Cher Public

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.

  • RosinaLeckermaul

    I saw the FANCIULLA Saturday night. After a rocky start Carlo Rizzi held things together fairly well. In Act I, Emily Magee had two voices, a belt-like chest voice and a rich soprano. She was better in the second and third acts. An announcement was made at the beginning that Antonenko had a cold, but his clarion voice rang out thrillingly. It was a Mario del Monaco approach to the role. Exciting, but not much finesse. John Lundgren’s top notes were tentative and he was sometimes drowned out by the orchestra. The production is a mess. It wasn’t clear where Act I was set. The staging of Act II made no sense. The placement of the chorus in a cloudscape in Act III looked like a church pageant. Not the Deutches Oper’s finest hour.
    Earlier in the week, I also saw their TOSCA and BUTTERFLY. In a very traditional production (just right for TOSCA), Martina Serafin sang beautifully and presented a credible character. Marco Berti made his usual ugly noises, but Roberto Frontali sang the best Scarpia I have heard in decades. Hui He was the most exciting Butterfly I have heard in a long time. Fabio Sartori has a beautiful voice and excellent technique. I guess I can use the euphemism “burly” to describe his appearance. I think he is unwise to sing Calaf at the Met and should stick with less stentorian roles. Yves Abel brought out all the detail in the score.
    We had the good fortune to see Barry Kosky’s witty production of DIE ZAUBERFLOTE at the Komisches Oper. The best production I have ever witnessed of this opera. The cast, conducting and orchestra were better than what I heard at the Met last fall.
    I also saw the Royal Opera’s new production of MAHAGONNY. OK production but musically mediocre.

  • PCally

    Glad to read that Magee had a good night. Not a singer that I pay that much attention to in general but her Ariadne is simply incredible, a personal favorite, and she’s quite good on the Tosca dvd with Kaufmann.

    • Lohengrin

      And she was a good Ariadne in Salzburg 2012, also opposite to Kaufmann.

      • Bill

        Rumored that the Wiener Staatsoper will present a new Die Frau ohne Schatten in season 2016-17
        with Kaufmann as Kaiser. No news regarding conductor or other casting (Stemme either as
        Faerberin or Kaiserin ??) She seems to like to
        introduce new roles in Vienna. Thielemann also in an interview spoke of new future projects in Vienna of which he stated he was unable to speak.
        Also Netrebko reportedly going to sing Lady Macbeth and Adriana Lecouvreur in Vienna next season (2015-6), Trovatore there in 2016-17.

        • PCally

          I can’t imagine Stemme singing the Kaiserin at this point, not enough flexibility and lyricism imo.

          • Camille

            Not enough high D and C#, either. Although they mostly duck the D.

            • PCally


            • Camille

              She could be a fab Färberin, instead. First cousin to Elektra.

            • PCally

              yeah that’s probably the role for her, and I would like to see how she would act it.

          • Bill

            PCally -- generally it is thought die Faerberin
            would be the better of the two roles for Stemme if indeed she plans to sing in Die Frau
            ohne Schatten.

      • PCally

        Lohengrin, I like her quite a bit on the Salzburg dvd but Guth’s production from Zurich draws something out of her that is just amazing, some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from a singer and one of the few productions where Ariadne is a truly complex and interesting character.

        • Porgy Amor

          Bechtolf at Salzburg went in the other direction with Magee’s Ariadne. His idea seemed to be that the Countess Ottonie character from the play portion (who at one point comes very close to Magee in the opera-within-opera staging area) was to supply the human complexity, while Magee’s Ariadne was to act as an artificial, stylized “mirror,” so her acting was of the big-and-broad seria style. It worked exceptionally well, at least on the video release. That Ottonie actress (Regina Fritsch) was remarkable.

  • parpignol

    yes, the production is a mess; what to say about act 3 when the house lights go up and Minnie emerges from the audience to save Johnson! Magee was very good, agreed that she got better in the 2nd and 3rd acts, and her musical quality nicely characterized the pathos and intensity of Minnie; her top was handsomely on display, no problem with the heavy orchestration; and Antonenko was also delivering great big top notes so that together they gave an evening of old-fashioned vocal show; the Berlin male ensemble and chorus was also very good--

  • DIscher-Fieskau

    Each time I see Emily Magee, I’m impressed at how good she is (even in the toughest roles) and yet, somehow, I forget about her in between until I see her again and am impressed again.

    I don’t know if it’s the singer herself or her agent, but she definitely seems to avoid the publicity route and self-hype thing. Nina Stemme is somewhat the same, but she has more visibility.

    I saw Magee as the Empress at Covent Garden a year ago and she was really exceptionally good, vocally and dramatically.

    To me, she looks like Renée Fleming’s stockier, more fun younger sister.

    • mjmacmtenor

      And didn’t she play the foreign princess to Renee’s Rusalka?

      • Camille

        Yes she did, and that was her Met debut, if I am not seriously misremembering.

    • marshiemarkII

      Yes Magee debut, and she was pretty awful, a distant sound that sounded from under water (no pun :-)), made absolutely no impact, less than Renee, which is saying a lot, she had absolutely no projection at the Met, it was a very forgettable debut.

      I don’t know what possessed me to listen to that short excerpt from the Salome Final Scene, and it is so FLAT FLAT FLAT that it is embarrassing, they released that in public?!?!?!?!? Of course the Minnie nadir is one Debbie Joy (and I suffered that live at the Met) so perhaps compared to that, this girl was better?

      • PCally

        Her foreign princess wasn’t bad as all that, at least on the night I saw it. I thought it was fine without being particularly memorable, but the role is pretty thankless.

      • Regina delle fate

        She was excellent as the FP in Salzburg’s Rusalka. Haus für Mozart, mind.

    • lyrebird

      I heard Magee in Britten’s War Requiem in Berlin (BPO Rattle) and she was the best thing in it, faint praise perhaps.

  • Camille

    Thank you Adam. Nice to know what is going on in these important opera centers and nice to hear something from a young person’s perspective. Keep up the good work.

  • mjmacmtenor

    I believe that NYCO presented the Weill in English (The Silver Lake?) back in the late 70s -- early 80s. As I recall, it featured Joel Grey (the thief?) and was even recorded as an LP. I think I even saw it in LA but really don’t remember much about it. They make a big deal about it as it was one of the first complete performances since being banned be the Nazis.

    • Camille

      You know, that title rings a very distant bell for me as well—maybe it was in L.A.--? I just remember the “Silver Lake” from somewhere or another, and not the Silverlake section east of Hollywood, in L.A., either.

      • armerjacquino

        Stratas made a gorgeous recording of Fennimore’s song.

    • whiskey per tutti

      You are correct. It had the imprimatur of the Kurt Weill Foundation. Conducted by Julius Rudel. Directed by Harold Prince.

  • phoenix

    Camille, aren’t

  • phoenix

    Camille is not listening to La Crostacea this evening on Sirius?

    • Camille

      Yes, i am and am SOOO relieved that none of it is so bad as what it was last time around. Even Frittoli sounds improved, if not what she once was.

  • Lohenfal

    One minor correction to Adam’s otherwise excellent report on doings in Berlin. Antonenko sang the False Dimitri in Boris at the Met, not Prince Shuisky. It was an “impassioned performance,” as Adam said.