Arts: Barenboim's Berlin battle

Ten years after the Wall came down, the Israeli pianist and conductor is dividing the city. By Michael Church
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The Independent Culture
The curtain is falling at the Berlin Staatsoper, but even before it has hit the floor the boos begin. "That's normal for a Harry Kupfer show," says my neighbour. "As far as he's concerned, the more boos the better." But I notice that those who are booing are also simultaneously clapping, and that a love-in is developing on stage between the rumpled director and an equally rumpled Daniel Barenboim hauled up from the pit.

The contradictory orgy goes on, with nobody wanting to leave; the new Tannhauser has lived superbly up - and down - to expectations. The opera is nobly acted and gorgeously sung, but its staging is in every sense problematic. Kupfer's Venusberg is meant to represent the realm of the artist's imagination, but the assembled nudes who emerge from its grotto are a weird melange of Pompeii victims, Alma-Tadema bathing beauties and a gilded figure reminiscent of Shirley Bassey dancing through the credits to Goldfinger. The action swings back and forth through the centuries until the whole thing is blown away in a gale of dead leaves.

There may be stars on stage, but the real hero of the evening is the Staatsoper music director himself. Barenboim has long dreamt of mounting a complete Wagner cycle here; for him its realisation on Berlin's most historic stage - once the glory of Communist East Berlin - is an event of immense significance. "In this theatre I have been following the cultural path that Germany has taken, and which led it so tragically astray in the Thirties," he tells me. "Was there something atavistic in Germany - or in Germans - which made the Hitler phase inevitable? I wanted to ask that question, through music, in Berlin."

But Barenboim is tired of attacks on Wagner's anti-Semitism. "If he'd written a clearly anti-Semitic opera, I certainly wouldn't conduct it. His operas are anti-Semitic only in so far as they were part of their zeitgeist - the way the English mocked Indians in the Fifties, or white Americans the blacks. In 19th-century Germany you almost had to be at least mildly anti-Semitic."

But he draws a sharp distinction between political nationalism and cultural nationalism, regarding the latter as benign. "Who wants, in orchestral music, a homogenised international sound? In German language you can hear the broad up-beat you find in performances by Klemperer or Furtwangler, that sustaining of the sound. Things went wrong in the Thirties when it was decided that only Germans were capable of producing that German sound, an assumption of racial superiority that lives on in Serbia."

Then he offers an illustration. "Claudio Arrau was, in many ways, the most German of pianists, yet he was born in Chile, and was pure Latin in his tastes. But culturally he felt part of the German tradition. So it is possible; it just requires an artist with curiosity and intelligence. And from the public, an acceptance that somebody who is not German really can play in the German way."

Coming from this most Germanic of modern pianists - whose training was at home in Argentina - these words have a particular resonance. His love- affair with the German tradition started when he spent the summer of his 12th year listening to Furtwangler rehearse, and it continued with his collaboration with the Berlin Phil in the Eighties. "When I was invited to join the Staatsoper, I didn't hesitate: I felt I was coming home. In that situation - with the Wall just down, and everything being rethought from scratch - anything seemed possible." And, as London audiences recently discovered, Barenboim has delivered the goods.

Or has he? Lutz von Pufendorf, Berlin's secretary of state for culture, gives me an earful which, coming from a top civil servant, is astonishing. Barenboim's Wagner fixation is "ridiculous" and inappropriate for the small house; by trying to turn it into a mini-Bayreuth he has driven away the Staatsoper's traditional audience. Other crimes are duplication of programmes offered by the Deutsche Oper, West Berlin's opera house, and leaving his stage empty for many days each month. "And yet the Staatsoper gets the second-biggest subsidy in Germany!"

Barenboim, he says through gritted teeth, is protected by a contract that lasts until 2002; by the end of our talk he is red-faced with anger. Only later do I learn that there is a personal subtext: he had applied for the job of Staatsoper Intendant, but was vetoed by Barenboim himself.

Barenboim shrugs him off: "He's here to make his political career, I'm here to make music."

But from Georg Quander, the current Staatsoper Intendant, I get a rebuttal that reflects all the hopes and anxieties assailing the new Berlin. Quander concedes that the pre-1989 audience has gone, partly because ticket prices have risen by many thousand per cent in the post-Communist era. The building is now exquisitely refurbished, but a question-mark hangs over its company's survival.

As it does over many institutions in this city. It's being suggested that, with eight orchestras and three opera houses, Berlin is musically overprovided. But, as Barenboim puts it, "They're providing enough money for nobody to die, but for nobody to live properly."

Everywhere you go in this glorified building-site of a capital, you find vast civic ambition fed by talent from abroad. Kent Nagano, who has just been appointed to succeed Vladimir Ashkenazy as artistic director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, says he was attracted by the electricity in the air. And one of the two favoured contenders for Abbado's soon-to- be-vacated podium at the Berlin Phil is our own Simon Rattle.

The other is Barenboim, though he clams up when questioned about it. He admits that he wants to reduce his conducting to eight months a year and spend the rest of his time at the piano. He's also embarked on a collaborative book about culture with the historian Edward Said.

The prospect of his departure saddens many. "When Barenboim conducts, it's like playing chamber music," says one musician. "When he's in town, it's great," says the mezzo Waltraud Meier. "But when he isn't, the energy flags. If he were to go, it would be a catastrophe."

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