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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.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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