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Twenty Years On - Felsenstein in Berlin November 1989

Opera is very much an international art form. Over the years I have been lucky enough to attend performances in cities throughout Europe, plus a few in Canada and the USA, but no trip has ever equalled the one I made in November 1989.

To get it into context I’ll step back to the summer of that year. Whilst the stage machinery in their theatre was undergoing an upgrade, the Komische Opera Company of the German Democratic Republic undertook their first tour, with a short season at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden between 31 July and 12 August.

We saw Offenbach’s Ritter Blaubart, which in itself was a remarkable experience. Direction was by the legendary Walter Felsenstein, and it was the last of his renowned productions to have remained in the repertoire. What we were seeing was its 346th performance and the cast clearly revelled in it. Every move was strictly synchronised with the music turning the courtiers into puppets being tweaked both by the whims of their demented master and Offenbach’s music. It was at the same time very funny and very sinister! We bitterly regretted not having booked for the other operas in the festival, but it was too late to make the necessary arrangements and all we could do was resolve to see more of this company’s work whenever possible.

The opportunity came sooner than expected. A few weeks later an insignificant boxed advertisement appeared in one of the opera magazines for a weekend in East Berlin. The package included performances at both Komische and the Staatsoper.

It is now a matter of historical record that the Berlin Wall was breached on 9 November 1989 with a multitude of citizens crossing in each direction, but control of the internal border was not fully abandoned for some months. Our visit, from 17 to 20 November, coincided with a tense period of interregnum, when the joy of freedom was still tempered by fear of a reaction from the many thousands of occupying Russian troops. The demonstrations which had been instrumental in bringing about the changes were being maintained, and perhaps intensified to hold the advantages gained.

Our Interflug flight from Gatwick was a long one, taking a triangular course northward to avoid West German air space, and we landed at Leipzig where appropriate immigration halls had been installed to serve the International Exhibition Centre.

This was a Friday evening and it seemed as though everyone was determined to grasp this first opportunity of a weekend trip through one of the crossing points that had so recently been opened. Our modern Volvo coach crawled along a motorway clogged by long lines of Trabants and Wartburgs, powered by 2-stroke engines and queuing at each and every petrol station to fill their miniscule tanks.

Our hotel was on the site now occupied by the luxury DomAquarée Hotel, and our bedroom afforded a splendid view over Alexander Platz and the Marienkirche. The streets were surprisingly quiet and, although there was a boisterous group of people perched on the Brandenburg Gate, the big square in front of it on our side of the Wall was still under armed guard and few people seemed prepared to risk getting too close.

The following morning we wakened early to the sound of armoured cars and other military vehicles coming towards us on Spandauer Strasse and heading off towards the Brandenburg Gate. Certainly not a convoy, but they were clearly armed and there were enough to be disquieting. Our escorted sightseeing tour took in an almost deserted Pergamon Museum, it seemed that everyone was queuing at Friedrichstrasse for the S-bahn trains that were now a fast route to the West.

That evening we attended the Komische Opera for a performance of La Boheme. A modern concrete shell envelops a resplendent, lovingly restored interior. In keeping with the tradition of the house, the opera was sung in German. From seats nearish the front of the stalls I think it would be fair to remark that the cast seemed somewhat older than the young bohemian group that Puccini had in mind, and their voices were not quite first class. However, the staging of the Café Momus scene was the most lavish I have ever seen, with a wealth of variety and period detail in the panorama. I was able to buy a recording of highlights of previous Komische productions, which is one of the very few vinyl LPs that I have kept.

Next evening we dressed up a little for a visit to the Staatsoper unter den Linden to see perhaps that most German of all operas, Der Freischutz. It wasn’t a spectacular production, it played up the village character of the setting and was lovingly performed. The moment where the bridesmaids uncover a funeral wreath instead of bridal posy was a masterpiece of naïve astonishment.

Whilst we were being entertained in the theatre, demonstrations had been taking place in Berlin itself. Slogans had been painted on walls and placards strategically posted outside the Palast der Republic. But, as though by magic, these disfigurements were all removed overnight and the street was pristine and peaceful once more by daybreak.

It was a privilege to have been in that place at that time and witness history in the making. One exchange of conversation especially has stayed with me. A number of our group were planning to make the crossing from East to West and back. One elderly lady confessed to being unable to walk as well as she would like and asked if she could get a taxi to drive her across. Our young East German guide was obviously about to say “No, of course not” but then paused, whilst the realisation suddenly dawned on her that, yes, a time was coming when such an unlikely thing might be possible ….

I have revisited Berlin many times since then, watching the ugly scars of the Wall slowly disappear and new buildings, with some of the most imaginative and stunning architecture in Europe, fill the gaps.

On almost each occasion I have returned to the Komische Oper, seeing memorable productions of Puccini’s Trittico, Falstaff, Cav & Pag, Rimsky Korsakov’s Tales of Tsar Sultan, and - just this year - Pierangelo Valtoni’s Pinocchio. The Komische remains one of the most exciting and best kept secrets of the opera world.

Serena Fenwick

See also Felsenstein Edition