Utopia in Berlin, Take 28

June 1, 2011

The Berlin life goes somewhat underreported, it seems, at least as far as mainstream, non-German media on both sides of the pond is concerned. What makes it, then, so special? In this case, clichés are generally true. There is the overall cost of living, for one thing, which by any standard is still much lower here than in most occidental metropolises. Yet the over-abundent cultural offer one experiences in this town definitely rivals that of, say, Paris, London, or even (I dare write it) New York. The art scene, the theater, the music – the opera. Some of it is excellent, some of it is questionable, some of it is just anachronic and not entirely defendable, but it’s all part of the Berlin fabric. There is a sense of freedom, an understated but effervescent collective state of mind, a youthfulness, a license to experiment and fail that appeal to artists and intellectuals from all around the world at least as much as cheap rent does. This amounts to a form of utopia which certainly doesn’t exist anymore in any of those other cities, which are gentrifying by the day. As far as opera and, generally speaking, vocal music is concerned, this is both a blessing and a curse. There is more to see and hear than what even the most devoted aficionado could possibly absorb at once without jeopardizing one’s physical health; tickets are affordable, ensembles are strong, repertoire is relatively varied. Still, Berlin for all its glory cannot compete with, say, the much richer Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. The number of expensive new productions is limited. Casts tend to be asembled a bit late. Fees being lower, stars are the exception rather than the norm (and are consequently more prone to cancellation).

The first few days of May offered a glimpse of what the system can produce at its considerable best:

May 1: Don Carlo, Staatsoper. René Pape sings his signature role of King Philip, surrounded by a fine cast (Amanda Echalaz, Nadia Kratseva, Fabio Sartori, Andreas Bauer, Alfredo Daza). The spine-chilling auto-da-fé scene, complete with naked supers hanged by their feet, is the highlight of Philipp Himmelmann’s mostly excellent staging.

May 4: Cecilia Bartoli in her yearly local appearance. All-Händel program includes a few unexpected bits from Alcina, Teseo, Amadigi. Orchestral excerpts are masterfully delivered by the Orchestra La Scintilla from Zürich. Our diva glitters but hardly surprises, yet her star power is unquestionable. The sweet-voiced Sunhae Im  and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin offer a bouquet of Rameau, Telemann and Clérambault at the Kammermusiksaal next door.

May 6: Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Christian Thielemann and the Berliner Philharmoniker team up for an evening of Richard Strauss (orchestral songs plus excerpts from Arabella). Fleming sounds glorious and inspired throughout. The partnership with Thielemann is  bearing some fruits.

May 7: Edita Gruberova takes the Schiller Theater by storm. “Bel canto extravaganza” sounds like a gross understatement: Lucrezia, Amina, Lucia, Elvira, Elisabetta – everyone’s at the party, except Norma. I’m boarding a train to Hamburg when Linda and Adele make a late arrival.

*****

True, neither Fleming, Hampson nor Bartoli are likely to appear in a local stage production at this point in their respective careers. But as long as Berlin is Berlin (fortunately I was in town that week), that’s pretty much as good as it gets.

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