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The Berlin Kroll Opera House: The Middle Of Germany
A film by Jörg Moser-Metius
Music by Michael Rodach
Directed by Jörg Moser-Metius
Produced in 1990
TV format: NTSC 16:9
Sound: PCM stereo
Language: German, with English subtitles
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
EUROARTS 2001738 [59:00]

Before you open the case to take out the DVD, there is an issue to be addressed.

As emblazoned on its front cover, the disc’s main title appears to be The Berlin Kroll Opera House. Below that, in much smaller type, is an apparent sub-heading - The Middle of Germany. But when, in fact, you watch the original film's opening credits, you discover that matters are reversed: the main title is Die Deutsche Mitte (The Middle of Germany) and the subheading is Kroll und der Platz der Republik (Kroll and Republic Square).

This is not merely a point of semantics. The film was made in 1990, just a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and, after watching it, I am convinced that, as its original title suggests, its director Jörg Moser-Metius intended not a specifically musical theme but, rather, a historical/political one - to remind viewers of the importance of a particular city location, Republic Square. The square had been significant in earlier German history and the 1990 reunification of Berlin’s two halves had made it once again geographically central to the united Germanies’ putative capital. In fact, this film comes across as something of a rallying call to citizens of the new state to restore Republic Square as a central focus of Berlin’s public life. Thus, quite contrary to the implication of the disc’s packaging, it is not primarily the focused, detailed examination of the Kroll Opera House and its musical history and significance that might reasonably have been anticipated.

Even so, the story of Republic Square ("King's Square" before 1926) is interesting in itself and is generally well told on this DVD. In 1844, restaurateur and impresario Joseph Kroll's entertainments “establishment”- not, at that stage, exclusively an opera house - became the first large-scale development on the square, hitherto an open space so barren as to be known colloquially as "the Sahara". Over the following decades, with the establishment of the Second German Reich, the Kroll theatre was joined around the perimeter of the square by a range of grandiose vanity projects: aristocratic palaces, government buildings and monuments, usually in a fashionable neo-classical style and all on the largest scale. Before the First World War, conductors at the Neues Königliches Operntheater, as the Kroll had become after 1896, included Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler; Caruso sang on its stage and Pavlova and Nijinsky danced there.

The period accepted as that witnessing the greatest artistic achievement at the Kroll – or the Staatsoper am Platz der Republik as it became after 1926 - was, in fact, a very brief one. From 1927 until 1931, under the direction of Otto Klemperer and a like-minded team of musicians and designers, the house presented a mixture of standard fare and new works that utilised modern-day stories, often imbued with an air of satire, to illuminate the social and political issues of the day – of which the troubled Weimar Republic had plenty. At the Kroll The Marriage of Figaro, Fidelio, The Flying Dutchman and The Bartered Bride rubbed shoulders happily with the likes of Hindemith's Cardillac and News of the Day.
While Klemperer’s eclectic programming was quite enough on its own to offend conservative critics, including adherents of the increasingly influential Nazi party's reactionary cultural line, the Kroll’s typically avant-garde productions were striking enough to send them into apoplectic fits. Moser-Metius’s film usefully shows us designer sketches of some of the starkly bare sets characteristic of the opera-house’s output, though, given the often grotesquely inappropriate concepts that appear on 21st century opera stages, most viewers will find them nothing like as objectionable as did many of their 1920s and 1930s forbears.

Unfortunately, sketches - and just a few photographs – of the Klemperer-era productions are all that the director seems to have had at his disposal. From its absence here, I can only assume that there is no surviving film of a Kroll performance and, while we hear some appropriately scratchy-sounding recordings ofsinging on the soundtrack, we are not given any indication whether they derive from Kroll performances or even from Kroll singers.

Once the Klemperer era is dispensed with, we hear no more of serious music at the Kroll. Its subsequent history was rather sad. It was used as the venue for the few meetings of the Reichstag that were permitted in the Nazi era, so that if you search YouTube in a bootless attempt to find film of singers performing on the Kroll stage, you will turn up instead some rather distasteful recordings of Messrs. Hitler and Goebbels addressing their deluded followers.
Finally, in 1955, after failing to thrive commercially as a dance hall and café in the post-war world, a typically mid-20th century piece of technological "progress" saw what was left of the Kroll Opera House torn down to make way for a city car park. News of the Day, indeed!

Rob Maynard