The Pearls Of Cleopatra
Komische Oper, Berlin
13th February 2018
Anybody who thinks that Germany doesn’t produce great musicals really has to come and see this show. After its initial launch in December 2016, this glorious production of a nearly forgotten masterpiece returns to the beautiful late 19th century ornamented interior of Berlin’s palatial comic opera for a further run of all but sold out performances. If you happen to be passing this way, do not leave the city without seeing it: it will be an experience you cherish for the rest of your life.
Rumour has it that operetta is a ‘difficult’ form. And so it can be. And yet… We all know that two of the most successful shows of recent times are cast in that mode, and nobody seems to question the merits of ‘Les miserables’ or ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. But for years, outside a fairly narrow internationally accepted repertoire (‘Die Fledermaus’, ‘The Merry Widow’…), the Austro-German tradition struggled with its legacy of apparently unperformable works, and relatively few wanted to go anywhere near the tricky between-the-wars stockpile of entertainments, at least while there were abundant living connections with their use and abuse by the Nazi regime.
Well, time, as the song says, heals everything, and so – at last – it has got around to cleaning out the Augean stables of this morally ambivalent and complicated period, releasing freshly spruced up wares for the enjoyment of contemporary fans. As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Reunification of the formerly divided country, we are also seeing, popping up here and there in various guises, astonishingly vigorous revivals of these ostensibly no longer workable pieces. And possibly this is nowhere more true than at the capital’s ‘light opera’ company, where a combination of visionary artistic direction, thanks to Barrie Kosky, and brilliantly, daringly inventive musical direction, under Adam Benzwi, is creating a musical theatre sensation the likes of which we in the UK have not seen since David Pountney and Mark Elder powered the way forward with their reinvention of opera at the ENO and Cameron Macintosh et al enabled such a transformation of the commercial musical theatre around the 1980s. Quite what this may signify in terms of broader developments in Germany as a whole remains open to question, but it represents a massive change in cultural direction and confidence.
Regarding the accessability of this particular offering to English audiences, there is much here that is immediately attractive. After all, we have our own much loved spoof of Cleopatra in the ‘Carry On’ series, with a magnificent central turn by Amanda Barrie. The coincidence of her surname with that of this director is more than serendipitous: they share much of the same irreverence and cheekiness, combined with the ineffable poise and wide-eyed innocence that lifts what could be a smut-fest into a much more interesting comedy of human manners. Here, the creators went a fair few steps further in complicating matters: the book, by Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald, is remarkably intelligently written, and treads, with staggering adroitness, a fine path between ribaldry and the most sincerely touching pathos: and it is this, surely, that ultimately saves the work from even the slightest intimation of kitschness. The score, by the inexplicably under-rated Oscar Straus, is every bit a match for the twists and turns demanded of it by the libretto: jumping, hopping and skipping between styles without pausing for breath, Straus encompasses with the promiscuity of a magpie any tones that shine, or jingle, or jangle, managing such musical tricks as introducing into a faux-aegyptien ballad a sudden burst of yodelling, complete with Mahler-like intrusion of cowbells. Or, was this the mischievous hand of Herr Kappelmeister Benzwi at work? Who knows. He has been hard at work at making the most of this score, including adding extensive – and deliciously apt – quotations from the Grand March and Phtah’s Priestesses’ song from ‘Aida’ and from the Bacchanale of ‘Samson et Dalilah’, amongst other things.
And why not? This is light entertainment, where improvisation and embellishment are the order of the day. Not least in the barnstorming central performance here of the sensation that is Dagmar Manzel. A true Berlinerin, Manzel seizes the title role with all the business-like aplomb of a Dietrich at her most domineering and crafty. And, like the Dietrich of her Berlin days, she can sing all the notes. In fact, the similarities do not even begin to end there. In addition to having a fine soprano upper register, she also has a powerfully gutsy lower register, with which she delivers most of the comic dialogue, and verses, with devastating exactness and penetrating earthiness, especially when trouncing historical verisimilitude while gossiping on the phone or asking for a cigarette. Her ability to offer a Cleopatra who is part fish-wife and part Claudette Colbert after half a quart of brandy has to be seen – and heard – to be believed.
Around Manzel is built a wonderfully tightly wrought script, with a sweet Aida-like sub-plot of the captain of the guard, Silvius (the superb high baritone of David Arnsperger), in love with slave girl Charmian (the literally brassy Talya Lieberman). Cleopatra wants – and gets – Silvius for herself, but he – under the instigation of the revolutionary Kophra (Peter Renz, in dark sunshades and Che Guevara beret) – resists political, as well as sexual, subjugation, and rebels, throwing off the new uniform she has had run up for him, concocted out of umpteen strands of pearls… and very little else. Her Highness is furious – for a while – but is moved to pity by the beauty of their singing (as if the young lovers’ heart-melting first act duet, ‘Kiss me’, had not demolished all one’s capacity to object), and pardons them both, quite in the best manner of any well behaved Marschalin, before moving swiftly on to her next conquest, the politically more challenging – and necessary – target of Marc Antony. The operetta’s final scene is then quite a coup, as we get to witness Cleo reinventing herself all over again, in order to negate the threat posed by this latest Roman invader, and to maintain peace and stability in her homeland. And this is a message which we surely still need to hear, because it is something that many, many women know: they have to use their sexuality to control the power – and the potential for violence – of men. That is, when all is said and done, the way much of the world wags.
Admonishing this little confection are further delights attached to the presence of another suitor, Johannes Dunz’s effete Prince of Persia, Beladonis, who makes an operatic feast of the mildly innuendo-ridden song about his little flute (Cleo, by bold contrast, is allowed much broader licence in her culminating seduction of Tony: ‘Stick the dagger in its sheath,/ Right up to the hilt!’). In this world, sexual power really belongs to the women. Could that possibly be one of the reasons it has been ignored for so long? It is certainly the reason why it was heavily censored in the 1950s. Anyway, all of these plot strands are tied together by the efficient interventions of her maitre d., Stefan Sevenich’s robust Pampylos. Oh, and there is one other useful character: Manzel also ‘plays’ the part of Ingeborg, her favourite pet cat, which, in the shape of a sock puppet, engages the queen in lively dialogue, and even manages to get the last word in, as empress and Marc Antony discreetly vanish into the telling memento mori of a sarcophagus.
Then there is the terrific chorus, the ensemble of Ancient Egyptian courtiers, who remind one much more of the cabarets of Josephine Baker (another Berlin habituee) than the friezes of worthies and serving folk, whose profiles march around forgotten monuments and tombs, for all that the dizzy choreography of team player Otto Pichler energises the stage at every opportunity with angular gestures and endless horizontal lines. Indeed, his terpsichorean vocabulary is every bit as diverse as that of the score, roping in references to the grand revues of Max Reinhardt, as well as more recent dance styles. Furthermore, the stage design, by Rufus Didwiszus, and the lush, shiny, sparkly costumes by Victoria Behr, bring vividly to life the glamour of the likes of Bakst to Van Nest Polglase. It is a breath-taking spectacle, assaulting the senses quite as much as the superlative playing of the orchestra of the Komische Oper, lighter in strings and woodwind, but augmented with dance band rhythm section, including a glittering piano. Diego Leetz lights everything with the same wit and flair.
I could go on talking about the delights of this show for ages, but that might unnecessarily detain you from booking a flight to Berlin to see it for yourself.