Leigh, Man of La Mancha
I do not believe I have seen Mitch Leigh‘s Man of La Mancha since I was a child, and I have certainly never seen it before performed in German. But I got a special offer for a ticket to see it at the Volksoper, so… my destiny called and I went.
Cervantes’ story is timeless. So this minimal, vaguely modern staging worked to allow the players to develop the plot, presented with good humor all around. The stage was built out over the pit, with the orchestra submerged behind the stage facing away from the audience, really just providing background (under conductor Lorenz Aichner). Under these circumstances, my main quibble was that they miked the cast, which was disconcerting (not to mention defeating the purpose of hearing a live performance) and totally unnecessary. Voices came from incorrect angles and sometimes gave several members of the cast an excuse to mumble their lines rather than acting them.
The simplification and twist of the plot works in this format, but can often come across as thin – there is actually very little there. So it is worth going for the fine music by Leigh. Great acting, however, can make the setting rise.
In this case, the mostly nondescript cast played along and was satisfactory. At its helm, and the only truly notable member, was the Volksoper’s own Director Robert Meyer, who has done a fantastic job leading this house since he took over in 2007 (his contract has been extended until 2022). He portrayed the tragi-comic Don Quijote with full emotion and intelligence, particularly when confronted by the Knight of the Mirrors when Quijote is forced to recognize his own farce and then again in the final death scene.
A few things converged to bring me to the Musikverein this afternoon: I realized I had not been to a concert there this winter; it has been a longer while since I last heard the Tonkünstler Orchestra, a pleasant provincial orchestra from Lower Austria that I came to enjoy when visiting Vienna from Kosovo back in the day; and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger reliably introduces audiences to new repertory with flawless technique.
Today’s program opened with a spirited Leonore Overture Nr. 3 by Beethoven. Conductor John Storgårds coaxed dramatic playing all around, particularly from the flutes. The fondness for Beethoven continued in the concert’s finale, with the under-performed gem of his Eighth Symphony. The Beethoven 8 is his smallest and shortest symphony, and often overlooked, but although it took a more classical form at first look, a deeper examination such as today’s brought out the nuances Beethoven had developed as he revolutionized music. The performance on the whole was nothing special, but the sound was balanced and the playing fine, to get the message out.
On the other hand, Australian composer Brett Dean’s Dramatis Personae trumpet concerto, which he wrote on commission for this orchestra and soloist, came across contrived. Hardenberger is excellent, and if Dean wanted someone to interpret his work he could not have done better. But the only way to understand this piece was to read the program notes, and even then its meaning was unclear. The music either needs to be able to speak for itself (especially in able hands), or the program must tell a story that allows the listener to follow along. In this case, the whole composition failed.
Dean’s music was not unpleasant, just unintelligible even with the program. Dean said he chose to write a trumpet concerto inspired by Beethoven’s Leonore fanfare – the trumpet having something to announce. But it remains unclear what he was announcing. After some odd percussive opening, the first recognizable music in the first movement was reminiscent of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony gone awry. After moving through several adventures and misadventures, the trumpet hero ended up in the urban landscape of Charles Ives. But Ives needed no program. This is probably not a piece I need to hear again in the hopes of understanding it better, but hearing Hardenberger attempt these works is always a pleasure.