Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Porzellan cities

My Berlin life has been so full of one wondrous thing and another, that I haven't even diaried my trip to Dresden yet. I don't mean the Operette which, like all good critics, I put down by pen soon after getting home, but the actual getting there.

Mike and Antje gave me an extra little treat -- a quick visit to the delightful town of Meissen, celebrated for its porcelain. We wandered its charming streets and squares and climbed the central hill with its pretty, crowning church, and gazed down at the old city and is houses, clustered around the River Elbe..

And then, when we arrived at Dresden, a full tour of the central old town. The Frauenkirche, the restored jewel of the city, largely razed by the beastly British bombing of the last war, was closed for a concert. But Antje charmed our way past the doorkeepers, and I was able to peep inside. Good heavens, it is amazing to see a heavily gilded and decorated building of ages past in the brand new state which must have been normal for our ancestors!

Obviously it was 'no photos' in the Frauenkirche, so instead I snapped the impressive local opera house (its programme looked more interesting than the Berlin ones .. I spied Cenerentola for example..) and the lovely garden square of the Zwinger..

The bombed part of central Dresden has been kind of recreated, but really more with shapes and masses than with the fidelity of the Frauenkirche. New central Dresden is undeniably of this century. The big blot is a flat, toadish building built in the days of the unregretted DDR. Alas, it has reached the stage of being considered 'historic', so it is allowed to squat there uglifying the area .. maybe not for long, given the building standards of that era. Oh heck, I hope they won't restore IT.

From central Dresden, we headed out to the Pillnitz area and the Stadtoperette. Very oddly, there are no bridges across the river outside central Dresden, so our final stretch of route was by a tiny 6-7 car ferry which reminded me of nothing less than the boats that chug across the Suez Canal..
ah memories!
And then it was time for Herr Strauss...

Kurt goes Dutch

I have been translated into German, I have translated myself into French, I believe I have been plagiarised in Japanese and probably other equally unapproachable languages, but here I am done Dutch by my friend and editor, Jordi, in OPERA MAGAZINE..


Jack, is there I way I -- or you? :-) -- can transfer that page into here?

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Ring rung roundly down


Well, its over. My Ring. I don’t ever expect to see it again in my lifetime. These performances will remain my reference. And it has been one heck of an experience. So last night it was Götterdammerung, the final episode and, actually, the best episode of the saga. It’s the best because it has a good amount of genuine action and drama and a bit less of those ‘the story so far’ sections which make for the boring longueurs of parts two and three, and that drama gives the opportunity for some splendid dramatic music – even a choral section, and ensemble work – instead of all that wretched and endless monologuery. Only once does this show tumble into dreariness: at the beginning of the third act when Siegfried (who must have complained he didn’t have enough to do) whacks endlessly on about this and about that, until you are simply longing for Hagen to pull out his spear and stick it in to the talkative tenor. Actually, when he does, he does it so inefficiently that the corpse sits up and sings some more before finally getting out of the opera. King Ludwig should have commanded at least a twenty-minute cut in the Siegfriedian waffles. 

It is all the sadder that this bleeding chunk of tenorism arrives when it does, for it completely snuffs out the great dramatic tension built up in act two – the wedding scenes and Brünnnhilde’s discovery of her betrayal – which is, quite simply, the highlight of the entire Ring of the Nibelungs. Last night, the famous act two went simply splendidly. It helped, of course, that it starts off with a scene between Hagen and Alberich which, even if it was fairly ‘the story so far’-ish, really got things rolling. The six-mile Alberich was back, as dazzling and all-conquering as ever, and Hagen was the experienced Matti Salminen: tall, wonderfully still and villainous, a copybook classy nasty in a black trench-coat which seemed to have come from a better tailor than Wotan’s. His rich, extensive bass voice joined with the tranchant baritone of his father, in a memorable fashion. 

Hagen’s next highlight was the famous scene of the gathering of the Gibichungs. For the first time in the cycle, we had a chorus. It is an object lesson. How amazingly effective a chorus can be when it is used sparingly! The ‘royal family’ of the Gibichungs are represented by Gunther (Markus Brück) and his sister Gutrune (Heidi Melton), and here again we had two first class performances. On my previous viewings of this opera, these characters were played dead straight, but apparently in Germany they are given a comic aspect. Gunther was dolled up like a little fat Chinese nodding man, and Gutrune looked like Miss Piggy in a series of vast, shining, fluo gowns. But if they looked odd, they sang superbly. Brück, who had disappointed me as Donner, was back in the kind of form that led me to drown him in praises after last year’s Tannhäuser, and Miss Melton, with little to do, gave no quarter to Brünnhilde when her soprano turn came. 

Brünnhilde was Evelyn Herlitzius, the Brünnhilde of Walküre who had left me, there, with mixed feelings. Once again, she started badly, she and her Siegfried (Alfons Eberz) singing their opening scene with hectic, gusty tones, and a fair amount of flat intonation. It was not enjoyable. But, both of them warmed up as the opera went on, and come Brünnhilde’s vast dramatic part in Act Two, Ms Herlitzius took the stage. Acting with a poignancy and power that one would never have thought possible after her schoolgirlish portrayal in Walküre, and singing with magnificent clarity, and almost always accuracy, she drove the piece to its climax quite magnificently. It was quite something. And then we went, boomph, down to the endless Siegfried half an hour. You probably aren’t allowed, in lofty places, to criticise Wagner as a dramatist but ... well, I already have. Once Siegfried (hurrah!) and Gunther (awww) were corpses, things got better, and we had a reasonably picturesque staging of the final stages of the saga, with Herlitzius powering out the Immolation scene alongside a suggestion of a horse (no dragon, half a horse.. what does this production have against animals?) before, as Anna Russell used to say, ‘they all burned up’ in a wallow of gauze and projections. It was a good night. The second act could be called a great night. Alas, its too late for rewrites… And so ended my Ring

 While it was happening, of course, real life continued outside the opera house in a marginally less dramatic way. Livia ran a fine race for fourth on her debut down in Australia, and here in Berlin, I fell in love. But that’s another story and it can wait a bit.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Night at the opéra-bouffe

My musical and theatrical mission in Berlin, 2010, is to see and write about the latest Deutsche Oper Ring cycle, but when I realised that the Dresden Staatsoperette were opening a new version of the 1877 Delacour-Strauss Operette, Prinz Methusalem, during my time in Germany, I knew that I had to be there. After all, I reasoned, there was a fat chance of my having another chance, in my lifetime, to see this most infrequently produced of pieces, and Dresden couldn’t be that far from the Nollendorfstrasse. 

Well, it actually is quite a trek, but I am very glad I made it. Prinz Methusalem – scarcely a success in its original career at the Vienna Carltheater, a violent flop in London and some sort of a success in America largely thanks to an interpolated comic recitation – owes its revival to the Dresden’s theatre’s continued devotion to pumping life back into the lesser-known and now little-seen works of the Johann Strauss repertoire. They have, however, been sensible enough to slim its overblown proportions and modernise its book. Quite how much slimming and modernising has been done, I can’t tell, for I am not one of the perhaps dozen people alive who have actually exhumed and read the original text of Prinz Methusalem, but the result is a sensibly-sized Operette, with eleven principals, a traditionally-sized chorus and quite a bit of good, silly fun. I don’t know, either, how the score has been treated, for Prinz Methusalem produced no Strauss bon-bons -- no 'Nur für natur' -- its one takeaway tune was a lowish comedy topical song ‘Das Tipferl aus dem i’. As heard and played in Dresden, however, it is evident that the music includes some delightful pages, ranging from a splendid duet for the Prince and Princess, rolling around Rosenkavalier fashion in their newly marital bed, a lively and very Offenbachish ‘Piff paff pouff' ensemble, a grotesque ‘Rache’ redolent of the same composer’s Ba-ta-clan, and a fine waltz finale, but scarcely a solo of memorable proportions. All in all, Prinz Methusalem 2010 is a decidedly agreeable piece of – if not quite genuine opéra-bouffe (for that sophisticated genre had, by 1877, faded from its triumphant domination of the musical theatre world) then something bordering on it, studded, in the manner of earlier times, with topical jokes and comic contemporary references, and set with music which is never less than likeable and occasionally (eg the duet) very much more than that. But unexceptional Operette or not, the evening was a real treat, and it was a treat because the forces of the Staatsoperette made it one. The direction, the musical direction, the design and the performances – all, quite amazingly for any theatre, apparently working together, in the same style and with the same end in sight – were, almost without exception, first class. The piece is staged with just the right taste and flair – the scenery and costumes of Yashi Tabassomi teeter perfectly on the verge of the crazily exaggerated style of genuine opéra-bouffe – the topiary setting for act one was delicious, the courtiers’ costumes with their peaked shoulders and protruding tails exactly in the right mood – and the direction of Adriana Altaras complemented that style, neatly and brightly comical without descending to crass foolery and only occasionally a bit ‘busy’ and distracting. Methusalem committing a Shampoo cunnilingus on his bride, under the dinner table, was, for example, a cute idea, but it completely upstaged the star comedian’s delivery of his (and the show’s) big number. The triumph of the night, for me, was, however in the casting. Folks like I, who have spent half their working life casting operas and musicals, know just how impossibly difficult it is to line up a cast which is excellent from top to toe. Well, the Dresden Staatsoper, using very largely members of its own company, has just about done exactly that. However, shining out at the head of the cast list, in the role of the titular Prince, is a guest artist: mezzo-soprano Jana Frey. I don’t know how many hundreds of performances of Hosenrollen – from Octavians to Orlofskys to principal boys – I have seen in my life. All I know is, I have never seen a better one than this. Mlle Frey is quite simply stunning. Along with a grand and generous mezzo singing voice, which can soar or giggle at will, her acting hits the spot precisely: she stands right, she moves right, she is boyish without being butch and klonky, she pouts like a boy, and she is witty and bright-eyed and classy-funny and adorable ... I am rarely at a loss for words, but she almost defies them. She simply has it all. 

Antonie Link

She makes you understand why artists such as Antonie Link -- the original Methusalem -- had the theatrical and society worlds of the era at their feet. Will anyone ever let her play a woman again?

  Her ‘principal girl’, the Princess Pulcinella was played by local artist, Jessica Glatte. Gawkily comical and bespectacled, with a hair-do from Hell, playing her scenes with perfect timing and point, and, again, just titillating the edge of grotesquery in her acting, she also sang this sizeable soprano part with some skill and with only a little excess vibrato. When she joined Mlle Frey in the should-be-famous bed duet, they produced the musical highlight of the night. The Staatsoperette company is extraordinarily strong in character men. This cast includes eight of them, all with plenty to do, and there was not a dud amongst them. My particular favourite was Frank Ernst as the Court Composer, Trombonius, singing with tenorious zing and acting with enormous point and twinkle. If Offenbach were still running his Bouffes-Parisiens company or Karl Treumann still on the Franz-Josefs-Kai, one of them would surely snap up Ernst as a permanent company member. I have rarely seen a more effective player in the decidedly difficult style, with its special demands on both vocal and comic abilities, which is needed to play these decidedly special shows of the mid-1800s.

Christoph Simon, as Trombonius’s young offsider was also nicely fall-guy-funny (when he had his trousers on), and head comedian Bernd Könnes made a crisply comical and ringingly sung King Sigismund, but every one of the team did his bit, and did it with success. The world, alas, is not perfect, not even in Ricarac and Trocadero, and on just a couple of occasions I did find myself jerked from a blissful existence in my beloved world of Operette-cum-opera-bouffe. I found the performance of the heavy lady, Sophistica, dolled up cheaply like something out of ‘Absolutely Fabulous’, decidedly unfunny and one-keyed. And the opening to the Third Act, played by soloists and chorus, was a flop. When you have had one superb bonking scene, between the stars, you simply do not need another, crude one, played by half the rest of the cast. Chorus acting, traditionally, is a grim thing, but tonight some of the men actually rose above the traditional low level ... until this scene. The choruses did, however, sing clearly and effectively, and together with a nicely supportive and not too obtrusive orchestra, under the tidy and accurate baton of Ernst Theis, they added their considerable bit to the joys of an evening that I am not likely to forget in a hurry.

  So, would I go to see Prinz Methusalem again one day? Well, I’ve seen it now, so, probably not. I'd rather see something else. Would I go to see the Dresden Staatsoperette company in something else? Would I what! I quite simply shall. If they insist on Strauss, how about the bon-bon stuffed Der lustige Krieg .. or, imagine Jana Frey as Fatinitza … But I am getting greedy. Grand nights out at the theatre have that effect on me. And this was, without question, a grand night out.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Gerolsteiner Horse News from around the world..

My equine babes, without being in any way disgraced, didn't carry off too much candy, on either side of the world, last week.. Fritzl finished 5th at Addington, Ténor sixth at Reims but in a higher class race than previously, and knocking 2 seconds off his time record in the process.
So Ténor is out again (if he gets a start) on Monday, at Caen, but the big news is .. this weekend Livia makes her debut!
Livia is the little filly whom I bought -- sight unseen after a coup de vin rouge -- 14 months ago, on the day I set out for Europe, out of the Sales in Melbourne, Australia. She has had the odd hiccup on her way to the racetrack (notably a painful encounter with a wire fence), but now she is there, and -- following a fair trial at Cranbourne (3rd of 5, beaten 5 and 2 in 2.04MR) -- she will make her racecourse debut for Wendy and I, at Ballarat, Victoria,on Saturday night at 10pm...

Glückliche Speise..

Life in Berlin isn't all operatic sagas .. not by far .. I am being more deliciously social than I have been for twenty years ...

Home-made pizza supper with Sandra and Cédric Leclair (and Maxime and Leo), Sunday lunch with real roast turkey and all the trimmings chez Mike and Antje Clarke..

Smoked salmon, bubbly and Châteauneuf du Pape picnic at my place with Paul Graham Brown, an extremely talented young Lincolnshire-Berlin writer and composer and a very kindred soul who, within our first fifteen minutes together, qualified for membership of the tiny band of Kurt's Enduring Friends.. Somehow, you just know when it happens... We didn't draw breath long enough for a photo, during our hours of gossiping and picknicking, so I shall have to get him to send one. Ah, its arrived

And then, last night, dinner at the Negrun's Köche in Schönhauser Allee with three of Berlin's loveliest men.. friends from my last visit.
That's Hannes next to me, Thomas on the other side of the champagne (wherever Thomas is, you will find champagne!), and in the foreground my dear Ollie. If we all look a bit bemused in picture one, and amused in picture two, it was because our picturesque waiter (sorry, no photo) was having a few troubles with my camera..

And now, it's off to Dresden ... Life in Berlin is never, ever dull!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I Want My Dragon Back!

 ‘You know that Siegfried is the most boring of the Ring Cycle operas’ said a wise friend to me, when he heard I was going to my episode three tonight. Boring? I didn’t understand what he meant. I’ve seen the show a few times and I don’t recall being bored. But I thought about it, and I do see what he means. If Die Walküre has longueurs, Siegfried has them in spades. Know what I mean? Act One, Siegfried forges his sword. But he doesn’t do so until we’ve had an hour of ‘the story so far’, in one guise or another, from Mime and Wotan. Act Two, Siegfried kills the dragon .. and, incidentally, Mime .. but not before everyone has talked a very great deal. And when Siegfried confronts the dragon what does it do? Roar, like any decent dragon would do? Spurt fire? No. It gives us ‘the story so far’. Again! Act Three, Siegfried jumps over the previous episode’s firewall and awakens Brünnhilde. But only after Wotan and Erda have dialogued for half an hour. And having wakened the maid and aroused the audience to laughter with his ‘das ist kein Mann’, he and she postpone jumping on each others bones for half an hour whilst they talk about it all. And, yes, there’s a bit of the ‘story so far’ in there as well… But hey, there’s a dragon, and a talking woodbird, and the ring of fire… boring? Surely not. But the comment stuck in my mind. After all, it’s a long evening, and … 

Things didn’t look promising when, firstly, it rained and my favourite Deutsche Oper outside bar was closed down, secondly when I noticed that whereas pavement-people had been sleeve-tuggingly begging for tickets on Rheingold night, this time there was a line of people disposing of tickets, and thirdly when that dreaded little man in a black suit, who always heralds horrid cast changes, put in his appearance. But no-one was ‘off', he was simply pleading a ‘leger indisposition’ for .. oh, no! both Siegfried and Wotan. This pootles me off. If these guys are sick, tell them to stay home and put the understudy on. If they want to go on and earn their 20,000 euros for the night, then stop whingeing. If you go on, I’m not ‘making allowances’. And, in fact, as it turned out, unless they are a lot better than I think, neither of these artists needed any indulgence. 

Tonight, as the story lurched forward, we were dealing with many of the same characters we had met in the earlier operas. Now, if this were a series of unrelated performances, the casting wouldn’t worry me at all. But this is advertised and played as a cycle. So why do we have a character played by one artist one night and another the next? Imagine if the characters in East Enders or Neighbours were played by a different actor in each episode. Happily, however, the changes for tonight were nearly all improvements. And, happily too, my two favourite vocalists from the earlier episodes – Alberich (Konieczny) and Erda (Wolak) – were retained, and proved to be as outstanding as they had been before. Their appearances were, for me, the highlights of the night. But we had a new Wotan, a new Brünnhilde, a new Mime, a new Fafner, a new character (with paternal resemblances) in Siegfried … My biggest disappointment was Fafner. I had so looked forward to hearing Andrea Silvestrelli as the dragon. The man who sang it wasn’t bad at all but … horror of horrors, THERE WAS NO DRAGON! I was brought up, at my father's knee, with the tale and the picture of Fafner the dragon: Siegfried just isn't Siegfried without it. Here is the moment to say that, sorry, revered 1984 production or not, tonight’s stage production and visuals were quite simply drear. Mime’s forge, in spite of its fiery furnace, was just tatty, the wood was unatmospheric and overgloomy, and there was NO DRAGON. Just a sort of Dalek thing hidden somewhere behind shadows and more dry ice than a 1950s pantomime. And as for the fancy ‘Time Tunnel’ idea.. well, people just walked in and out of it, and when it was finally revealed in toto from behind the flimsy drops, Siegfried made his exit down it in a manner far too reminiscent of Alberich in Das Rheingold. Why cannot directors think things through, be consistent..? 

But back to the performance. The big change for me was, of course, the replacement of that first Wotan (Delavan) whom I had found so frustratingly limp. And it was very much a change for the better. Egils Silins plays the part splendidly. It is, needless to say, a help that he has poise, incisiveness and charisma. It is a huge help that (in spite of the now even grubbier trench coat, and a ladies’ gardening hat) he looks like Darth Vader as painted by Munch. He also looks sexy, which I’m not sure is part of what Wotan should be (though Fricka may have other ideas). Vocally, too, he is far superior to Wotan Number One, even though his lower register is somewhat pale. His heavy scene at the opening of Act 3 was grandly done and if he was a bit outsung in his confrontation with the Alberich with the six-mile voice .. well, we all know that Konieczny will be singing Wotan as soon as he can be spared from being a superb Alberich. 

I was sad not to have the little Mime of Rheingold back. Somehow a six-foot tall Zwerg (dwarf) feels wrong. But Burkhard Ulrich sang this huge and often drearily expository part impeccably, so you couldn’t complain. And he was roundly applauded at the final curtain. And then there was Siegfried (Stefan Vinke). When he bounced on to the stage, I thrilled. Yes! Here was my ideal Siegfried: a big, bonny, blond (wig?) boy, with a super-cheesy grin, hundreds of white teeth, big pudgy cheeks (at both ends) and a kiddie overall … go, go, go! And when he opened his apologised-for mouth, out came a grand, clear, ringing Heldentenor. Yay! Well.. in the end only yay with a small y. Maybe it was his ‘indisposition’, but he got a bit lost during the forging of Nothung ... you felt he had mislaid his spectacles and couldn’t see the conductor ... still, his ‘Nothung, Nothung, neidliches Schwert!’ rang hugely out to much better effect than had Siegmund’s the previous night. But. But he kept on ringing hugely out. In Act 3, he was still ringing hugely out, face distorted .. anything less than forte seemed to be not in his armoury. Mr Vinke has natural advantages in the departments of looks and voice … but subtlety and acting (of which – witness his limpwristed ‘killing’ of Fafner and Mime -- he seems largely oblivious) have yet to be acquired. 

I don’t quite know what to say about the Brünnhilde of Janice Baird. Folk around me were quite vehemently against it. But I actually liked it better than the vast-voiced, bouncy teenager version of Ms Herlitzius. Ms Baird makes the ex-Valkyrie attractively womanly, helped by the fact that the ‘Walhalla salon’ had obviously been in while she slept and toned down the ghastly red hair to a Californian dark-blonde. They might have done something about the Modesty Blaise costume while they were at it, but alas, no. She acted and moved much better than her predecessor, and sang with a wholly different quality of voice and only a touch of Herlitzius’s wobble and approximativeness. I’m not sure why folk were so against her: I found her somewhere between unobjectionable and all right. What I found wholly not all right, the vocal horror of an evening which looked for a long time as if it were not going to have such a thing, was the tuneless, wobbly rendering of the music of the Waldvöglein. There must be 100 chorus girls in the Operette companies of Berlin who could have sung it better than the lady who did. And in tune. And – with a capital ‘a’ -- can someone tell me why, if we have a Waldvöglein all tizzied up in feathers and fard, we don’t get a proper dragon? Why the inconsistency? I had some good times tonight – Erda and, of course, Alberich at the top of the list of pleasures, and the sexy Wotan a revelation – but in the end I came away dissatisfied. I can stick out the longueurs, the ‘boring bits’, but I WANT MY DRAGON BACK!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Die Walküre, or A Testicle Unturned

On a sunny Sunday evening, I repaired back to the Deutsche Oper, Parkett 1, Row 11, Seat 11, for part two of my magical Wagner marathon .. and here are my English-language musings thereupon...

"Die Walküre is a much more difficult opera than Das Rheingold. More difficult to stage, more difficult to perform. This difficulty stems from the fact that although, in this episode of the Ring, major steps are taken in the story of the saga, the actual shown dramatic episodes are few, and the dramatic incidents themselves quickly done with. For the rest of three long acts, people talk. In act one Sieglinde and Siegmund (with a blessed variation from Hunding) talk for an hour, in the second act Fricka and Wotan deliver long monologues and scenas, and in the final part it is Wotan and Brünnhilde who debate endlessly a course of action which has been decreed and decided half an act earlier.
These long and physically undramatic sections of the opera are a minefield. If the six named performers are not at the very worst ‘good’, and at the very best ‘excellent’, the whole piece sags horribly. If the director does not find a way to present these sections in an interesting and dramatically effective way, the evening goes down like a sabotaged soufflé. Any director can make a mark with the show’s two popular highlights – the Valkyries’ Ride and the Undeification of Brünnhilde with its wall of fire – but the rest is a much more subtle challenge.

So, how did this Die Walküre stand up to the test? Half fig, half raisin. The soufflé sank sadly in the very difficult Act Two, not helped by a direction which equates passion with falling on one’s face on the ground and staying there, and indignation with stop-start sprints across the stage. But elsewhere the good fight was well enough fought.

Act one, with its vast chunks of ‘the story so far’ and ‘now I’m Wehwalt, now I’m not’ is the act of Siegmund (Clifton Forbis) and Sieglinde (Violeta Urmana), and with the help of Reinhard Hagen (much more effectively cast as Hunding than as the previous night’s Fasolt), they pretty well pulled it off.
Forbis is an interesting performer. Not endowed by nature with an heroic physique – it is hell to play a hero when you have little legs, and alarmingly tight pants -- he nevertheless made Siegmund a wholly believable human being, acting and singing thoughtfully and with nuance if, perhaps, when the nitty gritty came, not exactly with soaring rapture. But although his singing was impressive, his otherwise fine performance still left me just a tad uneasy. It is the voice. It is a big voice, well-managed and accurate, blaring and just occasionally braying forth its upper notes most successfully, but it doesn’t seem to come out of his mouth. It gets out, somehow, from somewhere, but ultimately, it lacks clarity. The seizing of Nothung, which should ring like the proverbial clarion through the auditorium, didn’t. Son of Wotan? Or Wotan’s singing teacher.
Ms Urmana does have an heroic physique: big, blonde and powerful (although her curious resemblance to the young Angela Lansbury distracted me for a while) and a voice which is equally big, blonde and powerful. Like Forbis, she treated the music and the character conscientiously, working without cease to make the longueurs of Act One vocally and physically attractive. If she, too, was not quite epic in the revealed transports which end the act, she was for much in the success of a First Part which – if it did not take off to the heavens – certainly did not sag. One can judge a Walküre Act One by the time it seems to take – sometimes a seeming 45 mins, sometimes two hours: this one came in bang on regulation time.
These two artists carried their agreeable performances on into act two, up to Siegmund’s death and Sieglinde’s big moment. My criterion for all Sieglindes is the delivery of the phrase ‘O heh-re-stes Wunder! Herr--lichste Maid…’. I should shiver, get a lump in my throat, and for a ten out of ten score, my testicles should turn over. Well, Ms Urmana rated about an eight. A clear pass, but no honours. The testicles stayed dormant.

Act One negotiated, we arrive in Valhalla and re-meet the Gods. I had hoped and prayed that Mr Delavan’s Wotan might have simply had an off night in Rheingold and that he would deliver the goods tonight. No such luck. He did sing better – although that throaty voice production meant that he was more than thrice simply swallowed up by the orchestra – but Wotan was still an English teacher in (eons on) the same dirty trench-coat, passive, off-hand, ineffectual and ultimately just plain dull. He would finally shake off his torpor in Act Three when he made a truly moving moment of his final embrace of Brünnhilde, but it was far, far too late. In Act Two he was roundly eclipsed by the feisty, dramatically-pointed Fricka (Németh again), and it was his monologue that was the occasion for the soufflé – valiantly kept buoyant by all concerned till then – to subside distressingly into a sad and sticky heap.
There arrives now the last of our stars of the evening: Brünnhilde (Evelyn Herlitzius). Horrifyingly, this lady’s entry was quite simply catastrophic. Big, open soprano voice wobbling and waving like windy washing, intonation teeth-curlingly awry, hideous costume – more like an Urbano or an Oscar than a Wishmaiden – disastrous red ‘Walhalla salon’ hair-switch … horrible primping and posing and meaningless moves..
But Ms Herlitzius is made of stern stuff. Pretty soon, the big, clear voice came under control (although that wobble is a bit persistent) and – in spite of a further plethora of ‘fill in the dull bits’ meaningless moves -- in the final act she produced some truly fine singing, soaring effortlessly over the once prosaic, now pounding and brass-blasting, orchestra which had not only vanquished Wotan but also, at one stage, threatened to drown the entire coven of Valkyries.
The Valkyries. I suppose every director wants to try to do something different with these ladies and the scene of their too famous Ride. But most of what was done here simply didn’t succeed. It would have been better had the ladies just stood still and sung, which they did splendidly (love you, Schwertleite!), but no. Firstly we had the tired old chorus-line joke – one fatty amongst the sveltes (actually there were two) – then we had rows of modern hospital-beds (probably the same ones as were used in Tannhäuser to equally bad effect) with the battle-fallen heros comatose therein. One hero didn’t get to stay comatose. The Valkyrie pushing his bed misjudged her moment: the bed toppled over and the extra ‘hero’ was ejected on to the floor. Heroically, he lay there .. unmoving and dead, whilst the ladies continued their giggleworthy perpetuum mobile.. swoop a little here, swoop a little there ..
The other great scene of the act was much better staged. It’s hard to go wrong with fire, but the fires called up here by Wotan to protect Brünnhilde’s mortal sleep were particularly effective and, as I’ve said, this episode provoked Wotan to easily his best moment of the two nights. Alas, his off-hand delivery of the famous Farewell annulled much of the good. Oh, why is this man so … so… unforthcoming? Why can’t he give his full-range bass-baritone voice to us, instead of keeping it to himself? throw it across the footlights instead of drowning it somewhere around his uvula? He is a fine-looking man, made by nature to be heroic: but he comes across as a being without a positive personality: mild, apologetic, round-shouldered and suburban. If it can’t be cured, it is the most infuriating waste.
So, Die Walküre. A sort of half success. Act One has to be counted a definite success, if not perhaps a ragingly memorable one, Act Two – given Wotan’s impuissance and Brünnhilde’s vocal mishaps, and in spite of Fricka -- regrettably not, and Act Three .. well, I defy anyone to fail with Act Three of Die Walküre … but, until this night, I’d have said it was impossible to make no effect with Wotan’s farewell …
And my testicles remained unturned, so .. shall we say six out of ten?
And on to episode three…"

Note: I admit to having rarely been comfortable with ‘concept’. I will also admit that I don’t actually know what a ‘Time Tunnel’ is. But when Brünnhilde walked out through the tunnel’s side, did this signify that – like the fallen heroes who were shovelled down a chute in the wall to presumed eternity – she had stepped out of time and the tale? I merely ask for information.

Another note: This production apparently, for some reason, contains a lot of World War Two references, which locals connect with immediately. As an Austrian-Scottish-Jewish-bred New Zealander born in 1946, they floated right past my left ear, uncomprehended and unnoticed, until they were pointed out to me, after the event. I did wonder why Hunding was carrying an anachronistic gun, and his henchmen wore gangster hats. but I put it down to the usual incoherence of operatic stagings.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Triumph of the Nibelung

Well, my Wagner Zyklus has begun. Last night I got under way with what Wagner called the 'prologue' to his melodramatic, mythical miniseries, Das Rheingold. It turned out to be a somewhat surprising Rheingold, for -- just as on my last visit to the Deutsche Oper -- the evening was dominated by one superb, overriding performance. Again, like last time, it came from a performer in what would not be considered the 'star' role, and the result was a most interesting turning around of the usual values of the opera.
I'm reviewing this Ring Cycle for a Dutch-language publication (Opera Magazine/ Place de l'Opéra), so I'll slip in here the English version of what I wrote after I'd made my way back through the Berlin night to my Nollendorfstrasse home.

"Tonight (17 April) The Ring of the Nibelungs returned to the stage of the Deutsche Oper, in Götz Friedrich’s celebrated and time-honoured ‘Time Tunnel’ production, with house musical director Donald Runnicles featured as conductor in his much anticipated first Ring since his appointment.

After a quarter of a century, there is nothing left to say about the production itself. You can log into the ‘concept’, and its ‘underground railway’ setting, or you can take the pleasing and mostly unfussy visual images simply for what they are. For me, the abiding visual of this Rheingold is, fittingly, that of the gold itself, searing richly through the now rather tatty, seamed gauze waters of the Rhine. And if those ageing ‘waters’ did flop around a bit and finally get unfortunately hooked up on the scenery, who cares.

Wagner christened his work The Ring of the Nibelungs, and when you watch Das Rheingold you can see that the dwarvish underworld race of the Nibelungs thoroughly deserves its place in the title. Alberich is clearly the most interesting and important ‘person’ in this prologue to the Ring mini-series. Tonight, he was even more interesting and important than usual, for the Alberich of Polish baritone, Tomasz Konieczny, quite simply stole the show.
From the moment he clambered on to the stage to chat up Wellgunde, Woglinde and Flosshilde in their glistening fishscale tights and peroxide tresses – no ugly dwarf, but a lithe and darkly handsome young man with a gloriously ringing voice – he drew all eyes and ears. The Rhinemaidens must have had water on the brain to refuse his advances, and when came the time for his confrontation with Wotan, this magnetic Alberich looked to have it all over his godly antagonist.
That feeling was exacerbated by the fact that the Wotan of Mark Delavan put up virtually no opposition. This Wotan seemed more like a quizzical English school teacher in his first trench coat than a Being of importance: utterly human and ungodlike, utterly unimpressive, with only his magical adjuncts to make him significant. Well, I suppose that it is all right to stress the weaknesses of this ultimately flawed God, but this flabby Wotan seemed to have only weaknesses. Spear or no spear, Alberich should have beaten him hands down. Vocally, he did. The bright, eager, beautifully vibrant voice of Konieczny simply outclassed the weirdly muffled and throaty tones of Delavan. The musical highlight of the night was Alberich’s curse, the dramatic highlight of the night was Alberich’s crazy, dancing final exit, the unalloyed highlight of the night was Alberich, fullstop. How often in a Rheingold does that happen?
The other roles were well and sometimes extremely well played: the vast super-basso Fafner of Andrea Silvestrelli (I wait eagerly for the dragon!), the rich contralto Erda of Ewa Wolak, handicapped by a Barbara Cartland pink frock, the ringing, aggressively blonde Freia of Manuela Uhl (I think she shares a hairdresser with the Rhinemaidens), the impeccable and lively Loge of Burkhard Ulrich and the copybook Mime of Peter Maus. Judith Németh was as excellent as one can be in the ungrateful role of Fricka, and the only awkward casting was that of my hero of last year, Markus Brück, as a tubby Donner who looked as if he belonged in Nibelheim rather than Walhalla, and who surely could never be a hammer-thrower.
But, in the end, it didn’t matter. It didn’t even matter (to me) when, in a respectable orchestral performance with occasional expansive highlights, the horn-player split a note or two. It was Alberich’s night. The knowledgeable audience’s cheers at the final curtain confirmed that in spades.

It’s always sad when the best character gets written out of a series.
What a shame Alberich – this Alberich -- isn't in the next episode…
I'll just have to patient it out until Siegfried ... "

That 'next episode', Die Walküre, happens tonight, so I guess its time to finish my breakfast and gird up my operatic loins ...

At Home in Berlin

For my first three nights in Berlin, I have again been staying with Kevin in his flat in the Eichborndamm. However, since I had decided that this time round I would devote a whole two and a half weeks to the to-be-discovered joys of this city, I needed to find myself a little room somewhere, preferably down in the Nollendorfplatz area, from where I could walk (as I love to do) to many of the places I prefer. Wise heads were shaken, ridiculous sums of euromoney suggested, and I was about to give up the whole idea when a friend of Kevin’s came up with an address. He had, it seems, stayed at the ‘Nollendorf Apartments’ a few years back and …
From my computer in New Zealand, I hastened to their website. 45 euros a day seemed pretty reasonable for anything in such a situation ... minutes from tube, supermarket, and the bars, cafés and restaurants I already knew from last year, so I promptly signed up for two weeks.

Yesterday I U-bahned it (I’m getting the hang of the excellent Berlin underground) down to the Nollendorfplatz and a rendez-vous with Andrew, the owner of the business. Number 32 doesn’t look very appetizing from the outside, so I was left with my chin on the floor when the door to my second-floor lodgings was opened and .. where I’d expected a sparse and functional little room, such as I’ve had in the past in Paris for the same price .. here was bliss on a stick! A lovely, big room, with the afternoon sun pouring in through the windows, a splendid big bed, a vast and comfy couch, a pretty dining suite and – for heaven’s sake – a delightful sunny balcony overlooking grass and shrubs and bowered by a huge flowering tree. A kitchen with all mod cons – oven, fridge, microwave, cafetier, and oh my God a washing machine ... a bathroom to match … plus TV (which I don’t use) and the sine qua non ‘wifi’! Stay here?, goodness, I could LIVE here…

Kevin escorted me to the local supermarket, and I stocked up with the necessities of life – wine (tiens! Châteauneuf du Pape at 11 euros..), local sausage, tête de veau, cheeses, olives, brown bread – and then hurried ‘home’ to fill my fridge. Kevin and Geerd were off to the movies, but not I: nothing – particularly nothing cinematic -- was going to prise me out of here, just yet! I spent the rest of my afternoon and my evening, curled up on that great bed, devouring my shopping, answering my mail, and I’d just ventured on to a little work on my Victorian Vocalists when the comfort of the bed got the better of me. I snuggled down, and at 8.30pm – happy as a homecomer -- I was fast asleep.

Today dawned a perfect spring day, dawn-cool and white-sunny. I lolled, I lingered, I looked at the legend on the washing machine (what the heck does ‘Pflege’ mean, last time I saw it, it was on an ad for health insurance..), I shaved and showered and lingered some more, and as a little heat began to come into the sun, I decided it was time to head for the outdoors. More precisely, for the Saturday (?) market in the Winterfeldtplatz, under the St Matthias Kirche, five minutes from my door, where I hoped to buy a few flowers to decorate my pad, re-stock my already depleted cheese cupboard, and find some rolls to replace the brown bread the crust of which defied my teeth.
And, I decided, after my pathetic franglais attempts in the supermarket, I would – defying the inherent dangers -- do this thing in German.

It is only a little market, but I spent a whole hour wandering round and round its (mostly) produce and food stores. The labels are ever so useful. I mean, I learned my French in the markets of Monaco and Beausoleil in the sixties: could I, nearly half a century on, repeat the trick here? Unlikely, but I have come home knowing that Spargel are asparagus (piled everywhere), that a cucumber is – surprise! – a Gurke, and that marigolds are Studentenblume. Identifying Rhubarben and Artischocken wasn’t too hard, Bergkäse pretty easy (it looked so good I bought some) and thanks to Tim Fischer’s song I could tell what Ziegelkäse was (I bought that too). I was able to tell the marigold man (as I bought them) that ‘man hat diese Blümen auch in Neue Seelande..’, but I fell in a heap when he replied volubly and had to admit ‘Ich weiss nicht wirklich Deutsch sprechen’. He grinned and said ‘Bye Bye’ which I’m pretty sure isn’t German.

So here I am, home again, with my Studentenblumen and my ornithogalum dubium (which I know isn’t German) in place, my foodie purchases lined up along the table, the washing machine mastered (difficult, even in English! but now I know what Pflege and Spüren mean!), and murdering a glass of milk (the Châteauneuf didn’t survive the night) and a wondrous spinach, cheese and sesame crêpe, bought of a man who was no more German than I, but with whom I failed to find a lingua franca beyond sign language. If this Winterfeldplatz market is a daily affair, I will never have to use Andrew’s nice new stove!

The sun is shining strongly now, drying my clothes on the balcony. There is even an iron and ironing board here, so my best trousers can be readied for tonight’s trip to the opera. For yes, tonight begins my Wagner-Zyklus.
At five I meet Kevin at the Café Impala, three minutes away, the venue which has replaced the disgraced Café Berio (it committed the sin of changing hands and thus clientele) as the Gentlemen’s Rendezvous of the area. And from there to the Deutsche Oper..
What a day! What a programme! One that I think requires and hour or two on the big soft sunny bed with a Victorian Vocalist. I promise I won’t actually close my eyes…

Thursday, April 15, 2010



I’m back. Back in Europe. Back in Berlin.
The Emirates flight from Sydney was more than a bit of a trial (what insane person set up the steward call-buttons to echo through the whole plane every minute or two during the entire ‘night’, killing any hope of sleep?) – I fear have not found ‘my’ airline after all. Disappointing.
Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time helped to dull the twenty-nine hours of comfortless, skimpily-fed and barely (whisky-and-) watered travel from Australia to Dubai and to Germany, a nice cold beer and a hot salami-on-ciabatta bun at ‘Italissimo’ in the very well set-up Frankfurt airport revived me amazingly, and a relaxing last Lufthansa leg into Berlin stopped me confirming a determination to a find a ship ... any ship ... for next time round…
And, then, there was dear Kevin, waiting at Tegel to meet me and take me home and feed me, wine me, and all but tuck me into bed … at 7.30pm.

Wednesday dawned white, chilly and fair and ... no jetlag! Just as well, for when I come to Berlin, when I’m around Kevin, I pick up the reins of my European life and turn myself back into the theatre and music critic that I first became in the 1980s. And on night one, I was ‘on duty’.

We were booked to return to Tipi (am Kanzleramt), the larger of the two tented theatre-cabaret venues on the fringes of the Tiergarten, where, on my last visit to Berlin, I experienced my Best Entertainment Night of 2009, to see Das Konzert by Tim Fischer.

Mr Fischer is famous. In Germany. I had never heard of him. But then, I had never heard of Montmorensy last year, and I fell head over heels for him. So…

It is difficult to walk into another country’s culture and, with no knowledge and little studied background, ‘take on’ an established star. It is very much more difficult when your mastery of the language involved is at best ‘limited’. Especially with an act like Tim Fischer. For Fischer is a chansonnier. A performer of twentieth-century songs. A Kabarettist in the best sense of the word. Where the heart of Montmorensy’s act is in his music, with Tim Fischer it is the song-words and his delivery of them which are supremely all-important…

Das Konzert -- a sort of a ‘best of’ selection from Fischer’s earlier shows -- is performed by five people: Fischer, radiant in black then white, at the centre of affairs, supported by two pianists, and two ‘guests’: the elderly composer (Gerhard Woyda) of two of his songs, and a warmly handsome baritone-ish vocalist (Ralph Samir, unbilled, but evidently ‘known’) who joined him in one love duet. For yes, much of Fischer’s performance is on the gay plane, and he wears a persona to match. Was this going to be the Geschwister Pfister and its Ursli again? As the concert began, I thought (in spite of the fact that Fischer was neatly male-garbed) that it might, but no. There are some very superficial similarities, but, to start with and all importantly, the material here is different. Fischer sings – in a plain, focussed, almost unmusical light baritone, unmarred by vibrato, catapulting his text from behind his teeth with incisive vigour—pieces, ‘male’ and ‘female’, ranging from the years between the wars (Friedrich Holländer, Theo Mackeben) through the sixties, to adaptations of modern, international numbers and to pieces written especially for him. Yes, he does include a couple of numbers made famous by Zarah Leander – who is to a German gay performer what Judy Garland is to an anglophone one, and in whose material he made himself famous as a teenager – but these do not in any way dominate the programme in a way I had thought, given his history, they might. And, thank goodness, he doesn’t frock up. He doesn’t need to. For Fischer is a clever man, a very clever man, and he has no need of a feather boa and stilettos to make his points and effects.

When he walked on to the platform, and launched into his first number – Holländer’s aptly titled ‘Der hysterische Ziege’ (the hysterical goat) – followed immediately by a wild 1960s paean to ‘Ein Neandertaler’ (Günter Neumann), I simply didn’t know what to think. The posters showed this palely too-pretty boy. Here was an explosive little man of what – forty? fifty? (he’s 37) – who looked more like Pinocchio fitted out with the mouth of a smiling shark … Rowan Atkinson with gremlin ears and flailing wrists ... hurling syllables at you like so many mortar bombs, each word like a piece of clear, jagged glass .. I was stunned. I’d always assumed that the impersonation of the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, as made filmicly famous by Joel Grey, was a wild, exaggerated burlesque. I now know that it wasn’t. That style of performance was a genuine part of pre-war German theatre and Kabarett performance, the province of many stars of the period, and Tim Fischer is the 21st century epitomy of that tradition.
But he is not all bombs and shards of glass. And – in a carefully constructed programme -- he quickly lets us know it. Item three is a gentle little love duet (‘Wir zwei sind ein Paar’), sung with (and composed by) his pianist, Rainer Bielfeldt. Suddenly the wild, biting, in-your-face-and-ears Fischer is gone. The Joan Crawford mouth becomes a rosebud, Rowan Atkinson transmutes into the pretty boy of the poster, and you watch stunned. They must be lovers: he couldn’t look at and sing to the other boy like that if they weren’t (NB, they aren’t, not since ages)*. And then the moment of calm is over, and the whirlwind is back… with songs bitter, songs comical, songs which had me stretching my ears and my German to their eager limit, wanting to be a part of what was going on. The whirlwind came to its first peak with an incisive and audience-delighting performance of Holländer’s well-known (even to me) ‘Stroganoff’ ... and then, little by little, Fischer calmed the game. Gentler tones and less aggressive songs ... and, as the first half ended (he had sung fourteen songs with barely a pad of chatter between them) and he moved into his second, equally demanding, set, he stretched his boundaries and offered himself in some items from world outside.
I am probably showing my own background and musical preferences by saying that, for me, his second act opener, Serge Lama’s ‘Je suis malade’ (music: Alice Dona), sung in fine French, was the best number of the night. And his least successful. For it was also the evening’s most demanding number, vocally, forcing the singer to the boundaries of his range and vocal capabilities, not wholly with success. For Fischer is not a ‘singer’ as such. He is not in the business of making beautiful or impressive sounds. That bald, open, sort-of-baritone is not a thing of beauty, it is a rocket carrier, a rocket launcher, made for carrying, supporting, curling round and, most particularly, hurtling forth words, sentences, stories, in a virtuoso way I don’t think I have ever seen excelled.
In pieces as different as precisely comical material of the ‘Stroganoff’ kind, the pointed Georg Kreisler ‘Weg zur Arbeit’, the affectingly half-whispered ‘Komm grosser schwarzer Vogel’ (Ludwig Hirsch) and a version of ‘Are you lonesome tonight’, sung as a sweetly flirtatious duet with his guest star, he was just grand. If I could have got by without ‘Send in the clowns’ (in German), it’s probably because I have heard them sent for far too many times since the original ... and I didn’t care for the piece even then.
As the evening rose to its height, the gentler moments of the saucer-shaped programme again gave place to the attack and forceful manner of the first part of the show, and the enthusiasm of the audience rose commensurately. When Fischer appeared wrapped, for just the one item, in a female coat, to sing a Michael Kunze translation of the Miller/Hirsch hit ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, made famous in Germany as ‘Ich hab ins Paradies gesehn’, they quite simply exploded. I was a little disappointed. Not with the singer, not with the song (which I initially struggled – sorry, Michael -- wholly to comprehend) but with the audience. Was that why they were here? Was that what they liked? To see this clever artist get into even a smidgin of drag? I hope not … at least, not only. That would be sad. As he had proved over and over during the evening, he doesn’t need props and dresses to tell his tales, all he needs is his expansive talent.
Tim Fischer didn’t close out his evening with extravagance and a frock. The coat went back on its hook, and the grimacing, posturing piranaha back to its shatterable bowl, as he bowed his farewell with a gentle little number, ‘Die Rinnsteinprinzessin’, another composition of the pretty-smile pianist (lyric: Edith Jeske), delivered with precision and delicacy and all the effect that this cleverest of performers has at his command.
It was a fascinating night, and if I was weakening just a little through the last of the heroically end-to-end twenty-seven numbers, I blame it on Emirates Airlines and that bloody awful German of mine, which meant I had to work almost as hard as Fischer from song one onwards, aided (?) only by a nice bottle of Valpolicella.…
Would I go to see him again? Definitely. But I’d do my homework, and spend several sessions with Teach Yourself German first.
Will I go to the tents on the Tiergarten again? Try to stop me! As long as they are not doing Cabaret (the musical) which is scheduled to reappear there shortly, they will, I think, henceforth be my first entertainment stop in Berlin.
And – let’s be odious -- how did I feel about this evening’s entertainment compared with the two shows that I saw in the tents last year. Well, I was much, much more at home with Tim Fischer, his performance and his material, than I was with the Geschwister Pfister presentation. And Montmorensy? ... I’m sorry Tim, but I think I kind of fell in love with Montmorensy, so you (of all people) will understand and not mind if – for the meanwhile -- I only give you my personal silver medal…
But very silver indeed.

*postscript: my German let me down here. The song starts endearingly and then turns into something quite the opposite. So our hero, wearing his most angelic face, ended up singing lyrics which were anything but angelic. Which was the point of the song. Which I, alas, missed.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Closer and closer still...

The ‘Sydney syndrome’ seems still to be working. My little family of horses seem to do their best when I am in the Sunny City by the Sea, rather than on the racetrack with them, or even when I am in their respective countries..

Yesterday, it was Fritzl’s turn. Since his interesting third – ‘Duchess’s first divvie’ – at Ashburton, he has had two starts: a hiccup at Bank’s Peninsula and a ninth place in – wait for it – the New Zealand Derby! Well, why not? He may have finished 18 lengths off the record-breaking winner, but he beat home several of the most highly regarded juvenile trotters in the country and, himself, clocked a time only 2 seconds off the new record.
As a result, I was pretty surprised to see him untipped and unpunterishly loved as ninth favourite for yesterday’s fifteen-horse maiden trot on the grass at Motukarara. Here, in Sydney, he was even less loved, except by me -- and by Barry who punted a fiver on him for a place. I was confident of a cheque and, in spite of the presence once again of Zealous Lady in the field, I would have been disappointed with less.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. Far from it.
Fritzl made a fine beginning from his number nine draw and settled, as at Ashburton, neatly in the one-one. A determined front-runner (which displaced Zealous Lady, also well away, in command) kept everyone running along at a fair pace until the home straight, when the compact field (barely a breaker!) splayed out across the track ready for the final explanation…
Fritzl popped neatly out from his perfect position and headed staunchly for the line. Momentarily, it looked as if he might win, momentarily, I believe, he even hit the lead, but Zealous Lady had been ideally cuddled away on the rails and in the final metres she popped prettily through the middle and – as last time – nailed Fritzl in extremis.
So – after his fourth in the Trotting Stakes, his third at Ashburton – Duchess’s little boy has posted his first runner-up position.
And Barry picked up $80 for his five dollar bet. Australian form followers evidently hadn’t weighed up maiden trot form against Derby form, and the wee lad paid $16.40 a place on the NSW tote!

Here is the finish .. that’s Fritzl in the middle with the scarlet chest band .. compliments of Race Images…

I think Fritzl has to be odds-on to become -- before too long -- Gerolstein’s first home-bred-and-born winner. But watch out! Seppl is waiting in the wings, hopefully only a month or two away from making his debut…

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Horse Trading

Just in case anyone is wondering why I am lingering in Sydney, when I was only here a couple of months back ... I am here to indulge in a little horse trading.
My equine empire has recently gone through one of its ‘excess fat’ periods, largely thanks to my unbridled purchase of three new animals (Livia, Ténor, Agnes) over the last year, and a little bit of rationalisation was needed. Since my horses are a hobby, not a business, the target was evidently going to be – as last time, when I disposed of Gwen – the non-racing horses; since I am in the game to have my horses around me, the obvious ‘victim’ was a broodmare I have only ever seen in the flesh once in my life, my sole galloping interest: the Australia-based Rosmarino.
I’ve been part of Rosmarino since Barry bought her from a sales agent half a dozen years ago. She gave us a splendid time as a racehorse: as a broodmare she has been perhaps unlucky but ultimately – and in spite of Barry’s hugely skilled management -- unsatisfying. Also exceptionally expensive. The racehorse world in Australia plays its games with several more zeroes on its end than trotting in New Zealand or even France. Or even Australia.
Because we six chaps have been a ‘team of pals’ for eight years, I hesitated – in spite of the crying logic – to break up the syndicate, but when I was here last time, I found I was not the only over-stretched member anxious to end the story. And so, both Rosmarino and her More Than Ready foal, Leo, are up at the Inglis sales, this week and next.
Yesterday was Leo’s day. Estimates among our team as to his value (irrelevant and subjective) and likely sale price (practical) varied so hugely that I stepped out of the numbers game. For me, if the horse made a profit on our outlay, that is, in these times, good business.

We went to see the boy in his box. A really splendid looking colt, unfortunately (but irrelevantly) hair-scarred where his baby leg was ‘straightened’ soon after birth. But I was dreadfully taken aback at the lack of style, of professionalism shown by the agents – the farm to which over the years we having been paying indecent amounts of agistment money – in showing the horse. I wanted to telegraph Wendy to get over here zippo and show them how to do it.

Still, when he came into the ring, Leo looked very fine, and the bidding started in lively fashion. In the end, he ‘went’ for $90,000. I say ‘went’ because he was actually bought by some members of our own syndicate. I’m glad for them, glad that they will be keeping this most handsome member of the family, and I’m glad for me that I’m out, and no longer stretching my wallet in this game which isn’t really mine. I shall watch Leo’s progress with exactly the same interest and joy as if I were ‘in’ … but from my possie on the other side of the fence: in harness racing, where I belong.
Next Wednesday, as I am setting out to see the Zarah Leander Show in Berlin, probably on the back of Kevin’s moto, it will be the turn of Rosie the mare to go under the hammer. And at the end of that day, 14 April, my eight year adventure in the world of galloping racing will be over.

Happily, just as this happens, my trotting interests are steaming, at last, back into action. This Sunday I shall have two babes running – one on each side of the world. Fritzl is in action at Bank’s Peninsula, NZ, and Ténor heads to Caen, Normandy… where the tripe comes from..
Caen is, of course, only a night-ferry trip away from the Isle of Wight .. so come June and July, if such a thing should happen again, a little voyage across la Manche may be in order..
In the meanwhile thank you Rosmarino, thank you Barry and the Rosmarino Inc boys, for a fine adventure, and .. on to the next one!
Allez, Ténor!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

In which continent are you...?

I knew that Jack couldn't be in England. Or in France. Because he is always first off the cab-rank ... seconds after a race has been run ... with all the news, stories and results of my French horses.
'In which continent are you?' I emailed...
'I'm just down the road..' he replied.
After two years of continually missing each other, on both sides of the world, we had both ended up in Sydney at one and the same time..
So a rendez-vous was imperative..
We met up at a coffee shop in the Queen Victoria Buildings (where my iced tea was brought in a Lipton's bottle, without ice, and my 'no lettuce, no tomato' sandwich came consisting of little else..) and how good it was to see and hug an absolutely glowing Jack..
We've both had some hard times these last years, but we seem both to have come out at the other end of the darkness in pretty good shape..
Witness the photo snapped by Jack's colleague, Mette, to record the occasion ..

Last year it was Jack who was winning races, this year I seem to have come back to life ... Wait till the two horses which we own in partnership (Lucie and D'Arcy) get into action..

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Tenor wins at Vire...!

In Basse Normandie. Where the andouille comes from...
and less than an hour distant from Domfront, where Rosy won her race for me two years ago. Seems Normandy agrees with me..
It's early morning, I'm in Sydney .. I fell asleep before the race was run and woke at 5am to see ... the result that I'd so hoped for
Hourrah!!!! or should I say Hue-rah. Marion and the Hue family have notched me up my second french win.
Stories and pictures to come in due course .. but right now, I wonder if I'll be able to sleep a little more.

Follow up:
Well, thanks to the splendid Basse-Normandie harness racing website (, I've now been able.. from my couch in Sydney .. to watch Tenor run his race. And run he did, which is more than can be said for nearly half of his rivals. Five of the twelve starters -- including the leader and the parked horse -- galloped and were disqualified. But it didn't make any difference. Tenor would have won anyway.
He made a tidy beginning, avoiding the horse inside him which started the galloping epidemic right away, and was quickly tucked away into the trail, behind the determined leader. There was a fair amount of movement outside him, as horses came up, and then went back and/or trotted awkwardly, but he just stayed where he was until the final turn when the horse outside him galloped, opening the door perfectly for our lad to pop off the fence, zoom easily past the leader (which then broke!) and cruise to the line, a comfortable length and a bit ahead of the only strong finisher and a Browns-Cow parade of beaten horses.
I think you could say he won with his hoof tied behind his back.
So he's proved himself superior to this company, now we shall see how he takes a step up. I'm confident ...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Go North, Young Man!

. 4 April 2010 and its time to take to the air waves. Alas, not the sea waves this year, not since the disappearance of the Bank Line and its wonderful cargo-cum-passenger ships. They are gone, crushed to teaspoons in Taiwan, or worse, and I am now condemned to air rather than sea travel. Oh, the blasted 21st century… My one consolation is that I seem to have found the ‘Bank Line of airlines’. I have booked my entire next four and a half months of travelling (give or take a ferry or a train) on Emirates, and will, of course, report back in detail with my reactions and inevitable opinions.

These last few days, Gerolstein has put on its most beautiful face, as if to chide me for leaving at a time when the autumn glints are on the leaves, and the autumn afternoon sun curls palely and picturesquely through the trees and gardens, when (nearly) all the big jobs for the year are done, the new grass is sprouting, and Elena and Agnes, Rose and Mikie, Lucie and D’Arcy are being shaken from a few weeks of torpic grazing to begin filling the place with equine action.

But the mornings are more than chill, they are cold, the daylight comes not till 7am and is gone by 7pm, Minnie begs to snuggle nightly on my bed instead of the couch, the heat-pump is on … and even the peacock went missing a whole day, hunkered down somewhere in the undergrowth, I suspect, to escape from the cold. And I must do the same. Or my tail feathers will fall out as well.

  So, today, I depart this pretty place and, all being equal, I will return in the spring, bright and refreshed after time in Berlin, St Helier, my British home on St Catherine’s Downs and in my special little corner of Paris, after having taken in The Ring of the Niebelungs, gorged myself on seafood in the Roseville Bistro and rognons in la Place Sainte-Marthe (14ème), tramped the dewy downs of Wight, and hopefully written a great chunk of my gigantic opus on Victorian Vocalists which, I notice, is now in its sixth year of preparation. And while I am gone, please, please may Elena and Livia, Rosy and Ténor, Fritzl and Seppl, go to the races and give me joy…

STOP PRESS. As if to celebrate my imminent return to Europe, Ténor des Baux runs today in the Prix du Haras de Peschard on the sand track at the Hippodrome Robert Auvray of Vire, Normandy. This is cruel. I should be there: Vire – just 40 minutes away from Domfront, where Rosy won her début -- is said to be the village which makes the best ‘andouille’ in France! Ténor, if you can win, I shall have to make a pilgrimage to Vire… with a big bib on! And now, Christchurch airport. ‘Bring up the curtain’, I am returning to the real world…