Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Follow that Swallow .... La Rondine in Berlin

When I was very young, I had a book called something like The Operas of Puccini. I can’t remember – half a century later – whether it just left La Rondine out, or merely treated it dismissively, but I have, ever since, presumed that the piece was a bit of a curious and unsuccessful opera-operetta half-breed. As if Meyerbeer had tried to write opéra-bouffe. But then I got to know the enchanting Song of Doretta. Can’t be that bad, I thought.

Well, last night, at the Deutsche Oper, I got to find out for myself. I don’t think it’s either curious or unsuccessful. Yes, it’s an interbreeding between the operatic and operettic conventions of the time, but why not? We interbreed horses and roses on purpose, why not shows? I found the tone of the piece perfectly agreeable and the music delightful, and including a couple of really swoonful Big Tunes. I was less delighted by Willner and Reichert’s libretto, which is a mass of overused clichés, characters, and set-pieces from the German-language musical stage. Not a patch on the witty contemporary French works of Willemetz and Barde. If you took the word ‘amore’ out of this text, the show (which is deliciously non-long) would be 15 minutes shorter.

What really made the evening enjoyable for me, however, was the way the show was presented. Especially the direction, the design and that Deutsche Oper speciality, the casting.

The direction was by Rolando Villazon, and it was a triumph of clean, clear, unfiddly staging. Any ‘ideas’ or elements that were superimposed on to the text, to give it a much-needed dash of original flair were absolutely coherent. The masked white figures of the heroine’s past lovers, silently stage managing the action, were a grand touch, leading up to a perfect climax when, at the end, she crowned her latest lover with a similar mask, before heading back to her old life as a courtesan. Would that Willner and Reichert had had ideas like that! The only touch I didn’t like was the introduction of the Kit Kat girls and their MC into the nightclub scene: the atmosphere of the piece shattered. Wrong period, wrong country, a rather tasteless and incoherent moment in an otherwise finely judged and attractive-looking staging.

The scenery (Johannes Lelacker) and costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) more than played their part in this. The setting was like the direction, uncomplicated, and without trundlings-on and trundlings-off, and very pleasing to the eye (I wouldn’t mind finding that beach in Nice! The real one is all pebbles!). The costumes were just delightful. Though how Magda managed that act 3 cream suit without her maid …

The other hero of the night was the casting director. Amongst the film-sized credits in the programme, his name doesn’t appear. So I asked. Christoph Seuferle, you have done it again. An exquisitely cast show. And I didn’t even see the first cast!

Aurelia Florian played Magda, the courtesan who thinks she longs for Amore, until she finds out it comes in a cottage. She looked grand in her rich clothes (a little less so in her poor girl disguise), she acted with convincing style, and she sang like a cross between Mimi and Rosalinde, which must be right for the role. Her delicious delivery of the ‘Doretta’ song set the show rolling at full speed, and when she pulled the stops out in the big ensemble and moments, she soared.

Her naïve lover was played by Joseph Calleja. He’s a tall, strapping, fine-looking man (which helped him not to appear the fool the part is written as) and, when he sang, his beautiful, masculine tenor voice just zinged effortlessly round the auditorium. At some time, during the evening, everyone else had problems with being heard over the enthusiastic orchestra. Not he. His pianissimi reached Row 14 like a jet plane. More, please.

The ‘operetta’ element is represented by the other two main characters, Magda’s maid, Lisette, and her poet, Prunier. It’s pure, old-fashioned Luise Kartousch and Ernst Tautenhayn, right down to the sexual ambiguity. Except, sadly, they didn’t dance. I would have liked that. Lisette, who is written as far-too-Adèle (Fledermaus) to be true, was played to the hilt by Alexandra Hutton, who managed to make it as un-Adèle as possible. This is the lady I described as the DO’s quadruple threat, when I first saw her as the three women in Hoffmann. A magic combination of acting, singing, dancing and star qualities. They were (except the dancing) all on show tonight: and if her fun kept the evening bubbling, I was also excited to hear my favourite Papagena soaring up lyrically, with Magda, in the big quartet, to the lyric rather than the coloratura heights.

Her partner was Alvaro Zambrano, who probably won’t be pleased if I say he was simply born to play the ‘petit comique’ in pieces like this. I’m sure he can do other things too, but he had the style so right, and he made a totally joyous pairing with Ms Hutton.

Nobody else in the piece has much to do, but there was a wholly appealing rich Rambaldo from Stephen Bronk (Magda left him for a … penniless tenor?), and Magda’s trio of cocottish friends were played by no less than three of the house’s baby prima donnas (Siobhan Stagg, Elbenita Kajtazi, Stephanie Lauricella). Yes… Pamina, Sophie or Rosina one day: a cocotte the next. Bravo, ladies.

Everyone concerned last night deserves praise. Silke Sense’s choreography (I assume she ‘choreographed’ the mass scenes in the club, with their mature students and frenetic dancers, crushing the lovers apart), Roberto Rizzi Brignoli’s bouncing, lilting orchestra, when they weren’t too enthusiastic. All right, loud. I reserve my bad notes solely for Messrs Willner and Reichert. What a pity Puccini didn’t go to Willemetz or Barde. But then La Rondine wouldn’t have turned out as it has.

Which is? Somewhere between unhappy-ending Lehár and the Kálmán Der kleine König which I saw last year in America and … Puccini. Fair enough.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The four last songs … by Brahms.

Tonight was my last concert for the Berlin season. Well, we fly out in ten days for the sandy beaches of Australia. Goodbye Kultur, hello relaxation! Of course, that last concert had to be at the Pianosalon..

You know, when first I came to Berlin, I went everywhere. Tried loads of restaurants, theatres, concert rooms … now I don’t. I just go back to my favourites all the time: the Katz Orange, Bötzow Privat, Asman. The Deutsche Oper and the Piano Salon.

Tonight it was dinner (chicken with ginger chick peas) at Asman, a taxi in the rain to the Uferstrasse … and … oh, to see the old Pianosalon turned into an Adidas shop! Shades of Bernard (ugh) Tapie! But where was the new Pianosalon? Only a few metres away.

It’s different. It hasn’t yet got the grease of the years on it. It’s a slice of warehouse with the wonderful character and artefacts of the old place, for the moment, rather tacked on. But it’s a work under development and … yes … it has one or two definite advantages over the dearly beloved old place. Notably and largely … the accoustics! Paul noticed as soon as we walked in (bloody musicians .. how?). I found out after two sung phrases!

Well, anyway, we were here for another Liederabend. Our ‘farewell’ concert at the old house had been one such – just over a month ago – and tonight it was another by the same two admirable Lieder artists: Britta Schwarz (mezzo-contralto) and Daniel Heide (piano). But it was not the same show. Tonight was an entire evening of Brahms songs. Well, I know the odd Brahms song, duet … but this was going to be mostly (as usual) virgin ground for me.

I’m not going to talk about the artists. I did that in my May 16th notice (Follow the Lieder) and I will confirm everything I then happily said with bells on. But adding that the lady’s voice came over so much better in this new room. Or else she was having a fabulous night! Heide always has fabulous nights.

The first half was made up of the five Volkslieder (I loved ‘Schwesterlein’, Paul voted for ‘Da unten im Tale’), the five Ophelia Songs, and half a dozen single songs. The ‘Am eine Aolsharfe’ I found really beautiful, but of course we all went Brahms for the first-act ender ‘Meine Liebe ist grün’. At last! A song I knew! If I criticised this pair’s programme construction last time, this time it was bang on! Interval on a classic!

But I had a surprise coming. Second half. Four introductory songs (I thought I knew ‘Mainacht’, but it must have been someone else’s) and then the pièce de résistance: the ‘Vier ernste Gesänge’ opus 121. I had thought I recognised the titles … but when the first chords struck up, I went into time warp. Vier ernste Gesänge? Oh heck, that’s the four serious songs … which I sang on New Zealand radio some fifty years ago! I had never thought of their being sung by a lady.

Needless to say, I revelled. She sang and he played them impeccably. But oh! I longed to burst into song. Which would have been a very bad idea. They are superb songs … and to have them sung by someone who really services the composer and the poet … they brought the delightful evening to a superb climax.

And then Ms Schwarz gave the Wiegenlied (and only that) as an encore, with ... yes! Her lilies at her breast! Lovely.

What a grand introduction to the new Pianosalon Christophoroi. My friends, with a singer-friendly accoustic like that …  more, more, more Liederabends! But you can wait till next year if you like. Cos we’re off to the deep south …

Monday, June 22, 2015

Montmorensy the horse


June 21st. The longest day of the year. Or, if you happen to be in New Zealand, the shortest.

But a memorable day. On this side of the world it was my dear friend Fiora’s birthday. Nineteen? On the other side, my little horse Montmorensy (named, of course, after my and her Berliner best man) was going to the races.

I should say ‘again’. Montmorensy was (as I was) born under a different name. He used to be ‘Mario’. Story. After my stroke, I gave away many of my horses, including my brood mares: I could not, and was not going to breed any more. Finding Gwen (below) a good home didn’t prove easy, but finally I gave her to what I thought …

The lady put her in foal to Monarchy (fine by me) and the boy foal was born at Gerolstein. An adorable little feller …
The lady then got into financial difficulties, and the fate of wee ‘Mario’ seemed perilous. The options were horrific. So I bought him. I know. Buying back your own son? But I did. And I re-christened him for that brilliantly musical Australian-Berliner bloke that I’d not long since met. Montmorensy.

In the meanwhile, the son of Gwen known as Seppl had been doing rather well on the racetracks of Canterbury. So what more normal to send this wee man to his elder brother’s successful trainer, Murray Edmonds. Good thinking, Kurt….

So Montmorensy came of age. He qualified easily, but half a furlong behind a certain Prince Fearless, a pressure-cooked two year-old which duly hit the headlines. But I don’t play those games. ‘Monty’ (‘Mario’) went out to pasture, and only came back as a late three year-old. A couple of trials to learn racing, and then a first start. In a mobile (no!) sprint (nooo!) at Addington! Nooooo! The record says he finished 6th. More than that I do not wish to remember. Just that he didn’t gallop. And then, Blenheim.

Blenheim and I have a special relationship. My first horse, Davey Crockett (sic), had his and my first win at Waterlea. My next boy, the irritating Smart Don won the same race a couple of years later. And the talented but sickly Master Ado followed them. So, could I have a fourth trotter win at this track?

On Day One, the little chap was clearly finding his way. He trotted cleanly round and finished a slightly hampered 5th, without quite realising, I think, that he was supposed to zoom past. But John (Dunn), his driver, realised, and clearly had a chat to him. Day two was a different story.

Day Two. Nine horses (the same ones as day one, minus the promoted winner), and Monty was sixth favourite at a rather insulting 16-1. Nine horses who ran a rather different race to that on Day One. To start with, they all went away safely, and the erratic Redwood Invasion flew to the lead. Monty made his good start (inherited from his Mum) and popped into second. The leader put his foot down, and skipped away. Monty followed at a distance, clear of the rest. And so it stayed as they came to the home turn and into the final straight … when Monty started to close that gap. Not with a dramatic turn of speed, but steadily. The all-the-way leader was weakening a bit, but the gap seemed too large. No. Monty got to him with a few strides to go … done!

I awoke in my Berlin bed at 4am. Damn. Missed it. Switched on the Macbook and saw … communications from Wendy, from Kelly, from Robin, from Natalie … did that mean? … yes, it did. Montmorensy the horse had won, at just start three.

When Montmorensy the man awoke (much) later in his Berlin bed, he was .. omg, omg, OMG! … and we fixed a celebratory dinner at the Katz Orange for that evening … well, wins are few and far between (this was my first in two years) so celebration is a must. Paul drew Monty’s portrait on the table-cloth in Laphroaig-tinted water …

Its been a good week for Gerolsteiner babies. Douchelette (Duchesse de l’amour) won impressively in Dunedin on Friday ... now her baby uncle on Sunday … will there be more for the family of Gwen?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

CANDY ON BONE: Foodie heaven on my mind!

Last night I went to foodie heaven. And I didn’t even have to die to get there.
As you will know, over the past three and a bit years, more or less since its inception, I’ve become a devoted customer of the Katz Orange in Berlin’s Bergstrasse … whether for a full slap up meal, a light snack or a smasheroo cocktail. Or three. Apparently, I made silver medal spot for ‘most bookings’ last year: and I was only here six months!
Well, last night I got my reward. The Katz management is opening another establishment, in Kreuzberg, under the name ‘Candy on Bone’ (no, I don’t know what it means either, but it’s catchy!). It’s not a restaurant, more like a lunch bar. But a ten star lunch bar. Of course. 
Now, the Katz isn’t just the ‘little’ restaurant I know and love. There’s a backstage. Fifty people. And a ‘food development’ department. And in that department, under mastermind Sabrina Warning, the dishes for ‘Candy’ have been being concocted.

 And last night was unveiling night. A test run, a tasting, before twenty or so guests, of a selection of the goodies … from gaspacho to petit-fours … destined for Kreuzberg. And Paul and I were invited … to this!

And supplied with … this! A list of dishes on which to comment. Count them!

Now, the secret of a tasting is that you just have a little of each thing. But I couldn’t. Paul couldn’t. And the lady next to me certainly couldn’t. We went back for extra bits of our favourite things …
The next secret of a tasting is that you’ve got to be rude. There’s no point in writing down ‘super-lecker’ for everything. You’ve got to give the chef an idea of why a dish might be a winner with the public, or less so. So with pained pencil I tried to find fault. When you are reduced to ‘crusts on sandwiches no good for false teeth’, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel!

The sandwiches, in fact, were heroic. A melting egg mixture, and a fabulous trout on the most sensational brown bread (I should NOT have had three …). But my dish of the night was a simple-looking salad. Yes, salad! I, who am known as the ‘no lettuce, no tomato,’ ‘kein Salat’ man. And I said simple-looking … I’m not wholly sure what was in there, but there was goat’s cheese, radish, and the crispest little lettuce …

And then came the meaty treats … chicken with pak choi, pork belly … oh Lord! Why did I have that third sandwich! And the petit-fours. I’ve had my eye all night on the lemony one with the sail … and, yum, a pungent licorice creation which quite took what was left of the top of my head off … have a little home-made basil and cucumber lemonade too cool it …    ahhhhh!

10pm. And we’ve been eating steadily for nearly two hours. What I’ve eaten in ‘lunch’ food, could have made three dinners! Even my lady neighbour, who’d filled every single box (‘I have to, I’m the host’s sister!’) was calling 'enough'. And I’m starting to nod … well, after a mega-lunch, a snooze…

We’re never going to make it to midnight and Sabrina’s birthday …

I’ve had mine. And learned: do NOT try to eat your way through an entire menu, no matter how super-delicious!

 As we left, we were presented with one of the lovely bunches of flowers that hung above the table. I adore flowers. A perfect ending to a splendid evening. They sit now among my window-sill memories of Gerolstein. I guess that’s where I’ll be when Candy on Bone opens its doors … hoho! Look out Kreuzberg! You lucky people!