Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Lustiger Mai!

Berlin. It’s hard to realise I’m here. But I’m getting used to the idea. And enjoying myself decidedly!
Saturday, Kevin gave me my introduction to the city: a splendid tour partly on foot, but largely on the back of his motor-scooter. Now, I’m not very experienced on machines. When I was 16, a handsome young man who was playing Prince Hal to my Prince John in Henry IV Part I took me for a ride on his motor-bike in the quiet back streets of Christchurch, and then last year Ricky in Dumaguete rode me gently back along the buzzing coast road from my Most Memorable Massage to the Gazellebank: but my record with Kevin was not so hot. Two years ago he put me on a pushbike in Amsterdam and I fell of in the middle of the main road. This time, however, I seem to have got the knack (look, mum one hand!) and I must say seeing a city from a pillion rather than from inside a vehicle is a wonderful improvement.
We zoomed through the heteroclite areas of the city – the wonderful, well-restored buildings of ancient days, the Brandenburg Gate and all, the ghastly ‘Plattenbau’ apartment blocks of East Berlin, the ‘new’ post-war buildings of West Berlin, and the infinitely more recent and infinitely more glamorous new and renewed buildings of the former east. Amongst a welter of famous place names – Unter den Linden, the Potsdamer Platz --you pass the famous ‘traffic light’, once the hub of 1920s Berlin (and so often seen in the films of the era), you pass the fragment of wall remaining – it looks such an insignificant bit of stuff to have caused such a terrible piece of history. You are reminded of that history by the crosses to the memory of those 1960s folk who died in their attempts to scale it. The Wall will, like Adolf Hitler, always be there in German minds and German history, but the new Berlin is springing up everywhere. I feel I’m getting worryingly converted to modern architecture, but I was hugely impressed by the new swirling Sony Centre in particular, and I foresee more of the same swiftly taking over the area that was once the no-man’s land of Berlin, as well as the rest of the city.

No photos here. Taking photos from a pillion is not yet in my repertoire.

Sunday was a day bubbling over with action. Bert-Jan having arrived from Amsterdam the previous eve, the three of us started off with a visit to a large city fleamarket in ‘hip and hot’ Prenzlauerberg This, in the old days, was always the first thing Ian and I did in a new city, hunting for old records and sheet music for what became the British Musical Theatre Collection (now at Harvard). Doing it again, all these years later, wasn’t the only thing about the day that brought back feelings of the old me.
At afternoon tea time we visited opera guru Geerd Heinsen at his ‘country home’ – what the Germans call a ‘Laube’ in a ‘Laubenkolonie’ in the southern district of Friedenau. In the heart of Berlin are reserved areas of what we would call ‘allotments’. But no-one grows too many vegetables on these prized bits of real estate: they house cottages with lawns and gardens and trees: a bit of countryside for city dwellers who do not even need, thus, to leave town! We sat on the lawn with tea (and later a little chardonnay) and I revelled in the conversation of a man who can talk about Ricci and Pacini, Don Bucefalo and Il re Lear, and so many minor composers and works I’m meeting while writing Victorian Vocalists, from first-hand knowledge.

From tea and tipple on the lawn we moved on to a very different festivity: a lively first-communion party with a Polish flavour (and food) where I ended up speaking – French!
And then: to the opera. A premiere at the Komische Oper (ex-Metropoltheater).
I can’t think how many years it is since I was an opera house regular. Or, let’s face it, a theatre regular. Its 20 years, anyway, since I was active worker in the theatre and on hand with my notebook for every West End musical first night. It’s amazing how all the old instincts come back. Although, of course, on this night everything and everyone was in German.
The piece was Eduard Künneke’s 1921 Berlin Operette hit Der Vetter aus dingsda. Nine characters, one set, and – I would have thought – an ideal small-theatre piece. The Komische Oper is a fairly large (and very beautifully restored) theatre, but then again so was the original home of the piece, the Theater am Nollendorfplatz.
I sunk happily into what I found a charming, gently fanciful evening back in Operette-land after too long away.

The music is wholly delightful, and I knew enough about the story and libretto that my mini-comprehension of the German dialogue didn’t hurt overmuch, so I was quite taken aback when, at half-time, I heard serious grumbling going on around us. The production was labelled ‘provincial’, the singers ‘inadequate’. I was puzzled. Who did they want their Operette sung by? Is a ‘metropolitan’ production one staged on roller-skates, set in the stone age and with a chorus line clad in one spangle apiece? If so, I’m provincial. I thought the production, with its shy if geographically wobbly wink to Bollywood, was totally suitable to the piece. As for the singers … well, there certainly was a sound problem. A violent imbalance between orchestra and voices. But I refuse to believe that any casting director could cast nine out of nine singers with ‘insufficient’ voices, and prefer to lay any blame there was on the sound department and whoever didn’t sit out front in row 11 at the dress rehearsal and spot the problem. In fact, I found the three principals: Julia Kamenik (a nicely natural Julia), Anna Borchers (a deliciously young and un-soubretty Hännchen) and Christoph Späth (a smilingly sexy tenor Fremde) ideal for their roles. And everybody loved the po-faced comic maid (Verena Unbehaun) and her quaint dance steps.

Am I being old-fashioned? I was always known as a very critical critic in my day. Have I gone soft? I don’t think so. I think that, whereas I actually wanted to see this endearing, unpretentious 1920s small musical, the 2009 Berliners around me would have truthfully preferred something else altogether. But, then, the sound problem did mess up everything for everybody. Maybe they will fix it by tomorrow night.

The evening didn’t end with the Operette. Far from it! We headed from the theatre (where I was introduced to a real, live Tannhäuser on the steps: Paul McNamara. Watch that name!) for the hot-spot-of-the-moment, Borchardt on Gendarmenmarkt, and there, in the handsome, youthful and joyous company of entertainer and TV-man Thomas, lighting designer Oliver and producer-of-the-future Hannes, we gossiped and laughed our way, on a glitter of pink champagne, into the small hours of the morning. At some stage Vera-Ellen was toasted. Ricci, Pacini, Künneke and Vera-Ellen in one day. And this is the world I gave up? I love my horses, but … I gave this up? Maybe I should think again…
I am thinking again…

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