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.
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
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 …
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
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.
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
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
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.