Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Hum Along

Sam Shirakawa was in Cologne last Sunday for the performance of a German operetta thought to have long been lost...

Abraham: Die Blume von Hawaii
28 June 2009

Not long into the first act of Die Blume von Hawaii in concert form at the Cologne Philharmonie this past Sunday, I became aware of an unsettling sound. The score calls for some unusual instruments, including two Hawaiian guitars, but the sound resembled... I’m not quite sure what.

Then it struck me. Vast sections of the audience (everybody donning colorful Hawaiian leis) were humming along with the music! The median age among the near-sellout crowd must have been around 90, but everybody stayed awake and paid enthusiastic attention. The work represents in many ways a pair of bookends for many of these spectators: its first appearance took place in 1931, two years before the Nazis banned it as “Degenerate Art,” and its reincarnation happened soon after the war. It was filmed twice. Once before the Nazi takeover and again in 1953 [Editor: There was also an adaptation made for TV in 1971]. It was a big hit in both periods.

Paul Abraham’s operetta was the second of four successive hits he composed between 1930 and 1932 (the others are Viktoria und Ihr Hussar, Ball im Savoy and Die Privatsekretärin, which actually was a film musical). Die Blume von Hawaii, according to many accounts, is a groundbreaking work: Abraham and his librettists Alfred Grünwald and Fritz Löhner-Beda sought to free operetta from the bonds of sentimental waltzes and soapy story lines. In the former, Abraham was largely successful. In the latter, the team stuck to the formula of romantic threads that become entangled, only to get disentangled by the final act finale.

The operetta format was rapidly atrophying by 1931, when Blume von Hawaii, with its mix of South Seas exotica and Continental chic, received its world premiere in Leipzig. What is astounding about this work is the ease with which Abraham integrates musical elements that were new or unusual into the operetta form. Among the requisite waltzes and marches, you also hear foxtrots of varying tempi, the charleston, swing, and, of course, jazz. A lot of English is also evident in the lyrics. And the words -- whether in German, English, or occasionally in French and Italian, utter what all "classic" operetta expresses: nostaligia.

Abraham had to flee Germany after the Nazis seized power and eventually landed in New York. His works meanwhile were banned by the Nazis and his recordings and sheet music were deleted or destroyed. It was believed that the full score to Blume von Hawaii had also met this fate.

Abraham was never able to establish himself in musical circles in the United States and had to be committed to a hospital in 1946, following a mental breakdown. It has also been reported that he was suffering the effects of secondary syphilis. Ten years later, friends and fans in Germany heard about his plight and established a foundation, which enabled him to live out the remaining four years of his life together with his wife, Charlotte, in Hamburg.

Before he fled Berlin, Abraham left the key to a large cabinet with his butler. The chest reportedly contained over 300 manuscripts, including songs for operettas, musicals, cabaret and for specific performers. His butler promptly sold many of the manuscripts to hacks, who shamelessly profited from passing off Abraham’s music under their own names. Years later, it turned out that the documents entrusted to the butler apparently included the autograph score to Blume von Hawaii, which eventually was sold to a private collector, who preserved it among his vast treasury of important musical artifacts.

The autograph, however, was not complete. Two musicologists, Matthias Grimminger and Henning Hagedorn, recently went to work on reconstructing the score, using recordings, films, and hints from other more complete scores by Abraham to flesh it out.

The fruits of their labor of love were produced in a full-scale concert performance in the Cologne Philharmonie on Sunday evening 28 June. To make sure the massive efforts that went into the enterprise don’t disappear, WDR (West Deutsche Rundfunk) produced the concert and recorded it for broadcast on 3 July (on WDR4). Despite some lapses in stylistic matters, the performance is a thrilling achievement, and one worth hearing on internet radio. A significant piece of history, once thought to be lost forever, will be revived.

If you have even a mild interest in operetta, you should listen to this broadcast, so I don’t want to jade you by commenting extensively on the performance, except to point out three performers who were standouts. Two of them are Americans. Puerto Rico born Melba Ramos in the eponymous part is accruing a formidable repertoire as a member of Vienna's Volksoper. She started off as a lyric coloratura, but her voice is darkening while retaining its evenness and dexterity. On Sunday, she displayed the right mix of exotic allure and world-weary sophistication.

Melvin Edmondson as Jim Boy has been living in Germany since the 1980s after racking up credits with Harry Belafonte and on Broadway. His account of the Al Jolson pastiche “Nur ein Jim Boy” (Just a Jim Boy) included a rousing tap-dance routine, which, trust me, was worth the price of admission.

Kay Stieferman was the big surprise. His superb Kurvenal in Wupperthal last month gave no indication of his glamorous way with lighter music. His bright, evenly distributed baritone reminded me of early James Morris.

The others in the sparkling and largely home-grown cast included Dominik Wortig, Stephan Boving, Heike Susanne Daum, Anja Metzger and Boris Leisenheimer.

Rainer Roos, sporting a dazzling white satin dinner jacket, was called in as a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled conductor, but his command of a score that obviously was new to him suggested that his versatility has more going for it than the biography inserted into the program booklet indicates. Roos has something few up-and-coming conductors have but need: the common touch. He was helped, of course, by the versatile WDR Orchestra and Chorus, whose members seemed to be really enjoying themselves. Purists may sneer at the score as mere show music or salon drivel, but listen closely and you may find that Abraham’s melodies, played so stylishly, are too infectious to be dismissed.

The event in itself proved to induce a bit of nostalgia for me. While the Metropolitan Opera and other performing arts institutions in the United States present broadcasts regularly, the days of weekly concerts as radio and television broadcasts, replete with a host/emcee have long since gone the way of The Voice of Firestone and Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. If you understand a bit of German, by all means tune into the broadcast of Blume von Hawaii on 3 July. The host Winfried Fechner takes you through the operetta’s plot complications between numbers -- just the way Milton Cross, Ben Grauer and other hosts of bygone radio days once did -- but with a good deal more wit and humor. While the WDR no longer has a regular slot for broadcasting live concerts, it still maintains its own symphony orchestra and chorus as NBC and CBS also once did. The classical department of the WDR broadcasts an astonishing variety of live music every week of the year. (In fact, each regional government-sponsored network in Germany has its own orchestra, chorus and broadcast schedule.) How much longer this paradisal policy can continue in the wake of the world-wide economic crisis is a matter few want to think about.

© Sam H. Shirakawa 2009

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tristan via Monorail

Sam is on to Wuppertal to see yet another Tristan und Isolde:

24 MAY 2007

Wuppertal has a brand new opera house. Well, almost brand new. The theater building underwent a major overhaul during the past several years at the cost of a gazillion euros and re-opened last autumn. The renovations have produced a brightly lit creme and gold auditorium of about 800 seats, distributed over the progressively widening parquet and two steeply raked balconies. All price ranges have democratized views of the stage.

The acoustical characteristics struck me as typical of newly constructed spaces meant for music: generous reverb and rapid response from top range to bottom. The litmus test, though, is whether the acoustics amplify the singers over a large orchestra. Few works are better suited to providing the tough questions than Tristan und Isolde, which I heard this past Sunday. The house passed the test admirably, at least from my seat in a box at the side of the first balcony: The voices thrust forward over the pit, even when the orchestra was going full-tilt. The ambiance, though, tends to favor male singers.

The acoustical qualities of the house came into sharp relief for me, as I was listening to Marion Amman as Isolde. A couple of weeks ago, I heard her in the same role in Cologne, where she simply sounded better -- bigger, brighter, a more varied timbre in the upper middle register -- aural peculiarities that have nothing to do with how she was singing, which was superbly. Amman is a singer to be reckoned with no matter where she performs.

The acoustical quirks of the house were especially unkind to Anette Bod, whose Brangäne seemed acidic at the bottom and shrewish at the top. Her dark mezzo has size, and she has abundant musicality going for her, but her sound in Wuppertal struck me as hectoring rather than heartening. Maybe elsewhere...

On the other hand, the acoustics seemed to caress John Uelenhopp's unhappy Tristan. His is not the most beautiful voice you're likely to encounter in the role, but it projects boldly under pressure, retains its virility in soft passages and, most importantly on Sunday, did not tire in the fevered throes of Tristan's third act mad scene.

Kay Stieferman as Kurvenal also benefited from the ambiance. His baritone is a powerful engine that also yields rich subtleties, though the lower end of his range has yet to come fully into its own.

As King Marke, Gregory Reinhart delivered a compelling oration in the second act.

The backstage area has undergone a complete update too, but producer Gerd Leo Guck, who is also General Manager, apparently decided to abjure a splashy display of the theater's state-of-the-art technical facilities. Instead, his designer Roland Aeschlimann provided him with literally a blank page -- a series of stark black-white rectangular frames, one behind another. No hint of place, except from subtle lighting changes dominated by shades of blue. For some reason, the characters are dressed mostly in muted Japonaiserie costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. But in a jarring costume switch, Isolde shows up to bid Tristan farewell dressed in a black haute-DDR evening gown.

I don't get it. Are we meant to be in Cornwall, Kareol, Kanagawa or Karl-Marx-Stadt? But I also admit, that the production is attractive and doesn't get in the way of the music.

Speaking of which, the performance was delayed for nearly 40 minutes because conductor Toshiyuki Kamioki was caught in traffic. It's a miracle that the show got started at all, if he drove as slowly as he led parts of the first and second acts. As noted by one critic, who wrote enthusiastically about the premiere, Kamioki not merely conducted, but celebrated Tristan. That was obvious from the belated start. But if there's a line separating celebration from self-indulgence, Kamioki crossed it by a kilometer. The sluggishness that crept in during those doncha-just-love-it? passages didn't bother me as much as his stop-light running races to get to the next Big Moment. Oddly enough, though, he managed to create remarkable tension in some spots. But Kamioki reveals himself still in the formative stages of an interpretation-in-progress.

Absent a ragged entrance here and there, the orchestra played for him with polished verve.

Again, no program credit for the English horn soloist, who played with reedy passion. Can't the musician's union do something about such omissions?

And now a confession: the really really fun part of visiting Wuppertal for the first time, was discovering the monorail that took me four stops from the main train station to Adlerbrücke, where the opera house is located. The Schwebebahn runs through most of the city, hovering over the (river) Wupper for much of its eight-mile route. It was designed by Eugen Langen, known best for his part in developing the gas engine, and completed in 1901. It's the oldest monorail system in the world and is unique in Germany. It suffered massive damage during the Second World War, but it was hastily rebuilt and has operated almost continuously ever since. If your travel plans take you through the Ruhr area this summer, a stop in Wuppertal is well worth a detour, just to take a ride over the city on its Schwebebahn. The whole trip takes only a half hour and costs less than two dollars per person.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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