cities can compete with this city’s musical quality and variety.
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
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
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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