Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Sibelius, Smetana

Back at the Musikverein this morning, for what was billed as a “Czech Matinee” with the Vienna Symphony, with Czech conductor Zdenĕk Mácal on the podium and Czech violinist Jan Pospichal playing the concerto solo.  The programming of Sibelius and Smetana was only half-Czech, however.

Pospichal, soloist for the violin concerto by Sibelius, is the concert master of this orchestra.  This means that, while he is used to working with the Symphoniker, such a pairing also has its drawbacks.  His tone was not robust enough for a concerto – he seemed more concerned with not overwhelming the orchestra, when for a concerto it really should be the other way around.  So his lines did not soar and sometimes got lost in the lush sounds surrounding him.  But he did get a good dialogue going with the rest of the orchestra, particularly when other instruments had contrasting solo lines.

After the intermission came the first three movements of Smetana’s Má Vlast.  The program notes made a point that Má Vlast was merely a collection of tone poems, in order to justify not performing all of them – or even performing them individually.  The Symphoniker has, apparently, only performed all six together twice in its history.  And although it is true that Smetana composed six tone poems, and gave them each individual premieres, he did see them as a group and one wonders why – as long as they were performing more than one anyway – they did not perform the entire set.

Macal clearly found a good level of sympathy with the musicians, although I am not sure I learned anything from his interpretation.  I am also not sure what to make of him – and his history also has some strange turns that suggest that others also don’t either.  He fled the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and built his career at the helm of middle-tier German orchestras with broad guest conducting engagements with world class orchestras on both sides of the Pond.  Then he languished inexplicably with the reputationless New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, before returning triumphantly to Prague to head the Czech Philharmonic in 2003, a post he suddenly and inexplicably resigned from in 2007.

Still, the Symphoniker continues to sound good, particularly its woodwinds, no matter who is standing on the bump.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Stravinsky, Tomasi, Tschaikowsky

I would not normally describe Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #6 as “rousing,” but tonight’s performance by the Vienna Symphony under Hans Graf was exceptional.  The first movement began with a low, dark grumble which felt like it had emerged slowly from the floorboards of the Musikverein.  This swelled into waves of emotion, which washed from the orchestra over the audience.  By the third movement, the only one which does not end quietly, the musicians had reached a feverish intensity.  Although the Musikverein audiences are usually good about their applause (sometimes tourists have been known to applaud at inappropriate times, but this is rare), the crescendo at the end of this third movement had the audience roaring, with wild applause across the hall.  Indeed, I am not sure if any of the audience members could really contain themselves, the emotions had simply grown that high.  The orchestra, which might be expected to react to such an interruption with annoyance, appeared instead to expect it.  After acknowledging what happened, the orchestra picked up with the final movement.  This gradually faded out, much the way the first movement had begun – returning to a low grumble under the floorboards.  A drained audience gathered its breath, and then the applause resumed long and hard.

This performance made up for the two uninteresting works which had graced the program before the intermission.  The concert had opened with Stravinsky’s rarely performed (for good reason) divertimento “The Fairy’s Kiss.”  A homage to Tschaikowsky, Stravinsky had orchestrated lesser-known music by Tschaikowsky with his own colors, and had then reworked the piece several times over a period of decades.  The only thing worth hearing was how Tschaikowsky’s music translated into Stravinksy’s tonal colors.  But the curiosity value soon faded – there was a good reason the original pieces by Tschaikowsky were themselves rarely performed, and Stravinsky added minimal curiosity but no drama, worth filing away with his other lesser works.  Kudos to the Symphoniker’s woodwinds, though, for some virtuosic playing.

For the second piece on the program, the excellent trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger made one of his frequent guest appearances in Vienna, this time as the soloist for Henri Tomasi’s trumpet concerto (1948).  Sadly, Tomasi would seem to be yet another of a long line of dull French composers with nothing to say.  The music was not unpleasant, and Hardenberger gave it an exceptionally skillful reading, but it simply did not go anywhere.  Worth filing away somewhere with Stravinsky’s Fairy’s Kiss.


Puccini, Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi

The front and back ends of Puccini‘s Trittico came on stage at the Volksoper this evening.

The Volksoper performed both in German to make them more accessible.  This worked better for the darker Il Tabarro (Der Mantel) than for the comic Gianni Schicchi, which I had suspected.  I actually have recordings of both in German, so the concept is not unfamiliar, but the Volksoper’s Italianate performances tend not to reach the standards of other productions, whereas the brooding and less tuneful Tabarro could almost pass in German.  I have never actually seen Il Tabarro before, but have seen Gianni Schicchi (most recently at the Novaya Opera in November).

Conductor Stefan Klingele and the Volksoper orchestra contributed greatly to the success of the first part, with gorgeous lush tones emerging from the pit.  The cast, mostly nondescript, got on with the business of acting on a simple but apt set by Volksoper artistic director Robert Meyer, whose star continues to rise in my book.  The opera ended dramatically, if not in a convincingly realistic way, mostly on the musical strength of the orchestra and the principals.  Michael Ende as Luigi, had the biggest and most dramatic voice.  Alik Abdukayumov and Maida Hundeling starred as Michele and Giorgietta.

For the second part, Meyer moved the scene of Gianni Schicchi from 12th Century Florence to somewhere in the second half of the 20th Century (1950s?).  This presented no real problem, because almost nothing in the story is dated (except the criminal penalty for falsifying a will).  The realistic set worked.  And while the performance preserved the humor, the translation did not necessarily do justice to the original Italian.  This is a comedy that relies mostly on its script, rather than action (in contrast, the slapstick performance I saw in Moscow in the Fall was not the right approach).  Martin Winkler in the title role and Sebastian Reinthaller as Rinuccio stood out from the rest of the cast, all of whom acted in an appropriately comical manner.

English National Opera

Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier

Somehow, in all these years, I had never seen the English National Opera.  I changed that last night, going to a performance of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier (they kept the title in German, but performed in English) at the London Coliseum.

When I was growing up, the ENO – which performs only in English – was well-known for intelligent translations and ample academic essays in its libretto series, so although I never attended the ENO I did know it from having learned the story and background of many operas from ENO materials back when I was a child.  I do not quite know why I never attended a performance there, especially when I lived in London, but I vaguely remember that it may have dropped off in quality.  Honestly, I did not follow that company closely.

Whatever the reputation, I can judge that last night’s Rosenkavalier made a good overall impression.  Since the purpose of the ENO is to bring foreign opera to the people in an understandable manner, hence the exclusive use of English, the ENO generally does sensible stagings (or at least this is the reputation – as I said, I have not been following the company, so maybe this has changed).  The Rosenkavalier set was not lavish, as Otto Schenk’s Staatsoper production I saw a little over a year ago was, but was nevertheless very traditional.  Whereas Schenk spent time on minute details, David McVicar – the director here – inserted the details through action.  While this put an emphasis on acting – which the cast more than successfully fulfilled – it also made me lose my breath just watching, with far too much running-around.  McVicar clearly intended to play upon the comic aspects of this opera, but chose the farcical influence of Rossini’s Barber of Seville rather than of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  Although Strauss had both in mind, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s brilliant libretto contains comedy on all levels, the setting of Rosenkavalier should keep its staid exterior and never descend completely into farce.  Sometimes there can be too much motion on an opera stage.

But these are quibbles, as the production was intelligent.  Hofmannsthal’s words were conveyed in English, and although quite a correct translation – and generally to meter – something naturally got lost.  Perhaps this formed the reason that McVicar decided to make up for those Austrian dialectual nuances through inserting so much action on the stage.  But he also inserted more prominence for the mute roles, particularly Mohammed, whom he turned from a page boy into an adult, and had appear a little more often than usual.  The role of Mohammed is one of those little period details Hofmannsthal inserted, but indeed normally remains a detail and not quite so prominent.

This opera leaves open much room for directors to determine who, exactly, should be the main character and protagonist.  Often it is Ochs (indeed, the opera was called “Ochs von Lerchenau” while still in draft).  Otto Schenk’s Vienna production intelligently posited the Marschallin (who does not even appear in person in the second act and only arrives late in the third act).  McVicar chose – as the title suggested – Octavian, the Cavalier of the Rose.  Octavian pushed the plot forward, sometimes purposefully and sometimes accidentally (betraying his young age), relying on the older and wiser Marschallin to help him out of corners he had painted himself into.  It worked.

As Octavian, Sarah Connolly pulled off the acting part, and made a dashing, vibrant, and youthful figure.  Although pretty, and able to hit the right notes, her voice lacked depth.  She is singing a boy – a role assigned to a mezzo-soprano only because Strauss was following a period convention of the century he wished to invoke.  But even in that period, mezzos assigned to sing male roles had to provide a different character to their voice than when singing female roles.  Her voice came out too light and dainty, particularly for this headstrong part.

Amanda Roocroft sang a dignified aristocratic Marschallin.  The young soprano Sophie Bevan was excellent as her namesake Sophie, making her voice both dainty and full simultaneously.  Special mention should go to Adrian Thompson in the minor role of Valzacchi, who managed to make himself a highlight and creep forward to steal the stage at the right moments.  A disappointment was John Tomlinson as Ochs – sadly, Tomlinson seems to have passed his sell-by date.  When I saw the cast list, I assumed his presence would guarantee the production.  Although his acting ability has not diminished, his voice has.  He hit all of the lower-register notes without problems, but cracked every single note on the upper registers.  His instrument sounded worn and tired.

Edward Gardner conducted an on-the-whole idiomatic performance.  His orchestra followed him well, and proved capable of getting through the not-easy score, but was also not especially good, having a ragged tone that sounded like it had been re-amplified from a poor-quality 1950s live recording (but it was not amplified, so these really were the tones it produced).  I suppose I could compare it with a very good amateur or student orchestra (albeit not from a conservatory).

The ENO’s house, the London Coliseum, is a lush Edwardian building constructed in 1904 with a large stage and generally-good sight lines.  I am not sure about the acoustics overall from this one performance, sitting on the first-level balcony, a few rows back and under the ceiling from the second-level balcony (although there was a lot of room between levels, so the music could get in there).  I heard everything well enough, so assume that it was in order.  But I’d need to move elsewhere to get a better sense of the overall quality of the hall.

What shocked me, however, were the prices.  My seat was somewhat middle-ranked (maybe even lower than that), but was still far more expensive than even the most expensive seat at the Volksoper – Vienna’s second house (the ENO being London’s second house, this would seem to be the logical point for comparison).  This lower-middle ranked seat at the ENO was also more expensive than most seats at the Staatsoper.  Yet the ENO is not a private house but is state-owned and taxpayer-supported.  The ENO also, like the Volksoper, prides itself as the “people’s” house, trying to make opera more accessible than at the top house (in London, that being the Royal Opera at Covent Garden).  I am not sure how charging so much for tickets accomplishes this goal.  Furthermore, even a program cost 5 Pounds, about three times what a program at the Staatsoper costs – yet it contains far less material, and is mostly a book of advertisements.  I do not begrudge the ENO for seeking sponsors and advertisers, but it is a bit much to ask people to pay to receive advertisements.  There were a few informative essays, but again not what I would expect for that amount of money and nothing resembling the great booklets the ENO published back in the 1970s.

Still, I do not go to the ENO often, and indeed had not gone ever before.  I would go again.