Komische Oper Berlin: “Die perlen der Cleopatra”

Komische Oper Berlin, Season 2016-2017
Operetta in two acts. Libretto by Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald.
Music by Oscar Straus
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt DAGMAR MANZEL
Pampylus, first minister DOMINIQUE HORWITZ
Beladonis, Prince of Persia JOHANNES DUNZ
Viktorian Silvius, a Roman officer DOMINIK KÖNINGER
Charmian, lady-in-waiting TALYA LIEBERMAN
Marcus Antonius, triumvir of the Roman Empire/ Kophra from Nubia, revolutionary PETER RENZ
Chor der Komischen Oper Berlin, Lindenquintett Berlin, Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin
Conductor Adam Benzwi
Chorus David Cavelius
Production Barrie Kosky
Stage Rufus Didwiszus
Costumes Victoria Behr
Light Diego Leetz
Choreography Otto Pichler
Berlin, 3rd December 2016
DIE PERLEN DER CLEOPATRA (The Pearls of Cleopatra) by the Viennese composer Oscar Straus who neither has anything to do with the Strauss dynasty of Waltz Kings nor Richard Strauss is a pointed satire on bourgeois conventions and indicative of how popular operetta used to be in the 1920s in its transition from the traditional Viennese to the Berlin operetta which was also influenced by the cabaret of the time. It combines poignant wit and frivolous ambiguity with a musical cocktail of jazz, late Romanticism and a dash of Viennese Waltz. Oscar Straus created the role of the probably most famous Egyptian Queen for nobody less than the legendary Fritzi Massary who was undoubtedly one of the biggest stars of the European stage in the Roaring Twenties. Having produced “Ball im Savoy” by Paul Abraham in 2013 and “Eine Frau, die weiß, was sie will!” also by Oscar Straus in 2015 the director of the Komische Oper Berlin Barrie Kosky continues to stage Berlin operettas withDie Perlen der Cleopatra”. His set designer Rufus Didwiszus is clever enough not to put an Egyptian pyramid on stage. If you are anxious to know why and what the difference is between this operetta and Verdi’s Aida that is musically cited a few times by arranger and conductor Adam Benzwi, just jump to the end of my review. Didwiszus has created an elaborate set basically consisting of sliding walls with black and white Art Deco patterns which enable quick changes to the scene. The empty revolving stage is used only once for the duet between Charmian and Silvius. A hit is Cleopatra’s huge bed where she has fun as a queen who cannot trust anyone but who is also a woman after all as she sings repeatedly. The bed can easily be rolled in and out or converted into the big tub where she bathes in milk according to the legend. Another big hit hailed with applause is a spacious fan of white feathers on a podium rolled in for Cleopatra’s second appearance in a glamorous evening dress. The colourful costumes by Victoria Behr are a feast for the eyes starting with the chorus soloists as a parody-like copy of Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra via exotic and skimpy outfits of the dancers for pharaoh ballet and some Josephine Baker style to no less than half a dozen splendid robes for the Queen. Silvius wears a slave’s garb for the love scene with her which nearly consists of a few pearl chains only. Set and costumes along with Otto Pichler’s abundant choreography reminiscent of the great Berlin revues of the 1920s go very well with Barrie Kosky’s production which is sure to become another camp and successful highlight of the Komische Oper repertoire. All performances are said to be sold out by the end of the year. “Hello Berlin, it’s show time in Egypt!“ is the slogan at the beginning and Kosky proves that the Giza pyramids are on the banks of the river Spree in Berlin.
With a storyline that is next to nothing he badly needs a star for the title role – the film and stage actress Dagmar Manzel who has successfully appeared in several operettas and musicals for more than ten years and may have found her best musical role so far. Unlike Fritzi Massary she is a genuine Berliner who uses the cheeky, witty and sloppy dialect that is typical of the city to play all the facets of the sexually bored Queen who rules her country willy-nilly. She is the spoilt brat as well as the femme fatale and last but not least the ordinary Berlin chatterbox cracking corny jokes. She is undoubtedly the motor of the production and it was her idea to have Cleopatra accompanied by her speaking cat Ingeborg – a glove puppet so that Manzel can also show her abilities as a ventriloquist. Cleopatra’s conniving first minister Pampylos is played by Dominique Horwitz who is also known as a film and TV actor and as a chansonnier. He may find the right balance between singing and acting but the character seems overdone as a fag with cosmetics in the garter and remains one-dimensional. Adam Benzwi does not only conduct the Orchester der Komischen Oper from the piano but has also rearranged Straus’ music by reducing the orchestra for a finer and more accentuated sound and adapting the tessitura to the cast. The tenor part of Silvius loses some of its effect in the baritone version for Dominik Köninger the more so as Straus composed Silvius’ aria “Bin nicht mehr Liebessklave einer Königin“ exclusively for his friend, Kammersänger Richard Tauber! But Köninger sings and plays adorably. At least the part of Prince Belladonis has remained in its original tessitura and Johannes Dunz can excel in it with his supple tenor until the end. Cleopatra’s lady-in-waiting and at the same time Silvius’ lover is played by Talya Lieberman who does not only sing charmingly with her light soprano but also plays the fanfare. Peter Renz as the drunkard Marcus Antonius with the very Berlin dialect as well is a match for Dagmar Manzel. The Lindenquintett Berlin (soloists of the Chor der Komischen Oper) makes up for the dominating Sprechgesang of Manzel and Horowitz. Needless to say that chorus master David Cavelius prepared the Chor der Komischen Oper very well. Standing ovations at the end – the raving audience cannot be wrong! By the way, Fritzi Massary is said to have been the only woman who was able to walk down the show stairs without looking at them. As pyramids are usually built in stairs the lack of one in this production is a good idea. Unlike in Die Perlen der Cleopatra you can hear four C’’’ in Aida.