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.

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