Leonard Bernstein is a musician close to the hearts of many Berliners: not least did he confirm this when, shortly after the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 he arrived in town to perform Beethoven’s 9th in an open-air concert in front of Rathaus Schöneberg, the then seat of the West Berlin Senate, and the very spot where, years before, during his visit to the city, another popular American, John F. Kennedy, endeared himself with the famous phrase, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. Lenny came to represent many important things for people here, particularly the ability to accept and overcome the burden of the past and to build new bridges of friendship and mutual understanding – two qualities not conspicuously present in current American-German relations.
And so, tidily coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the end of the Cold War and also with the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, the KOB was delighted this week to open its brand new season with a revival of artistic director Barrie Kosky’s bold and risky production of Bernstein’s complex and demanding hommage to European culture, his daring and exuberantly charming comic operetta based on Voltaire’s best-selling picaresque tale of optimism overcoming all adversity. (The company also has ‘West Side Story’ in its repertoire and that will make a further appearance later in the season.) There are umpteen different versions of this show in circulation, but the one in use here is John Caird’s more or less faithful ‘restoration’ of as much of the original as practically possible prepared for the National Theatre in 1999 (another anniversary!), which is given – appropriately enough – with the fully enlarged orchestrations Bernstein himself made with Hershey Kay, with additions by Bruce Coughlin. The musical score benefits from much more coherence than the ramshackle script, which is a brave but far from wholly successful attempt at putting the episodic adventure story onto the stage. Pangloss’s interminable interruptions here act like lead weights against the buoyancy of the narrative: other productions have done a lot to integrate them as fully as possible into the weft and warp of the rest of the dialogue: Lie is a fine singer, but his speaking voice lacks variety. Nonetheless, we also get the rest of the extraordinarily large and capable resident ensemble which proves, once again, its world-class credentials.
From the opening bars of the bracing, fizzing overture, we know that in the hands of musical director, Jordan de Souza, we are in for a thrilling, incisive take on the immense and splendid score. Souza goes for bold strokes, smashing into the clusters of woodwind shrieks, and bashing out the brass fanfares with the kind of energy and danger one associates with the brash egomania of Richard Strauss or the sardonic fury of Shostakovitch; then, the strings slowly and gradually lend warmth and romance to the palette of musical colours, creating exactly the complicated mix of moods that the next three hours will explore. None of this, however, prepares us for the startling entrance of the chorus, which is heard rather than seen, far behind us – speaking to us as if from the distant past – in a limpid articulation of a kind of folk chorale (chorusmaster David Cavelius). For those of you who don’t yet know it, this is musical theatre of the finest quality and it constantly surprises – even if the relentless staging can become wearisome.
Rebecca Ringst’s design is an emphatic and uncompromising black box, which, with the exception of a few noisy trucks that roll-on and roll-off the stage occasionally, is pretty much all we get to look at for the whole of the event. She fills it with smoke a lot – rather like D W Griffith filling in the gaps in his War of Secession epic, ‘Birth of a Nation’ – and this smoke is lit lovingly by Alessandro Carletti. The actors are clothed in a right old rag-bag of styles and periods by Klaus Bruns. You will have to make up your own minds about this, but personally, in such an unforgiving, brutalistic landscape, periwigs and frock coats are the last things we want to see. They are here in abundance, and they just don’t seem right. Much more fitting, to my mind, are the numerous modern dress modes adopted from time to time (eg. Fifties, or contemporary streetwear): these succeed in reminding us that all the themes of the story – snobbery, bullying, human migration in the face of war, plague and poverty, avarice, slavery, sexual abuse and manipulation, prostitution, theft and murder, rootlessness and travel, to name but a few – are very much alive and with us in the here and now. Bruns’ decision to present the chorus line of dancers at the Auto-da-fe scene with men in drag as Vegas showgirls are one of his outright masterstrokes. However, the soldiers who come on bashing drums extremely noisily in an evocation of modern American armies’ macho chanting also scored a big hit with the crowd, and this was one occasion when the meshing of period costume and modern behaviour worked brilliantly well.
Kosky’s approach to the direction of the show is – initially – to get the thing moving as quickly as possible, adding as much pace as tolerable to every scene. He is never less than entirely faithful to the demands of the score, though, and when Bernstein slows up, so does he. However, it is in the later, more morally confused episodes of the story that he allows himself to take his foot completely off the accelerator and permits the work to breathe. Otto Pichler’s choreography does the same, and there are elements of remarkable modernity in what they together achieve with the telling of the tale. We seem at times to enter the world of Roland Petit at his most adventurous, or even Pina Bausch.
Martin Berger’s German-language version of the libretto is relatively new and a grateful sing, but much of the humour is lost (either in the performance or in the translation, or just in the very sober mentality of the audience.. it is hard to say which). On the plus side, the darker elements of this darkly serious staging carry enormous weight and will not be soon forgotten. The cast all seem fully attuned to this and know what they are doing.
Of no one else is this truer than in this revival’s title role, Johannes Dunz, his matinee idol good looks, athletic figure (seen to good account in lederhosen) and gorgeous tenor are a confidently humanistic statement set against the grim privations of the staging. Pulling the strings of the story around him, Tom Erik Lie’s Dr Pangloss and Voltaire and Martin are less successful, being more prone to caricature. The same rough broadness afflicts the early manifestation of Kunigunde (Cunegonde), but Meechot Marrero makes all that good when she falls from her entitled grace and delivers ‘Glitter and be gay’ as a pole dancer in a clip joint. Alongside her, Frederika Brillembourg as the Old Woman is a wonderful burlesque of a character, and their second act opening duet is genuinely funny, even in a starkly uncomfortable setting. Another happy pairing is Dominik Köninger’s Maximilian and Maria Fiselier’s Paquette: they also make much of their several other roles.
This is an immense, sprawling narrative depicting a world in tumult (the comparison with Griffith was not accidental). Other notable performers peopling its roaming events are the stunning Ivan Tursic (who, several times, nearly gets to steal the show right from underneath everyone else’s noses), Timothy Oliver, Frank Baer, Saskia Krispin, the wonderful newcomer Daniel Foki, Tim Dietrich, Matthias Spenke, Carsten Lau, Thaisen Rusch and Sascha Borris. In addition to all of these, you also get scores of dancers and chorus members, and when all of these get into action together it creates the most magnificent spectacle. The scene at Eldorado is spell-binding, with the dark air filled with slowly falling fragments of sparkling gold. And the final, luscious chorale is positively symphonic in scale and packs an almighty punch.
So, all in all, a stellar start to an interesting year for this company and a worthwhile contribution to the remembrance of one of the musical world’s most remarkable figures. Playing in repertoire.
Writes book, music and lyrics of new musicals. Currently completing, ‘Generation Rent’, a contemporary college-reunion comedy. New project: ‘Kate The Great’, set in the City. Previous productions with: Iris Theatre; LOST Theatre; So-and-So’s Arts Club; Chichester Festival Theatre (National Theatre Connections); Courtyard Theatre; Arc Theatre, Trowbridge; Harlequin Theatre, Redhill. Also for Royal Court Young People’s Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe, National Youth Theatre.