Oh my wow. How to begin. I mean, this has been a bit of a surreal day! Any trip to see Elisabeth is exceptional. I so love the show and this is my third time seeing it. However, the fact that I just saw it with Pia Douwes playing the title role, Stanley Burleson as Death* and in the grounds of Paleis Het Loo… that’s a dream come true.
In the lead up, and quite understandably, I was so excited! Leonoor, who had booked tickets with me like the awesome friend she is and despite not actually knowing the show beforehand, was also rather excited. We didn’t actually know what they would do with the show to turn it into its concert form – it would be shorter and without interval, that much we knew. Would it just be a selection of songs? Have just the key cast members or an ensemble? In costume or a pure concert? We both expected a lot from the known cast though as well as from the show itself and the location. With such a weight of expectation it would be easy for reality to fall short but, in actuality, all hopes were surpassed.
What a production. It turned out it was a pretty full show. Some bits were cut back quite thoroughly** but not in a way that severely hurt the plot. Some flow and character development was reduced but for the majority of the audience who already knew the show there were no problems. Rudolf’s plot line was strongly simplified as he only had “Er valt een zwarte schaduw” and “Was ik jou spiegel maar” before dying, for example. Leonoor also had no real problems with the plot from what I could gather but I’m desperate to show her the full show now just for the extra depth! There was no set beyond the odd piece of furniture brought on at times but rather the palace itself was the backdrop. The audience sat on the stage itself and this added to things for me. There was a really cute moment when young Elisabeth playfully interacted with one of the cellists, for example. Oh, and it was fully costumed, perhaps with fewer changes, but the costumes were beautiful and they really didn’t skimp in this regard. Elisabeth had her full Hungarian Coronation dress, for example, despite the coronation itself being cut. In fact, some songs were moved around to make room for costume changes.
Where they really benefited and made use of their location was in the way in which they came down into the audience space. Lucheni came down during “Kitsch”, of course, but so did the prostitutes during “Zonder gêne” – in fact they got a man out the audience to dance with them and he was both a great sport and a rather good dancer! Het Loo is also one of the royal stables and that was something they took advantage of. Elisabeth may not have had her coronation but she did turn up in her Hungarian coronation dress riding in a carriage. Similarly, Rudolf’s coffin got a horse drawn ‘hearse’ with death at the reigns. You couldn’t do that in a theatre and it was really a special touch.
As for the cast themselves, they were awesome. There wasn’t a weak link and I have the utmost respect for everyone of them performing in those costumes in that blaring sun – not only were the costumes layered as Victorian clothing is wont to be but a fair few were wearing velvet, fur, leather and fur type fabrics at times. I don’t know how they didn’t faint, let alone perform so spiritedly!
This said, I am going to be one of those people who focuses in on the power couple of the production though (sorry, Franz Joseph, you always seem to get ignored and I do love you really!) because to be honest, Elisabeth and Death just shone out in this production, for me. I mean, it’s no secret that a large part of the reason I wanted to see this production was to see Pia as Elisabeth because, come on, as much as I love other interpretations equally, and sometimes even more, it’s her role and she sure as anything shines in it. What an amazing performer and what a voice! That lady lived up to and surpassed anything I could have hoped. Seriously, wow.
The other cast member who I was looking forward to seeing was Stanley Burleson as Death as I’d heard him singing the role in recordings, and seen a few clips and liked what I had seen and heard. I wasn’t expecting to like his interpretation just as much as I did though. He also has an exceptional voice and there were some notes that blew me away, got to be said. However, it’s his stage presence that was most amazing. He moves with a grace and fluidity that is otherworldly and some of his body language, particularly when interacting with the children (the ‘body’ of the young Sophie and young Rudolf) was beautiful, so powerful and communicated so very much.
The performance got an across the board and instant standing ovation. I have only seen something like that once before, interestingly after another Kunze/Levay production, Mozart! – usually there’s a bit of applause before people stray to their feet but not that day. The whole performance and the surrounding bits was an exceptional experience and, I don’t know about everyone else in that audience, but for me, it still feels that bit surreal.
*whenever I write De Dood (the Dutch character name) my mind reads The Dude and then I get mental images soooo… I’m translating here!
** I actually don’t know the Dutch version of the show beyond the CD so all comments comparing to other stage versions are based upon German/Austrian/Hungarian versions.