King Arthur in Berlin

From across the enormous cobblestone square the rooftop torches of the Hotel de Rome flickered in the night. We turned our bikes in that direction and headed for the entrance of the broad-shouldered and bluff pile flexing its neo-Wilhelmine muscles in the historic center of the German capital.

Everything is historic in Berlin, whether built yesterday or two hundred years ago. Most of what you see from this square is a reconstruction—architectural fantasy on a vast scale. Among these stone and stucco figments is the newly re-opened Staatsoper (State Opera). Its renovation took eight years and, depending on the estimates, drained as much as half-a-billion dollars from the public coffers. These monies flowed thanks in significant part to the influence exercised by the long-time director of the Staatsoper, Daniel Barenboim—a small man of towering cultural stature in Berlin.

The original opera house was opened on this spot in 1743, the lovechild of the newly crowned Prussian King, Frederick the Great, then just thirty years old. That building burned down a century later, was rebuilt, but after yet another century was razed again, this time by Allied bombs, before being reconstructed a second time. Forty years of state socialism followed, and after that a couple decades of capitalism in which public funds flowed abundantly to other building projects associated with German reunification. Barenboim then convinced both the city-state of Berlin and the federal government that it was time for this rebuild of a rebuild to be rebuilt yet again.

Great was King Frederick’s talent for war and music: in the late years of his reign he ordered his troops to fill what would have otherwise been the empty opera house.  The monarch was also known to stand behind his chief composer and conductor, Karl Heinrich Graun, and make sure this beleaguered musical servant did things according to the royal taste.

In these different days the democratically elected politicians dance to Barenboim’s beat.  So, for the first time in nearly a decade, the Staatsoper is back in its historic (if hardly original) home. Having come to May, that season’s end approaches. The weather is warm: cafés and rooftop terraces like that of the Hotel de Rome welcome tourists and native theatergoers far into the night.

Torches are a potent symbol, nowhere moreso than in this square, originally called the Opernplatz, but after the end of World War II renamed the Bebelplatz in honor of August Bebel, a nineteenth-century founder of the German Social Democratic Party. It was on this square that brown-shirted Nazis burned books ransacked from the adjacent Humboldt University library in May of 1933, just eighty-five years ago.

In the midst of this five-acre square is a monument to the burning. It is easy to miss since no sign or statue rises from the cobblestones to draw your attention. A clump of tourists might draw you there, or, if your course across the plain of stones takes you nearby, you come to a glass window in the pavement and can look down to underground library shelves painted white and empty of all books.

In May of 2018 the nighttime flames, slender and safely encased in their own pyramidal glass lanterns, are five stories above the fiery site of this infamous scene in Germany history.

It had been an early evening start for the evening’s opera, enjoyed with good friends met when our kids were in a Berlin Kindergarten together. Four of those kids—now grown up—were along for this performance of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur led by the Belgian conductor, René Jacobs, a one-time countertenor and an early music specialist, who has served as the long-time guest director for baroque operas at the Staatsoper.

The performance had lasted more than the three hours with the intermission—far longer than the original, but it was still only 9:15—time enough for a roof top drink proposed ardently by one of party.  None of us would storm a five-store hotel—especially not this one owned by an Englishman named Rocco Forte—except together!

We locked up our motley fleet of bikes in front of the imposing entrance and headed inside past the liveried doorman.  Moored in the lobby were triple-sized black sofas with gold trim shaded by gargantuan plantings. I thought I sensed socialist spirits of the East German past lurking amongst the polished fronds. We headed towards the lifts filtering among wealthy German cultural tourists spending an opera weekend and lots of money in the capital.

A comedy of elevators ensued. Equipped with a pass card cadged from the reception desk, we scurried back-and-forth between waiting elevators ineffectually waving the card at the sensors, until finally one of the lifts took us to the wrong floor. We bumbled around for a few minutes until at last we found our way to the terrace. What with the surreal décor and slapstick misadventure we could ourselves have been on the notoriously excessive stage of one of Berlin’s three opera houses.

It was Pentecost, a national holiday in this country and likely the explanation for the early 6pm start time of the King Arthur performance. Close up the rooftop torches put me in mind not of Nazi crimes but rather of the tongues of flames with which the Holy Spirit spoke in Jerusalem two millennia ago. Our spirits were less holy and very overpriced, baptized with names like Roof Collins and Russian Mule—silly monikers, but geographically and politically fitting for the consumption of whisky and vodka cocktails taking place five floors up in the former Soviet Zone.

We had much to talk about though not in tongues.  First, we all agreed that the EDM-extra-lite drink-track emanating from speakers hidden behind the potted plants on the terrace served mainly to bring Purcell’s genius into even greater relief.  His songs for King Arthur have tremendous hooks—winning vocal melodies and stirring bass lines with jazzy commentary from keyboards, lute, and strings. Purcell is an unsurpassable master of the ostinato, from the ebullient to the mournful; the most buoyant of his riffs have much in common with rock ‘n roll.

The Staatsoper production played up this irresistible grooviness in the brisk presentation of the trio from the Fifth Act, “For folded flocks.” Three men, dressed as waiters, sang and snapped fingers, leaning into one another and into Purcell’s angular syncopations and juicy dissonances. The joint directors—the German Sven-Eric Bechtolf and the Brit, Julian Crouch—set the number as an advertisement for the English Wool Industry. Not for the first time did they step out of the original libretto in search of laughs.  Purcell’s music was so on the mark, and the performance from the singers on stage and instrumentalist in the pit throughout the evening was so good, it almost made you laugh. The gags had a much lower ratio of success, one that got worse as the evening wore on.

Indeed, that was the main problem with this King Arthur: too many extra ideas, even if almost all of them were interesting.  A surfeit of imagination doesn’t ensure compelling theatre. Tonight in the Staatsoper the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

The Brit and German in the artistic cockpit piloted their operatic craft across vast stretches of history strafing the King Arthur myth as they went. Never mind that John Dryden’s original libretto says nothing of swords-pulled-from stones and Knights of the Round Table, the edifice of the Briton past was laid waste to. The directors add a newly constructed framing story at whose center is Arthur’s unhappy son, orphaned by his father’s death in a Spitfire fighting in the Battle of Britain. But he lived on in the many narrative layers of Bechtolf and Crouch meant to hammer away at English traditional animosities inherited from history.

These prejudices and the obligations they demand from Britain’s (i.e., Briton) leaders and populace are forced on the innocent boy in the form of a storybook presented to him on his birthday. Thus the first music we hear in the Staatsoper production, a “semi-opera” in which, also in the original, the main characters speak rather than sing, is not by Purcell at all, but Happy Birthday.  The nightmare of history and the duty it demands was portrayed in the work’s most famous number—the Cold Song. Its brittle string dissonances and shaking vocal outbursts punctuated by sharp intakes of breath in the suddenly frigid musical air were sung from a miniature stage on the stage: a cupboard in the boy’s bedroom.

The interventionist directors might claim to have abundant pretext for their additions and emendations in that, as has been convincingly shown by music historians, the original is itself an allegory of the Glorious Revolution in which the native king (James II) was supplanted by “foreign” usurpers (the Dutch pair of William and Mary). Turfed out as poet laureate by the incoming monarchs from across the North Sea, the Tory Dryden set his thinly veiled critique in the Middle Ages as a conflict between the Britons under Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon invaders under their leader, Oswald.

Further justification—or perhaps merely temptation—for theatrical license was, as always, to be found just out the doors of the Staatsoper in a Berlin where history is in the air and on the ground.

Both directors were born in the middle of the 1950s: children of the post-war period, and therefore inheritors of all the architectural and psychological rubble unloaded on or near them. They couldn’t resist recourse to the toy chest of the catastrophic past, as when they sent bombers off obliterate the Anglo-Saxon “Huns.”  These sorties often failed to reach any dramatic target, perhaps because these have already been hit so often in recent decades from attacks launched from Berlin stages.

The enemy never mentioned was Brexit, but it, too, loomed off stage. Often in the sights of the Berlin King Arthur was the shibboleth of British isolationism, which in this production’s self-serious conclusion remained sternly intact.  The striking sets and human tableaux—from the rustic walking haystacks, to naiads swimming in neo-baroque waves, to British infantrymen charging out of the backstage No-Man’s Land to route the invading Huns—were utterly convincing as visual works of art.

Flying over it all (sometimes literally, as when she was suspended by ropes from the rafters as Cupido) was the rightly famed German soprano, Anett Fritsch. Before the curtain rose she was announced as being ill, but she sang with radiance, clarity, and verve. Her performance as Venus (one of her many roles) of “Fairest Isle”—a gently luxurious song extolling England’s sometimes dubious reputation as a playground of sensual pleasure—captivated in a Fifth Act that sometimes wore down my patience because of all the directorial detours. Fritsch’s voice, pure of intonation, agile across its range, clear yet rich in expression, rose above the intermittent nonsense.

Whatever its merits, the surplus of new text overwhelmed Dryden’s spoken lines and, even more, the Purcell’s settings of the poetry. One yearned for the next glorious musical interruption. The drama smoldered and let off the occasional spark, but never burst into flame. It was Purcell’s music that was always on fire.

More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
March 22, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
The Ghost of Fascism in the Post-Truth Era
Gabriel Rockhill
Spectacular Violence as a Weapon of War Against the Yellow Vests
H. Bruce Franklin
Trump vs. McCain: an American Horror Story
Paul Street
A Pox on the Houses of Trump and McCain, Huxleyan Media, and the Myth of “The Vietnam War”
Andrew Levine
Why Not Impeach?
Bruce E. Levine
Right-Wing Psychiatry, Love-Me Liberals and the Anti-Authoritarian Left
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Darn That (American) Dream
Charles Pierson
Rick Perry, the Saudis and a Dangerous Nuclear Deal
Moshe Adler
American Workers Should Want to Transfer Technology to China
David Rosen
Trafficking or Commercial Sex? What Recent Exposés Reveal
Nick Pemberton
The Real Parallels Between Donald Trump and George Orwell
Binoy Kampmark
Reading Manifestos: Restricting Brenton Tarrant’s The Great Replacement
NATO’s Expensive Anniversaries
Joseph Grosso
New York’s Hudson Yards: The Revanchist City Lives On
Is It Really So Shocking?
Bob Lord
There’s Plenty of Wealth to Go Around, But It Doesn’t
Christy Rodgers
Achieving Escape Velocity
Monika Zgustova
Jessicah Pierre
The Real College Admissions Scandal
Peter Mayo
US Higher Education Influence Takes a Different Turn
Martha Rosenberg
New Study Confirms That Eggs are a Stroke in a Shell
Ted Rall
The Greatest Projects I Never Mad
George Wuerthner
Saving the Big Wild: Why Aren’t More Conservationists Supporting NREPA?
Norman Solomon
Reinventing Beto: How a GOP Accessory Became a Top Democratic Contender for President
Ralph Nader
Greedy Boeing’s Avoidable Design and Software Time Bombs
Tracey L. Rogers
White Supremacy is a Global Threat
Nyla Ali Khan
Intersectionalities of Gender and Politics in Indian-Administered Kashmir
Karen J. Greenberg
Citizenship in the Age of Trump: Death by a Thousand Cuts
Jill Richardson
Getting It Right on What Stuff Costs
Pacific Odyssey: Puddle Jumping in New Britain
Matt Johnson
The Rich Are No Smarter Than You
Julian Vigo
College Scams and the Ills of Capitalist-Driven Education
Brian Wakamo
It’s March Madness, Unionize the NCAA!
Beth Porter
Paper Receipts Could be the Next Plastic Straws
Christopher Brauchli
Eric the Heartbroken
Louis Proyect
Rebuilding a Revolutionary Left in the USA
Sarah Piepenburg
Small Businesses Like Mine Need Paid Family and Medical Leave
Robert Koehler
Putting Our Better Angels to Work
Peter A. Coclanis
The Gray Lady is Increasingly Tone-Deaf
David Yearsley
March 21, 2019
Daniel Warner
And Now Algeria
Renee Parsons
The Supreme Court and Dual Citizenship
Eric Draitser
On Ilhan Omar, Assad Fetishism, and the Danger of Red-Brown “Anti-Imperialism”
Elizabeth Keyes
Broadway’s “Hamilton” and the Willing Suspension of Reality-Based Moral Consciousness
David Underhill
Optional Fatherhood Liberates Christians From Abortion Jihad