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’.