Křenek, Pallas Athena Weint
I like the music of Ernst Křenek. Thonight’s performance of Pallas Athena Weint by the Neue Oper Wien was well done and I am glad I heard it… once. However, there is a reason this opera never succeeded, and it wasn’t the musicians.
Křenek wrote both the music and the libretto, freely adapting stories very loosely based on characters from ancient Athens (VERY loosely). His concept was to use these characters to make some sort of modern political statement influenced by the McCarthyism he was observing in 1950s America (where he wrote this) and of course his pre-War experiences in Europe. But he avoided making any direct analogies, and the allegory did not really end up explaining anything. There were certainly a lot of unpleasant tragic figures, with the plot sometimes having moments of cynical comedy eliciting laughs from the audience followed by a dark afterthought that maybe we shouldn’t be laughing.
This was all set to music that was perfectly fine, if twelve-tonal, but fit the mood well enough. But if the plot had no drive, then the music needed to, and it did not either. So both the music and the plot came across dense enough, while also managing to feel superficial.
Tonight’s staging did what it could. The set was evocative rather than realistic, which fit well. The costumes were undefined – not really timeless, but mixed (although not ancient Greek, but they really did not need to be). I found no logic to them but they also did not disturb. The blocking allowed the cast to act.
Of the cast, Franz Gürtelschmied, as Alcibiades, stood out. Very young, he recently emerged from the Young Singers Project of the Salzburg Festival, and is a name to look out for. His voice projected clearly and cleanly, with a strident dramatic tone. Klemens Sander as Socrates also gave an especially strong reading. In the pit, Walter Kobéra led an idiomatic reading in front of the Tonkünstler Orchester, which continues to make a case for itself as a fine regional orchestra and which handled the difficult chromatics with ease.
The performance took place in the auditorium of Vienna’s Museumsquartier. This is a strange place and probably added to the discombobulation as it proved a poor venue. The Museumsquartier project has been a great success as an exhibition and events space in Vienna, but it always has a somewhat peculiar alternative feel, and never seems ready for anything serious. So little things stood out: programs priced at odd amounts (3.30 Euros) but the ushers selling the programs were not provided sufficient change; the people “working” half of the coat room stood around refusing to accept coats and forcing everyone into a long line (and a panic as to whether we’d get through the line before the performace started) – and then the amount they were charging for the coat check which appeared on the table at the front of the line (1.20 Euros) did not match the amount on the sign visible to everyone waiting in line (1 Euro – it’s not the price that was the problem, but that everyone in line had taken out one Euro to save time, and then arrived at the front and had to fumble around for the extra 20 cents or get the checkers to make change, which made the bottleneck worse); then of course poor signposting made it hard to find anything. The auditorium itself is actually fine for the purpose, but uncomfortable (and may even be temporary, with rows of cheap seats going up an incline). The production used screens to project the words, which was helpful at times, but instead of supertitles (as seems to be the norm these days) they put a screen on either side of the stage meaning to read the words required looking away from the action, which was distracting and caused me to lose the flow. The screens were also small – I was relatively close in and could see them, but I’d imagine that higher up they were unreadable. None of these little things was serious, but together as a collection they added up, and I would not recommend this venue until it gets its own act together.
My second unplanned concert of the weekend, for which when realizing I would be in Vienna this weekend I managed to score late-returned tickets for an otherwise sold out performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Musikverein this afternoon.
Albeit a setting of a mass, Verdi’s is a theatrical work, with operatic drama, and the forces assembled on stage certainly understood Verdi’s intent. Conductor Philippe Jordan deftly crafted all aspects of the performance. I’d say he practically staged the work, except that the fire and brimstone may have consumed the Musikverein, and the gentler plaintive moments may have caused the remnants to melt, and we need this hall intact.
The Wiener Symphoniker, of which Jordan is the chief conductor, shone, with bright and open tones. Behind them, the Singverein, filled the hall with strident sound. Enunciating each syllable with clear diction, they got the message across.
To match such a performance would require four expressive and large-voiced dramatic soloists, and that is indeed the line-up they achieved this afternoon, with Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian alto Elena Zhidkova, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, and Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. Never outgunned by the orchestra and chorus, they projected clearly with bold – yet still sympathetic – voices which also blended well with each other (also not an easy feat).
I had not planned to be home in Vienna this weekend, but once here I decided to see if there would be last-minute tickets available for otherwise sold out concerts, and I got lucky with one tonight and one tomorrow afternoon.
Tonight’s offer, in the Konzerthaus, allowed me to hear Herbert Blomstedt and the Bamberg Symphony explore the architecture of Schubert and Bruckner in a well-paired concert containing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.
The Swedish-American Blomstedt, still amazingly spritely at 89 years old, is a master builder of orchestral sound. The Bamberg Symphony, originally founded by ethnic Germans exiled from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War (victims of the post-war reprisals against Nazi Germany’s policies towards that country – although some of them probably less-than-innocent victims), is an orchestra I only knew of through its solid recordings and reputation, and now got to hear live for the first time (the current orchestra members are obviously not the original ones, so it’s a new generation from the days of its old recordings).
From tonight’s performance, we clearly saw how much Schubert inspired Bruckner. Blomstedt constructed the two movements of the Unfinished out of solid building blocks, while still enabling the lyrical melodies to sore, in many ways a prototype for Bruckner. Having heard Beethoven’s expansive Eroica Symphony on Wednesday with a scaled-down orchestra, it was refreshing for me to hear Schubert’s often dainty Unfinished with a full ensemble on stage. This was a mighty performance, without sacrificing any of the charm. The low string rumblings at the opening of the first movement set the foundations in place upon which Blomstedt built the pillars to hold up the soaring roof. He also emphasized often unseen and unheard angles within the solid supporting construction, which allowed layer upon layer of melody to pile on top.
Although unfortunate that Schubert never completed more than those two movements of this tremendous symphony, this interpretation naturally flowed into Bruckner after the intermission. Indeed, we could hear similar low strings supporting ever more layers upon layers of sound. So while Schubert died young, Bruckner the former church organist was in many ways his symphonic heir. Blomstedt may not use the heavist stones when constructing Bruckner’s cathedrals, but his interpretations always demonstrate him as understanding the architecture. The Swede may be an acquired taste, but indeed one worth acquiring. The fully packed Konzerthaus audience clearly approved.
Schumann, Liszt, Beethoven, Rossini
Offenbach, Hoffmanns Erzählungen
Offenbach died before completing this opera, so no definitive version exists. Certainly, tonight’s version would not have been the one he would have chosen had he lived. He left a lot of sketches behind, but likely would have edited the opera if he had the chance – I will give the Volksoper the benefit of the doubt that tonight’s extra music was original Offenbach, but they did not have to include all of it, as it made the performance drag. Offenbach also did not live to draft the recitatives, so there is great flexibility in how much to use, and again the Volksoper used too much.
The Volksoper also introduced plot changes, which failed dramatically. Again, this may have been through using Offenbach’s sketches (I will assume), but that does not make them necessary. So two extra scenes were added to the beginning of the prologue, in which first Hoffmann’s Muse (a.k.a. Niklaus) and then the devil (all four villains) introduce and explain themselves, which is not strictly necessary and which made the prologue drag considerably before finally moving to Luther’s tavern. In the Venetian act, the plot became needlessly convoluted (instead of Hoffmann killing Schlemihl to get the key to Giulietta’s room and then arriving to find she has already gone off in the gondola with someone else, tonight’s plot became somewhat hopeless, with Hoffmann appearing to kill Pitichinaccio with not a lot of other clarity in the outcome).
In addition to this, the director appeared not to understand that Offenbach wanted his whole life to write a serious opera – not just the farces that made him famous – and this was it. Although there is a certain amount of humor in this opera, it is not a farce and Offenbach never intended it to be one. The opera director, Renaud Doucet (I suppose a Frenchman, although this seems to be a co-production with the Bonn Opera, a German company which thus should have raising a red flag indicating the opera director is no doubt incompetent) staged this production as a farce, with many sight-gags and crazy costumes that really are not worth mentioning that made the staging a nonsense. (It really is not worth mentioning the idiocy that went on stage – albeit I’ve seen far worse from German opera directors – so I won’t even try to describe this nonsense.)
But the lousy stage direction underscored a complete lack of understanding of what Offenbach would have wanted to accomplish had he lived, and this undermined the entire performance. The extended acts (particularly the extra prologue scenes and the act with the singer Antonia which lasted a full hour) dragged. They made one reversal in the opera, flipping the Antonia act to second before moving the Venetian act with Giulietta to third, although there is sufficient evidence in both the text itself and in Offenbach’s own comments to colleagues that this order is the one he wanted (although the other order became the standard), and to be honest I have no preference there, nor criticism for the reversal in this production. But there was no logical sense of continuity tonight, so the reversal from the established convention, even if likely Offenbach’s preference, just made for additional bewilderment if Doucet had any overall concept at all.
Conductor Gerrit Prießnitz held the orchestra more or less together, although periodically not quite in time with the chorus, and also sometimes allowing the music to overwhelm the singers (who otherwise generally projected well).
Benatzky, Axel an der Himmelstür
The Volksoper last month revived Ralph Benatzky‘s 1936 hit Axel an der Himmelstür (Axel at Heaven’s Door) with a new production (and the first ever production at the Volksoper). Although I did not know the work, it had great reviews, and of course I find I can count on Benatzky for a lot of Viennese fun. So off I went, and tonight was not only no exception, but indeed exceeded my expectations.
This is a period piece, a parody of Hollywood set as a Viennese operetta. The whimsical staging, by Peter Lund (a German! A German opera director who actually understands staging!) cleverly set the entire evening in black and white (costumes and set were all grey-toned, and the cast wore whiteface and white gloves (and body gloves) to cover skin; wigs were also black and white. A movie screen often formed the back wall of the stage and was used to project images, movie clips, and sometimes complete cartoon follies connected directly to the scene (sometimes with the singers themselves morphing into cartoon form on the screen).
Lest the screen become a crutch, a joke that got old, it actually was not there for about half the time, making the staging balanced. The cast hammed up their roles on cue, as they should have, also always consistent with the drive of the plot. Indeed, Lund’s sense of drama drove the plot rather than being driven. The Viennese operetta references provoked loud laughs from the audience, but everyone seemed ready to laugh in general, not least the cast.
My only quibble with the entire evening was the decision to mike the cast. In 1936 they would not have been miked, and the movies being parodied were mostly silent films, so this decision could not have been to try to recapture some authenticity. I’m not sure why it was necessary, unless it simply allowed the cast to pay more attention to their antics on stage without having to worry about projecting.
The cast was uniformly good, with Andreas Bieber and Julia Koci in the lead male and female roles (gossip reporter Axel Swift and Hollywood leading star Gloria Mills, respectively), well supported by Juliette Khalil (as Jessie Leyland, Mills’ secretary and Swift’s girlfriend a the start of the opera), Peter Lesiak (as Theodor Herlinger, a Viennese barber working as a Hollywood makeup artist, Swift’s roommate, and Leyland’s fiance at the end of the opera), and Kurt Schreibmayer (as Cecil McScott, Hollywood’s biggest film producer). A chorus of others performed an assortment of roles each, the duplication adding to the period feel, almost 1930s operetta as caberet (something Benatzky understood as well). Conductor Lorenz C. Aichner kept the orchestra light and spritely in the pit.
Absolutely the most fun I’ve had at a performance so far this year. I’d go again next week if I had the chance (I don’t).
Berlioz, Prokofiev, Schostakowitsch
The first Sunday matinee of the Mozarteum Orchestra‘s new season filled Salzburg’s Great Festival House with music, if with many empty seats as well. This was a shame, as the orchestra shone under guest conductor Markus Stenz.
The concert overture Roman Festival by Berlioz led kicked off the program full of color. Derived from music adapted from his opera Benvenuto Cellini, this reworking allowed the individual musicians in the orchestra to showcase themselves while blending to a thrilling whole. This was moreso apparent in the second work, Prokofiev‘s first violin concerto, where soloist Arabella Steinbacher joined the orchestra. Her tone was warm and sweet – but never too much so, allowing just enough edge to reflect that Prokofiev, when he wrote this in 1916, remained in the vanguard of new music. So we got intricate combinations of musicians – introduced by the viole, Steinbacher played a dialogue with the flutes, and then moved on to continue the discussion through the orchestra. And quite a fun discussion, moving back and forth and around and around, providing stimulation for the mind throughout the masterfull (and underperformed) work, here captured well be these artists assembled on stage.
Steinbacher treated us to an encore – a movement of a sonata by Prokofiev – which allowed her to showcase her talents further. This time, she carried out the fanciful dialogue not with an orchestra, but rather by herself. Her tone was just big enough to fill the large hall without strain, and allow us to enjoy her versatility working through Prokofiev’s clever thoughts.
The program closed with more color, except this time more somber: Schostakowitsch‘s fifth symphony. Stenz translated the sense of foreboding in the symphony by controlling the dynamics, the big moments bringing in a shock component. Stenz made Schostakowitch almost snarky: did the first movement describe clowns rounded up and marched to Siberia for cheering up the miserable victims of Soviet oppression? Who was trying to dance in the second movement? There was the color – so obvious in the Berlioz and Prokofiev works – showing through, in an controlled reading. While in my own head I’ve heard this work as increasingly black over the last few years (and heard that interpretation to the extreme with the Petersburgers and Yuri Temirkanov visiting the Musikverein a year and a half ago), I still understood the convincing spin Stenz and the orchestra gave the symphony. It certainly helps that this orchestra is in good form.
Wagner, Britten, Mendelssohn
Fall has most certainly arrived in Salzburg, but with it the concert season also picks up. Tonight, the Camerata Salzburg opened its year with a spirited performance under the St. Petersburg-trained Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis. I had never heard of Currentzis, who seems to have mostly vanished inside the Russian Federation for his career, but he is quite talented. Indeed, the orchestra parted ways with their unremarkable chief conductor (Louis Langrée) last season and decided to go without one – but maybe they should keep this one! They clearly had an excellent rapport with him, and their enjoyment spilled off the stage into the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.
The centerpiece of tonight’s concert was a somewhat unusual work by Benjamin Britten, his Seranade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. A not-quite-tonal work, it sets six poems written over six centuries, and prompts difficult blends of colors, which Currentzis coaxed with ease from the orchestra. The tenor soloist Samuel Boden and hornist Johannes Hinterholzer fully grasped the mood as well, with their idiomatic readings. Although on a modern horn for the songs themselves, Hinterholzer played the Prologue and Epilogue on a natural horn – the last as a backstage solo with the lights in the hall fading to darkness.
Sandwiching this peculiar Britten piece came two more traditional – but themselves quite different – works. The concert opened with Wagner‘s Siegfried Idyll, here performed extremely delicately by Currentzis and the Camerata. This was perhaps the Idyll Wagner intended, as a brithday morning wake-up gift for his wife, although tonight working equally as well to set the relaxed mood at the end of a hectic week.
After the intermission came a boisterous Symphony #4 by Felix Mendelssohn, which coming after the Wagner and Britten works demonstrated the Camerata’s sheer musicality. This is a chamber orchestra, so they did not augment the string section although adding the assorted wind instruments – this allowed Currentzis to highlight the various lines in those instruments, over a string foundation, with the orchestra capturing all of the nuances.
The audience exploded in applause. This applause, on top of the Mendelssohn, may have raised the roof in the hall, so Currentzis and the orchestra felt compelled to sedate everyone again with an encore (not a bad idea at all). Currentzis spoke a long introduction for this encore, emphasizing the need for silence and inner reflection after the wild performance of Mendelssohn, but he never actually told us what it was. It was some quiet minimalist piece of no particular interest (performed with the house and stage lights off, illuminated only by the music stand lights) that – to be frank – was anti-climactic after his long-winded introductory remarks. Far better would have been to turn the lights off and let us meditate in actual silence before heading back out into the night. But given the music-making of the rest of the evening before the encore, all is forgiven.