Staatsoper

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.

Staatsoper

Strauss, Salome

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.

Staatsoper

Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

To get to the Staatsoper tonight required crossing a line of riot police manning barricades.  Apparently this was not a good night to venture into the center of Vienna – the neo-Nazi “Akademiker Ball” was going on down the street, attracting thugs from all over Europe (and not just Hitler Youth, but equally-thuggish counter-demonstrators also looking for trouble).  The police locked down the entire section of Vienna from Schwarzenbergplatz to Heldenplatz, and we had to talk our way in (funneled through a passageway inside a building rather than being allowed to enter the closed-off area from the street – underground passages from the subway were also sealed off).

Probably better, then, that the Hitler Youth did not know that tonight’s lead tenor was black and the lead soprano was Israeli, or maybe they would not have left the opera house alone.

The Staatsoper presented a charmingly no-frills Otto Schenk-directed production of Donizetti’L’Elisir d’Amore that will never get old.  The staging, first produced in 1980, contained no gimmicks: it had just a single honest set and enough details to allow the characters to play up the comedy.  And this they did.

As Nemorino, Lawrence Brownlee provided an intelligent characterization of the dim-witted peasant, who is not so quick at understanding what is going on around him but ends up doing just fine for himself.  Brownlee’s beautiful voice also perfectly matched the role, more reminiscent of Tito Schipa than some of the bigger voices who often sing the part these days.  Still, his instrument was big enough to fill the hall – a little sotto voce in the first act to save up for the big arie in the second, but always audible and with perfect Italian diction.

The portrayal of Adina by Chen Reiss was frigid towards poor Nemorino, warming in the end.  There may have been a lack of chemistry between the two lead singers, although both were excellent in their own parts.  I do not know how often they may have performed together before, and this may have impacted their acting relationship.  Either that, or Reiss wanted to portray Adina as particularly cold (although it did not seem this way, since she did make the character somewhat flirtatious).

Alfred Šramek as Dulcamara and Mario Cassi as Belcore provided a humorous supporting cast.  Guillermo García Calvo kept the orchestra light and on cue.  From my seat, I could see that he had taken his mother’s name (Calvo, meaning “bald”) rather literally for someone in his mid-30s.

Staatsoper

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Mussorgksy’s opera Boris Godunov exists in many versions, most with an inherent logic and which one production or another might legitimately favor for different reasons.  One version of the opera, however, should never be performed, except possibly as a curiosity: the original version, which was rejected by everyone including the composer himself for its complete lack of drama.  While the figure of Boris Godunov himself goes through a character development, everyone else is a stick figure, and this even makes it difficult for Boris to interact.

I know the many versions of this opera well.  I have also seen this original version staged twice myself – once in Geneva in 2003 (that failed) and once in Moscow in 2011 (at the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, which used it as a venue to display a particularly exceptional student in the title role rather than as a fully-staged developed version, and the Center’s emphasis on acting meant the supporting characters got the little details right).

Yet, in an era of financial crisis, it beggars belief why the Staatsoper would hire a director who chose to stage Mussorgsky’s original version, as they did in 2012 with director Yannis Kokkos.  The music remains wonderful, but Kokkos gave us nothing and the evening ended unfulfilled.  Born in Greece, Kokkos has worked his entire career in France, which may explain the utter lack of drama (a good Greek word, but clearly the French influence has rubbed off).

Costumes were contemporary (or maybe 1990s) Russian, which combined with the intentially dark lighting meant I had unpleasant flashbacks of walking the streets of Moscow, city of 18 million miserable wretches, during my time working for the Russians.  The sets had no discernable logic, mixing semi-abstract iconography (to represent the churches) with geometric colored shapes (representing nothing in particular), and an assortment of odd furniture (and a ladder) that looked like the Staatsoper ran out of money before they completed the staging (or Kokkos entrusted the money to the mafiosi who run the Bolshoi and they absconded with it).  Some of the scenes contained an enormous statue with its back to the audience, which looked like it could have been Lenin.  And Kokkos also installed subterranean cisterns (or something), so that characters could sometimes make their entrances from steps emerging in the middle of the stage.  At one point, so did a bloodied child, representing the murdered Dmitri Ivanovich walking the earth again (I suppose if Kokkos selected the only version of this opera that lacks drama, he had to invent some of his own).

Ferruccio Furlanetto strove mightily to portray the title role under these circumstances.  His voice began, like his reign, hopeful and almost sweet, and became more nuanced as his character slowly decayed.  Norbert Ernst as Shuisky contrived and plotted his way through the evening – the real evil character in this opera, who sets up Boris for mental ruin (did Kokkos give him a Lenin goatee for a reason, or does Ernst normally wear his facial hair that way?).  Pavel Kolgatin as the holy fool also shone in his small but critical role.  The rest of the cast just struggled to make something dramatic of this version and senseless staging.  Kurt Rydl especially disappointed as Pimen – a mainstay of the Staatsoper, he displayed his customary full lower bass, but missed every note in the upper half of his register, rasping instead of singing.

In the pit, the German conductor Michael Güttler also failed to inject drama.  He did nothing to augment the thin scoring of this early version, and he never managed to get the chorus (apparently imported from Slovakia, according to the program) to sing in time with the orchestra.  He did flail his arms a lot, so I suppose that was dramatic.

Meanwhile, the Staatsoper appeared in a hurry to get the whole production over with: an early start time (6:30 p.m. on a weeknight!?!?) combined with zero intermissions ensured we finished long before 9:00.  They must have sensed that they wasted their money on this production.  A better idea: since the Staatsoper has been digging out old successful stagings from their warehouse, maybe it is time to cancel the rest of this run and find some old Boris sets in storage from an intelligent director, and then stage any one of the possible versions of this opera except the correctly-rejected original version.

On the other hand, the music was beautiful if I ignored everything else.  For that, it was worth buying a ticket.

Staatsoper

Bizet, Carmen

I opened my 2013-14 (or maybe 5774) music season tonight with Bizet’s Carmen at the Staatsoper.

The Staatsoper dusted off a 1978 production by Franco Zeffirelli, which ensured the staging matched the plot at least.  The large sets, painted to look even larger, produced a traditional reading, but also had some little touches.  One came when José and Carmen saw each other for the first time: everyone else on stage froze in whatever position they happened to be in, and only the two main protagonists moved, as the music amplified their clear passion.  As an example of Carmen’s rough and hot personality, when she danced for José in the tavern in Act Two, lacking castanets she smashed a plate left on a table, and used the shards to click the beats.  These little touches added to the drama.  Unfortunately, in the end, the production at the big-picture level remained somewhat cluttered, with superfluous action by extras leading to distraction.

The Philadelphia-trained Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham headed the cast, with a sultry Carmen.  Roberto Alagna, as Don José, overwhelmed her however, with a more secure stage presence and and fuller expressive voice.  Something about the chemistry between these two lacked, and Alagna had much better chemistry with the Romanian Anita Hartig, who sang the smaller role of Micaela with such controlled drama that she became the most sympathetic character (and characterization) on the stage.  The audience showered her with approval during the final curtain call, and the swell of the applause clearly took her by surprise judging by her facial expression.  She deserved it.  Just one more reason José should have married her and not gotten mixed up with Carmen.

The rest of the cast, in various supporting roles, kept up the basic required standard.  The orchestra sounded terrific in the pit, led with a beaming smile by Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger.

After seeing the level of dress in the audiences deteriorate over the years, tonight marked a pleasant exception.  Even though this was not a gala evening nor a special event, I saw a number of men in black tie (something I have not seen for years), including a little boy in my loge.  Women wore proper gowns.  While there was not as much Austrian Tracht as I like, I was far from the only one taking that option.  Even the tieless tourists looked neat and clean.  Sad that when an audience dresses for the opera it is so noticeable for being so unusual these days.

Staatsoper

Tschaikowsky, Yevgeny Onyegin

Back to the Staatsoper for the third time in a week, this time for Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, with a superb cast headlined by Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role and Anna Netrebko as Tatyana, and Andris Nelsons conducting.  From the way it sounded, this cast certainly knew its way around the parts, and all of the singers commanded their roles.

Nelsons kept the orchestra tense, as it should be for such a psychodrama.  His pacing, tone, and emphasis were all exemplary.  Hvorostovsky’s voice cut through the air, slightly bitter (although I have long admired his voice since I first saw a broadcast of the Cardiff competition in 1989, this was surprisingly the first time I have heard him live, and he sounds exactly as he does in his recordings).  Netrebko pulled off a stunning mezza voce in the letter scene, sung partly on her back, which wafted through the House with practically the same fullness as her normal singing voice.  She was certainly on top of her game tonight, although not as young-looking as she once was (happens to all of us).  The young and dashing Dmitry Korchak as Lensky had a wonderful tenor, most strident when he told Onyegin they were no longer friends and most melancholic when he reflected on his life in Act Two before Onyegin killed him.  Alisa Kolosova portrayed a full but tender Olga.

The problem came with the Regisseur, yet another useless German import, Falk Richter.  Why no director from (or trained in) Germany seems capable of producing intelligent stagings in the last half century continues to bewilder me.  This staging was, at least, not offensive and not shocking (making it a big improvement over most of the nonsense coming from German opera directors).  However, I could not understand the point. The program booklet contained a long interview with Richter, but even in that forum he proved unable to explain anything coherently.

I have seen this opera twice in Moscow with minimal sets (at the Stanislavsky Opera in 2009 and at the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center in 2011), so a grand staging is not necessary if it remains sensible and allows the singers to emphasize the drama.

But tonight’s minimal stage provided just enough of a set to distract from the drama.  The chorus and ballet corps either stood around like blobs doing nothing when they should have been doing something or they pranced around like circus clowns (either way they made a distraction); snow fell constantly throughout most scenes (including one scene indoors); Tatyana appeared to go sleep in a cut-out igloo; the second act ball scene contained an ice bar literally crawling with lobsters; the third act ball appeared to take place in a tacky and tasteless ultra-modern shiny-black hangout for oligarchs that I tried to avoid when I lived in Moscow, hosted by a too-young Prince Gremin – presumably the oligarch-in-chief – in his diamond-encrusted tails.  Costumes were contemporary to today.

At no time did the staging either seek to draw out the drama (contained in the words and music, not the action, as typical in Tschaikowsky operas), nor even simply minimize itself to allow the cast to do this on their own.  I suppose the staging not only distracted me, but also must have distracted the cast.  So while they all sang wonderfully, it sounded like they were simply going through the roles from their staple repertory.  Since they have likely performed these roles together before, they managed some personal interaction, but on the whole it was a rote performance devoid of any coherent concept.  By process of elimination, if the problem was not the orchestra, the conductor, or the cast, then it must be the director.

For a simple staging, the scenes also came far too disjointed.  Every scene brought a scrim down, followed by silence as the orchestra had to wait (why?  the sets were so simple they could have been rotated or changed quickly).  The only intermission came two and a quarter hours into the opera – between the second and third acts – with only forty-five minutes to go once the opera resumed. For an opera with no action, that had the audience squirming.  If they needed (or just wanted) to pause for long scene changes anyway, breaking up any continuity, they should have had at least two intermissions.

As a final quibble, the scrim often had Russian written on it: either just the exclamation “Onyegin!” or the text of Tatyana’s letter to Yevgeny.  The problem was that it was written in the Cyrillic alphabet according to today’s spellings, and not the correct pre-Soviet spellings used by Tschaikowsky and Pushkin (for example, the original second vowel in Onyegin was abolished by the Soviets). So these Russian scribbles were simply contextually incorrect.  Falk Richter is an idiot.

Staatsoper

Verdi, Rigoletto

Back to the Staatsoper this evening for Verdi’Rigoletto.  I saw this same production a few years ago, but a promising cast and an available ticket brought me back.

The British baritone Simon Keenlyside portrayed Rigoletto almost acrobatically – rolling a cartwheel to make his onstage entrance during the Prologue.  He did not stay still, although his actions never became hectic or frantic but rather measured, as a good court jester would understand. He also successfully navigated the two mutually-exclusive halves of Rigoletto’s tortured personality: the professional fool who is hated by the court for speaking truth and the doting father who tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to protect his treasured daughter from an evil world.

Young Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko made her Staatsoperdebut as Rigoletto’s dear Gilda.  Her voice and her demeanor graced the stages suitably delicately, as appropriate.  Her range impressed, but while her upper and lower registers produced the purest tones, her middleregister wobbled quite a bit too much.

As the Duke of Mantua, American Matthew Polenzani cut a dashing figure – a one dimensional character played to the fullest. Kurt Rydl, a menacing Sparafucile, and Elena Maximova as Maddalena rounded out the main ensemble roles.  Sorin Coliban, in the minor role of the Count of Monterone, deserves special mention, in that his character, although having only two brief appearances on stage, curses Rigoletto, thus driving the plot and sending Rigoletto into ultimate despair.  Without a strong curse, the whole plotcan collapse.  Coliban’s commanding voice projected from the back of the stage, hitting and devastating poor Rigoletto.  Keenlyside picked up the plot from there.

Jesús López-Cobos conducted the State Opera Orchestra from the pit, but appeared to have a smile on his face as he looked over the orchestra to the active and fully-engaged cast.

Staatsoper

Beethoven, Fidelio

A fantastic Fidelio at the Staatsoper.  Otto Schenk originally designed this production for the Theater an der Wien in 1970, and in 1991 a modified version moved to the big stage on the Ring (with Erich Leinsdorf on the podium).  Simple and appropriate, the staging allowed the music to provide the drama.

Indeed, Beethoven’s music indeed marks the triumph of this opera.  This is an opera that everyone knows and which people have heard recordings of frequently, but somehow (based on an unscientific survey among my friends) no one ever actually sees (better to hear than to see, I suppose).  I think I have seen it twice myself, both times at the Met (first under Leinsdorf and later under Klaus Tennstedt) in the early 1980s, but not since.  The first act is a bunch of set pieces according to operatic tradition of the time – beautiful music but little drama.  The second act provides a monument to human freedom, couched in a typical nonsensical period rescue plot to pass the censors, with the music doing the heavy lifting. So in a successful production of Fidelio, the music must take precedence, and the staging should only provide a venue for the music.

And what better placeis there to enjoy this music?  Shortly after the Russian occupation forces withdrew from Vienna in 1955, the Staatsoper (which had taken a direct hit froman American bomb in the closing days of the Second World War) reopened from the ruins.  Fidelio was the first opera on the newly rebuilt stage. In this year featuring many commemorations of the Anschluß 75 years ago, the Staatsoper has dusted off the Schenk production and a Vienna Ensemble cast.  The Orchestra, under the baton of Adam Fischer (a Hungarian Jew who recently resigned as Music Director of the Budapest State Opera due to increasing anti-Semitism in Hungary), played in full dramatic form.  From the first strains of the Fidelio Overture through the final chorus, the music brought everyone to the edge of our seats, toyed with our emotions, and lifted us up.  The Leonore Overture #3, used as an interlude in the middle of Act 2 as per the Vienna tradition started when Gustav Mahler led this opera house, particularly brought down the house, and forced the orchestra to take several standing bows.

The Vienna Ensemble cast also mostly did not disappoint.  Anje Kampe headed the effort as Leonore.  The Moldovan Valentina Naforniƫă, the winner of the 2011 Cardiff competition which has justifiably launched the careers of so many worthy stars in the past (including Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel splitting the honors in the famous 1989 competition), has recently joined the Vienna Ensemble and providedan exceptional Marzelline.  Norbert Ernstas Jaquino and Walter Fink as Rocco ensured that the quartets in Act 1 remained balanced at a fine level, with strong projection, clear tones, and expressive acting.

The Staatsoper may have engaged Lance Ryan, the Canadian tenor making a guest appearance as Florestan, in order to guarantee that the only non-Vienna cast member provided the disappointment, singing consistently sharp and wobbly.  At first, I assumed he must have intended to produce these sounds as special effects for his character, who appears in weak condition after two years in deplorable conditions as a political prisoner.  However, as Act 2 progressed, it became clear that this ugly instrument was indeed his voice.  By the final curtain calls, when everyone got roaring approval from the audience, the polite members of theaudience simply refused to clap for him (I, for one, stopped clapping during his curtain call), while others went further in a hail of boos.  But the overall drama of the night more than overshadowed Ryan, and if he was the only flaw in the package then I would gladly accept to sit through that performance again and again.

Staatsoper

Rossini, Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Ageless production of the Rossini’Barber of Seville at the Staatsoper tonight.  Well, not completely ageless.  It will be 46 years old this April.  But it was produced back in the day when there were still some German directors who understood opera and theater.  The long-departed Günther Rennert (died in 1978), who at the time was the director at the Bavarian State Opera did this guest production in Vienna in 1966, and used a simple concept.  The entire action took place without a set change – he constructed Don Bartolo’s house in such a way as to allow walls to retract so that the audience could see inside one or more rooms where the action took place.  Some action took place in – or spilled into – the courtyard.  Rennert put the music foremost – but this opera represented Rossini at his most consistently tuneful and whimsical.  So the music drove the farcical plot, which Rennert added to with a dash of slapstick and other sight-gags.

Over the years, an entire array of Vienna casts have had the chance to put on this production, so it can remain constantly fresh.  Looking at the faces of the cast, they enjoyed themselves immensely, which very much helped.  Vienna ensemble singers made up tonight’s group, maintaining the standards that make the House on the Ring the best on the planet even for casts without particular stars.  Adrian Eröd (Figaro), Isabel Leonard(Rosina), and Juan Francisco Gatell (Almaviva) made up a youthful front-line trio, ably supported by Alfred Šramek (Bartolo), Michele Pertusi (Basilio), and Donna Ellen (Marzellina).  Michael Güttler conducted precisely, ensuring that the orchestra not only did not overpower the singers but also allowed them to enunciate their often tongue-twisted texts – he clearly appreciated that Rossini wrote a difficult opera to sing and, furthermore, for the comedy to work in this production especially, the difficult singing must have extra clarity.

Wiener Staatsoper

Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier

An absolutely charming Otto Schenk production of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss at the Staatsoper this evening.  Schenk paid fine attention to all of the little details, in a thoughtful staging first produced in 1968.  Schenk’s intelligent direction and love of theater proved that directors can make audiences think about the plot without having to shock the audience with nonsense, and made me lament even more the creepy German directors who plague the world these days.

In this version, Schenk played up the concept of the Marschallin as the driving force in the plot.  She knows Ochs, and she knows Octavian, so when presented with an opportunity in Act One, she knows well what will happen if she suggests Octavian to perform the role of the Rosenkavalier.  Indeed, the predictable indeed happens in Act Two, and when she reappears in Act Three she ensures everything turns out as she planned.

As for small details, these were everywhere – from the maid in Act One who makes the bed while the Marschallin is having her morning audience, being sure to spray the sheets and pillows with perfume from a period perfume dispenser; to Ochs in Act One flirting with every female who enters the room during the Marschallin’s audience, but while flitting about has a moment to playfully pet the puppy carried in by the animal dealer; to the detail in which the servants apply the Marschallin’s make-up, comb her hair, and get her ready for the day.  In Act Two, when Octavian hurls his wine glass angrily to the ground in Faninal’s house, a servant appears immediately from nowhere and quickly and quietly sweeps up the glass as would have happened in real life.  These are all little touches, but show a love for the opera and an attention to detail that is sadly missing from most new productions these days.

The cast responded to such a staging by acting their parts.  The blocking was excellent, and stage directions clear (and often sensuous), and the acting was strong.  The cast was a typical Wiener Ensemble cast – the only big star was Franz Gundheber in the secondary role of Faninal, but everyone strongly filled their roles, in a complete way that seemingly only happens in Vienna.  This included the Sophie, Daniela Fally, who was a very last-moment substitution.  Adrienne Pieczonka, as the Marschallin, displayed excellent stage presence, capable of directing the action through her voice, inflections, and demeanor.  Alfred Muff was a playful Ochs, who realized too late what the Marschallin was up to – including coming to the realization that the Marschallin and Octavian had been lovers, and although he was subject to pillory for his infidelities, she had one-upped him and turned the Luck of the Lerchenau upside down.  When he fled the scene in Act Three, he had almost become sympathetic.  Stephanie Houtzeel came across as a convincing young Octavian, unaware of the world but sure of his love.

The orchestra, of course, probably knows this work by heart, but a steady conductor is nevertheless a prerequisite to hold the whole opera together, especially with so much activity on the stage.  Asher Fisch pulled this off effortlessly.

Staatsoper

Gounod, Faust

A very excellent new (as of last season) production of Gounod‘s Faust at the Staatsoper.

The cast contained Vienna regulars, which is to say they knew what they were doing.  Well-sung and well-acted, the cast members were all comfortable with each other.  Piotr Beczala sang a dynamic but tortured Faust.  Soile Isokoski is too old to look the role of Gretchen any more, but she certainly knows how to sing and act it.  Kwangchul Youn was a vibrant Mephistopheles.  And Adrian Eröd, as Valentin, is an up-and-coming baritone who has an expressive voice which is also large enough to fill the house.

Musically the production was very fine, under the baton of Bertrand de Billy.

But in addition, the staging was simply executed by Nicolas Joel.  This is a man who clearly familiarized himself completely with the opera, something that very few directors do these days.  Although the scenery was minimal (not minimalist, just minimal), it contained everything that the libretto required (for example, Mephistofeles comments in passing at one point that he wears a feather in his hat – his hat did indeed have one feather).  The cast members were directed to interact with each other, and to really act.  So there really was no explanation of the staging necessary – it spoke for itself, which is exactly what a good director should do.  Simple and elegant.

 

Highlights from 2008

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Less travel and more time in Vienna meant I enjoyed even more live music than usual this year.

Best performance: Schostakowitsch, Symphony Nr. 8, Wiener Symphoniker, Vladimir Fedoseyev (November). Not among the more-often performed of Schostakowitsch’s symphonies, the anguished Eighth captures Schostakowitsch’s personality and mindset well. Written to commemorate the Red Army driving the Germans out of Russia, the undertone is that the Soviet regime was also ghastly, so the work was banned in Russia for many years. A moving performance, quite devastating in segments.

Runner up: Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts, RSO Wien, Bertrand de Billy (November). I had forgotten just how immense this work was. Not sure the chorus even had room to inhale, they were so packed onto the Musikverein stage. The orchestra did not fit on the stage, so extended over the first few rows as well as into the first parterre loges on each side. The four brass choirs (in addition to the regular oversized brass section in the orchestra itself) were placed around the hall. Berlioz intended the piece, although bombastic, to be performed as church music and not as a concert requiem. De Billy clearly understood this and kept the lid on. The singing soared from the combined chorus of both the Wiener Singverein and the Wiener Singakademie.

Best concert venue: Occupation Museum, Tallinn (May). Visiting the Estonian Occupation Museum, I was invited to stay on after closing time for a concert with a rather odd quartet (soprano, flute, cello, and a glockenspiel-like instrument) performing modern, mostly Estonian, music. Between each piece the quartet moved around the museum and the audience had to carry our folding chairs from place to place, surrounded by Soviet-era memorabilia.

Most disappointing performance: Beethoven, Symphony Nr. 2 / Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Göteborgs Symfoniker, Gustavo Dudamel, Vienna (October). If it had been a student orchestra, I would have been impressed. The much-hyped Dudamel (whom I watched from a balcony seat over the stage, where I could observe his peculiar technique) had clear passion and sense for palette, but the performance was far too sloppy for such an orchestra. Dudamel is the music director in Gothenborg, and thus can and should be held personally responsible. I cannot tell if Dudamel will gain more control as he gets older or will turn into Zubin Mehta (charismatic and capable of getting occasional exciting performances, but otherwise dreadfully boring and absolutely disastrous for orchestral discipline).

Worst performances: Nielsen, Violin Concerto / Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 6, Tonkünstler Orchester, Kristjan Järvi, Vienna (November). Nielsen is neither original nor interesting. Järvi demonstrated absolutely no feel for Bruckner. Dvořák, Cello Concerto, Daniel Müller-Schott, Wiener Symphoniker, Yakov Kreizberg (April). Müller-Schott’s uninspired solo work put me to sleep. Woke up after the intermission for a spirited Dvořák Sixth Symphony.

Best opera and most fun at the opera (winning both categories this year): R. Strauss, Capriccio, Staatsoper, Vienna (October). A rarely-performed esoteric work, the entire plot (in one act lasting nearly three hours) concerns whether music or text is more important to opera. No kidding. The opera’s seemingly unpromising plot was supported by witty text set to glorious music. The simple staging was well-considered and with good direction. Renee Fleming headed a superb cast, conducted by Philippe Jordan. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Runner-up for best opera: Verdi, Simon Boccanegra, Staatsoper, Vienna (September). A moody piece, not performed often enough. Not tuneful by Verdi standards, but with a plot resembling Gilbert and Sullivan. Thankfully, Verdi let Arrigo Boito fix up the libretto and made Boccanegra version #2 into good drama, if properly performed (as here).

Runner-up for most fun at the opera: Benatzky, Im Weißen Rößl, Kammerspiele, Vienna (May). The classic 1920s Austrian comedy, here performed cabaret-style on a small stage with a three-person orchestra.

Worst opera production: Wagner, Lohengrin, Staatsoper, Vienna (May). The performance, conducted by Peter Schneider, would have been great if I had kept my eyes closed. They should have saved the expense of a staged production and just done a concert performance, since the cast generally wore formal concert attire anyway. Of all the bizarre things on stage, the director left out the one thing which must be there: the swan (explaining in the program notes that this central figure was actually unnecessary). The imbecilic director was not German, but – to no surprise – trained in Berlin. I think I have to stop going to operas directed by people who have even visited Germany.

Highlights from 2006

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Most fun concert: Ludwig August Lebrun, Oboe Concerto Nr. 1 (and works by Mozart and Haydn), Heinz Holliger (soloist and conductor), Tonhalle Orchester Zürich (January). I do not normally get excited about music for oboe, except when performed by Holliger, who in addition to playing masterfully also clearly enjoys himself on stage. I did not know the Lebrun piece, but bought Holliger’s recording of it after the concert.

Most mystical concert: Anton Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 9 (and Gustav Mahler’s Rückertlieder), Wiener Philharmoniker (May). Performed in the Staatsoper to commemorate the 95th anniversary of Mahler’s death. All that can be said about conductor Daniele Gatti is that he did not get in the way of the orchestra’s magic.

Best opera performance: Richard Wagner, Parsifal, Wiener Staatsoper (April). On Holy Saturday, no less, the performance (including Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz and Franz Grundheber as Amfortas) would have been mystical if I had kept my eyes closed. The staging was certainly not mystical (although not Regietheater either). There was no Grail, Parsifal was never baptized, Parsifal never healed Amfortas’ wound, and Kundry never died absolved but instead walked to the back of the stage and vanished. Costumes and sets were inexplicable.

Most fun opera performance: Imre Kálmán, Csárdásfürstin, Volksoper Wien (April). This was a Viennese period piece performance, and very very fun.  The Volksoper even cast Hungarians in the appropriate roles, so that instead of having people pretending to be Hungarians they had authentic ones, who hammed it up to the fullest (including speaking to each other on stage in Hungarian). Viennese operetta at its most traditional.

Worst opera experience: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Entführung aus dem Serail, Wiener Staatsoper (May). I was excited to see an opera staged in Vienna’s magnificent Burgtheater (almost never used for opera performances). However, the Regietheater staging was overt anti-Turkish racism at its worst. I don’t have to be Turkish to find it deeply offensive. Shame!

Best musical museum exhibit(s): I dropped into Vienna’s Jewish Museum in April to see an exhibit on Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s brilliantly eccentric librettist (a baptized Jew adopted by an abbot whose name he took, da Ponte became a Catholic priest; fleeing out-of-control gambling debts in Italy – and husbands whose wives the rather ugly da Ponte had somehow seduced, no doubt with the help of his good friend Casanova – he talked his way into becoming the imperial librettist in Vienna; da Ponte, still ordained as a priest, later had a Jewish wedding and followed his wife to my hometown of Philadelphia; after his businesses all failed, he ended up as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia). Then I went upstairs to see what the other exhibit was, and found it to be about Erich Zeisl, a Viennese composer I had never heard of who fled to Hollywood in 1938. Zeisl crated up his entire home in Vienna and shipped it to himself, and therefore kept a very Viennese home in California, which looked remarkably like the home my grandparents kept in New Jersey (they, too, had crated up all their possessions and shipped them to the US in 1938).

Highlights from 2005

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Best opera: Dmitri Schostakowitsch, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, Hungarian National Opera (October). I have wanted to see this opera for many years, and found this straightforward production and repertory cast quite satisfactory and gripping.

Most unusual opera: George Enescu, Oedipus, Vienna State Opera (April). I did not know this opera at all, but was pleasantly surprised. It would have been the best performance I saw in 2005, if it were not for the Regietheater staging imported from Berlin. The director should please be deported back to Germany. Please.

Most fun at the opera: Ferenc Lehar, Der Graf von Luxemburg, Volksoper Wien (October). The director (not German) decided that the plot was silly, so he rewrote it keeping the music the same. This was neither Regietheater nor an “updated” plot, just different. I have no idea what opera I really saw, but I had fun.

Best concert: this was more of a year for operas than concerts, to be honest. If I have to pick one concert of non-standard repertory, I will single out a performance of one of my favorite oratorios, Franz Schmidt’s mystical Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (based on the Revelations of St. John, Schmidt’s vision of the Apocalypse fittingly had its premiere shortly after the Nazis marched into Vienna), with the Tonkünstler Orchester Niederösterreich under Kristijan Järvi and a dramatic Robert Holl singing the Voice of the Lord from the Musikverein balcony, in Vienna (October). Thankfully, no German directors thought to stage this performance.

Highlights from 2004

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Best opera production: Verdi, Rigoletto, Wiener Staatsoper (September). Ensemble cast with no particular stars, this was an example of why no opera house in the world comes close to comparing to the Staatsoper.

Worst opera production: Johann Strauß (Sohn), Eine Nacht in Venedig, Wiener Volksoper (September). I am really sick of these German opera directors who don’t bother to read the book before they stage an opera. This staging was set, for no apparent reason, in a shopping mall outside Vienna. The stupidity of the staging took away the charm of the music. The Volksoper is becoming far too artsy.

Best concert: Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, Wiener Philharmoniker under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein (May). Reduced me to tears. Particularly devastating was the Wood Dove’s narrative (with Waltraud Meier). I recovered in time to follow the orchestra across the Ring to the Staatsoper for Verdi’s Falstaff starring Bryn Terfel two hours later.

Worst concert: nothing I attended was truly bad, but if I had to select something as “least good,” I would say the Bayerisches Staatsorchester playing a concert of Richard Strauss in the Vienna Musikverein (September). Zubin Mehta is either charismatic or sloppy, and in this case the Bavarians sounded like the New York Philharmonic at the end of his tenure there. The orchestra could play this music in its sleep, and I don’t get these sorts of concerts in Pristina, so I did not suffer too much. The Viennese public applauded politely.