Berlin: Full of Beauty, Devoid of Virtue

by David Yearsley, May 11, 2016

Berlin — When far from home in foreign cities, slowed by saddle sores or jet leg, menaced by security pat-downs or highwaymen’s pistols, the traveler is often beset by two contending impulses: avoid your own expatriate countrymen and women like the plague or seek them out as glue for your own identity fragmenting under the strains of the journey.

Sail bravely on through the choppy waters of cultural difference, or tack sharply towards the beacon of the familiar? Glom onto the ebullient American contingent storming into the Tommy Hilfiger store in the trendiest part of Berlin or stick to your plan of decrying gentrification, globalization, and fluorination in old-time bars now paradoxically saved from the gentrifying homogenizer thanks to historic preservation initiatives?

The historic record is full of such tensions. On surveying Johan Zoffany’s painting of young and privileged Englishmen crowding into the Tribuna of the Uffizi in 1772 to feast their eyes on renaissance flesh and even get a grope of naked antiquities, the jaded Horace Walpole wrote to his friend and fellow bachelor Horace Mann, the permanent British envoy in Florence himself to be seen in the foreground of the picture, that the scene showed nothing but “a flock of traveling boys, and one does not know nor care whom.”

In general I have tried to adopt the approach of Charles Burney, the greatest musical traveler of the Age of the Grand Tour; Burney published diaries of his two tours of the continent of 1770 and 1772, journeys that took him across France, as far south as Naples and as far north as Hamburg. Burney tried his best to avoid any contact with his compatriots as long as he could: “I owe all my information and entertainment, till my arrival at Rome, to the Italians themselves,” he wrote. “Indeed it was to them that I chiefly addressed myself thinking it most profitable, both in point of language and information, to mix with the natives.” In Rome and Naples, however, he was simply unable to avoid the English throng, sometimes feeling in those places like he was back in London.

What a surprise-to-self it was, on my first evening in Europe, to find myself drifting into a screening of Barry Levinson’s latest film, Rock the Kasbah in the sumptuous early postwar cinema Odeon in the Schöneberg district in the former American sector of Berlin, a stone’s throw from the site where JFK made his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in the summer of 1963. Even back in the Cold War, when dubbed versions of Hollywood films held an audio death grip on the German movie-going public, the Odeon screened its program of Hollywood imports in their original language not just for the edification of Berliners, but more importantly to lure American servicemen into the opulent red interior with its magnificent faux-velvet curtain and vast, gently rising symphony-style seating.

In the event, it was not easy to endure the sight and sound of my on-screen fellow Americans brighten the brown desert of Afghanistan with the torch of cultural imperialism, even as offloaded by a madcap band of misfits centered around Bill Murray’s unscrupulous but lovable booking agent come to the country for a concert in support of the troops. This invasion of the senses and the sensibilities was almost enough to make me burn my passport in the closing credits. The freaked-out singer Murray comes to the war-torn country with quickly disappears with his money and papers, leaving our hero to make his way through the harmless perils provided by debauched American arms dealers, dashing Afghan warlords, grizzled mercenaries, and a step-and-fetch-it Kabul taxi driver.

Absurdist anthropology occasional makes the film just about watchable, as when Murray resurrects his brilliantly bad Saturday Night Live nightclub singer of the 1970s who howls Smoke on the Water around a remote Pashtun campfire to his own strumming accompaniment on a conveniently rock-‘n-roll-tuned Rubab — an Afghan lute. After the festivities are over he lurches down the hillside to relieve himself beneath the canopy of stars, when he hears enchanting soprano strains drifting into the night from a nearby cave. Further investigation reveals that the enchantress singing some American pop song I’ve now tried to forget is the daughter of one of the Pashtun chieftains who’s just hosted the fireside cabaret.

Under Murray’s bumbling, culturally tone-deaf aegis the magic-voiced Pashtun woman lands a spot on Afghanistan’s version of American Idol and in so doing becomes the first woman ever to sing on national television in the country. This should be a mortal crime, but the message of freedom and self-fulfillment broadcast by American pop culture wins the day, although everyone knows that day will turn to night once Murray is back poolside in his Burbank home. Thus Hollywood contrives a feel-good film set in a tragic land, Levinson’s try at entertainment telling us nothing true or even funny about Afghanistan but much about the Land of the Free, a country whose main exports are, not coincidentally, war and movies. Flying high over the parched cinematic landscape with a payload of offensive exoticisms and incendiary good cheer, Rock the Kasbah bombs itself into oblivion.

Duly affronted by Levinson’s tattered American greeting card, I was by my second night ready to explore the indigenous cultural offerings of Berlin: first stop the Deutsche Oper. The German opera has its home in a bigger box than the Odeon: the foyer is grand, the bars chic, the audience mostly staid. The good burghers of this mostly-wealthy section of the city, their numbers augmented by Easy Jet opera lovers airlifted in from other countries, are at home in this modernist 1960s temple to theatrical song standing along the grand avenue named after the Iron Chancellor—not Merkel but Bismarck.

Berlin has an impressive but financially draining density of major opera houses: three for a city of less than four million residents. Since the reunification of the city in 1990, the Deutsche Oper has been the least successful, especially at getting its nose into the trough of state and federal arts funding. Fortunately, this downward trend has been reversed under the musical directorship of Donald Runnicles, who lead the San Francisco Opera from 1992 until 2009, when he took up his post in Berlin.

One has the feeling when sitting placidly among the aging season tickets holders of the house, that they will stay true to their local theater even if some of the productions risk provocation. Most infamous of these was Hans Neuenfels 2003 staging of Mozart’s Idomeneo in which the heads of the founders of the world’s most popular religions, including that of Mohammed, were put on spikes as the curtain fell. This dramaturgical act garnered critical accolades and terrorist threats.

A recent Saturday night brought to the Deutsche Oper the classic pair of short realist dramas from late nineteenth-century Italy: Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni and Pagliacci (called Der Bajazzo by the Germans) of Ruggero Leoncavallo. The first of these takes place on Easter Sunday and makes for appropriate seasonal fare — a sort of early evening paschal vigil with erotically devastated or devastating women, revenge-seeking men, and cocktails in the intermission.

The Easy-jet opera fanatics just mentioned above seemed to have flown in to hear the Spanish tenor, Jorge de Léon as Turiddu, the lover of two women (on the opera stage, that’s one too many). De Léon made his Met debut this season as Ramadès and his fame is building fast.

As Turiddu, the dashing de Léon takes his leave of his mother by commending his forsaken mistress to her care in an aria that brought throngs of bravos from the die-hards scattered among the less animated subscription holders. Exiting beneath a freeway overpass that seems to have been built thanks to mafia contracts into the middle of nowhere (and anachronistically into the wrong century since the peasants are still wearing traditional rustic garb), he is killed offstage by his current lover’s husband, Alfio, sung with menacing gusto by the New Jersey born baritone of impressive international stature, Mark Delavan. After the soaring ardors of his vocal displays, Turiddu dies unseen and unheard—in contrast to his countless doomed operatic predecessors. No choked-with-poison or dagger-stuck aria for him. This seemingly anti-operatic approach was somewhat counter-intuitively christened realism (counterintuitive because even enraged Italians rarely sing as they go about their amorous business).

Premiered in 1892 two years after Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci has been paired with it in the international repertoire for more than a century. Responsible for the staging of both pieces, David Pourtney’s interpretations faired far better in the first than the second, which clad all the players in black — taking rather too literally the dark vision of the opera, depriving the audience of the pathetic, yet malevolent sight of a jilted, revenge-seeking clown in more colorful face-paint and costume. This traditional get-up was alluded to with only a red, detachable nose. In spite of these confusions, the celebrated aria “Vesti la giubba” (Put on the costume) is delivered with forlorn wrath by the magnificent, edgy Russian tenor, Vladimir Galouzine, shone malevolently in murk.

In contrast to the vapid insults of Rock the Kasbah, where white skins show dark skins the way out of the dusty cul-de-sac of tribalism and onto the roaring freeway of democracy, these two claustrophobic operas full of beauty and devoid of virtue gathered together an international coalition that made me glad to be far from the Home of the Brave.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com)

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