Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Night out with Mike, or Scallops and Vampires

In October or was it November of 1974, the musical Hans Andersen went into rehearsal at the London Palladium. On the bottom line of the chorus was a 27 year old basso just back from two years at sea. On the rehearsal piano, and assisting the conductor, was a 21 year-old muso, not long out of the Royal College of Music. The two became good friends, but over the years geography and suchlike meant that they lost contact … Last night, they met up again. In Berlin. The musician has turned into Mike Reed, the most prized musical supervisor in the world of musical theatre for decades now, the skinny bass has turned into the author of the largest (and best) reference works on the same subject: yes, yours truly, Kurt Gänzl. Well, Mike now has the embonpoint of the successful man, and I have the traces of my stroke still upon me … but the years rolled back like Phar Lap, and we were 30 or 40 again, as we picked up where we had left off twenty years ago. Our evening had two parts: first food, drink and chat, and afterwards a trip to the Theater des Westens (my first) to see Tanz der Vampire, the musical about which I wrote so favourably in my books, but had not yet seen on stage. We dined on the terrace of Mike’s hotel, the delightful Kempinski in the Kurfürstendamm. And dined very well indeed. My starter, nice, juicy, lightly-cooked scallops with a gingerish julienne was a class one dish, my main course of loup de mer could have been plumper, but it tasted good. I can’t say it looked good though: purple risotto isn’t my thing. But, hey, food is for eating, not photographing. The meal was accompanied by a very nice light German rosé served by a very nice German lassie who also delivered me an excellent pear schnapps as a digestif. And we talked. And talked. And talked. I think I talked even more than usual!

A quick wander to the theatre. My first Berlin musical this year. Was it going to be as good as I remembered from reading it a decade and a half ago? I got off slightly on the wrong foot. When you are watching a burlesque musical, you have to remember always that it is exactly that. When you see a stagefull of comic opera peasants, led by a sosie of Fagin, overacting a ‘drinking’ chorus in praise of garlic … it is a parody of the genre! (Remember Chess?) Maybe some of the edges of the parody in the opening have got a tiny bit blunted after so long? Or was it me, taking time to get into the 'mood'? Anyway, those edges would soon, as the action of the piece got into stride, be sharp as a sharkstooth. This is a funny piece. A fun piece. Its enjoyably staged and designed, with some of the best (not burlesque, unless it’s of Laurey’s dream ballet) choreography I’ve seen in quite a while. It looks good and it sounds good. The music is in the lush modern vein, with plenty of extravagances and some catchy melodies ... I’m sure I heard a few classical quotes. From Sullivan to Wagner. I know I saw a few things more than reminiscent of, in particular, The Phantom of the Opéra. And that’s part of the fun. That’s the burlesque genre. Of course, sometimes burlesque gets very close to the thing being burlesqued … there’s a fine line … but most of the time director and cast kept, sometimes just, to the right side of it.

  The cast. Well, as an old casting director, I’d be proud to have assembled such a cast. Thomas Borchert was a suitably sexy, vocally rich and melodramatic vampire leering (oh! those teeth!) down from his Phantomical perch, or luring sexy little splashabout Sarah (Amelie Dobler) away with a pair of red riding boots and a mega-sponge, to his Schloss, to sing the hit song ‘Totale finsternis’ with him. Miss Dobler looked the perfect little ingenue – oh, shades of Miss Brightman – and sang her music to perfection, even when battling with the entire chorus. She was also deliciously comical in her scenes with Alfred (Michael Heller) who is simply a super-juvenile made in heaven. Looking fifteen, singing with lyric freedom, and playing and interplaying with just the right degree of innocent foolishness … I cannot imagine the part better played. But my favourite – well, we all have favorites! – performance of the night was that of Veit Schäfermeier as Professor Ambrosius. When I first heard the score, I dubbed his music ‘Offenbachian’. But the whole role is pure Gilbert and Sullivan. You could pluck him from this show and put him straight into the Major General’s part in The Pirates of Penzance. His patter singing was superb, precise and truly sung (no cheating sprechstimme here), his acting quite delicious, and he quite simply made me laugh out loud over and over again. Whatever a Tony Award is in German, that is a winner’s performance. The smaller parts were all well filled, and the chorus sang and danced winningly. I particularly liked the Red Boots Dream Ballet and the 2nd-Act Vampire Song. Oh, dammit, I liked practically everything. Although it got deafeningly loud (for me, already half deaf) at the end. So the second half of my night ended up as enjoyable as the first. Mike rushed backstage for his notes session, as I headed for the Zoo U-Bahn and Nollendorfstrasse. No twenty years ever again. No fear. Same time, next year?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Tale of Hoffman's

After my swirl of restaurant stories in Jersey, eating out has rather played second string to theatre, music and friends in Berlin … the best eating out I’ve done here has been at friends’ homes ... Paul, PGB and Olli have all cooked really tasty meals for me, and Thomas and Wolfgang staged another of their wonderful, memorable dinner parties for me at Potsdam …

However, last night it was restaurant time. My wedding present to Thomas and Pablo was ‘dinner wherever you like’. Chuckle, I knew they wouldn’t choose a Turkish takeaway! So last night we – the newlyweds, Paul and I -- repaired to E T A Hoffmann’s restaurant in the Yorckstrasse, Kreuzberg. Half-an-hour’s stroll through the rain-spattered streets from Schöneberg …

It is a pleasant place, discreetly and warmly decorated, we were given a very nice table, in a window bay, and were attended upon very graciously by the team of two young women and a lad who would care for us in a nicely leisurely fashion for the next 2 ½ hours.

The menu immediately gives one confidence. You can have 3 or 4 courses, with their choice of wines (or without), and the choice in each course is sophisticatedly limited to four or five items. I decided to go the whole hog. Four courses. Beginning with a leisurely pernod.

For a starter, I had ‘stunned’ duck. Presumably stunned before being cooked. This is what it looked like. Encouraging, eh?

Well, it fulfilled its promise. The flesh, cooked, as you can see, in three different ways (all delicious), was tender, moist and not duck-fatty, and the purée of ?pois chiche was a grand accompaniment. I even ate the greenery, which I thought a bit under-classy. Something more original than lettuce would have been nice.

I followed up with veal kidney as entrée. One of my favourite dishes, but a weeny bit disappointing. A nice helping, firm and tasty, with a not very significant sauce. I would have just like a little taste tweak (NOT tomato) in there somewhere.

Then the main course. Triumph. I – the New Zealander – ordered lamb. I checked with the lady first: it WOULD come super-rare? She checked. It would. It did. It was beautiful. On the left, braised lamb, soft and falling apart: on the right, the pink-red cutlet … absolutely perfect! A sort of ratatouille julienne underneath I could take or leave (ordinary lentils would have taken the juice better) but that lamb -- from northern Germany it seems -- was some of the best I have ever tasted.
Paul had monkfish, the groom and groom had baby venison, and we were all very happy.

The others ventured into crême brulée and clafoutis (both of which got top votes) for dessert, while I opted for my usual cheese and port. The cheese was unadventurous but palatable, the port nice. But I wished I’d had the very good-looking crème brulée.

Our dinner was accompanied by a selection of German wines: mine beginning with a soft riesling, rising to a stouter chardonnay, and climaxing in an excellent pinot noir. I was pleased to see (chardonnay with kidneys) that the old saw about red with this and white with that has gone.

So all in all, a highly pleasant meal, in pleasant surroundings, pleasantly served, and in very special company. And how does it compare with my Jersey winners?
It serves a different kind of food to, say, Bohemia. Much less adventurous or quirky. Some of the dishes are quite simple. Which doesn’t mean they are not good. The duck and the lamb chez Hoffmann would grace any table … and I will certainly visit chef Thomas Kurt (yes! that’s really his name) again next year..

Oh. Price? Since you ask. 350 euros (inclusive) for four. Fair enough…

We finished our evening by popping round the corner to visit Olli at his (temporary) workplace, the Rauschgold, a tiny little gay bar in the Mehringdamm, and there we nightcapped amid folk having nearing-midnight fun, before diving for a damp taxicab … Paul, after all, is on a 7.50am train to Bayreuth for Tristan

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Offenbach on the Spree


I’m just home from the Neuköllner Oper. Not really an opera house. Well, not the bit I’ve just been to. A ‘studio’, to be polite. Aw, heck, a room with 70-80 (53 I now discover!) chairs stuck around the side.
And if I tell you, Berlin has done it again? For the third time in a few weeks, I’ve had a superb theatre night out.

It didn’t look promising. A ‘version’ of Halévy and Offenbach’s delicious bit of very French Chinese musical insanity, Ba-ta-clan. ‘Version’ gives me as many shudders as the dreaded German words ‘bearbeitet’ or ‘dramaturg’ or (worst) ‘Regietheater’. I mean, why can’t they do it as it was written? It’s perfect, and has been since 1855.
OK, perfect for France. OK, I can see it might have to be localised (as Karl Treumann did 150 years ago) for Germany. But what’s this? A whole new libretto …?
My hackles were up before I entered the theatre.


I have to deal with this in two halves. The music and the play. The glittering shower of Offenbach music was largely presented as written, arranged orchestrally for a curious 1960s Wersi-Organ affair by md Andrew Hannan. A few funnies, and the swapping of one role from a male to a female (which worked perfectly) … no complaints.


The play? Well, the zany idea was kept, but otherwise it was wholly rewritten by one named Kriss Rudolph. Mr Rudolph, when I entered the theatre, I was ready to damn you for iconoclasm. But do you know what, in spite of my limited German, I think you utterly pulled it off. Your piece might be about an ‘Uprising in a Fortune-Cookie Factory’ (Aufstand der Glückskekese) -- which Halévy’s’ is not -- , but you have kept the theme and the wonderful ‘bouffe’ spirit of the thing perfectly. And written a wholly successful show around Offenbach’s magical score. I never would have thought it possible.

That ‘bouffe’ spirit – which is the dramatic be-all and end-all of pieces like Ba-ta-clan – was beautifully upheld by director Gustav Rueb and by the four exceptional players who presented the piece. I don’t expect, in 2012, to find young performers who can play with the true burlesque flair of the 19th century ... and sing, too! Who says there are no singers these days who can act? I can immediately point them to four young people who gave us an evening of delirious comic fun, and sang Offenbach’s music with flair, accuracy and point: Alexandra Schmidt (a very funny actress with a voluminous and rangy soprano), Nini Stadlmann (whose role was written for a man) as a glorious komische Alte ... major theatres, watch her ... Nikolas Heiber as a hunky light baritone hero and Dejan Brkic as a super-funny baritone ‘villain’. I regretted the ‘translation’ only once: when his ’Morto’s (the piece's integral parody of the Italian opera) were Teutonised …

What can I say else? I went to slay, and came away praising. Hugely.

The conception, direction and performance could not have been bettered. And oh! what genuine musical theatre fun. Hurrah!

I think I may have to go back next week.

Photos: Lena Kern

Thursday, July 5, 2012

LE CHEVAL DE BRONZE or Auber-y splendid!

Whenever I come for my now yearly stay in Berlin, I always seem to get a treat in the way of productions of interesting, little-performed nineteenth-century operas, and this year is no exception.
I am, of course, a huge fan of the music of Auber, which dominated the most joyful French and foreign comic opera stages of his time, but it does seem odd that the only two productions of his work I’ve ever seen should have been in Germany. And in German. Which is a bit of a shame for me, who speaks French but little German. And in an Auber comic opera, there is a lot of sparkling comedy (written by the great, if by today’s standards slightly long-winded, Eugene Scribe), which it is sad to miss.

So, last night I went to the Komische Oper to see the Auber/Scribe Das bronzene Pferd. Now, there can surely be only one reason for selecting this particular one of the French duo’s many successful operas: extravagant spectacle. Whereas some of their pieces are like drawing-room comedies with songs, others – including this one – were written for the Parisian théâtre à grand spectacle. A Chinese setting, a flying horse, scenes on an extra-terrestrial planet … a rampant designer’s delight. And hundreds of dancers, extras, costumes etc.

Well, I didn’t really expect them to run to a hundred coryphees at the Komische Oper, but I did expect rather more ‘grand spectacle’ than we got. The sorcerer’s planet was white curtains. And while there were some fun effects: the Horse arriving to aeroplane noises, in swirling winds and machine-smoke, and leaving a cartoon cutout hole in the wall … I felt a bit cheated on the visual side. And what do you with all the scene-change music when there is no scenery to change. Here, the time was filled by the antics of pandas and (yawn) bonking monkeys. The hundred chorines would have been infinitely preferable.
I got the feeling that director and designer were fettered by financial constraints. Which you really can’t be when you are doing an opérette à grand spectacle or a grand-opera-bouffe fèerie.

So, reservations on the visual production and on the timid direction, but very few reservations on the performers.

The star of the show was the ‘heavy lady’, ‘the character woman’, the Scribeische ancestor of Katisha and the Fairy Queen, played here wonderfully well by the not at all old and ugly – but infinitely funny -- Swedish soprano, Erika Roos. Dressed like a mixture of Edna Everage and Janet Street Porter – one of the rare examples of an aumusing costume in a piece which would gain much from them – she carried all before her. The thin and pretty indifferent audience finally came awake when she gave Tao-Jin’s big scene and aria, flinging herself about like a demented drag queen while singing (upside down) quite dazzlingly, and they applauded her ten times as much as anything else in the performance.

The other stand-out was the mezzo, Annelie Sophie Müller, as the farmer’s daughter, Péki, the soubrette who dresses as a boy to rescue her country lad from enchantment. She played with sprightly, unforced comedy, made up into an amusing and handsome young man, and sang quite beautifully throughout.
The men of the piece, who need to be as much comic actors as singers, did their parts well: The mandarin, Tsing-Ling (Tom Erik Lie) handicapped by a false chest and belly, the farmer (in a suit?) Tschin-Koo (Juri Batukov) with his big Act 2 song, and the Prince (Sung-Keun Park) who started weakly – and out of tune – but who came good wonderfully once he got dancing around like a windmill. The fourth principal man was off. So a vocalist sang his role from the forestage while the assistant director acted the role. And acted it marvellously, with a true sense of comic timing. He should take singing lessons immediately!
The galactic scenes in the second act introduce two new characters: the femme fatale Princess Stella (Julia Giebel) and her wise-cracking maid (Violetta Madjarowa). The princess was portrayed as a gawky hoyden, which seemed to make little sense plotwise, and had little acting to do but be gawky and fatale. A difficult combination especially with a director who thinks sex is best portrayed by removing clothes, and jabbing with your pelvis. However, Stella also has a brilliant coloratura aria to sing which Ms Giebel managed accurately and enjoyably. I’d have enjoyed it more, however, sung by Theda Bara rather than Joyce Grenfell.
Lo Mangli, the maid, delivered her lines in a nice, quirky, chesty growl. So it was rather a surprise when she gave her little number in a petite soprano. Better to cut it.

If I seem overly critical of this production, it may be that I’ve waited half a century for it, and have very C19th ideas about what it should be. And I really did enjoy seeing it, hearing it, and in particular discovering the two leading ladies. I had a thoroughly agreeable evening. But I didn’t go wow! More directorial flair, much more extravagant staging ... Scribe and Auber are, of course, the forerunners of Meilhac, Halevy and Offenbach … are needed to make this piece all it can be.
But, of course, that means greater resources – financial and manpower –which probably can’t be justified for a production of a little-known piece.

Thank you, Komische Oper, for letting me see Le Cheval de bronze. I see its Monteverdi and Mozart next year, but can we have more French opéra-comique in the future!

PS a little touch of class! My ticket was 87 euros. But I got a complimentary glass of wine, and a string duo in the foyer as extras. Both much appreciated. And a nice front-row box seat … a loge makes one feel ‘in the opera world’.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

To Bökendorf, with love ...

Bökendorf?, they said, when I wrote where I was going this weekend. Where’s that? What’s that? Why? Well, Bökendorf is a small village, half way to Holland, in Westphalia. It has a population of 800 people, and an open-air theatre which seats 1200. One and a half seats each? The theatre is operated by the local amateur theatre group, which has been staging summer theatre there – rain or shine – for over 60 years, with considerable success. And that’s what I was going to. But why travel 400km into the Westphalian countryside? There are 80 of these amateur open-air venues in Germany. It’s something of a tradition. And, anyway, why am I going to see amateur theatre, hot on the heels of my nights with the Berlin opera stars and the radiant Radialsystem concert? Easy. Bökendorf had chosen, for its bi-annual musical of 2012, to present Bonnie and Clyde, the musical with which my favourite musical-theatre maestro and bosom buddy, Paul Graham Brown, made his European debut a decade ago. And which I had never seen.

So, Saturday morning we set off: Uwe at the wheel, Paul, Kurt and Stanley from Vancouver, the picnic bag in the boot ... straight into a murderous traffic jam for an hour. Don’t get me going on German roadworks. Or the scarcity of picnic spots. But we found a nature reserve for a late lunch (at 4pm) and, soon after, we found the town of Brakel, and the picturesquely situated Hotel Waldschänke, where were going to spend the night. And on the last 7km to the theatre – well, what a theatre! It is set on the edge of a lovely, dense wood, the stage is the side of a hill … but don’t let that fool you! Admittedly there are no flies (yet they have done Peter Pan!), but otherwise, everything is there. Lighting, sound, a revolve .. Hidden away in a bunker, or tunnelled under the earth! The audience is safe from the weather – for the ‘we play, no matter what the meteo’, rule is never broken – in a splendid covered grandstand. Only the actors get drenched on rainy days. But it stayed fine for us.

Bonnie and Clyde, the musical, is chock full of good things. Interesting things. Tuneful things. It was particularly interesting for me, who know, pretty intimately, Mr B’s later works, to hear this early piece. Afterwards, he said to me (before I could say it to him) ‘it could do with a little slimming!’ But what to slim? Not that music! The show was a particularly good choice for this company: for although it was originally played with a cast of nine, it expands very effectively for a cast of ninety: the choruses ring out splendidly as sung by whole townful of folk -- fat, thin, short, tall, old, young, real-looking -- instead of just a few, and all the different victims of the gangsters can be played by different actors, instead of having one performer killed several times! There are plenty of supporting roles, too: yes, there is no doubt, this Bonnie and Clyde works splendidly as a ‘big’ musical. And, staged last night on an atmospherically bleak set, it did not deny itself big scenic effects, either. A local gent had loaned a real vintage car for the production, and the final scene of carnage, with the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde was magnificently and effectively staged. Amateur productions and performances always differ essentially from professional ones, and have to be judged on their own terms. The people up on the stage are there to give pleasure to themselves, not just to you, the audience. And last night they clearly did. Things started a little tentatively and nervously, the pace was way too slow and there were awkward gaps. And there was no conductor to ginger things up, for the backing was necessarily pre-recorded (imagine rain in a flute?): well recorded, but playback, alas, doesn’t allow the music to breathe. Nevertheless, the singers responded to it well, and before long things started to roll along nicely.

The two teenaged artists who played the large and long title roles did very well. They both acted in a natural, easy-spoken manner, with no attitudes or artificiality or ‘acting’, and they sang effectively. A girl of 18 will always have a more developed voice than a boy, but I was glad to hear that both – chorus members heretofore – have found their way to a singing teacher. They have much promise. The company is particularly rich in good character men, a type of amateur player which used to be so hard to find. Some of them are more actors than singers – after all, this is primarily an acting company -- but no-one let the team down. A little bit of ‘actory acting’ sometimes, which fitted ill with the natural style of, in particular, the ‘hero’, but it was fun. For them … and for me. Well done, chaps! The principal supporting ladies have a much heavier vocal burden than the men, and here there were absolutely no worries. Both ladies had good, strong, accurate voices. The folk with a few lines to say or sing were all capable – gone are the days when ‘amateur’ was equated with ‘inefficient’. The Bökendorfers can all ‘do it’. The audience, who had arrived equipped with cushions, picnics, bottles of wine etc, adored the piece. They applauded repeatedly (and in some right curious places) and bounded to their feet at the curtain calls to give the show an ovation. There were speeches (oh! that dreadful German habit!) and Paul was shyly (?) dragged -- well, he fell actually --on to the stage to take his share of the applause … the end of a splendidly fun evening. The End? Watch this space …

I hope that the players and their director will not stop working on the piece now they’ve opened. It’s good: but it can be very good. Get the running time of Act I down by 10-15 minutes by closing the gaps, and pacing the dialogue and cues. Make the chorus do a warm up, so they come on ready to do a big sing in the opening ... take away Mrs Parker’s wig and handbag, get that wretched park bench off stage quickly or do without it, tie a few peoples arms and hands down .. and … but enough. I’m a perfectionist. While Paul received his accolades we sat quietly in the bleachers. And then a lady (dressed as a man, they were short of male dancers) came and invited us to a tour ‘backstage’ and … The tour was fascinating, but the ‘and’!. The company has put up a building in the woods. Wardrobe, dressing rooms and … hospitality. And there we were led, and there we met the company members and officials … and, well, Paul and I were still there at 4am! What a simply delightful ‘family’ of people. The success of the theatre has led to rising standards and interest, and the Bökendorf company has extended its catchment area for players to the towns 20km around. And got 90 for this show, and 90 for their children’s show. Thespis lives in Westphalia! But the Freilichtbühne (Open-Air Theatre) has become more than a theatre company. It is a major factor in the village, and a veritable ‘family’ for its members. Look down the lists of participants and you will see 4, 5, 6 people of the same surname there. And when the youngsters were up dancing, somewhere round 2 am last night, parents and even grandparents joined in! I would have loved to … but some of the teenagers came and chatted (in perfect English!) to me, in my chair … A German politician, the other day, called out for cross-generational activities in order to bla-bla-bla. He should visit the Freilichtbühne Bökendorf. There he will meet real people, wonderful people, of all generations …

Oh! I hope they do another PGB musical, and I get to visit them again before I die! I can tell you, I’ll never forget the night … and the lady who kept ladling out the local vodka-ginger-something green … A special thanks to Michael (actor and scenic designer) who drove a slightly tipsy but very happy author/composer and historian/critic back to Brakel in the small hours …

  Gosh, musical theatre can be fun! In Bökendorf anyway!