Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Operatic Alternatives in Berlin: Puccini's Toaster and Crowe's Bacon

Puccini's Toaster: Winterreise – Ehemaliges Stummfilmkino Delphi, 17 December 2017
Puccini's Toaster: The Old Maid and the Thief etc. – Tangoloft, Berlin, 22 November 2017
Stephen Crowe: Francis Bacon Opera – Acker Stadt Palast, 27 October 2017

The ‘official’ operatic offering is so rich in Berlin that I’ve found myself slow to explore the city’s alternative scene. But it’s got to the stage in the year when I compile lists of New Year’s Resolutions, and one of them for 2018 will be to explore more of what the German capital has to offer beyond its three main opera houses. I might even be a resolution I’ll be able—and want—to keep to. As a first step, I thought I’d share some thoughts on three ‘alternative’ operatic events I’ve been to over the last couple of months.

I start with the most recent, the latest venture by the enterprising Puccini’s Toaster, an event that was perhaps not strictly operatic, but which was, as far as anyone seems to know, a first: a performance of Schubert’s Winterreise that featured a different singer for each song. Twenty-four singers; 24 songs. Wisely, the presentation was also strictly non-operatic, as straightforward as possible: chairs for the singers were arrayed in a semi-circle around the piano, each singer simply stepping up in turn—no acknowledging each other or the audience.

It was certainly felt like the best way to go about it, and to instil such discipline on two-dozen singers—shades of herding cats, one imagines—certainly speaks volumes for Puccini’s Toaster’s resident director, Caroline Staunton, and music director, Rebecca Lang. The whole event, meanwhile, spoke volumes about how well connected the company is, as well as about its attitude to the sort of logistical challenges lesser outfits might dismiss as insuperable.

It also reflects the sheer pool of talent that can be called upon in the German capital, with those who turned up to play their part, however small, ranging from Deutsche Oper stalwarts to younger singers just starting out. Inevitably standards varied, both in terms of the voices the interpretations, and the event served to highlight in many ways what an exacting medium song is—some songs certainly were given something more akin to operatic treatment, for example.

One constant, though, was Jean-Paul Pruna’s alert piano playing, managing to create a sense of continuity as all around him changed. The whole performance also served as a challenge to those listeners and performers who tend to view song cycles—and this one in particular—as music drama manqué, allowing us to appreciate every song with fresh individuality.

Swedish baritone Joa Helgesson deserves special praise in the tricky opening spot for presenting a sensitive ‘Gute Nacht’, and likewise Jason Steigerwalt for wrapping things up with a movingly understated—and beautifully sung—‘Der Leiermann’.

In fact, excellent baritones seemed to dominate the evening (a fact that had not escaped the attention of the Barihunks blog). Allen Boxer was especially impressive in ‘Der Wegweiser’, and Markus Brück, last seen by me as Rigoletto at the Deutsche Oper, offered a consummate ‘Das Wirtshaus'. There were seriously impressive voices on display from, among others, Julian Arsenault (‘Frühlingstraum’), Marlon Da Silva Maia (‘Der greise Kopf’) and Seth Carico (‘Im Dorfe’), even if we occasionally could have done with a little more intimacy in approach.

Tenors were represented by two Deutsche Oper ensemble members: Robert Watson (who sings Cavaradossi there, no less, in February) unleashed an impressive ‘Stürmische Morgen’ and Matthew Newlin offered a beautifully controlled and concentrated ‘Wasserflut’.

There was a fine selection of mezzos and sopranos, too. The former included the rich-voiced trio of Sarah Ring (also the company’s Intendant) in ‘Irrlicht’, Laura Atkinson in ‘Einsamkeit’ and Sylvia Bronk in ‘Die Krähe’ (although her colourful outfit, I couldn’t help thinking, was more reminiscent of a bumble-bee). At the other end of the spectrum were the tidy sopranos of Joanna Foot (‘Rückblick’), Jana Miller (‘Täuschung’) and Marie-Audrey Schatz, whose focus and delicate vibrato brought out the best in the ‘wein, wein’s of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’.

I made special note, too, of Rachel Fenlon’s considered and refined account of ‘Der Lindenbaum’, Sally Drutman’s characterful ‘Mut!’ and Mary Osborne rich, determined ‘Die Nebensonnen’. But everyone—including some, I apologise, I haven’t mentioned—added to a unique and thought-provoking event.

A special word, too, for the venue, the remarkable Ehemaliges Stummfilmkino Delphi, on the Prenzlauer Berg/Pankow border in East Berlin. It’s a grand and evocative 1920s former cinema, with a modest stage contained within elegantly curved proscenium, and outstandingly clear and direct acoustics.

It was dusted off and reopened only in 2012 after more than half a century of, as its website poetically puts it, ‘Dornröschenschlaf’. But this event was part of a fundraising effort that was needed after the place was stripped of all its technical equipment (worth tens of thousands of euros) in a robbery earlier in the year. It played host to Puccini’s Toaster’s La bohème this time last year, too, and the company returns there for La traviata in April. Let’s hope it continues to thrive.


I’d also seen Puccini’s Toaster’s previous show in November, at a different venue a bit further round to the North West in Wedding: Tangoloft, Berlin. A joint venture with MOOD Opera of Detroit, it juxtaposed a staging of Gian Carlo Menotti’s bizarre (and not a little misogynistic) 1939 radio opera The Old Maid and the Thief against a relaxed second-half cabaret of songs by Eisler, Weill and contemporaries.

The venue’s airless acoustic took a little adjusting to, but Staunton did an excellent job of staging a work whose pacing is clearly designed for the different demands of radio opera—although admittedly I’m not entirely clear what those might be. A framing device helped both to tie the swift scenes together and slightly distance us from the piece’s less-than-flattering take on women, depicted as going weak at the knees (and in the head) at the arrival of a mysterious and handsome stranger (the excellent Reuben Walker, the deliverer also of a fine ‘Die Post’ in the Winterreise), mistakenly believed to be a dangerous thief.

 Puccini's Toaster's The Old Maid and the Thief at the TangoLoft, Berlin,
with (l. to. r) Reuben Walker (Bob), Danielle Wright (Miss Todd) and Sarah Ring (Laetitia)
Philipp Lang and Brigitt Bayer were excellent as Mr and Mrs Pinkerton (the Madame Butterfly reference, if indeed there was one, was lost on me), and Ring was brilliantly scheming and seductive as Laetitia, the young maid who is instrumental leading the titular Old Maid, Miss Todd, astray. And in that role Danielle Wright was powerfully committed, her big mezzo used to fill out what became an increasingly rich and tragic character.

Rebecca Lang conducted a small chamber ensemble in her own ingenious reduction of the score, which would be good to have a chance to hear within a more sympathetic acoustic. She was also on hand as one of the accompanists (the other was Kunal Lahiry) who made the most of a rickety piano in the songs of the second half.


Finally, and going yet further back in time as well as heading south from the Tangoloft to the Acker Stadt Palast in Mitte, a few thoughts on Stephen Crowe’s Francis Bacon Opera, which I caught in late October. This had already been seen at the Tête à tête festival in London (the video below has extracts from that incarnation) and was being unleashed on unsuspecting Berliners here for the first time—the composer’s previous opera, Pterodactyls of Ptexas, was seen here last year, though alas not by me.

Stephen Crowe's The Francis Bacon Opera at the Acker Stadtpalast
This new work struck me as a little gem, though, with Crowe achieving remarkable results from limited resources: two tenors; a pianist on an old upright; a simple set consisting of cloths variously stripped away, hung up or laid down, with projections of skeletal versions of famous Bacon canvases.

The libretto, if that’s not too conventional a term, consists of a word-by-word transcript of Melvyn Bragg’s 1985 South Bank Show interview with Francis Bacon, which famously saw the pair get increasingly sozzled in a variety of locales.

The comedy is inherent, of course, and Crowe certainly doesn’t underplay this, demanding plenty of jazzy flourishes and outrageous Gerald Barry-esque distortion and elongation from his singers, accompanied by spidery tinkles, splashes and bashes on the piano. But there’s another important side to the work, too. The composer produces some music of disarming, unexpected delicacy and loveliness as he searches for the weird beauty of these encounters: of the burgeoning inebromance between Bacon and Bragg, of the strange revelations that come as befuddled questions stumble past woozy answers and logic and language start to sway on their axes.

The performances from Christopher Killerby (Bacon) and Oliver Brignall (Bragg) were terrific, and necessarily fearless and committed, right up to the final knocking back of mini bottles of spirits—they were handed out to the audience too, but I chickened out and left mine under my seat. Joseph Houston was heroic in the kaleidoscopic demands of the piano part, and Tone Aminda Gøytil Lund had done an ingenious job conjuring up so much from so little with her set and costume designs.

Christopher Killerby (l, as Francis Bacon) and Oliver Brignall (Melvyn Bragg)
The piece itself was especially welcome for being ideally paced (at a short, sharp 50 minutes), and for avoiding the double pitfalls of pretentiousness and wilfully abstruse vocal writing—it was certainly demanding, but never, it seemed, simply for its own sake.

It was an arresting, funny and engrossing show, but a beguiling and strangely affectionate one too.

  • Puccini’s Toaster present La traviata at the Ehemaliges Stummfilmkino Delphi on 20 & 22 April 2018. 
  • Stephen Crowe’s next project is a song cycle for mezzo and chorus based on the texts of Sappho. 

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