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.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Verdi’s 'Don Rodrigo' at the Deutsche Oper

Tonight has been a special night for me. I grew up with an adored selections record of Don Carlo featuring Christoff and Gobbi. Then, when I started singing, one of my first trophy-winning numbers was ‘Ella giammai m’amo’. What an opera. So many great tunes! Almost out-Trovatore-ed Il Trovatore. But, until tonight, I had never heard the full score. Never seen it performed on stage.

Well, I’ve got a stack of notes for people. Great bits do not an opera make. I know this piece has been hacked around, in several versions, over the years, and the one that it ended up in tonight needs both librettists (especially) and composer to have a major relook. I was right to love my excerpts record, and after tonight, I love it more than ever, but the padding … a wholly unnecessary last ‘act’ and stupid melodramatic ending included … this is an opera with plenty of powerparts, but which needs serious fixing and cutting.

So, to tonight. Splendid setting. The sign of the cross looming viciously over us, as the Catholic religion reigned viciously over the characters and plot. The direction was unfussy, if a little 19th-century (lifting two arms does not equate passion, banging one’s head on the wall becomes boring) and the costumes (with one exception) atmospheric if not always explicable.

So we come to the performance. Which I may say, right away, was ‘pretty bloody beaut’!

Amongst a wholly A1 cast, I must focus on two young singers who simply blew me away. First, Miss Kristin Lewis from Little Rock, Arkansas. What a dazzling, beautifully controlled voice.  Elizabeth has a ghastly victimish role, and really has just ‘Tu che la vanita’ and a share in the great quartet, which is the highlight of the night, in which to show her stuff, and in those, Miss Lewis showed that she is a serious star prima donna of the future. What lovely sounds, what thoughtful singing. I note she is to sing Aida next. That should be a world-class treat.

But the star of the night, for me, was the young Canadian baritone, Etienne Dupuis as Posa. Yes, Posa has a large amount of the show’s best music with which to make an effect, but it has to be sung. And tonight it was sung to within an inch of its life. Dupuis has a glorious, warm silky-creamy voice which glid seemingly effortlessly through the swathes of varying Verdi. He was slicingly dramatic in his scena with the King, wonderfully pathetic in the best ‘Per me giunta’ I’ve heard  … I really wouldn’t have minded if he’d taken an extra half-hour to die, just to hear him sing. Tonight, that stick of a Don Carlo didn’t have a chance. The opera was clearly Don Rodrigo.

That isn’t to say that that the tenor Leonardo Calmi demerited in any way. He sang his part staunchly. But apart from in the scene of martyrdom, the character comes over as such a tenorious wimp that it is difficult to make anything of him. Giacomo Prestia looked and sounded a perfect King Philipp, playing his scenes with Posa and the Inquisitor with a flair that made him wholly convincing as the Monarch with a Dilemma, until that wretched last five minutes when all coherent character-building is shattered in one gunshot. His ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ was suitably sonorous, but a little spoiled by superfluous pacing and gesture. Albert Pesendorfer was unbendingly impressive as the Inquisitor, fencing murderously for the status quo, and that leaves the Princess Eboli.
Anna Smirnova is a splendid singer and a huge favourite with an enthusiastic portion of the audience. But someone in the costume department has got it in for her. Last time I saw her she was dressed to ridicule in Nabucco: tonight was nearly as bad. A turquoise tent (why, when everyone else was in black?) and the most frightful carrotty wig. And she has to sing about her ‘don fatale’. Anyway, she sang the pop of the opera superbly, but I just couldn’t believe that this penitent lassie was the same dame that had been prowling about like a camp tigress in Act 1. Méry and du Locle really have a lot to answer for in their libretto, but Miss Smirnova should first sue the costumier.

Everyone seemed very happy with Donald Runnicles’ orchestra, which was applauded loudly, the Deutsche Oper chorus did the little they had to do with the skill and effect I’ve come to expect from them, and at the end of the evening I felt that the opera could hardly have been given a better performance. For which, much thanks. But, before I go to see it again, MM Méry and du Locle have got to do wholesale rewrites. And in the meanwhile, I’ll stick to my selections -- that wonderful quartet, the Posa bits, Philipp’s scenas, ‘Tu che la vanita’, ‘O don fatale’ &c – and forget the other intervening bits, and especially the most ridiculous ending to an opera since Il Trovatore.

Next stop, Mons Dupuis in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Long live Beaumarchais!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Home again!, or back midst the Berliner Baustelle

Well, today I moved back into my old-new home. La Belle Fifi returned from Los Angeles via Hamburg, so I had to vacate her sweet flat, with its view of the woodpeckers, Spertholt and Frau Specht, and its proximity to the shops of Gesundbrunnen and the Shalimar and Cocos eateries, and head back to the dear old Invalidenstrasse.

The Strasse is a real invalid itself, at the moment. Like much of Berlin. The roads are, to put it politely, ‘up’ everywhere. But nowhere more than here. OK, I understand they’re renewing sewers, water mains, putting in fibre optics and god knows what else goes underground, all at once. But I’ve been here for more than two years, and the same trenches are STILL open. And to top it all, while the roads are ‘out’, they’ve decided to do S-Bahn repairs, so with no cars and no trains available here at Nordbahnhof, we are reduced to isolation, feet (with walking-stick) and buses … I think Town Hall must be mad.

But I came back. The Chinese have invaded my nice, former flat, but my landlord promised me something better. So I arrived at no 134 today, sceptical but hopeful … and was delighted. My new home is a virtual copy of the old, but (a) on the ground floor, (b) not-quite-finished new, (c) much cosier … well, it will be soon.

I’ve put up my pictures and my ‘Gerolsteiner Farm’, Paul and I did a Rewe-Run (with an obligatory stop at Asman for a delicious-as-ever Indian lunch), and stocked my cupboards … yes, they’ve taken on board all my criticisms of flat one, and I now have shelves, cupboards and drawers to spare! …
Chick peas, spinach, garlic, soy sauce, mozarella, saucisson, $45 dollars of cheeses, one bread roll, maultaschen … I don’t have to eat out ever again! But I shall. This is resto-land. Oh and some vinho verde from my favourite wine store!

I shall be happy here. My friend Tibor has made a smashing job of putting this ever-so-new place together (even though he failed tonight with setting up the telly, which I won’t watch till Roland Garros anyway!). Paul got the brand new wifi under control … the water is hot, the shower strong, the (puce!) bed comfy … what else does a man need?

For tonight, anyway.

So I’m back at 134 guys. Come and visit …