Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Serious Fun, or The Dinner Party of the Season

The Berlin season rose to its utmost height on Sunday. The occasion? ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Kurt!’, a banquet hosted by those celebrated Berlin characters Herrn Thomas Hermanns and Wolfgang Macht, at their lakeside Gross Glienecke ‘Seehaus’, for ‘Kurt Gänzl, renowned world traveller, lover of music and horses’.

The guests?: me, as (blush) ‘guest of honour’, and my dearest Berlin buddies. There were PGB and Uwe, mein jolly Zaufke -- two top composers at one table, how the bons mots flew! -- our glowing newlyweds, Hannes and Mirza, and, of course, darling Ollie, that utterly indispensable man, without whom Berlin for me simply wouldn’t be Berlin.
Only Kevin, detained by the Meistersingers at the Komische Oper, and Paul, on the eve of his Humboldt University concert, were scratchings. Alas, even Gänzl cannot compete with Wagner and Schumann.

Getting to the boys’ ‘country retreat’ at Gross Glienecke involved a U-Bahn, two different buses and a walk. We were lucky in having Thomas Z as a guide, lucky that Berlin buses always seem to run ping! on time, and unlucky in that it rained!

But we arrived safely if damply, popped into slippers (who says you can’t wear slippers at a formal dinner?), sipped our first champagne, and ah ….!
‘Ah!’ also goes for the modestly named ‘lakehouse’, with its plummeting lawns and the ‘lake’ of the title at the bottom of the garden. It is a wonderfully beautiful ‘retreat’ which I look forward to seeing, next season, when it is bathed in sunshine…

Our ‘Operettic’ dinner was ‘à la hauteur’ of everything else. After a delicious fig amuse-gueule, we launched into Course one, subtitled ‘Künneke’: a first-class Havelländer fish soup with pike dumpling (and heaps of fennel!), accompanied by a Lösslehm rieseling. I wonder, did I let out my predilection for fish soup some champagne-stained evening?
Then onto ‘Offenbach’: the softest and tastiest of ‘Kalbskarré’, served with ratatouille and lentils … I clearly must have ‘talked’ at some stage about my favourite food … and a delicious light Bourgogne from Auxerre.
And then it was time for dessert, and the Viennese Operette: ‘Strauss’ was represented by Apfelstrudel ... just like grandmother used to make! ... and a sip of Mirabelle…

My famously small appetite was utterly forgotten, as I gourmandised my way gleefully through all the goodies, drenched in a golden glow of the kind of happy, convivial friendship that, for so many years, had had to be a missing element in my life. Goodness! only now, hours later, do I realise … I can give all those guys twenty to forty years! But I certainly didn’t feel like that. They certainly don’t make me feel like that!

Dinner done, the pink champagne flowed once more … Thomas and I are kindred souls when it comes to pink champagne … and Vera-Ellen resurfaced in the conversation, along with – for heaven’s sake .. the silly old song ‘I Believe’, and far too late in the evening der Zaufke and I somehow (it must have been my fault) ended up at the piano giving an extraordinarily approximate version of ‘Once Nearly Was Mine’…

Needless to say, midnight past, the buses and the U-Bahn were not to be considered, and our little team cruised back down the Herrenstrasse towards central Berlin in a comfortable super-sized taxi … a warm and wise young hand holding mine somehow summed up the whole beautiful evening. ‘The Triumph of Friendship’, someone mediaeval called it.

Thank you, Thomas and Wolfgang. Thank you my beautiful Berlin buddies. My momentary blues of that awful wet August weekend are all gone and, yes, of course.. my return ticket to Berlin is already booked. For just as soon as it stops raining, and der Frühling zurück kommt!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cassandra was right!

‘LIVIA DEGEROLSTEIN (2) sat behind the leader at Ballarat last start and didn’t finish too far from Bettor Give It, which followed a close up third to Justa Working Guy at Maryborough where she charged home along the pegs from an impossible position. She was a solid Geelong winner three back and draws to be an each way threat’.
Thus wrote an Australian tipster this morning …
It sounds nice, doesn’t it. Sounds just like the sort of horse one would like to own. Especially when one knows that the New Zealand-bred ‘Bettor Give It’ referred to is a filly who finished just behind the place-getters in Australia’s biggest two year-old race, the Breeders’ Crown, only last month.

Well, as all followers of this blog will know: we do own her, Wendy and I. And as a result, I was huddled over my computer this morning, listening to Radio Trackside, from the other side of the world.

Flashback two days. Scene: the Sissi restaurant. Paul and I taking our pre-concert supper. Paul has sort of become Livia’s European ‘godfather’, and the conversation turned to the forthcoming race. ‘She will come second’, he declared, with the air of a Cassandra. Strange: I had exactly the same unreasoning gut feeling.
The tipsters and the punters (7/1) thought she should come third. First was, barring accidents, out of the question, as the odds-on favourite was another Kiwi-bred horse, ‘It’s Dutch Courage’, which had run past Livia (which not many do) to pinch third in the ‘Bettor Give It’ race, and which had drawn the favoured number one slot at the start.

‘It’s Dutch Courage’ duly shot to the lead from the mobile gate and, as no-one was game to take her on, led the field through the first half of the race at a leisurely pace. Livia bided her time, nicely placed by driver Gavin Lang, in the one-one. With half a mile to go, the leader hotted up the pace noticeably and, as the horse in front of Livia began to weaken, Gavin was obliged – a little sooner than perhaps wished – to come off her back and steer three wide round the final turn. Into the straight, and the favourite was off and gone, but Livia – out in the middle of the track -- was coming with her usual stout finish, and although she only momentarily looked as if she might get close to the hotpot, she ran out her race nicely and – three lengths back -- held off the fast-finishing second favourite until the post.

Second! Maybe Paul and I should take up jobs as tipsters! Or Trojan oracles.

It is just five months since Livia first stepped on to a race-track and she has now run twelve times, for a win, a second, two thirds and four fourths (434475741352). Not against the very best, but not far behind horses like ‘Bettor Give It’ and ‘Dream Vacation’ who were capable, last month, of qualifying for the Crown final. Today, too, after that slow first half, the fillies ran home their last half in the neat time (for just-turned-three-year-olds) of 57.8 secs. So, even if she does not seem to have high speed, little Livia is no slouch.
It is going to be interesting, over the coming months, to see just how good ‘Bettor Give It’ and ‘It’s Dutch Courage’ turn out to be. Not to mention, of course, Livia. Who I would be interested to see running in a race where the pace is hot. And whom I am very, very glad that we own!

Death in Mycenae

Last night, PGB and I visited the Deutsche Oper where I was covering the performance for Opera Magazine and Place de l'Opera. My review will be published in the Dutch language, so I include it here (alas, without photos) in English:

"It was in 2007 that the Deutsche Oper presented, for the first time, its operatic Atreid double-bill – the Cassandra of Gnecchi (1905) and the Elektra of Strauss (1909). It was, I think, an inspired pairing, for not only are the two short operas linked intimately by their subject matter, they are also linked opera-historically: a certain amount of ink has been spilled over the question as to whether the celebrated Strauss helped himself rather too liberally to the ideas and even the musical sounds of the earlier Italian piece. While Elektra went on to establish for itself a place in the basic repertoire, the opera of the ‘wealthy amateur’ Gnecchi was culpably squeezed from the stage, but the Deutsche Oper’s presentation of the two works, side by side, and pointedly connected in their design and staging, has been a major part of what must undoubtedly be considered its rehabilitation. If Elektra is worthy of its place on the operatic heights – and, of course, it is – then the admittedly less complex and less skilled Cassandra (compressed into a short one-acter, at less than 50 pages and minutes) is definitely worthy of more than a small foothold on those same heights. And, if its ‘raison de revivre’ is as a kind of prologue to Elektra, maybe that is only justice.

I’m not one to bother about who did what to whom back in the 1900s: my only care is, is Cassandra a good piece of music theatre? And about that I think there can be no doubt. Its atmospheric prologue for baritone and chorus, the lush love scene of Klytemnaestra and Aegisthus, the thoroughly winning and even moving return of Agamemnon, and the prophetic Cassandra’s climactic scena are all painted in ringingly colourful music, which reminds one as often of Puccini as it does of Strauss, and the libretto moves the story along, through its little series of set pieces, with praiseworthy force and briskness.
Sparely and extremely effectively staged by Kirsten Harms, against a soaring but imperfect Mycenaean-gold-panelled background, it is played this season with a principal cast made up – with the exception of the splendidly baritonic Markus Brück (Aegisthus), who tonight doubled excitingly in extremis as the Prologue – of young American vocalists. Julia Benzinger sang strongly in the title-role, although occasionally drowned out in her lower register by Donald Runnicles’ expansive orchestra, and Gaston Rivero (for some reason, dressed as what seemed to be Spiderman) produced some lovely tenor tones, stalwart yet sweet, in the part of the doomed King. However, it was the stylish Takasha Meshé Kizart, as a Klytemnaestra in a little black frock and teetering heels, wielding a slaughtered sacrificial goat in one hand and a bloody axe in the other, and singing with an opulently colourful and thoroughly dramatic soprano, who clearly won the audience’s vote. And mine. Somehow, last night, I really felt the opera should have been entitled Klytemnaestra.

While Cassandra has languished, Elektra has been produced hundreds and hundreds of times, and all sorts of stagings and visuals have been imposed upon it. Kirsten Harms follows through in the successful style established in the first opera -- the towering gold walls with their grim (if clunky) window, in the eerie light of which the deadly indoor action of the night can be seen taking place, the spookily stylish black frocks, the omnipresent axe and, when Orestes becomes king, he gets the Spiderman costume. It is an extremely effective staging, which – by its lack of frills and foolish ‘ideas’ -- focuses attention firmly and felicitously on the characters and their story. Although I’m not wholly sure why everyone was bogged down in an enormous sandpit, unless it was to suggest that their appalling lives were one enormous effort.

The experienced and powerful Eva Johannson as a blonde Elektra (had she been bleached since the forepiece?) started the evening a little rustily, but she grew steadily in voice through the night, and by the time Orestes turned up she was singing gloriously. She turned on some beautiful gentler tones in the recognition scene, and every imaginable ounce of swelling strength in the final scenes of the drama. The muscly orchestra, which had given no quarter all evening, was utterly vanquished by her searing singing.
Julia Juon as Klytemnaestra looked happily less, on stage, like the Sunset Boulevard-style Katisha the opera’s posters had suggested, and she sang her nightmarish music most effectively – especially once she got down off the scenery and on to the front of the stage. She spared us the too facile ‘wicked witch’ acting often imposed on the part, and made the Queen, agreeably, into a believable woman. This could, indeed, have been the lovely, amorous Klytemnaestra of Gnecchi’s opera in her tortured older age.

My abiding memory of my first Covent Garden Elektra, more than 40 years ago, is not of the Elektra (Shuard) nor the Klytemnaestra (Resnik) but of a glorious Chrysothemis (Tarres). Manuela Uhl, I reckon, deserves to be rated at that same high level. In a role which can be two-dimensional dramatically, she acted excitingly, unfussily and convincingly and she produced a flow of magnificent sounds and phrases in her singing. Maybe I just have a soft spot for Chrysothemis and her music, but this, for me, was the performance of the night.

Elsewhere, the men did the little bits Strauss allows to the men efficiently, the ballet (were those furies? waves?) accompanied Elektra effectively in her dance of death, and the ever swooping black-clad maids, like so many gossipy crows, played their part in the drama to good purpose. Even though it was quite odd to see Cassandra, apparently reincarnated, amongst their number.

However, as splendidly directed, designed and performed as the Deutsche Oper Elektra is, the real interest of this programme has to lie in the less familiar Cassandra and in the idea of playing the two works together. Half a row of people next to me thought so: they had evidently come only for Cassandra and they left after the first opera.
So ‘was it a good idea to do this opera? and to do it as a prologue to Elektra?’. My answer is, in both cases, a very decided ‘yes’. Especially when it is done so very well. A grand evening at the opera.

PS: A couple of notes. (1) Sacrifical goats should not be abandoned (when their effect has worn off), centre stage at the footlights where star baritones can trip over them in mid-aria. (2) Please, when will designers produce a convincing stage corpse? The Agamemnon tumbled from the butcher’s window -- not even in his Spiderman red – made us laugh at a truly inopportune moment."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Philharmonie or, what is 'beautiful'?

Even since my wonderful night out at the young musicians’ festival at the Konzerthaus, far too many weeks ago, I have been trying to find another Berlin concert at which I might get myself a comparable ‘fix’ of the kind of music I am discovering all too late in life. It hasn’t been easy. I have trudged for weeks through the local concert listings, looking for interesting programming – and for me that means nothing too ancient and ‘classical’ but no three vacuum-cleaners and a krumhorn either – and finally I lighted on last night’s concert at the Philharmonie. A building which I wanted to go and discover.  Debussy, Ravel, Mahler and R Strauss. Go for it. Actually, getting the tickets was a marathon task, for on-line booking is fraught with German-language dangers and fees, and using a foreign credit card in Germany a perfect nightmare. But – after riding the U-Bahn into town and the office of the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester -- I got there.

So, last night, after a small supper at Sissi, Paul – my music master by appointment -- and I headed through the falling shades of night for the Potsdamer-Platz and the Philharmonie. I had been told that this concert-hall was something remarkable, so I wasn’t unprepared to be knocked sideways. For remarkable it is. The clean, modern, foyer space is vast, littered with staircases, and – in spite of attendants every ten metres -- you need a map (or good German) to find your way to your seat in the auditorium. But once there! This is probably the most stunning modern concert hall I have visited. Layers upon layers of interlocked seating levels… and we were wonderfully seated both for seeing and for hearing (although Paul says the Philharmonie is aurally great from everywhere). I was, however, distinctly surprised to see the hall only two-thirds filled. Maybe this was because the concert was ‘an occasion’ -- the live-broadcast launch of a new German radio station, Deutschlandradio Kultur – which meant that we had a sizeable chunk of fuzzily-amplified talking from the radio announcer between numbers.

The billed performers for the evening – all young, which could not be said for some of the orchestra! --were Japanese-American conductor Eugene Tzigane, Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan and American mezzo Sasha Cooke. I knew nothing of any of them (nor, I suspect, did anyone else) but was not unprepared for slightly ‘young’ performances. I was unprepared for one stunning performance.

We started gently with ‘L’après-midi d’un faune’. The sound was splendid. The whole orchestra seemed to be singing with one voice. And, whereas in Petrouchka I had missed the visuals and drama of the ballet: here I felt exactly the opposite. I like this piece better without the dancing. We spent a very comfortable faunish afternoon and it served nicely to introduce me to the hall and the orchestra. Gently. Very gently.

The Ravel Piano concerto in G major was new to me, and I wasn’t at all sure, in its opening movement, that it suited me. After the homogeneity of the Debussy, we were suddenly presented with what sounded like an orchestra chopped up into bits, with each bit doing its own thing. The most notable ‘perversion’ was the violently braying introduction of the then (1932) fashionable sounds of America, which seemed to me to be ‘stuck on’ to the work, rather than an integrated part of it. I was happier when we moved to the slow movement, but here I wasn’t sure that the adept but perhaps slightly introverted soloist was quite getting the ‘vocal line’ out of his instrument that he might have. And then, it all came together -- pianist and composer, orchestra and the sometimes rather exaggerated conductor -- in a splendidly vivacious final movement, which brought the first half of the concert to a wholly effective climax.
Well, it would have, if the pianist hadn’t succumbed to the Berlin one-bow-too-many-syndrome, which he topped by coming back and giving an audience which was half on its way to the bar and the loo, ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’. Climax dissipated, and me left thinking of school competitions.

Part two of the concert proper began with the Rückert Lieder. Five songs in the established Mahlerian vein for orchestra and mezzo-soprano. Here again, I had only a general idea of what to expect, and here my expectations were excelled. The first three songs are delightful, but they do not make you sit up. Miss Cooke sang very, very pleasantly, the orchestra played too often too loudly (the lady is a mezzo, not a contralto, so her low notes, in particular, need to be liberated from exuberant accompaniment, especially brazen), and then ... with ‘Um Mitternacht’ the vocalist went and soared. Oh, did she soar. It is a beautiful voice, clear and even, rich and straight, expressive, sympathetic .. a classic mezzo-soprano that is surely ideally suited in songs such as these. And she performs with no false dramatics, no useless gesture, no grimaces: just a simple, lovely sincerity. When she followed up song number four with the soft, dying final piece of the set ... well, suddenly, the evening had turned into something else. I had written that I was coming to a ‘beautiful concert in beautiful company’. Here was beauty.
As the song’s last notes died away, I grinned gap-mouthed at Paul, he slapped me on the back, and we were up on our feet applauding and yelling. Wonderful stuff, wonderful singing …

How to follow that? Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung was, as a child, one of my and my father’s favourite records, so I was sure I would be safe. I remember how impressive and atmospheric I used to find it. Well ... tonight, I’m afraid my main impression was rather: ‘isn’t it noisy’. And ‘the string-players must have tennis elbow after that’. I didn’t ‘not like it’ – how could one? But I was just a little disappointed that it didn’t live up to my fond memories. And I knew I was being disappointed, because at one stage I found myself transfixed by the antics of the bouncing conductor as he turned – at comically top speed – the pages of his score. My concentration regained, I followed the piece to its end with mitigated feelings. I felt just a little let down.
As we left the hall, I said to Paul, ‘I liked the last two songs and the third movement of the Ravel best. What about you?’. His verdict was identical. So the professional and trained musician (him) and the instinctive, ex-professional and largely untrained me were in accord. Which, I’d say, probably means we were pretty right. Wouldn’t you?

We sat in the Potsdamer-Platz, when the music was done, with a beer, a cigarette and a little analysis of this and that, and watched a bass fiddle and a violin go by, greeted Paul’s young friends of the Berlin music world – Heidi the bassoon, Sacha the clarinet, a piano, an oboe – and managed to keep ourselves from rushing across the pavement like schoolboy film-fans when Miss Cooke passed by …
And then it was time for the U-Bahn ..
Oh dear, in ten days I will be out of here. Flying towards the southern hemisphere. And I feel I’ve only tipped a toe into what musical Berlin has to offer. But since I’m already booked to return for the spring, I guess the next stage of musical education can wait till then.

So, I got my beautiful concert. In beautiful company. For there is nothing like listening to music – especially unfamiliar music -- in congenial and knowledgeable circumstances to make it both comprehensible and memorable. So thank you, Paul. And thank you, Miss Sasha Cooke.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"I am a man who knows what he wants ..."

. It’s taken me a whole ten days to brave entering another German theatre, after having witnessed the despicable murder of Die Blume von Hawaii at the Halle theatre, but last night I did – and, daringly, for another evening of pre-war Operette music. The venue was the Kleines Theater, a house in the suburb of Friedenau which thoroughly lives up to its name. It is a delicious and characterful 100-seater, with mini-stage, mini-box office, mini-foyer, mini-bar (and mini-toilets): the whole so miniature that you wonder who ever had the idea of squeezing a theatre into such a space. The theatre’s ambitions, however, are in no way miniature. This month, in repertoire, they are playing versions of The Invitation and Misery, a show about Johnny Cash, an evening of Schlager, a piece about the inescapable (these days) Frida Kahlo, and Warum soll eine Frau kein Verhältnis Haben?, an entertainment constructed around the songs of pre-war Operette star, Fritzi Massary.

  It was this last, of course, that I had come – just a little nervously -- to see. Was I going to have to ‘make allowances’? Well, none were needed… at the Kleines Theater I was to see sane and witty staging and direction and delightful choreography, witness some of the most enjoyable performances I’ve seen on the German stage, and listen to some of Germany’s most beautiful 20th century music sung, if not by Wunderlich, Gedda, Ahlers, Schwarzkopf or Massary, by artists who gave their all in respectful and wholly enjoyable versions of the works of Fall, Straus and their fellow greats. The entertainment is, thankfully, not the musical stage’s 3000th biomusical. In fact, although the actors are listed as playing, and are more or less characterised as, Fritzi Massary, Max Pallenburg, Hans Albers et al, it does not pretend to be a play at all. Author/director James Edward Lyons has simply taken three dozen of the best songs of the Massary era, and linked them together with a light-hearted and ficticious skeleton of amorous fencing, in a piece which has much of the feeling of the best of 1930s German revue to it. Along with those perfectly marvellous songs. As a barely German speaker, I might have preferred an ounce less talk and several ounces more of the songs – but the sold-out house (read my lips, Regietheater directors: ‘sold out’) chortled away merrily, and by part two I was well in the swing. Actually, I’d been swinging in my own way since the first musical moment – when a show opens with that wonderful number, ‘Anna was ist mit mir? (Der liebe Augustin) how not? And when the first act climaxes in the musical treat of the evening, with the entire cast joining in totally adorable harmony in the ‘Lied vom Schlafcoupé’ (Die geschiedene Frau) and the Automobile song from The Dollar Princess, how not go out in the interval in search of champagne?

  The ‘entire cast’ consists of five acting-singing (unamplified)-dancing players and a hard-worked, pound-away, pianist, with trombone moment. A big cast. You would have trouble shoe-horning one more artist on to this stage and, indeed, from time to time one or two of them had to pop off into the auditorium for a bit.

  The Fritzi of the night was the well-known actress Agnes Hilpert, elegant in teal (though handicapped by an ugly wig) and with the necessary acting, singing and dancing skills all at her fingertips. Her performance of the famous ‘Eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will’ ('I am a woman who knows what she wants') was the solo hit of the first half, but she moved truly into top gear in the much livelier and more theatrical second part, with a fun version of ‘Im Liebesfalle’ and as the central character of a wild, Marx-Brothersish burlesque of Straus’s Die Perlen der Cleopatra. Watching her manipulate a six-kilometre yellow train through the antics of her fellow players was one of the funniest moments of the night.

  But there were plenty more of them, those funny moments. The three men of the team are all three consummate comedy players. Boris Freytag (Pallenberg) is a grotesque comedian of singular talents. Hollywood (or UFA) 1930 would surely have loved him. And if his singing voice is, shall we say, minimal, he puts over a humorous song with great effect and skill. Charles Lemming, as Albers, got his big moment in the burlesque, and grabbed it with both hands, but my particular favourite was the plumpishly bespectacled ‘ageing soubret’, Franz Frickel. His opening song-and-dance routine with the soubrette (Nini Stadlmann) was a total joy – I spent the whole evening wanting to see him dance again and again – his acting and timing were perfect throughout, his voice is light, sweet and true, and he does that appealing 'frightened rabbit' look better even than Gene Wilder. And as for his striptease…!

  Miss Stadlmann, in a role which required her to be everything in turn, managed to be almost everything. If she lacked the accurate soprano heights, and the breadth to sing a piece such as ‘Jede frau hat irgendeine Sehnsucht’ ('Every woman thinks she wants to wander'), she more than made up for it the moment she began to dance, which is assuredly what she does best. Actually, perhaps not, for I gather that, though uncredited, she was responsible for the show’s choreography. And that, particularly her two pas de deux with Frickel, was another of the highlights of the entertainment. When -- too soon! -- the evening sang and danced to its end to the tune of Krasznay-Krausz’s 1927 ‘Nebenbei’ (Eine Frau mit Format), I was feeling gloriously at peace with the world. And with the German theatre. But it does make me think. If a theatre such as this with, I imagine, very restricted finances, can invent and mount an entertainment (and, indeed, a repertoire) of this standard, with performers and performances of this standard … what is going on in those large and heavily-subsidised theatres that turn out pitiful, talentless rubbish such as I saw at Halle. Never mind. I know where I’ll be going for my entertainment when I’m in Berlin again. And, who knows, I may catch up with Warum soll eine Frau kein Verhältnis haben? somewhere else in the country or the world. For it looks, to me, like a piece that will not live and die in one production. But, whoever does it next … you may have a job to do it as well as it is currently being done in Berlin’s Südwestkorso. 

Photos by Jörn Hartmann

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Wedding on the Spree, or marriage à la men

I haven’t been to more than three or four weddings in my life. And all few of them of the male-female variety. So it was quite sailing in unknown waters for me to spend yesterday celebrating, at Berlin’s Rote Rathaus (Red Town Hall) and later at a Youth Club in Prenzlauerberg, the marriage between my young friend, Hannes, and his splendid ‘boyfriend from Bosnia’, Mirza.
And what a day it was! I am told hysteria sets in the lead-up to weddings, and there were indeed one or two tight throats on view at times, but the young folk had the luck to have our Ollie as their ‘fixer’ and everything, from start to finish, went on lavishly-lubricated wheels.

The hall of the Rathaus is a lovely place for a ceremony. Imposing, classical, but not too much so, and splendidly echo-ey in accoustics. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand much of the registrar’s apparently appreciable monologue, but the body language spoke better German than I, and, of course, once the music started…
The music was provided by my pal, Paul (‘Montmorensy’), on a keyboard hastily borrowed from Tim Fischer, and his song for the occasion was that aria of arch-devotion, ‘If I Were a Cloud’ (words and music: Montmorensy). Being decidedly of the devoted kind myself, I felt a little, self-indulgent prickle begin on the inside of my left eyelid as he reached the final ‘oh’…

Then the bridegroom kissed the bridegroom, the registers were signed, joy reigned everywhere … and not too many of us knew that Mirza had somehow lost his passport the previous day and that the newly-weds were going to have to spend the first hours of their married life at the Bosnian Embassy and the police-station…

We filled those first hours between the ceremony and the evening celebration with champagne on the edge of the Spree, and a stroll down the river’s banks to an Italian restaurant, after which Thomas H took Paul and I for a guided tour of his delicious little underground theatre, the ‘Quatch’: a former East German nude revue house now devoted with vast success to comedy programmes. It has everything of that 19th-century music-hall feel that I love to it … soon I must return and, German language or not, watch a show going on amid its red-and-gold intimacy.

By 7pm, Ollie had completed the transformation of the scruffy clubroom into a glittering cabaret, Hannes’s family had magicked up mountains of food, an Iranian taxi-driver had unbelieveably produced the missing passport, and – as, Julia poured gallon after gallon of champagne -- on came the Entertainment.
We started with a set of five of the best from Montmorensy, followed by an emotional rendering of the young couple’s favourite song from the omni-talented Ollie. And then, finally, we all sang. As rows of sparklers waved in the traditional fashion, we joined together in what must have been one of the rousing-est and ringing-est renditions of ‘Somewhere’ in a long time. Well, the room did contain some of Berlin’s best singing performers. And yours truly – who hasn’t operaticked in a long time – unshyly bawled out his bit along with them.

More champagne, more food – Paul even braved with gusto the top tier of the deeply-iced strawberry wedding cake! – and all sorts of new folk to meet – Marion the politician, Guido who I had enjoyed so much in Cabaret, Anthony from America, Dirk from South Africa … what a cosmopolitan lot we were and, thank goodness, everyone, it seemed, speaking English! Useful. For Mirza, like me, doesn’t (yet) speak German…

I’m sure the party went merrily on until the wee hours, but we slipped quietly away well before the witching moment. It had been a long day … but such a lovely one. The herald, I hope, to a marvellous married life for two really lovely young men.

Dammit, it’s days like today I get the feeling I want to be married, too …!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Birthday with Nefertiti


Not my birthday. I’m not ready for another of those, just yet. My friend Ollie’s. And we celebrated with a nice wander around the heart of Berlin and a visit to the remarkable Neues Museum.
The Neues Museum is situated on the ‘Museum Island’, amongst some of the grandest and greatest old public buildings of the city, but it is, itself, a re-born building, recreated from a badly war-damaged original – over a period of many years – under the management of the architect David Chipperfield.

It is not a ‘kitsch’ recreation of the original: it is a combination of the remnants of the C19th building with modern elements .. something that we have seen, time and again, can be either an great and imaginative success or an uncomfortable neither-one-thing-or-the-other flop.

This one – with its wonderful, uncluttered, looming rooms and crypts and its dizzily monolithic staircase -- is a great and imaginative success, one of the most enjoyable old-new exhibition buildings I have ever seen. And the collection – largely of Egyptian relics – that it has been built to house, make up a really enjoyable museum-visit.
The Big Star Item of the collection is the famous bust of Nefertiti, perfectly housed and lit, in a dark room (photographs not allowed) in a kind of space canister. However, I was just a tad disappointed in Nefertiti. She was just too perfect, too painted, her restored (?) nose impossibly pert, her make-up looking as if it could have been done yesterday. I grew up with a repro Nefertiti in the museum of Wellington, NZ. She was a little tatty, and somehow more convincing.

But there was plenty less famous material here to see and enjoy, the Egyptian items mixed with ancient pieces from other parts of the world – splendid! history is ‘of the world’ after all, not of just one area – and if we skipped through the cases of bronze-age adzes (sorry, one adze to me is just like another), we found plenty to admire as we struggled to refresh our knowledge of such subjects as the Egyptian pantheon and ancient funerary rites. Splendid statuary and sarcophagi, beautiful mummies and grave objects, and amongst all the major pieces, some marvellous little gods and animals and even a skeletal elk!

The Neues Museum is, for me, with or without Nefertiti, a total success. Both the building and the collection. And we spent a splendid 90 minutes doing the rounds before moving back into the modern world, and on to a sushi supper at Prenzlauerberg…
A decidedly nice way to spend a birthday. Even someone else’s.

Postscript: on our way, Ollie introduced me to his favourite Denkmal (‘monument’). It is now one of mine, too. The subject commemorated is the devastating 1933 Nazi episode of ‘the burning of the books’, and the monument is below ground. You look, at your feet, through a glass panel set in the cobbles of the Bebelplatz and you see … nothing. Rows of achingly empty white bookshelves. It may sound simple, but its effect is chilling.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Whoops! She nearly did it again!

6 September, and out again on the racetracks of Australia goes little Livia, for her first race as a just-turned-three-year-old! And, goodness me, it was almost a repeat performance..
Once again, she was dropped out at the start and, with a lap to go, she was -- as ever -- running along cold, motherless last of the ten runners. Down the back, she got a nice run up the inside, but coming round the last bend she was still a good half-dozen lengths off the leader. Into the straight (and, my goodness, she does corner now better than she used to!) and now she turned on that same staunch finishing run that had got her gold at Geelong. She doesn't go 'whoosh!', with that violent change of gear that some horses have, she just turns up the wick and puts her little shoulders in to it...
Down the home straight, the six-length gap began to melt, and it really did look as if she might power past the leaders, just as she had last time out. But the six lengths were three-parts-of-a-length too much, and at the line she was third, beaten a mere metre and a half, and just half-a-neck off the second horse.
Little Livia may not be a star, but she is a wonderfully honest wee filly who, I suspect, is going to run in the money for us on a good few more occasions..


Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Happy Half of Halle

If Halle has turned out to be my own particular theatrical disaster area, my trip there was – prior to curtain time -- anything but a disaster.
I seem to remember that last year I found the city rather downhearted and drab. Well, either they have done wonders with it in the meanwhile, or I just didn’t look at the right bits. This time it was lively, bright, attractive and fun..
In the company of three generations of the Clarke family, I wandered the bustling streets, snapped the attractive buildings, in particular the celebrated church, and while the Clarkes did the rounds of the art gallery at the Moritzburg (which I did last year), I sat in the palace courtyard and the sun with a glass of the local white wine and relaxed happily… right opposite a stage erected for performances of Verdi’s Otello!
A huge (for me) dinner of salt pork and sauerkraut at a local hostelry … and then off to the beautiful theatre and ..
Well, you can’t win ‘em all!

Murdering a Magnificent Musical

Last season, I made a trip to the town of Halle, to view and review a new musical entitled Poe. It turned out to be one of the few dozen most unpleasant theatrical experiences of my life. But, yesterday, I went there again. 

Masochistic? I thought not. For this time the theatre was producing one of my very favourite central European musical plays, the classic Operette Die Blume von Hawaii. Last time I saw it, was in semi-professional summer-theatre at Baden bei Wien more than twenty years ago, and the chance of seeing it again, and hearing its wonderful lavish and lilting Pal Abraham music, in a proper theatre was not to be missed. Result? 

Disaster. Disgust. Disillusion. One of the very worst productions of any musical that I have seen in fifty years of theatregoing, anywhere in the world. What I saw on the stage at Halle was not Abraham and Földes's brilliant and beautiful Die Blume von Hawaii. It wasn’t even a burlesque of the piece: burlesque is, after all, a legitimate art form. This wasn’t any kind of art. This was amateurism and incompetence run rife: a performance that you would shudder at had you seen it in a village hall in Paekakariki, New Zealand. 

Three people have to take the bulk of the blame. The producer, the ‘dramaturg’, and the director. The producer. Why did he want to do this piece? He evidently despises the Operette genre. Thinks himself above it. So instead of putting on the piece as it was written, he had it deconstructed, camped-up, sneered at, grossly rewritten … 

Rewritten. The libretto of Die Blume von Hawaii is an admirable 1931 mixture of the romantic and the stylishly light comic, illustrated by a marvellous mixture of classic European music and the American dance rhythms then being melded into the Austro-Hungarian tradition. ‘Romantic’, however, was far too challenging for this fellow. Way outside his abilities. The whole text was reduced to a low – and I can’t avoid repeating the word – campy load of rubbish, ‘compered’ by a largely invented character in the most juvenile fashion. As for ‘comic’ .. the merry, lighthearted moments of the show, in dialogue and song and dance, were simply reduced to gross buffoonery. ‘Stylishly’? He clearly doesn’t know what the word means. Directed? You have to laugh. 

Where does the German provincial theatre get its stage directors from? First Masaniello at Dessau, now this. And this was far, far worse. I didn’t invent the phrase ‘camp covers incompetence’, but I shall repeat it here. Incompetence. Paekakariki could definitely find a dozen more capable directors. This was amateur time, in the worst sense of the word. There was not a moving moment, a moment of genuine humour, an idea, a breath of scenic or picturesque enjoyment … just boring, unimaginative, old-fashioned, limp-wristed, concert-party clowning. And camp. 

I think that if I had to give a prize for the worst direction of any piece, from during my fifty years of musicals-going, this one just might be the winner. The players, with a producer, a dramaturg and a director with no confidence in their material, had little chance. Those who had to sing didn’t even get an opportunity to do that, for the beautiful music, as inadequately played and reorganised, could not be sung. The most magnificent musical numbers were wrecked by more guying, more stupidity, more camp. More amdram antics. But, in any case, not one performer showed up with anything like the ability needed to play and sing this show. The Lilo Taro (tenor?) might just do for the D’Oyly Carte chorus, the Princess Laya, who did struggle to be allowed to sing, gave a feebly grotesque drunk scene which revealed the extent of her inabilities, and the Captain Stone – who staunchly did push some melody out of his small light baritone – was one of the worst ‘coarse acting’ criminals. The actor who played the invented ‘compere’ is apparently a well-known personality. Well, he won’t want to be ‘known’ for this. Clad in cruise-ship gold lame, he creaked omnipresently through the show like an end-of-the-pier comic doing a Frankie Howerd impersonation. I had to look at my shoes with embarrassment. I could go on in the same vein, but to what good?

It is very, very rare for me to come out of a theatre unable to find one good word for anything in the production and performance of a show. At Halle, I did. I did not get a programme, so I did not know until we were driving home to Berlin that the three criminals of the night – the three murderers of this great classic show – were, in fact, one and the same person. That figures. Three civic employees as totally untalented would be hard to find. I don’t need or wish to know the gentleman’s name, but in my humble opinion he should get out of the theatre. Or will he go on to direct Mother Courage next, in the same style? Lord forbid he should be allowed to touch another musical piece. 

I am exhausted by the strength of my disgust and disappointment. And, yes, I imagine this is the most disgusted and disappointed review I have ever written in my life. And it leads me to two rather important thoughts. 

Firstly: the Halle theatre is state supported. This vain, amateurish stuff is being put on with tax-payers’ money. Somebody in the subsidy department should be looking long and hard at how their money is being spent, or Halle and its theatre, and those who support it, will become a bad joke. 

Secondly: Die Blume von Hawaii (which must surely still be under copyright) is, I believe, represented by the respected music firm of Josef Weinberger. Why is this firm permitting this Operette (and others?) to be textually and musically destroyed in such a way. Do not their heirs of Földes and Abraham, and their show, deserve to be better protected? 

I need a very hasty ‘fix’ of good, professionally produced and played German musical theatre to wipe this nightmare out of my mind. I shall hasten to Berlin’s Kleines Theater next week in quest of it. I do not want to leave Germany believing that what I saw last night represents the nation’s abilities in musical theatre. 

Postscript: comment on this article from a well-known British composer: 'If only German had the equivalent of the English 'wanker', Regietheater might have died long ago...' Oh, that it were so.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Where to, 'Revue'?

Eleven o’clock on an autumnal Berlin night, and I’ve thrown off my shoes and am curled up with a pile of smoked salmon, an ice-cold bottle of Köstritzer schwarzbier and an ice-cream Mars bar, while I muse on the evening I have just spent.
I have been to a sort of a premiere. The premiere of the show is actually tomorrow, but the press (intelligent idea!) were given their own avant-premiere tonight, and that meant Kevin and I. And the show…? It is called Yma (I’m not sure why), and it is the annual production at the Friedrichstadtpalast, advertisedly the largest revue theatre in Europe. Which I guess means it is a ‘revue’.

The word ‘revue’ has undergone a sea-change, evidently, from tonight’s showing, since the great days of Parisian and Berlin ‘revue’ of a century ago. In 1850, ‘revue’ satirically reviewed the years events, in 1900, ‘revue’ was the wittiest, cleverest, freshest and newest thing in town, bubbling over with freshly-minted or imported songs and sketches. Now, it could be best described as a ‘show’. The only trace of the ‘revue’ of olden times that I could discern tonight was the use of a commère, a meneuse de revue, to more or less (and rather less than more) link together the numbers of the night. For that is what Yma is: a succession of mostly sung, mostly choreographed numbers, relieved by a handful of specialities, and staged with ‘a hundred performers’ on the ‘biggest revue stage in Europe’.

Fair enough. So is bigger better? Well, my only experience of this kind of show goes back more than 20 years, to when I did the rounds of the Parisian shows – the Lido, the Moulin Rouge et al – and visited the Radio City Music Hall, New York, in the course of duty. I have never been to Las Vegas, but the man who introduced the show (in German) tonight -- theatre Intendant Berndt Schmidt, Kevin tells me -- clearly has. He must have said ‘Las Vegas’ thirty times in his introduction. I think he was courting comparison. I am told that he was snooty about the Moulin Rouge, too, although I missed that bit.
I liked the Moulin Rouge. I liked it a lot better than Yma. Even if it wasn’t bigger. It had heart, and style, and character. And the funny old building had a warmth.
The Friedrichstadtpalast is an ex-East German 1984 monolith. I don’t mind it, but you couldn’t accuse it of warmth. And the show? Well, if you have the ‘biggest revue stage in Europe’ you really need to fill it. Fill it with spectacle and colour and movement … design treats and design tricks .. girls and costumes, boys and scenery, routines and acts …
About the only place Yma fulfilled the needs on that list was with the girls and the boys. The chorus dancers and acrobats, who worked their beautiful young bodies with endless energy and flair … just like the young folk I saw the other night on the tiny stage of the Chamaleon. But you can work till you are blue and still make limited effect, if you have little or nothing to work on or with.

The first part of the show did hold a few goodies to keep things alive. There was a comical routine where the boys stripped off behind frosted (why, in 2010?) shower cubicles (all show fotos by Stefan Gustavus xix), and there was a first rate trampoline-acrobatic routine in a kinky modernist setting by a group called U-Show Team. The swimming-pool stage was put into regulation use, and anything that could fly flew. But elsewhere ... the commere was over-studied, uncharismatic and looked like a man in drag. I found out why: she was a man in drag. Why? Apparently because this is, according to Herr Schmidt, 'the gayest hetero show in town'. Hmm. I didn't notice. And talk about covering your front, back and all sides!

The male vocalist had been cast for charm not voice, and of the two overaged (?) female vocalists one (Jürgens) yowled painfully and the other (Krabbe) had merely moments of Petula-Clarkeish acceptability. Not nice, in any sense. No, you just had to focus on those splendid young chorus people and virevolteurs, their fine dancing and their occasionally fun routines …

Alas, by part two, director and choreographer had (give or take an Aenea act for a girl and two boys) run out of any ideas they may have had … the designer had never had many from the start … and the ‘half’ was only saved from disaster by the hit routine of the night: a simply dazzling aerial acrobatic performance by a Ukrainian pair calling themselves, embarrassingly, ‘The Flight of Passion’. I see from the programme that they won a Golden Clown at my dear old Monaco Festival de Cirque. They deserve it. They were amazing, and the audience let them know it. Their routine won thrice the applause of anything else during the entire evening.
So, if the music of the night was just reheated old tunes (the finale was, for heaven’s sake the 1968 Canfora/Amurri 'La vita' aka Shirley Bassey's ‘This is my Life’!), pounded out down a vast sound system by insufficient voices, if the dance routines too often lacked imagination and originality and got by only through the tireless efforts of the delightful dancers, if the solo performers were somewhere below cruise ship level and too much of the design colourless, pointless and dreary … I don’t care. I would have walked across Berlin, and squirmed through a full hour of Frln Jürgens’s yowling, just to see Dimitri and Olesya do their magnificent routine.

Obviously, ‘revue’, style 2010, is not for me. I was definitely more at home at the Chamaleon. So, who, I wonder, is it for? The ‘welcome’ at the show’s opening came in a number of languages, including Japanese. I suspect this is pure and simple coach party entertainment. But, then again, twenty years ago, I don’t suppose there were too many Parisians in the house at the Moulin Rouge. So, if things have changed rather drastically in the last century, maybe they have changed less than I imagine in the last decades.

Let me go out with an accolade. If I can’t say that, with just a few exceptions, I admired much about the show, I hugely admired the way the Friedrichstadtpalast people run an opening night. I’ve run a few myself, and know the difficulties. The vast audience of guests was ticketed, programmed, wined with utmost efficiency. So thank you, Friedrichstadtpalast for looking after me so nicely. I’m sorry Yma isn’t my cup of saki.

Well, the Köstritzer is all gone. Shame I only got one. And midnight is past. I shall sneak into bed and go to sleep thinking of the silver glitter falling from the heights and Olesya’s hair as that magnificent pair finished their act …

Postscript: This morning I have found my ticket stub, and it does not actually mention the word 'revue'. The theatre is described as 'Europas grösster und modernster Show-Palast' and the production as 'Die neue grosse mega-show'. 'Show' is, it seems, the replacement for 'revue' in the 21st century.