sing, a couple of them (and the vast, hard-working chorus) a great deal too much. The performer taking the title-role fiddles around with what looks like an omnipresent white birdcage and rips the stopper from a few bottles in the nearest thing to action in the course of the night. And as if to compensate for this lack of histrionic movement, everybody, endlessly and infuriatingly, does choreography. I thought I was back in 1950s or 1960s Britain, watching a flop Wendy Toye production at Birmingham. I simply could not believe what I was seeing. Or hearing.
Huge amounts of (public!) money have been flung into the production of this flavourless show, almost everywhere without judgement and without taste. A set of fluffy-tulley white costumes which accompanies a wobbly aria from the grave by the hero’s late mother could go down as one of the visual horrors of theatrical history. And as for the busy scenery, trundled on and off by stagehands, or projected on front or back cloths (what was that thing on the gauze?)…
All these things must have cost a packet, as also the vast sound desk in the middle of the stalls which bleached all the singing into the same sexless studiofied sound … and all to no avail. Because if you haven’t got a piece, all the decoration, all the frills, all the money and over-the-top publicity in the world (and, Lord preserve us, the entire contents of the bible of ancient choreography) can’t make one. And here there is no piece. Just a dull collection of theatrical and musical reminiscences of a hundred other flops seen and buried.
Is there nothing nice to be said? Was there not one moment during the evening when I could sit up and smile? Yes. One. At the beginning of the second act, there is a little waltz song bred from Oklahoma, West Side Story and Gone with the Wind, and sung amid a welter of mint julep scenery (plus chorus, plus choreography) by a young soprano, Evita Komp, in the role of the ephemeral Mrs Poe. It was pretty, she was excellent – the one performer of the night of whom I wanted to hear more. Alas, the raven got Mrs Poe (I think) and she was heard nevermore, except as a Miserables-ish spirit.
After forty years of viewing and reviewing musicals I am still not brave enough to lie. To do the darling-you-were-wonderful act with my tongue in my cheek. So as a rule I don’t go to post-premiere parties. I made an exception for night one of The Phantom of the Opera and last night I went too. The hospitality at Halle was grand. The theatre – as it had with the printing and the front of house and all the trimmings – did the thing in splendid style. How maddening then that all these resources and all this enthusiasm should be wasted on an Edgar Allan Poe.

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