Friday, April 10, 2009

Berlin Staatsoper | Aida | Don Giovanni

Finally! Opera. That was the ostensible reason for my trip to Berlin, if a trip like that ever needs a reason.

But the trip concretized as I was cruising the Staatsoper Berlin website, as I often do, to see what's happening, and I saw Aida and Don Giovanni back to back, Wednesday and Thursday, and the trip became a bracket around those dates, much as my very first trip to Europe was configured around the Prague Music Festival, the Vienna Staatsoper, and La Fenice here, in Venice.

And it wasn't just any Aida and Don Giovanni. Aida was the La Scala-Staatsoper co-production with Barenboim conducting. Don Giovanni was to be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, the 26-year-old whirlwind from Venezuela who makes music with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (a phenomenon) that stands as equals with the very best, and with The Teresa CarreƱo Youth Orchestra. ( See for yourself if you don't believe me. ). He is also the new Music Director of the LA Philharmonic.

Barenboim doesn't need an introduction. A Jew, a citizen of Israel and Palestine, a consummate showman and brilliant musician, he is adored in Berlin. He gets long ovations walking into the pit and is the only conductor I have ever seen take a solo bow at the end of an opera, alone onstage in front of a black curtain. It was audacious and the audience went bananas.

Excuse me. A gondola just went by in a nearby canal; an on-board accordionist was playing "Hernando's Hideaway" for the hundred-millionth time. Where was I?

The audience.

You assume, if you regularly attend the same opera house, that all opera audiences are similar to that one. Not true. The audience in every house is unique. The crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion isn't the La Scala crowd. Every time three thousand-plus seats sell at the Met, you can bet your boots they are not like this crowd in Berlin. I always note the audience before a performance; who they are, what they are wearing, how they are behaving themselves; how and when they sit down; how they react when the music begins. I don't like people intruding unnecessarily on my experience.

The Berlin audience was a great audience to be in. People were knowledgeable, excited, and there for the music. They knew what they were going to see and were looking forward to it. La Scala wins hands down for style, but the Berlin audience was stylish and they dressed for the occasion. I particularly enjoyed the hair of the German women sitting in front of me, one blond, the other brunette. Both had thick hair twisted and pinned in various ways. Neither sprayed nor pretentious, their dos were artful and interesting and personal, as was their clothing.

As soon as the lights went down the shushing began. Nobody had any qualms about shushing someone else. Overall, the audience was reverentially quiet, which is how I like it. Hummers and whisperers were immediately silenced, and after the ovation for Maestro Barenboim you could hear a pin drop. That's very welcome in operas like Aida and Traviata which begin with the softest murmurs in the strings.

The minute I stepped into the auditorium I realized I could have saved myself a bundle of money. A smoking ruin at the end of the war, the Staatsoper as it stands today is beautifuly sized and best of all, it's not a "box" theater as are most of the houses in Italy and all the old houses throughout Europe. There are no boxes to speak of; the balconies are arena-style. This means that unlike La Scala, and especially unlike my very own La Fenice, you can see from most seats and hear from all. At Fenice you flat out cannot see from over 40% of the seats; I have sat in La Scala and been able to see only the people in the box across from me and a meaningless corner of the stage. You have to be very careful buying seats at these "box" houses; you have to know where not to sit. I bought the top seats in Berlin because I didn't want to take any chances, only to realize I could have paid a third of what I paid and still heard and seen beautifully. (My single ticket for Tristan at La Scala cost more than BOTH my top seats in Berlin together! Caveat emptor.)

The organization of the theater is predictably efficient. Although it was almost entirely rebuilt after 1945, it preserves its period feel (originally opened 1742) but hasn't sacrificed efficiency to historical accuracy (a la Fenice). Because there is no center aisle, you enter either from the right or the left. Therefore there are two sets of cloakrooms, Right and Left, depending on which side of the theater you are sitting on. A telling detail: when you hand your coat to the coat-check girl, she carefully examines the inner collar. I couldn't figure out why until she got to mine. They use hooks, not hangers. But they don't throw the coats onto the hooks. They find the loop in the collar that every coat has, and then hang it properly, loop over hook. It's much better for the coat.

I didn't see the upstairs because my seat was in the Parkett (stalls, platea, orchestra). Keep in mind, without a center aisle, these are very long rows. But there was no nightmare of latecomers crawling over you. It was remarkably orderly, and almost everyone was ready and in their seats before the lights went down.

Before the music begins, I must make a brief philosophical comment.

Several years ago I read "The Tristan Chord" by Brian Magee. It is an interesting book on Wagner and philosophy, but I was particularly struck with the long discussions of Schopenhauer, who influenced Wagner greatly. Here's what I took away: in Schopenhauer's world, as in Kant's, there is what we can know and what we cannot. The unknowable is unknowable because we are limited by how, or how much, we can perceive, by our organs of perception. The unknowable is out there, but lies beyond these limits. How this is argued philosophically isn't germane. What is, is that Schopenhauer, in seeking to characterize the unknowable "thing-in-itself", says that only two human experiences begin to approximate what it might feel like: orgasm and opera. He does not differentiate between them. Here, I thought, is a philosopher I can relate to!

Of course we don't invariably get the peak experience (either at the opera house or in the sack), that thing that raises your hair and sends adrenalin rushing through you. The ticket in your hand doesn't insure bliss. Sometimes all we get is a glimpse, something akin to a distant whisper of what we know it can be. And sometimes, infrequently, we get the hot breath of the universe down our necks.

So after 50 years of opera-going, I try to walk in as blank a slate as possible. I try to listen to each note as if for the first time. I could never be a critic. First, I don't know enough about music, but more importantly, it would take me out of the moment that I'm there for: as total a surrender to the music as possible. If it cheats on me, or disappoints me, I'll know it soon enough. But by avoiding quantification, comparison, I hold myself open up to revelations, even if they are small ones and not the 14-on-a-scale-of-10 experiences.

Violetta is done in by disease, Butterfly by treachery, Isolde by love. Aida is caught on the horns of a dilemma, torn between loyalty to her father, her people, her country, and love for their worst enemy, the Egyptian general Radames. The opera throughout is full of the kind of drama where Verdi soars. This production did not. During the prelude we find outselves in a Victorian Egyptology Museum with someone who is supposed to be Verdi wandering around, and various of the opera's characters ensconced as exhibits. A wounded Radames comes staggering through near the end of the prelude. It is all in pantomime; the Victorian characters withdraw just in time for the singing to begin. This framing device was both tiresome and distracting. The evening was at its best when the frame disappeared and we were in the fantasy Ancient Egypt we're supposed to be in.

None of this matters, really, if the singing is superb. Then you can forgive a multitude of sins. Unfortunately that was not the case. Scant minutes after the curtain rises Radames has to sing "Celeste Aida," and it's a ball-buster. I heard Pavarotti do it San Francisco to Margaret Price's Aida; it wasn't a good role for him, but his "Celeste Aida" was nearly ecstatic. Opera singers are like Olympic athletes in the sense that what separates the truly great from the routine is not simply getting it right, not simply the voice itself, but the appearance of effortlessness, as if this moment were spontaneous and unnaturally natural. Walter Fraccaro, the Berlin Radames, was OK, but it did not appear effortless and was not freely produced.

Aida, Norma Fantini, was like a young Gloria Swanson, both tempestuous and fragile. Her voice was big and rich and in the first act trio between Aida, Radames and Amneris only she could be distinctly heard whereas Radames and Amneris were somewhat covered by the orchestra. And Barenboim cut them no slack; the orchestra was both ferocious and tender and at its most ferocious often only Aida could be heard among the ensemble.

Amneris, Anna Smirnova, took two acts to get into third gear, but then she delivered. Her voice, especially in the second half, was thrilling-- rich, beautifully phrased and acted, and her Amneris came to life, a desperate, scorned woman.

Juan Pons was commanding as Amonasro. His character was dark and compellingly believable and although his voice is neither young, nor fresh, nor effortless, he was able to make Amonasro riveting, dramatically and musically.

It was a fine night at the opera; not the most memorable, but not without those moments where everything fuses in a blinding instant of beauty.

Don Giovanni is an entirely different kind of experience.

First of all, the audience is different. Young; really young, twenty-something young. There is a special buzz in the house, a Dudamel buzz. The audience pours in early; there is real excitement in the air. For some reason the doors from the corridors into the auditorium itself aren't opened until fifteen minutes before the performance is scheduled to begin, so people are queued up expectantly. The elegantly-suited older gentleman in front of me is reading a letter in Hebrew, while the twenty-somethings nearby are dressed for a rock concert, what "dressing up" is for teens and twenty-somethings. Lots of hoodies and bold-print tee shirts and jeans. There are famous people in the audience tonight; people whose faces I recognize but whose names I can't remember. There is another woman in front of me with elegantly twisted hair whose boyfriend has shaggy brown curls and a green tee shirt.

Dudamel seems tiny, and is greeted rapturously. When the house lights go down the only lights are on his hands and face, standing above the orchestra, so they can be seen by the musicians and the singers for the all important beat and cues and adjustments to pace and dynamics. When the music begins, he is a giant.

He is in complete control. This orchestra, which is Barenboim's orchestra, is his orchestra tonight. He may be young and shaggy and bursting at the seams, but the energy is the energy of genius as Don Giovanni opens with those dark, majestic chords.

Here, there is no production to speak-of; it is minimal to the point of non-existence, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The only set pieces are two massive black slabs that rotate to suggest settings. There are no props, either. No catalog for the Catalog aria, no lute for "Deh, vieni." The costumes are modern, simple and, for the most part, don't change. We are focused on the singers, on the music and on the drama, with nothing to distract. It's a heavy burden for the singers to carry. Everything lies on their musicianship and their charisma, their stage presence.

They are all young -- or appear so -- and quite attractive. Leporello (Hanno Muller-Brachmann) looks like Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin. He is tremendously acrobatic, even doing lascivious pushups for Donna Elvira curing the catalog aria. He is in constant motion, balletic and appealing. He has a beautiful baritone voice, a tremendous sense of musical style, and carries it all off, well, effortlessly ;-)

Andrea Concetti as the Don looks like Nicolas Cage, not so much like he looks in his films but the way he used to look at 2am in the video store on Melrose Avenue many years ago when I used to see him there; grungy; hair needs washing; with a slouchy swagger and a long shabby leather coat that identifies him (and later misidentifies him). His voice was neither as smooth nor as lovely as Leporello's, and he was too easily covered by the orchestra. It was Leporello's night.

The first real showstopper came after Anna Samuil's bright and piercing "Or sai che l'onore." Tomislav Muzek's "Dalla sua pace" brought down the house. I must say that he sort of looked like Meatloaf, but his voice was pure gold, easy, fluid, gorgeously musical. The audience roared. He did it again, later, even better, in "Il mio tesoro." That was when I got the tingle and my jaw inadvertently dropped at the gorgeous legato on what seemed like the longest breaths I had ever seen.

Donna Elvira, Annette Dasch, had a similar problem to Amneris during the first part of Aida last night. Her voice was what I call, for lack of a proper term, "bursty." There were bursts of rich bright sound in certain areas; in others, she disappeared into the orchestra. What was there was fine enough; the problem was what wasn't there. She rallied for "Mi tradi," coming so much later in the opera, too little too late.

Of the women, Zerlina -- Sylvia Schwartz -- was the most consistently delightful, perfect in her fach, girlish and charming and sneaky, always convincing, her singing as right as her charismatic characterization.

Dudamel shaped and directed the music with pure dramatic instincts. There is plenty to quibble about, as with every musical event requiring hundreds of musicians achieving a single voice; but Dudamel is as filled with passionate intensity as panache. He models the music, like the young Bernstein; transported. The music sparkled and lilted and awed and amazed just as it should to fully realize the dark and manic score.

The magic of the theater is on the stage. To succeed, what goes on up there must make you forget everything else around you, what happened today, what may or may not happen tomorrow, if you hip hurts or your boyfriend was rude , or who is setting in front of you and what the IKKS on the tiny logo on the back of her sweater stands for. When the magic is cooking on all four burners, it takes you somewhere else. You experience other worlds, and perhaps, for a moment or two, you have that brief brush with glory. Sometimes more, sometimes, less; but it takes you to the same ecstatic place.

Just like Schopenhauer said.

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