Berlin im Licht

I had been long anticipating my return to the German capital after an unforgettable and intense summer studying there in 2011. One can scarcely walk a meter without encountering a stark reminder of the city’s turbulent past. Yet coming from placid, luxurious Geneva, where I am currently living, Berlin felt even more jarring than usual.  

As if the cheap food was not enough, my friend and I were fortunate to spend an evening with Kurt Weill at the elegant Konzerthaus. Weill’s world—a perfectly awkward melange of satire and exuberance, opera and musical theatre—is somewhat of a happy place for me. And how many opportunities does one have to hear a rare Weill work, Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake), performed by a cast of fresh voices under the assured leadership of conductor Iván Fischer?

With a large portion of the audience dressed in full-fledged flapper outfits for a party following the concert? (The performance was part of Festival Mythos, a substantial taste of the Weimar Republic days . Ah, ich bin ein Berliner.

Indeed Der Silbersee has an interesting history, having been banned by the Nazis in 1933. This “play with music” is equal parts spoken and sung, and a complete performance lasts three hours. Mr. Fischer presented an abbreviated 90-minute version, replacing the spoken scenes with narrative bits that the maestro himself handled with flair. This version appears to date back to the 1971 Holland Festival, at which Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya narrated the tale.

Der Silbersee, whose book and lyrics are by Georg Kaiser, tells the mildly absurdist story of a man, Severin, who steals a pineapple from a grocery store. A policeman, Olim, shoots him in the leg but then feels terribly about doing so after he wins the lottery. A certain Frau von Luber exploits Olim’s sudden insecurity in order to gain control of the latter’s castle, using her niece Fennimore as a critical go-between. Severin, meanwhile, is presented with an opportunity to kill the man who crippled him, but he decides against this.

Framed by the Frau, both thief and police—they sure do sound like Jean Valjean and Javert!—are evicted together and decide to drown themselves. But as they approach suicide, they hear and see signs of spring, while the lake remains frozen. The pair steps onto the lake and this opera about trite human manipulation thus ends on a conciliatory note.

Weill’s score is surprisingly light and straightforward, in comparison with the playful dissonance of his more famous works. Most memorable for me were the ethereal choruses performed by the Vocalconsort Berlin, particularly the finale—“Alles was ist, ist beginnen”—in which Olim and Severin receive spiritual redemption and ‘society’ resolves to move forward despite man’s imperfections and impulses. My initial reaction to the piece could be summed up as “Bach cantata meets Kabarett.”

There are also some fine arias, such as the lottery agent’s “Was soll ich essen in der Morgenfrühe?” sung with comic verve and virility by tenor Michael Pflumm. Finnemore, an unexpected heroine after she frees the two protagonists from her evil aunt’s chains, was sung with warmth by soprano Katharina Ruckgaber. Her aria “Ich bin eine arme Verwandte” was especially lovely.

Severin and Olim are perfect foils; the former, the petty theft, is a Mozartian tenor (Dominik Wortig, suitable but vocally bland), while the latter is a nervous Schauspieler, Max Hopp. Miler Hagen and Anna Werle made a lovely duo of shopkeepers, blissfully unprepared for the mischief set to be unleashed.

Maestro Fischer marshalled the vivacious forces with impressive clarity and ease, and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin provided the necessary palette of colour and dynamic flexibility.  They displayed similar qualities in the piece that opened this concert, Christian Jost’s monochromatic BerlinSymphoniechallenging and engaging but perhaps more breathing room is needed for the listener. One reviewer called it a soundtrack to a “Psycho-Thriller” and wondered if he lives in the same city described in the symphony. But name me a Berliner who, even post-reunification, has his city figured out?

Not only was this my friend’s first opera, but her first exposure to the ‘semi-staged’ format. She appreciated the opportunity to watch the orchestra at the same time as the singers, and she noted the players’ subtle participation in the drama—a violist placing a hat onto a coat rack to indicate the start of a party scene, for example.

There was no such subtlety in the production of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West I saw at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin (hint: it’s a long walk from the Reichstag to that ugly but important opera house). Rather, this 2004 production—by Vera Nemirova—turns what Toscanini called a “great symphonic poem” into a brash and confusing evening that begins as audience members enter the lobby. There we are greeted by red carpets, US navy personnel, and a diverse bunch of gentlemen lining up restlessly to board a ship, presumably to the Wild West for a slice of the Gold Rush. Speakers amplify the scenes taking place—“sir, have you committed espionage?” or “police, arrest this man!”—and pre-recorded announcements punctuate the pre-opera mingling.

At first I thought this was some sort of (rather timely) manifestation to raise awareness about contentious European border policy, but sure enough this was just the prelude to the familiar saloons and machismo of California’s Cloudy Mountains. The only problem: this production is set in the 1950s while Puccini and David Belasco (who wrote the libretto and the original play) focus quite specifically on the dynamics of the Gold Rush a full century earlier.

Yet it is the singing not the theatrical gimmicks that retain the audience’s interest, and here conductor Carlo Rizzi leads an excellent cast, with Emily Magee believable as Minnie, the saloon owner, and Aleksandrs Antonenko tearing up the stage as disguised bandit Dick Johnson. Baritone John Lundgren never lost steam as Jack Rance, the sheriff whose fury reaches a boiling point when Minnie refuses to disclose Dick’s whereabouts (he is hiding atop her roof, as Rance quickly discovers). Minnie finds herself risking everything to save a man she hardly knows, and in the process she teaches the horde of miners a lesson about true love.

Mr. Antonenko—who struck me with his impassioned performance as Prince Shuisky in the Met’s Boris Godunov and who will be Otello next season at that house—takes the production to another level, or at least to another decibel level. Dick is not a particularly nice guy and the role requires a certain vulgarity and raw energy miles away from the ardent legato of Rodolfo or Cavaradossi. Antonenko and his trumpeting spinto tenor deliver in spades—despite an awkward-fitting white suit and pink ruffled shirt—culminating in a memorable “Ch’ella mi creda.”

Yet it is Minnie whose character and spirit anchor this opera, and Ms. Magee—an American soprano known for her Strauss heroines—is mostly successful. Her Minnie finds an opportunity to transcend her mundane and (in this production) trailer park existence and to become involved in others’ fates rather than just their alcohol orders. Yet all along she seems unsure as to whether she is in reality any ‘better’ than her grisly clientele. In the sweeping love duet that ends the first act, Minnie and Dick’s restlessness intertwine, but their passion is dimmed by a sense of foreboding. Meanwhile, Mr. Lundgren is deliciously slimy as Rance, with noticeably excellent control and diction.

Nemirova’s production is certainly entertaining. When Rance and his goons storm Minnie’s house as they search for Dick, they enter by ripping off the drywall of the her motor home. Such cartoonish moments make the opera seem even more removed from realism, and this feeling is all but cemented in the third act, when after Minnie saves the day (running from amidst the audience up onstage to put a stop to Dick’s execution), the scene slowly transforms into an old Hollywood set. For an audience caught up in the plot, such a shift is jarring to say the least.

Rizzi led the Deutsche Opera orchestra in a polished account that deftly handled Puccini’s detailed, through-composed score. I must also salute the men of the chorus for their robust work as a gang of homesick miners.