Friday 21 December 2018

A mash up of Gilbert & Sullivan and the Carry On films: Straus' The Pearls of Cleopatra at Berlin's Komische Opera

Oscar Straus The Pearls of Cleopatra - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese/
Oscar Straus: The Pearls of Cleopatra
Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese/
Oscar Straus The Pearls of Cleopatra; Dagmar Manzel, dir Barrie Kosky, cond: Adam Benzwi; Komische Oper, Berlin Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 13 December 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Barrie Kosky pulls out all stops to deliver an unforgettable night in Old Vienna!

A Viennese composer of operettas, film-scores and songs, Oscar Nathan Straus (6th March 1870 - 11 January 1954) was seen as a serious rival to Franz Lehár and after seeing Barrie Kosky’s riveting and entertaining production of The Pearls of Cleopatra (Die Perlen der Cleopatra) at the Komische Oper in Berlin, I can clearly see why. When Lehár's popular operetta, The Merry Widow, premièred in 1905, Straus is said to have remarked ‘Das kann ich auch!’ (I can also do that!). Undoubtedly, he did!

I caught Straus' The Pearls of Cleopatra at Berlin's Komische Oper on Thursday 13 December 2018, directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Adam Benzwi with the actress Dagmar Manzel as Cleopatra, plus Talya Lieberman, Johannes Dunz, and Dominik Köninger.

Born into a Jewish family, Straus (who omitted the second ‘s’ from his surname to disassociate himself with the Strauss family of Vienna for professional reasons only) did, however, follow the advice of Johann Strauss II about abandoning the prospective lure of writing waltzes for the more lucrative business of writing for the theatre.

His best-known works are Ein Walzertraum (A Waltz Dream) and The Chocolate Soldier (Der tapfere Soldat). The waltz arrangement from the first-mentioned work is probably his most enduring orchestral work but one of his most famous pieces is the theme from that lovely and endearing film of the 1950s, La Ronde.

Following the Nazi Anschluss in 1939, Straus (who, incidentally, studied music in Berlin under Max Bruch) fled to Paris where he received the coveted award of Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. From the French capital he made his way to Hollywood. After the war, he returned to Europe, settled at Bad Ischl in Austria where he was laid to rest and, indeed, the burial-place of Lehár.

However, the score that Herr Straus penned for The Pearls of Cleopatra, a potpourri of cabaret and jazz styles which also included references to the Viennese waltz and, indeed, to Grand Opera (Grand March from Aida), the opera’s a conjured-up mash of Gilbert & Sullivan and the Carry On film series and hits the target full on.

For a start, the opening scene - a ten-minute burst of creative and sparkling energy - proved a brilliant an innovative piece of staging as frothy as an overflowing cup of cappuccino coffee! It witnessed the white-and-red neo-Baroque-decorated auditorium of the Komische Oper awash with colour, pageantry and performance as members of the cast shot into action positioned amongst members of a highly-bemused audience while Talya Liebermann (harbouring a lovely high soprano voice) as the attractive (and coquettish) slave-girl Charmian delivered a flowery and ornamental trumpet fanfare from the top balcony while thousands of pastel-coloured gossamer-made petals rained down upon a gleeful and surprised audience. What an opener!

Oscar Straus The Pearls of Cleopatra - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese/
Oscar Straus: The Pearls of Cleopatra
Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese/
And when Dagmar Manzel as the crafty Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, arrives on the scene sparks nervously begin to fly as she worms and schemes her way through an agenda of intrigue and political issues. But as befitting the most beautiful woman of the world she gets her own way especially in relation to the romantic side of her life particularly when she ceremoniously ditches the Syrian prince Beladonis (flamboyantly portrayed by Johannes Dunz) for the captain of the guard, Silvius (heroically portrayed by Dominik Köninger) but he really fancies (and finishes up) with Charmian. He may have been besotted by her trumpet-playing! A good bugler, for sure!

Without a shadow of doubt, Ms Manzel delivered a brilliant and engaging performance echoing at times the style of Marlene Dietrich. Surely, the role belongs to her! Possessing a wide-ranging voice, especially when waltzing in the upper register or yodelling to her heart’s content, it complemented her deep-edged lower register which highlighted and punctuated the comic dialogue choked to bursting-point with a host of cheeky double-entendres thanks to the razor-sharp wit conjured up by librettists, Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald.

Some of them, near the knuckle, too, especially when Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius enjoy an intimate exchange. Girl Power took centre stage with the Egyptian queen asking the Roman boss to lay down his arms by instructing him to ‘stick the dagger in its sheath, right up to the hilt’. Ohhhh! I immediately felt the presence of Hattie Jacques and Sid James. Carry on - I say! Daring stuff, though, when the opera first saw the light of day. But times have changed!

Helping Cleopatra on matters of state was her pet cat, Ingeborg, a knowledgeable glove puppet who was always at hand engaging in some bright and lively conversation to the utter delight of a packed house lapping up (and enjoying) every minute of the action. And poking his nose into everything was the major-domo, Pampylos, adorably and flamboyantly dressed and played by Stefan Sevenich who excelled in the role but never really got the right answer.

Plenty of action ensued in this production not least by the antics of the revolutionary-looking character Kophra comically played by Peter Renz sinister looking from head to toe sporting a black Che Guevara-type beret and designer sun-glasses. He also played the part of Marcus Antonius who in the end finishes up in an enraptured political union with Cleopatra (really, the captain of the guard was too beneath her but, I guess, ok for a slave-girl) vanishing into thin air but in this case in a mummy-decorated sarcophagus with Cleopatra’s puppet having the final say poking his head through it. The audience roared with delight.

The production featured plenty of scantily-clad, energetic performers (male and female) adding to the lively cabaret atmosphere of the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic while Otto Pichler’s choreography, based mainly on ancient Egyptian dance patterns, proved interesting to the core. The creative flair of Victoria Behr produced a wide-ranging wardrobe of strikingly-patterned costumes that added to the delight of the overall stage picture complementing the simple (but effective) black-and-white set design created in a variety of geometrical shapes and patterns by Rufus Didwiszus while Diego Leetz’s lighting created swathes of wonderful colour washes that more than brightened up a show that was already bright and merry from the outset.

Oscar Straus: The Pearls of Cleopatra - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese/
Oscar Straus: The Pearls of Cleopatra - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Iko Freese/
Mr Kosky - who, incidentally, became the first Jewish director to work at Bayreuth with his acclaimed production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg premièred at last year’s festival - delivered a fine and engaging production of The Pearls of Cleopatra more than 80 years after its sensational première at the Komische Oper in 1923 featuring the toast of Berlin, the Austrian-American soprano, Fritzi Massar, in the title-role. As the Intendant and Chefregisseur of Komische Oper, Mr Kosky does the house proud!

The Pearls of Cleopatra runs to 30th March. Get to the box-office now! It’s worth every penny - or should I say euro!

More Oscar Straus comes up at Komische Oper next year (Jan-Feb) with Eine Frau, die weiß, was sie will (A woman who knows what she wants). Just like Cleopatra!

Director (Barrie Kosky)
Music director (Adam Benzwi)
Choreography (Otto Pichler)
Stage design (Rufus Didwiszus)
Costumes (Victoria Behr)
Dramaturgy (Simon Berger)
Lighting (Diego Leetz)
Chorsolisten der Komischen Oper Berlin (chorus master: David Cavelius)
Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin (conductor: Adam Benzwi)
Cleopatra (Dagmar Manzel)
Pampylos (Stefan Sevenich)
Silvius (Dominik Köninger)
Charmian (Talya Lieberman)
Beladonis (Johannes Dunz)
Marcus Antonius / Kophra (Peter Renz)
Dancers: Meri Ahmaniemi, Alessandra Bizzarri, Martina Borroni, Zoltan Fekete, Michael Fernandez, Marika Gangemi, Paul Gerritsen, Claudia Greco, Hunter Jacques, Christoph Jonas, Silvano Marraffa, Daniel Ojeda, Sara Pamploni

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Messiah in Berlin: Handel's oratorio staged in the Philharmonie (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • A triumphal Messiah: Andrew Arthur and the Hanover Band at Kings Place  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Towards the Global Jukebox - feature article
  • Echoes of Parsifal: songs and piano music by Robin Holloway on Delphian (★★★½) - CD review
  • Clarinettist dedications: Roeland Hendrikx in three contrasting concertos for clarinet (★★★½)  - CD review
  • Carols and more: Our annual Christmas disc round-up - CD review
  • Reviving Mozart in Wales & family connections in Milton Keynes: I chat to conductor Damian Iorio - my interview
  • Chocolate covered fairy-tale: Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden (★★★½) - opera review
  • Joyous discovery: Alessandro Scarlatti's Messa per il Santissimo Natale (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Powerful memorial: composer Andrew Smith on his Requiem dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Utøya massacre in Norway  - interview
  • Christmas in Leipzig: Solomon's Knot in Bach, Schelle & Kuhnau (★★★★) - concert review
  • Winter Fragments: Chamber music by Michael Berkeley (★★★½) - CD review
  • Intimate delight: 18th century chamber cantatas from Tim Mead, Louise Alder & Arcangelo - (★★★★½)  concert review
  • A new record label, a new disc: I chat to Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka about bel canto and more  - interview
  • Home

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