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Carrots, Moors and Semele in Berlin

Jupiter and Semele (detail) by Gustave Moreau.

The Comic Opera (Komische Oper) stands a few blocks from where the most fortified section of the wall that encircled West Berlin ran from 1961 to 1989. Near the edge of the former East Berlin and a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Hitler’s final bunker, the Comic Opera is one of the three opera houses in the German capital, all of international standing. The density of such cultural sites represents an enduring legacy of the once-partitioned city, the duplication of such institutions on either side of the geographical and ideological divide a product of socialist/capitalist competition that was robust, but less deadly than mutually assured destruction.

Cycling from Schöneberg, the district where Kennedy held his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in May of 1962 to the Comic Opera takes me through the Nollendorfplatz, long a gay center in Berlin, and the place where W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood came to live in the late 1920s.  A pink triangle monument inside subway station commemorates the Nazi raids in the area.

From here it’s a short distance across the Kurfürstenstraße where Walter Benjamin lived for a time during his youth and into the Genthiner Straße, a street of furniture shops and prostitution. Berlin is booming, buildings going up everywhere and one such massive project is rising out of the sandy Brandenburg ground at this intersection. Gentrification will soon push out the prostitutes, most of them from Eastern Europe, to other streets that are less desirable, at least in real estate terms.

Then it’s across the Landwehrkanal laid out by the celebrated Prussian landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné in the middle of the nineteenth century. Rosa Luxemburg’s body was pulled out of its waters in January of 1919. On the northern bank of the canal is the Ministry of Defense—a hodgepodge of buildings and parking lots that would probably all fit in one of the Pentagon cafeterias.  Within the complex, an ensemble of fascist buildings surrounding a stone courtyard (the so-called Bendler Block) survived the war. It was here that Claus von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators nearly took control of Germany on July 20thof 1944 in the hours after the failed attempt to blow up Hitler in the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia. After the coup’s failure Stauffenberg was executed that night in the courtyard. The Center of Remembrance for the German Opposition is housed in this block.

The dense green canopy of Berlin’s great central park, the Tiergarten, lies ahead. I turn east following the path along the southern edge of the park past the Kulturforum and the Philharmonie, home of the Berlin Philharmonie. Here there is monument, new since I was last in Berlin, to the victims of the Nazi euthanasia program that oversaw the murder of some 70,000 people deemed genetically suspect. The monument is a long blue glass wall, perhaps suggesting clinical observation, pseudo-scientific control, and a chilling sense of clinical purity.

Continuing east for a few minutes I come to the bricks built into the pavement marking the course of the Berlin Wall. At this stretch just south of the Brandenburg Gate there were two walls, an outer and inner one, with No-Man’s Land in between.

At right here at former East-West Berlin border is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is a vast field of rectangular gray concrete blocks—giant grave stones rising gradually from one to the next, then falling off again across the giant, deathly grid so that the entire field seems to undulate. Just across the street to the north, between the field of graves and the Brandenburg Gate, is the United States embassy clad in white stone.

As this short itinerary shows, there is plenty of history to be considered underway from Schöneberg to the Comic Opera, if one feels so inclined.  Most evenings, mornings, or middays it is impossible not to be prone to historical reflection along this route.

The street that runs between the embassy and the memorial and to the entrance of the Comic Opera is called the Mohrenstraße.

Even the Mohrenstraße itself is now a site of debate. The name means the “Street of the Moors.” Germany’s own colonial past in Africa is increasingly the subject of the nation’s relentless confrontation with its history. The subject is an especially fraught one in these days of the refugee crisis. In 2015 Germany took in nearly a million people fleeing conflicts in Turkey, Syria and Africa. Racism is on the rise in the country. The day after I pedaled to the Comic Opera, the increasingly popular political party, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) held a rally at the Brandenburg Gate. These far-right demonstrators numbered 5,000.  The counter-demonstration that drowned out the AfD speeches with their own slogans and music was estimated at 25,000.

There are increasing calls to change the name of the Mohrenstraße. In advance of any official action, waggish activists have taken to adding the two dots of the German Umlaut above the “o”—converting “Street of the Moors” to “Street of the Carrots.” The authorities, or self-appointed defenders of order and tradition, have countered by painting over these ad hoc umlauts with white paint matching the street signs’ original background. In the three long blocks from the former East-West border to the Comic Opera I bike past two carrots and one moor.

It’s an orthographially fitting avenue of arrival to tonight’s opera—a fully-staged production of Handel’s Semele, the story of a mortal woman kidnapped by Zeus and then tricked by a jealous Hera to demand that the philandering husband appear in Semele’s bedchamber in godly glory that will burn her to a crisp.

Handel spent almost his entire career in London and was made a British subject in 1727 by order of Parliament. Long before that he had struck the umlaut from his name. The Germans still claim him as their own, however, and on street signs, plinths, and editions of his music, he is still Händel for the Germans—and so, too, in the program of the Comic Opera.

Works staged at the Comic Opera had always been sung in German, but for the last few years the ever-imaginative and often-provocative opera director, Barrie Kosky has been the company’s artistic chief. He does things differently.

Kosky is also responsible for the production of Semele and it is, surprisingly, sung in the English.  One can choose to have the text screened (in French, German, Turkish translation, or in the original English) on a small display on the seatback in front of you.

The production uses only one set: a grand hall covered in soot that appears built into a mine in a mountain—a kind of post-industrial Olympus. Against this black background the brightly clad and sometimes bloody mortals and gods pursue their lusts.

Kosky encourages his actors to emit shrieks and shouts, bangings and bumpings during the instrumental interludes of the arias, as if Handel’s own music doesn’t get its point across vigorously enough without these interventions. Near the start of the intrigues, Semele is spirited away by Zeus from her wedding down through the fireplace. Her hapless betrothed, Athamas (the fleet but occasionally underpowered American countertenor Eric Jurenas), is only able to snatch a wisp of her white train before it disappears down through the ashes.

The title role is taken by the American soprano Nicole Chevalier, a compelling actor and exuberant singer, whose feats include a musically and gymnastically acrobatic rendering of the turbulent aria “My racking thoughts by no kind slumbers freed” done while prowling atop the narrow mantel of the fireplace and in front its mirror that, in Kosky’s dramaturgy, exerts a malign hold on her vanity.  The outbursts and fiery themes asides, Kosky’s  interpretation far from inflammatory, instead opening a dark, post-Weinsteinian window into the ravages inflicted by all-powerful predators on their conflicted prey.

That very conflict between desire and disaster yields the great irony of the evening. Zeus takes the human shape of a portly, fully-bearded Brooklynite in (and out of) evening attire: flicking his black tails like a preening peacock. The brilliant English tenor Allan Clayton is the Thunderer. He’s also the best singer of the night, his voice and what he does with it irresistible to all. The most famous, oft-anthologized number from Semele is “Where’er you walk” and Kosky and his musical director for the production, the spirited and subtle Konrad Junghänel, had the musicians do the reprise of this song of steaming lust clad in the garb of pastoral adoration in the most tender, seemingly most sincere, and ecstatically seductive pianissimo.  The entire audience held its breath as Clayton added his feathery ornaments with the return to the opening section, he and his beloved nestling into one another on the floor of the stage as he sang into her ear under the shade of trees that magically sprouted from the blackened windows of the subterranean palace before the blazing red curtain fell for intermission.

Though the language on stage was English, the composer remains, for the time being, Händel, just as the Möhrenstraße holds tenuously to its colonial umlaut. Regardless of the way either word is spelled, there will never be a more compelling, never a more rapturously beautiful moment of musical theatre in Berlin or anywhere else.

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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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