Monday, May 25, 2015

Onegin, or Send in the Ballet Girls

Back to the Deutsche Oper, last night, for the third opera of my 2015 season: after Verdi and Rossini, Tschaikovsky. After a musically magnificent Don Carlo and a splendid sparkling Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Eugen Onegin. Quite a varied lot. All three operas, differing though they may be, did – on this occasion, at least – have one thing in common: all three featured the Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis. He walked away with the honours as Rodrigo, set the stage alight as Figaro … now he was to be Onegin. Perhaps the toughest task of the three.

Why? Because, well, Onegin is quite frankly not a very attractive fellow. And he doesn’t have a ‘Per me giunta’ or a ‘Barbiere’ to sing, either. In fact, I find the entire opera of Eugen Onegin rather glum, gloomy and downbeat: only Olga and Prince Gremin seem like people you would enjoy knowing. Even for three hours. The whole thing reeks of the damp steppes of Russia. No matter how much whiteness and how many swanny ballerinas you fling on the stage.

This production is nearly twenty years old. I had the feeling it was more like fifty. Its style reminded me of the days, circa 1970, when I attended the dear old Nice Opéra (my local) each week. I’m not talking about size, nothing so lavish at Nice -- we only ran to a ‘ballet’ of, I think, five – just in the feel of the staging. But what do you do with an opera where everybody feels, talks, writes letters, but (apart from killing off a tenor) doesn’t actually do much. Send in the ballet girls, I suppose.

Dupuis played and sang the title character (you can’t call him the ‘hero’) with all the competence that one knew he would. But there was none of the tragic, ringing heroism of his Rodrigo and, obviously, none of the winning cockiness of his Figaro. The trouble was, they weren’t replaced with anything else. Not his fault. Onegin is, quite frankly, a bit of a bore.

His Tatiana, too, is not a particularly marked character. I know her ‘letter’ is famous, in Russian prose, but … she comes over as just another teary operatic heroine. Australian soprano Nicole Car was the Tatiana of the night – the Deutsche Oper must have a good Down Under branch: after Alexandra Hutton and Siobhan Stagg, this is the third Aussie prima donna I’ve seen here – but she hit the same problem. Sing as well as she might (and she did), Pushkin’s lady is hard to make attractive and interesting.

I got my main enjoyment elsewhere. Lenskj is a better role. He comes on, sings his very lovely aria, and gets shot. Yes! The tenor gone by half time. Gregory Vasiliev showed a bit of spunk in his acting, too, which livened things up. And then there is Prince Gremin. The bass. He doesn’t arrive till the second half; comes on, sings his very lovely aria and … 
I’ve always liked this aria. I even used to sing it myself, decades ago. Last night, I liked it better than ever, as sung by Ante Jerkunica. Grand voice, grand feeling, grand presentation … hurrah! Something for me to hurl my ‘bravos’ at, at the final curtain.

And I did. Because even if this – nay, any -- Eugen Onegin is not a jolly or dramatic evening out, the singers all did their job more than well …  and it is they whom one applauds. The writers won’t know if I cheer or (as I have been known to) boo.

Well, that leaves me with Bellini and Puccini before I zoom off to Australia … oh yes, spoiled for choice, we are, here …

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Sex in Seville, or the Barber, the Boss and the Bride


Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia must be one of the most loved and played classics of the operatic stage. It is stuffed full of concert-room bon-bons and its simple, lively, farcical plot and action are as much a gift to a witty director as its vigorous roles are to a colourful cast. Of course, with too large a dose of pretentiousness, both director and cast can go horribly wrong, but last night’s performance at the Deutsche Oper, in the six year-old staging (‘47th performance’) of Katharina Thalbach, with the liveliest young cast of singer-actors imaginable, simply went oh-so-thoroughly right.

Mme Thalbach chose to take that favourite path of directors since the ark, and ‘frame’ the action. So we had the story of young Almaviva’s amorous exploits played out like a commedia dell’arte on a stage within a stage, while a bundle of present-day seaside Sevillians lounged around watching and occasionally getting involved. Just because it’s an old trick doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, and it works particularly well when decked out in bright and enjoyable south-of-Spanish scenery (Momme Röhrbein) and costumes (Guido Maria Kretschmer), and played with real gusto. It works less well when the ‘off-stage’ people do chorus acting and fidgety ‘business’ whilst the ‘on stage’ principals are singing an aria, or pursuing the story. But that didn’t happen too much. By and large, the show galloped along merrily and musically, and a grand time was had by all. And for that, we have to thank not only the production, but the players. As delicious a team as ever you could ask for. How grand to have a Rosina who could pass for a teenager, an Almaviva like a 20 year-old Errol Flynn, a Figaro who is a cheeky boyo and not an ageing buffo.  Yes!

The opera is a little unfairly titled ‘The Barber of Seville’ (though I’m told it wasn’t originally), but the character of the finagling Figaro certainly has captured the world’s imagination. You didn’t need any imagination last night. This Figaro (Étienne Dupuis) was what I’ve always imagined he should be. I’ve used all my adjectives already, so I’ll just repeat them: young, lively, natural, athletic, humorous … and can he sing the music! After seeing Mons Dupuis as my definitive, dying Rodrigo (Don Carlo) I wondered what he’d make of comedy. I didn’t need to wonder. Just wait. Gagné.

That list of delighted adjectives applies equally forcefully to the ‘hero’ of the night, the Count Almaviva. If Mons Dupuis is my ideal Figaro, Matthew Newlin is my perfect Almaviva. He had me in serious chortles with his impersonation of a drunken soldier, with his fake Basilio, with his serenading of Rosina and his baffling of Dr Bartolo, and his ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’, sung in an effortlessly pure ‘Mozart’ tenor, was, for me, the musical gem of the night.

The lady in the tale, Rosina, doesn’t do much. She gets done to. But, on the way to her happy ending, she gets to sing the famous ‘Una voce poco fa’ and the almost as famous ‘Dunque io son’. What do you do with ‘Una voce?’. Well, for my taste, you don’t race through it. Stephanie Lauricella has a really lovely, creamy, even mezzo-soprano which can breeze without difficulty through the frills and trills of this classic showpiece, but I would like it to ‘tell’ more at a slightly steadier tempo. But that’s something folks have never agreed on. Anyway, Miss Lauricella was as bright and lively as her two companions, and the three made up a singing and comic acting trio of absolute choice.

Alongside the trio de tête, Noel Bouley made more out of the ‘butt of the comedy’ role of Dr Bartolo than I thought possible, Marko Mimica rumbled out a staunchly sonorous ‘Calunnia’ aria as Basilio, and Hulkar Sabirova flung out her high E, while the others took a breather, as Berta.
The stoutly-applauded orchestra under Moritz Gnann caught and helped the prevailing tendency for vivacity, but sometimes took it to excess. I wondered how the singers kept up (they didn’t some of the time). Or when they grabbed a breath!

But, for me, Il Barbiere di Siviglia rises or falls on vivacity, fun … and those three leading players. Which means that this performance of Rossini’s opera rose like my mother’s best soufflé.

And, you know, what pleases me? I came in humming the score. As one does. But I went out with pictures of Figaro dangling in the air, of Almaviva leaping about like Zorro, of Rosina in her Papuan Lampshade dress … and, of course, of the little burro who put in a cameo appearance. That pleases me, because opera is more than just singing the music. An opera should be a ‘show’. And last night sure was a show, in every way. A grand night out at the theatre.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

FOLLOW THE LIEDER ... where the Pianosalon goes, we go ...

I only do, in principle, one thing a day. At my age, that’s quite enough. So, for many weeks, 15 March has been marked down for ‘Concert: Pianosalon’. Piano (Daniel Heide), our favourite accompanist (family excluded), and mezzo-soprano Britta Schwarz in a delightfully and sufficiently adventurous programme of late 19th and early 20th century songs. Just my tasse de thé. Rest up for the day, and then out for a late night in the wilds of Wedding.

Rest up? Off at midday to Holmes Place for Day 5 of my re-rehabiliation. Why did I go at my 40 minutes so hard? Aqua-exercise, sauna and the hardest massage I’ve ever had in my life. Home for a weeny feet up, a lovely lentil curry and cocktail at the delicious Asman restaurant, a trip to Rewe to stock my food cupboards … and it was time to set out, a bit limply, for the banks of the Panke and our concert.

We didn’t know we were also going to an Occasion. As I’ve said before, the Pianosalon has become our favourite concert venue in Berlin, and we are regular visitors. But fate and landlords decide, and this wonderful, atmospheric concert room has to go. Not far. The new premises are right nearby. But tonight was the last concert in the original venue. The place, denuded of the 120 old pianos, in various stages of disrepair, which gave it its character, was saying farewell. Well, it couldn’t have said it in better style. The room was packed, and the entertainment was excellent. And so were the artists.

I have already spilled my superlatives over my ‘five star’ acccompanist Daniel Heide, on stage and disc. For me, he is everything an accompanist should be: strong, supportive, accurate and feeling. A couple of weeks back we heard him play for a pleasant viola concert, but here, in a Liederabend, given his sympathy with voice, he was at his very best.

The singer was new to us. Tall, statuesque (you could tell she was a mezzo the moment she walked on), daringly clad in an attractive lilac number, she turned out to be a copybook Lieder singer. A smooth, vibrato-less, genuine mezzo-soprano – no shrill top, no plunging bass bottom, a lovely even sound from end to end. Perfect intonation. And, best of all, a total immersion in and interpretation of the material. Every word came clearly across. Paul said it was like a poetry recital, and he was absolutely right.

And the programme? Brahms, Schreker, Berg, Korngold (pause) Mahler, Zemlinsky, Strauss. I’ll admit my biases: I’ve never liked Korngold, and am not mad about Berg. But this was Korngold juvenilia and early Berg, so, better. I also admit to my lack of knowledge: only two songs on the whole programme were well-known to me. But so much the better: a voyage of discovery!

The first half was nice and, to my surprise, the pieces I enjoyed easily the most were the two songs by Franz Schreker. But Brahms didn’t quite get a fair go. Three Brahms songs opened the evening, and the singer was quite evidently not yet going at cruising speed. The audience clearly enjoyed Berg’s ‘Die Nachtigall’ the most, perhaps because they knew it. The half ended with the Korngold. I’m glad we were told he wrote them at age fourteen: that’s really what they sounded like. The first resembled Ivor Novello, the second gave signs of over-indulgence in ‘Der Erlkönig’. Oh, they weren’t ‘bad’, just, well, a bit trivial. I felt that they should have opened the concert, a little jeu d’esprit, leaving us to come to our mid-concert pause and glass of wine on the high of Brahms …

The second half, on the other hand, was perfect. Quite perfect. The group of Mahler songs ended with a delicious rendering of his ‘Rheinlegend’, and then we had Zemlinsky. His Sechs Gesänge are based on Maeterlinck words. During my career, my brother and I translated M Maeterlinck into English for … I have forgotten which publisher. It was almost as bad as translating Genet. I infinitely prefer him set to music. Especially music like this. And in German, so that I don’t wholly get every word. Anyway, the songs were quite beautiful, dramatic, expressive, and they were undoubtedly the hit of the night with the extremely enthusiastic audience.

To close this perfect half, what more normal than Strauss? When the strains of ‘Allerseelen’ sounded forth, I melted. The relief of hearing a song I knew (and used to sing)? Maybe a little bit. But just the pure beauty of it. And grand to hear it sung by a pure Liedersängerin, rather than an operatic voice.

I said to myself, I feel like a well-heeled Victorian gentleman, hosting an entertainment in his Park Lane drawing-room … singer and pianist were performing, tonight, just for us.

As the thunders of applause (and I exaggerate not!) pealed forth at the end, Paul whispered ‘I wish they’d do ‘Morgen’ for an encore’. And they did. And the singer did something I’ve never seen before: she sang that beautiful song, quite beautifully, holding her finale flowers to her breast. Fabulous picture. Alma Tadema. A memorable ending to a special occasion. The last night at the Pianosalon (Mark 1).

As we left, popping our donation in the cardboard tube at the door, I asked Christoph, the soul behind the whole place: ‘keep in touch?’. If it’s a nice adventurous programme, perhaps we can be there for the opening of Pianosalon Christophoroi (Mark 2).

A small aside:

A memento mori of the night. Just to stop everything being perfect. We arrived, as ever, early, so Paul could get me to my seat before the push and shove. End of the row. Perfect for an elderly gent. And he supplied me with a glass of wine, and a glass of water for the concert. I was settled. Then down the aisle stomped a grossly fat slob in green, clasping a beer bottle: wham! On to my foot. Wine and water soaked my cotton trousers, my ex-broken toe protested violently, and Herr Schlob? He stared at me and said (in German) something like ‘get your foot out of the aisle’. Here he is. In the background. Lest I forget.