Janáček, The Makropoulos Affair
The Vienna State Opera kindly offered me a heavily-discounted ticket to tonight’s performance of The Makropoulos Affair by Leoš Janáček, which I naturally accepted. This is a very peculiar opera – well-known but not often performed. I have seen it once before, in a perfectly acceptable but in the end not memorable performance at the Gelikon Opera in Moscow in 2010, and I’ve heard it (without paying too much attention) broadcast from the Met. So tonight also presented an opportunity to try to figure this one out.
This is the first time the Staatsoper has put on this opera (premiere was last week). The staging by Peter Stein certainly helped make it accessible, paying loving attention to the libretto to make this odd piece understandable even without a mastery of Czech. The scenes were realistic but essentially simple, putting the emphasis on the performers, who then acted out their lines, which called for little action but much psychodrama. And this was not the sort of psychodrama that appears in Tschaikowsky’s great operas, but a whole other order, crossing into a world of magic and legend. That the libretto was based on a comic play (Janáček’s opera was no comedy) meant that a sense of humor pervaded the bizarre predicament of a woman whose body has lived for 337 years but whose soul has long since died, and now she wants to give up.
Laura Aikin headed the cast in the role of Emilia Marty (a.k.a. Elina Makropoulos, a.k.a. many other names with initials E.M.). She has wanted to sing this dynamic role for many years, and learned to sing Czech for the occasion. As the central character, all others had to react to her, so her success in portraying this multi-faceted role enabled the rest of the cast to blossom: Ludovit Ludha (Albert Gregor), Thomas Ebenstein (Vítek), Margarita Gritskova (Krista), Markus Marquardt (Jaroslav Prus), Carlos Osuna (Janek Prus), Wolfgang Bankl (Dr. Kolenatý), and longtime audience favorite Heinz Zednik (Hauk-Šendorf). Thanks to this group, I now indeed comprehend this opera and its fine nuances.
In the pit, the young Czech conductor and Janáček specialist Jakub Hrůša drew out all of the composer’s fantastic coloring to support the action, never to supplant it. This is not an opera that has the audience leaving the house humming its tunes, and the music can be quite complex, but it nevertheless cannot detract focus from the stage. Hrůša understood the right balance, while enhancing the singing. The orchestral playing was also magnificent.
Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Bach
The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Vasily Petrenko, the talented young music director in Liverpool (and, since I last saw him, now also in Oslo), recreated the magical world of Janne Sibelius at the Konzerthaus this evening, to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth earlier this week.
The tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter led off the program, with the opening cello solo emerging as if out of the floorboards. The orchestra ensured that this dramatic reading was not just heard but also felt, as the sound started low and slowly enveloped the hall, transporting the audience into a mythical time and place, now made very real.
The Fifth Symphony closed the concert, alternately driving the drama forward and settling in on lush arctic landscapes, proposing a tension between the two moods throughout as it moved to its triumphant conclusion. Sibelius wrote several versions of this symphony before he created the final triumphant one, inspired by a flock of migrating swans.
In the middle, Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. Although I did not see the logical connection to put that concerto into a Sibelius concert, I appreciated the chance to hear a work I have not heard for a long while (and I hear the Sibelius violin concerto relatively frequently already). Bell’s full and warm tone blended beautifully with the orchestra’s, and the smiles that passed between Bell and his colleagues on the stage indicated strong mutual sympathy. Though not as dramatic as Sibelius, moving us from the icy outdoors into the heated salon, Mendelssohn made pleasant music for an early winter’s day, and this was a concert among friends.
Bell added one encore – an arrangement of Bach scored for solo violin by Mendelssohn – in which he charmed the hall with his tones while somehow producing the complexity of a chamber orchestra on his single instrument.
I realized that I had not been to the Staatsoper yet in 2015 (and indeed not since January 2014), so I set out to rectify that anomaly this evening. On the program, Salome by Richard Strauss.
The iconic House on the Ring shines as a symbol of Vienna. Several round-year anniversaries coincided here that meant I might not fulfill my duty if I missed the year. My city has celebrated the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Ringstraße itself in 1865. Opera Director Gustav Mahler wanted Salome’s premiere for Vienna in 1905 (but could not convince the censors, so the premiere went to Dresden). The House’s Gustav Mahler Hall currently has an exhibit commemorating the reopening of the Staatsoper in November 1955 (after being destroyed by American bombing shortly before the end of the war in 1945).
Tonight’s staging, from 1972, stepped out of the right time, the period-piece that Strauss intended. A Klimt-inspired setting, it mixed the classic with the fantasy, both in staging and costumes. Although also somewhat minimal, the blocking put the focus on the music, which in turn reflected onto the set, to make an effective whole.
As John the Baptist, Polish baritone Tomasz Konieczny demonstrated why he is much in demand, with a strong bass (including when singing from the cistern without amplification) and restrained but suggestive acting, befitting of a prophet. American soprano Lise Lindstrom as Salome took more time to get her voice to fill the hall, but did so with boldness and self-confidence (and danced her own Dance of the Seven Veils, including – unusually these days – seven veils; after five, as the music turned to the motives associated with the Baptist and his prophecies, her dancing went from flirtatious towards Herod to vindictive to the Baptist). Austrian tenor Herwig Pecoraro portrayed a sardonic and sometimes unintentionally-sarcastic Tetrarch Herod (a pathetic figure in the book, for whom the performer – such as Pecoraro – needs to find the right balance in order to make him not come across as a caricature), while English mezzo Carole Wilson, a member of the Vienna Ensemble, presented the strong-willed and nasty Herodias. In the pit, the orchestra sounded in its element under the direction of American Dennis Russel-Davies.
Although probably not a performance for the ages, tonight confirmed that the Staatsoper still sets the bar pretty high.
A Sunday matinee in the Musikverein with amateur ensembles: first the Vienna Academic Wind Orchestra performing music by American composer David Maslanka, and then the Musikverein’s house orchestra – the Orchestral Society of the Association of the Friends of Music in Vienna – with Schostakowitsch’s 5th Symphony.
This was the first performance ever of a work by Maslanka in the Musikverein: today, his Symphony #8 for winds and percussion, composed in 2008. The program notes indicated he wanted to show a positive outlook despite all the problems in the world, to give hope that mankind will go on. The three-movement symphony opened with evocative and pensive music, which to me was evocative of or even derivative from the opera Lela by 20th-Century Georgian composer Revaz Laghidze. Did Maslanka know this opera? Did he hope American listeners would not know it? As the movement went on, I caught glimpses of Rachmaninov’s Three Russian Songs for chorus and orchestra. Since I do know these works, I felt rather disconcerted. The second movement was a fantasy based on the hymn “Jesu meine Freude,” representing prayer to overcome the difficulties. The final movement took the themes from the first movement but spun them positively and ultimately triumphantly. On the whole, the symphony was pleasant, and the musicians played well under the direction of conductor Andreas Simbeni. But perhaps I missed the drama in the words (here without chorus) of Rachmaninov and Laghidze; or perhaps the scoring for a wind ensemble was on its own a tad overbearing.
After the intermission came Schostakowitsch. I have heard this symphony already twice before this year, with the version by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov in the Musikverein being a special highlight. So it would be unfair to make a direct comparison. That said, under the baton of Robert Zelzer, the orchestra this morning held its own. They understood the meaning of the work, although perhaps not bringing out the extreme emotions the Petersburgers did. Still, the playing remained idiomatic and well-formed, particularly in the first movement, which Zelzer took at a slightly slower pace than usual. Indeed, the orchestra sounded good for today (indeed more proficient than the professional orchestra from Berlin – the Konzerthausorchester – which I heard perform this work in in Salzburg in February).