Danke, Germany! Two World-Class Operas (and a Ballet)

Elektra

I’m back from a 16-day trip around Germany (plus Amsterdam and Paris) with B-cat, and Vancouver has never seemed more spacious or moderate in climate. Really, anyone who complains about Raincouver needs to walk through a German spring shower — just avoid the trees, if you know anything about lightning safety.

These are the main cities we visited in Germany (and my inane descriptions of them):

  • Hannover (nice big European city with lovely palaces)
  • Hamburg (busier and less nice city full of great cathedrals)
  • Wismar (older, smaller, cuter town)
  • Lubeck (pretty though tourist-y centre of marzipan!)
  • Berlin (mostly a super modern dwelling for giants)
  • Dresden (a place of traceless history and unpleasant people)
  • Leipzig (a bit too East Germany)
  • Munich (many immigrants, not many attractive structures)

While I didn’t get to see Staatsballett Berlin — my fault for making B-cat handle the bulk of the scheduling with limited time — we caught Hamburg State Opera‘s La Traviata, Hamburg Ballet‘s Romeo and Juliet, and Bavarian State Opera‘s Elektra. Not bad for two bums with limited budgets and, until then, no knowledge of German. It’s amazing how many words and phrases you can pick up if you must, even where most residents speak English better than the average Vancouverite.

Hamburg State Opera
B-cat

The world-class Hamburg State Opera or Hamburgische Staatsoper holds performances in the same opera house as Hamburg Ballet. The latter was highly recommended by my friend J, a well-travelled and highly educated woman from Hannover whom I met in Goh Ballet’s adult class.

This trip only came about because I was attending her wedding near Wismar and she let me shamelessly bring B-cat (who, in my defence, probably entertained the couple better…).

Anyway, this idiot (me, not J) forgot that Germans use German, and was surprised to discover that opera surtitles in Germany are in German. Luckily, La Traviata being one of the most well-known operas EVER, I could follow it while whispering vague notes to B-cat.

Hamburg State Opera

[story time]

Based on The Lady of the Camellias, a work far better known in Asia than the opera adaptation, Verdi‘s La Traviata is a tragedy about the courtesan Violetta who at first wavers between her life of luxury and her suitor Alfredo, and then chooses him for love and happiness, which are lost when Alfredo’s father convinces her to leave him for his family’s sake. Alfredo, led to believe Violetta has chosen another, humiliates her in public, but repents when his father tells him the truth. The lovers reunite briefly at Violetta’s deathbed.

[/story time]

While the singers are very good, with powerful voices and strong acting, the production is the sort that works only in photographs: the set looks hypermodern but cheap and static in person, as if someone tried to stretch a snapshot into a feature film. Not only that, the bumper cars raised and lowered on wires malfunctioned several times during the performance, leading to one performer’s stiff-faced slipping and scrabbling in a painfully awkward scene. It’s hard to look graceful and seductive when you’re dressed like Harley Quinn (read: a clown) and being helped (read: dragged) across a row of slippery cars.

The opera house itself, despite being modern and not very pretty, is well suited to its use. Unlike in Vancouver’s main theatres, the stage is narrower but deeper, and seats are packed up the sides in a shallower space. Both allow the audience to hear and see better from any seat. Hamburg Ballet

Romeo and Juliet needs no introduction, so I will just say that this is the best ballet I’ve ever seen in person (did you know the Bolshoi airs live in movie theatres worldwide?).

I tried, I really tried to find fault with Hamburg Ballet so that I could gloat about how Ballet BC, Goh Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, or the semi professional ballet companies near me are better. But even B-cat noticed the difference right away.

Unlike North American companies, Hamburg Ballet doesn’t mechanically focus on technique — though the technique is flawless — it has true artistry. The acting is as convincing as the best of Hollywood, and the performance has real emotion, which until now I’d thought couldn’t be conveyed through dance.

This is the first time I’ve ever cried at a ballet.

Bavarian State Opera

There’s no much I can say about Elektra, either, but that’s because I totally failed. The Bavarian State Opera unfortunately offers no English programmes, nor any surtitlesin German or otherwise. Nor did I read the libretto beforehand (#1 rule of attending an opera). The singing is masterly and the staging and costumes effective, but only the vague memory of the Greek tragedy kept me going… oh, and the fantastic music. Strauss is very, very much to my taste. The opera would have been so much better if I didn’t only read the story afterwards with B-cat.

[shameful story time]

As you probably know, Elektra is the heroine (?) of the Greek tragedy in which she helps kill her mother to avenge the murder of her father. The actual matricide is done by her brother, but she’s the one who goes mad and dies in the end. Of course.

[/shame] National Theatre Munich

National Theatre Munich, where performances take place, has all the virtues of Hamburg’s opera house but none of its flaws. The building is Old World beautiful, and the seats are cheap. If it weren’t for airfare, I could really get used to enjoying the arts in Europe.

But at least I can enjoy smooth-tasting tap water and clean public washrooms for free. Tchus!

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Die Bart Die: Die Fledermaus at Vancouver Opera (and a Bonus Play)

This is late as I’ve been preparing for a trip to Germany (Staatsballett Berlin, yo), but in March I saw Vancouver Opera‘s production of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

I’ve loved opera since I first took opera studies in the SFU English department, and the first opera I ever saw in person was Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte with VO, 10 years back. (Turned out not to be quite my thing, being a comedy.) I even subscribed to their 2013/2014 season.

But since one of VO’s reps — let’s call her Francine — hassled me last summer, I’ve borne a bit of a grudge.

Over the course of a few weeks, Francine called half a dozen times demanding to know if I would resubscribe. I hadn’t yet looked at their 2014/2015 lineup, but she offered no information (unlike the other rep who phoned, just once). When this crotchety CS genius caught me at work/sleep, she’d keep talking, and sounded disbelieving and offended when I offered to call VO back when ready.
Each time I picked up, Francine increased in volume and aggression, until finally I received a call that was literally, “Are you gonna subscribe or not?”

When I complained to VO during the intermission of one of the operas, they gave me an address to email. And then never responded. Thus completing the circle of excellent customer service.
[/rant]

San Francisco Opera being an 18-hour drive away, VO is unfortunately the only good live opera around, so for Christmas I got B-cat tickets to Die Fledermaus.

This year they encouraged pictures to be taken (and shared online) at the final bow

It was good. We both prefer tragedy over comedy, but it was good.

[This opera is ollld. Do you really need a spoiler alert?]

Die Fledermaus, which I’ll forever remember as the opera Rachel missed in that episode of Friends (the one in which Ross meets Emily) is a comic opera about a man, Gabriel von Einstein, skipping his week-long prison sentence to go to a ball, at which he encounters his wife Rosalinde and maid Adele in disguise. The ball is held by the Prince so that Falke could publicly make a fool out of the latter’s pal von Einstein, as revenge for another prank involving a bat (the titular fledermaus) costume.

[/spoiler]

With several of VO’s operas the previous year, and with all student operas I’ve seen, weak (?) voices seem to be a problem. i.e. Some of the singers are unable to project, and are drowned out by the orchestra. Is this a thing?

Aside from first faltering minutes of Joyce El-Khoury’s Rosalinde, who soon warmed up beautifully (and the Prince, who is too minor a character), there are no voice issues in this performance. Not quite as smooth is the insertion of jokey references to Vancouver places and people — VO touts this as being set in “Viennacouver” — but the jokes aren’t bad, and Frosch, the drunken jailer who delivers most of them, is a hit with the audience.

B-cat and I especially liked David Pomeroy‘s Alfred, Rosalinde’s enthusiastic foreign lover, with his wonderful voice and energy.

Vancouver Opera’s next and last production of the season is Sweeney Todd, with performances on April 25, 26, and 30, and May 1 to 3.

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Plus:

Two weeks after the opera, I took B-cat to Arts Club Theatre Company‘s production of The Foreigner at Shadbolt.

Written by American playwright Larry Shue, The Foreigner is a farce about Charlie, a shy, cuckolded Brit reluctantly vacationing at a country resort in the US where the other guests mistake him to be something very rare: a real foreigner! They discuss private matters in front of him, try to teach him English, etc. Add a pair of no-goodniks with Klan ties who try to cheat the lodge owner out of her property, and hijinks ensue.

B-cat and I have been lucky in that each play we’ve seen this year has been better than the previous, and The Foreigner is the best yet. Except when Charlie’s bowing and hai-ing get way too Mr. Yunioshi for comfort, and except when the portrayals of the Klan and bigotry truly terrify — ironically, considering my only complaint (unless the awful Japanese stereotyping was intentional…) — we laughed and laughed and cried and laughed. As did everyone else.

tempArts Club‘s next next production is Farewell, My Lovely on Granville Island. It’s a private eye tale based on a Raymond Chandler novel I haven’t read. I won’t be able to see it, but you should if you have the chance.