Sunday, 6 July 2008

REVIEW: "Elisabeth"

Elisabeth is a musical that confuses Americans and Londoners alike. After all, it’s a musical about a great ruler with a common name. However, Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay’s powerhouse is not about either of the British queens, but rather the final Empress of Austria, assassinated in 1867 by an Italian anarchist. Sisi, as she was nicknamed, is a beloved national figure, spurred in modern times by the trilogy of films starring Romy Schneider presenting an idealised life at the palace between the beautiful yet headstrong Empress and her husband, the doting Kaiser.

Reality, however, was quite different. The actual Elisabeth was miserable at court, and publicly mused that getting married at 15 was the greatest mistake in her life. Using her beauty (spurred on by anorexia - she had a 17” waist) and a demanding personality, sparks frequently flew around the palace, especially with the Kaiser’s mother in law. Neglectful of children and self-motivated, it is this truth, combined with a fantastic twist, that drives the musical. While it is acclaimed today as a modern masterpiece, the Vienna critics circle decried the musical for murdering their treasured figure. Unbeknownst at the time, this sharp rebuke of syrupy historical revisionism was just what the public wanted, and Elisabeth ran for five years before closing in 1997 only to be revived for another two years in 2003 - a production the RZ saw multiple times which has since been commercially released on DVD.. Subsequent productions have opened in Japan (it is a mainstay of the Takarazuka Revue as well as the Toho stages, both groups using a different revision), Hungary, Sweden, Finland, and in a restructured edition, Germany. Unfortunately, there has never been an English language production, and given Michael Kunze’s attitudes towards Broadway after the Dance of the Vampires fiasco, the RZ doubts there ever will be.

Why has Elisabeth become such an international phenomenon? Like all good historical musicals, it looks at a conflicted period - in this case Austria between the revolution in 1848 and the years preceding the first World War. The rise of nationalism, Hungarian autonomy, demands for a parliament, and the declining influence of the monarchy in an overextended empire provide a fascinating series of events for a strong lead to manipulate.

Elisabeth adds an additional motivation to the Kaiserin’s actions. When her assassin, Luigi Lucheni, is interrogated in the afterlife about her murder, he claims that she wished to die: she was having a love affair with the personification of Death. When scoffed by the unseen voice, he summons Death and Elisabeth’s contemporaries as witnesses, taking over as a narrator. Death admits that he loved Elisabeth and interfered in her life to bring her closer. Of course, one of the most beautiful and powerful women in Europe would hardly go without a fight, and this conflict lurks in the shadows of her battles at court and for her own freedom in a world which expects her to be a silent figurehead.

Almost entirely sung-through, Sylvester Levay’s music is beautiful and haunting, full of character anthems (“My life is my own,” “Kitsch!” “When I want to dance”) as well as quieter, more intimate moments such as when the Kaiser goes to Elisabeth for comfort, only to be rebuked. His initial plea is tender and impassioned, allowing Kunze’s lyrics (among the best in his career) to gently float to a woman scorned. An intelligent use of reprising prevents any one song from being overheard, but the return of familiar tunes creates a well played web of layers and links throughout.

It is here, however, that the RZ begins to have issues with the Berlin production. While the German productions, courtesy of Stage Entertainment, have always featured a reduced orchestration compared to the Vereinigten Bühnen Wien’s lush originals (unsurprisingly - Stage Entertainment are private while the VBW receive a massive subsidy allowing them to maintain a 40+ person orchestra in their productions), the Berlin production sounds hollow despite the programme listing 28 players - representative of the large orchestras expected in Austrian and German productions. Therefore the RZ suspects the fault may lay with questionable sound design.

Unfortunately, the problems do not stop at the sound. Based on his original Vienna staging, director Harry Kupfer returned to create the low budget touring friendly reduction - and by reduction, the RZ means massive reduction. Gone are the opulent set pieces of the Viennese original and the simple, yet elegant designs of the Essen and Stuttgart productions. In their stead we have a large box and some wing-themed furniture going around on a turntable. There’s also a giant bust of the monarchial eagle hanging over stage right which becomes so forgettable that the RZ wondered what the pieces he saw all over the stage were when it was destroyed in the nightmare scene.

Likewise, theatrical technology has advanced in the 15 years since the original staging, but has done little to assist this production. Traditional backdrops have been replaced by a wall of projections, designed by Thomas Reimer, intersected by mirrored walls at the sides courtesy of designer Hans Schavernoch. Schavernoch is also responsible for painting the Hofburg on the bottom row of projection panels, creating a disjointed look whenever one is raised (which is frequent - most entries are via turntables), made even uglier by the fact that the panels are semi-reflective: when scenes are lit from the side the lighting creates streaks across the projections in a manner that is neither artistic nor intuitive, but crass and sloppy. The action is also reflected in a hazy manner. Intentional or not, the only word the RZ can summon to accurately describe this problem is “ugly.” Reimer’s projections fare little better, ranging from tacky (a gaudy image of the true Sisi in the opening scene, some flying postcards at the beginning of “As one plans and schemes”) to nauseatingly smooth (the Ferris Wheel mechanics in “Nothing is difficult” combined with the real rising cart made the RZ motion sick when he sat in the stalls).

Continuing with the lighting, Hans Toelstede has overlit his cast to extremes: the RZ had trouble making out faces because of how bright the lights were at both performances he saw, each time from a different section of the theatre. On an upside, Yan Tax has provided attractive new costumes (excluding the new Death costumes which are sequined atrocities), but the RZ wonders why: certainly the costumes from the VBW revival are available, as are those from the previous Stage Entertainment edition. The costs associated could have gone towards something useful, such as finding a lighting designer who could make the costumes look good from the audience.

Cast-wise, the Berlin Elisabeth is a mixed bag. One of the key attractions of this production is the well publicised return of originators Pia Douwes (Elisabeth) and Uwe Kröger (Death). The RZ would like to say that both are in excellent form, but he’d be lying if he did - neither performer was present for the two performances the RZ attended. While he is unsure of the circumstances of the former, it was known in advance that the latter would be absent due to a conflicting booking for a concert, and both have taken multiple leaves for alternative engagements. Unfortunately, absenteeism plagues this production across the board: the RZ counted seven understudies or alternates performing on the Saturday night. While not seeing the cast member one wants to is a peril of live theatre, the RZ also believes that one should not take a limited and high profile engagement if one does not plan to attend.

So, on with the alternates. Annemieke van Dam tries her best in the title role, but isn’t there yet. She screeches her belts, and her voice doesn’t make smooth progressions. Her acting is passable, but she lacks presence. The RZ feels the same about the alternate Death, Felix Martin, though Mr. Martin is in far better voice. The RZ also had the opportunity to see the second cover Death, Martin Pasching, who had both the voice and presence to carry the role full time.

Continuing through the principles, Bruno Grassini was in for one performance as the assassin Lucheni, and blatantly phoned it in. Fortunately he was out the next night, and Thomas Hohler brought forth the sarcasm and sharpness needed for the role. Markus Pol does what he can with the underwritten role of Kaiser Franz Joseph, and Oliver Arno is engaging as Kronprinz Rudolf, though he is unlikely to be remembered as one of the greats. Another standout is Norbert Lamia as one of the most disengaged and apathetic actors ever to play Sisi’s father, Max, a role which demands a kindness and closeness to his daughter lacking in its entirety here. The remaining principles and ensemble were acceptable, but little stood out. There is word on the internet of low morale backstage which would go a long way towards explaining what the RZ saw on stage including a number of dropped lines and missed lighting cues at the second performance.

While the critics in 1992 were premature in declaring that Elisabeth killed Sisi, the RZ shall confidently state that this new production is killing Elisabeth. Whereas the Vienna production played two sold out years and the Essen and Stuttgart productions routinely performed to full houses, ticket sales for the Berlin edition are perilously poor: the Theatre des Westens has four levels and the upper two are permanently closed through the production. Tickets are routinely available at Berlin’s half price booth (albeit for 1/3 off in most cases), and even the RZ noticed a plethora of empty rows on a Saturday night. Supposedly this Elisabeth is schedule to tour after completing its Berlin run in September. In the RZ’s mind, the producers should cut their losses and close - a painful statement to make as Elisabeth is one of the RZ’s all time favourite musicals.

Where: Theatre des Westens, Berlin
When: Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Sa @ 14:30, Su @ 16:30
How much: €34.39-€103.39 (not including premiums). Prices vary by night, and the price of a first price ticket early in the week will get you a third price ticket on Saturday night. Despite being shown on the seating plan, the two Rang levels (1. Rang and 2. Rang) are not for sale. All seats that ARE available are good, though the RZ would recommend avoiding the side row and the loges.
Concessions: 20% off for students, elderly, unemployed, etc.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: €58. This is enough to get a first tier ticket for Hekticket (the half price booth across the street from Bahnhof Zoo) or a fourth price ticket on Saturday nights. The strength of the material overrides the poor production but only to a point.
RZ Other Notes: This is the first German production of Elisabeth to use the Vienna script, specifically the revision for the 2003 revival. The 2001 Essen and 2005 Stuttgart productions used an alternative edition which restructures the second act, streamlining the plot and clarifying a number of the character paths. In the RZ’s opinion, the Essen edition is superior,but there are those with an affinity for it.

And why would the RZ see a production he didn't like twice in a weekend? For one, he loves the show. For another, he was (unsuccessfully) attempting to engage one of his few remaining fanboy desires and see Pia Douwes in the role that made her famous. Ah well. Bring on Der Schuh des Manitu in December.

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