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New York City
July 2002

Music in Berlin
Few cities can compete with this city’s musical quality and variety.
By Irving Spitz

With three active functioning opera companies, in addition to several symphony orchestras, including the venerable Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin’s rich choice of musical offerings can easily overwhelm the casual visitor. I had this fortunate experience some weeks ago during a visit to Berlin, when I enjoyed some of these rewarding offerings.

At the Deutsche Opera, a revival of Wagner’s Tannhauser with the American John Fredric West in the title role was particularly enjoyable. Singing with assurance and dignity, West gave a magnificent portrayal of the role. Venus was sung by Nadja Michael and Elizabeth by Eva Johansson, both gave very commendable performances. At the very outset, Johansson tended to strain with her fortissimo passages, but she rapidly settled into the role. The other principals, including Markus Bruck as Wolfram and Stephen Milling as the Landgraf, were up to the demand of their roles. The production by Gotz Friedrich and the staging and costumes by Rolf Glittenberg were modern and tasteful, the scenes in the Venusburg being particularly effective. Conductor Marc Albrecht showed his skill at supporting his singers while allowing the orchestra to express itself to the maximum.

The revival of Handel’s operatic masterpieces continues. The Komische Opera staged his opera Tamerlano composed in 3 weeks in 1724. Although a brutal leader, Tamerlano (Timur) is portrayed by Handel with dignity and charisma. Indeed, his personality is sufficiently winning to jeopardize the love between Asteria, daughter of Bejazet and the Greek Prince Andronico. Tamerlano holds captive Bejazet, the Turkish emir whose country he has conquered. Asteria begs Tamerlano to release her father. This he will do if Asteria agrees to marry him, even though he is engaged to the princess Irene. This demanding opera requires two countertenors. The Komische Opera certainly delivered the goods and provided two outstanding artists, Axel Kohler in the role of Tamerlano and the Australian, Graham Pushee as Andronico. Both were superb and kept the audience in thrall. These artists both had the remarkable ability to move from a forceful middle register to high notes whilst maintaining full tone. The rest of the cast was also exemplary. Peter Bronder as the sultan Bajazet brought the required mixture of a regal presence and pathos to the role. His final aria before his suicide was one of the highlights of the evening. Produced by David Alden with staging by Charles Edwards, this was a handsome production. Michael Hofstetter’s conducting was vigorous and produced committed playing from the orchestra, while allowing the singers ample freedom of phrasing and expression.

While the Staatsoper were on an official tour of Japan, their house hosted a performance of Haydn’s comic opera Il Mondo della Luna, in a joint production from the Innsbruck Festival. This opera, based on Goldoni’s witty farce, is a forerunner of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte. In the plot, the astronomer, Ecclitico and his accomplices, Ernesto and Cecco persuade a simpleton, the old man Buonofede, to take a trip to the moon. The aim is to hoodwink the old man into allowing Ecclitico to marry his daughter, Clarice, and Cecco to marry the second daughter, Flaminia. In the end, Buonofede gets deservedly duped for his stupidity. This far-fetched plot requires much imagination and ingenuity to stage effectively. Karoline Gruber’s stage direction went for overkill. In place of Haydn’s nymphs and shepherds, the scene on the moon was replete with transvestites in fanciful costumes. Rene Jacobs, the Belgian conductor who has made baroque operas his speciality managed to coax the maximum out of the Akademie fur alte Musik Berlin, but there were nevertheless some rough passages. All principal singers acquitted themselves admirably, particularly noteworthy being Kobie van Rensburg as the astronomer Ecclitico and the bass Enzo Capuano as the old father, Buonofede.

Finally, I attended a performance of the Berlin Philharmonic under their director, Claudio Abbado. Abbado certainly pulled out all the stops with a masterful performance of two minor works by two great composers. Beethoven’s Fantasia for Piano, Choir and Orchestra consists of an introduction for piano solo, several variations for piano and orchestra and a short choral conclusion. This was a forerunner of the composer’s ninth symphony. Mendelssohn’s second symphony with thee instrumental movements, followed by a multi-sectional finale with chorus and soloists, is openly modeled on Beethoven’s ninth. Mendelssohn’s symphony, known as the Lobgesang or Song of Praise, was composed to honor the 400 anniversary of Guttenberg’s invention of printing. Although the work has not been without its defenders, few other nineteenth century symphonies have provoked such criticism. In this performance, Maurizio Pollini put his expected masterful stamp on the Beethoven, and together with Claudio Abbado, this proved to be a magisterial and unforgettable partnership. Sopranos Karita Mattila and Lioba Braun and tenor Peter Seiffert all gave creditable and vocally impressive performances in both works, although the highest accolades must go to Karita Mattila.

Abbado’s tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic is drawing to a close. Under his guidance the orchestra’s brilliance has remained untarnished. It is possible that they even play with more warmth and passion than ever. Abbado’s predecessor, Herbert van Karajan, refused to have women players in the orchestra. Today he would turn in his grave: I counted 12 female instrumentalists.#


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