Madama Butterfly: another view

img001In 19th Century Japan, visitors could have a young woman (musume) for 4 dollars. They rented a house for 25 dollars and a servant for 10 dollars, and so enjoyed in safety the pleasures of marriage: for 39 dollars per month. If the woman pleased him, he could extend the contract. (Samuel Boyer, 1860)
In the opening of Madama Butterfly US Lieutenant Pinkerton is surveying a house to rent for his honeymoon with Cio-Cio-San. She’s to be his temporary wife in Japan -against the advice of Cio-Cio-San’s maid and the US Consul Sharpless.
In Puccini’s tragedy (based on John Long and David Belasco’s play), Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), falls in love with her Lieutenant, and swept away by her ‘husband’s’ passion, takes his promises seriously. And in Puccini’s (librettists L. Illica and G. Gicosa) sympathetic characterisation- prescient of 20th century awareness of exploitation and alienation- she cuts herself off from her family ties and customs, and identifies with American culture. With tragic consequences.
Puccini, as so many late-19th century artists and composers, was fascinated by Japan. The story would make less sense out of historical context, so thankfully Vienna State Opera have maintained the authentic Japanese staging designed by Tsugouharu Foujita, in Joseph Gielen’s classic production. The trees in blossom may seem out of a faded tapestry- pastel colours, oriental motifs- but respectful of Puccini’s obsession with authenticity.
However, against the trend to cast an oriental singer as Cio-Cio-San, Butterfly is sung by Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, whose credentials for Puccini are impeccable. And, as in the Milan premier, (1904) Pinkerton is sung by an Italian tenor. Piero Pretti, (who sang the Duke to Leo Nucci’s Rigoletto), similarly swaggeringly self-confident, is perfect for Pinkerton: his golden tenor, light but powerful.
The set is like a Japanese mural: cut-out, an overhanging golden willow, with a bridge centre-stage, a drinking well, and veranda. Pretti, clean-shaven, in uniform, boasts to Consul Sharpless (Boaz Daniel) he got it for 999 years, but can cancel any time. In this country, houses, like contracts, are flexible. Pinkerton’s aria is a celebration of masculinity, patriarchy and American power.
In Pinkerton’s ‘Life has a purpose if you pick the flowers on every shore’ the sexually predatory message is clear. Sharpless, well sung by Daniel, is temperate, conciliatory; he warns Pinkerton’s creed easy-going has its complications. Does he love her, his ‘garland of flowers’, or is she like a passing fancy? She has bewitched him, sings Pinkerton, like a figure on a painted screen. She is like a butterfly. He has to catch her even if to break her wings. Sharpless replies, it would be wrong to harm the little thing. They toast to America, Pinkerton to marriage to an American girl .
Cio-Cio-San appears, accompanied by her Geisha friends, Opolais singing ‘She’s the happiest girl in the world. Love called.’ The bridge on which she hesitates is symbolic. She has to turn her back on the things dear to her by Japanese custom. There’s a fragility and ecstatic quality to her voice, softly achieving high notes; Opolais exudes charm. She sings of her life. She came from a well-to-do family. But the storm uproots even the strongest oak. They had to make their living as geishas. Sharpless has never seen anyone as beautiful as Butterfly. ‘Yes, she’s a flower and I have picked it’, now Pinkerton’s property. Opolais’ own beauty justifies the role. She shows him her box of personal possessions. (Not the sacred present from the Mikado to her father.) But, she confesses, she went especially to the Mission to take up her new religion. She’s sacrificed everything for Pinkerton.madama_butterfly_91590_pretti1
The wedding celebration is like a colourful Japanese tableau. Opolais is in a white satin kimono, long, red-bordered train. Uncle Bonze (Alexandre Moisuc) gate-crashes; thunders, she has renounced her faith. Her soul is lost: a stark premonition. Pinkerton orders the Shaman out: will not tolerate shouting in his house. And, in contempt for his hosts, pushes out the house-owner Goro.
In their duet, an extended seduction scene, he urges her not to cry: her relatives are not worth her tears. Viene la sera, evening is coming, everything loving and light. Petri sings he’s overcome by a sudden desire. Opolais, finely choreographed, is like a Geisha mannequin come to life. Disarm all fear, he admonishes. She sings, the stars look down with watchful eyes. He, be not afraid, the sky is saying, be mine. They’re swept away in Puccini’s rapturous ‘night is for love’ refrain. Philippe Auguin brought out the best of the orchestra, Vienna State Opera- the detail essential to Puccini’s descriptive genius. But, however successful individually, together Opolais and Petri lacked a certain symmetry. They seemed to stand physically apart- there wasn’t that emotional interaction.
opolais 2Act 2 is dominated by Cio-Cio-San. Opolais convinces with tender phrasing, and effortless high notes in the numerous dramatic outbursts, enacting the role with grace and delicacy. In the ‘authentic’ Japanese house, we see Opolais on her futon, a screen behind her. The Japanese gods are lazy, the American ones faster but she fears, they don’t know her address! The last of their money, they’ve been spending too much. But, he arranged for the Consul to pay her rent: he guards his wife, she reasons.
No foreign husband has ever returned, forewarns Suzuki (magnificently sung by mezzo Bongiwe Nakani.) Butterfly threatens her, be silent, or- flashing a knife- she’ll kill her. She recalls, how he smiled at her and promised to return ‘when robins build their nests.’ One day a ship will appear- Opolais holds out her hands- but she will not go to meet him. He will call her my little wife, un bel di. (Opolais, in brown, cream kimono, has charm, but is she just a little large for the role?) It will happen, he will return, Opolais top note full throttle.
Sharpless arrives, Daniel blue-suited with boater. Opolais all flustered: we note she offers him an American cigarette. She’s the happiest woman in Japan, she sings, but, in America, when do robins build their nests? He never studied ornithology. Puccini’s libretto bristles, and Opolais and Daniel interacting are lively and naturalistic. Goro tried to marry her off to the rich idiot Yamadoro, she tells him. Opolais brings real life to this too-easily maudlin role. The unhappy girl, chides Sharpless: her blindness saddens him.
Sharpless holds up Pinkerton’s letter, offering to read it. Pretty flower, three years have elapsed . Perhaps Butterfly no longer thinks of him. And to Sharpless, Prepare her… Sharpless dares not tell her of Pinkerton’s marriage. Has he forgotten her? she lets out a shriek and exits. And brings in her son . ‘Is it his?’ – Has he seen a Japanese child with blue eyes. Opolais, movingly, would rather take her life than use him to beg for money.
Finally, Pinkerton’s ship is sighted. He has come back and loves her! Opolais stoops in ecstasy. Poignantly, she feels she’s aged with the waiting, and asks Suzuki for rouge.
Pinkerton returns. She’s been waiting all night with her child. Did he tell her; who is that in the garden? She is his wife, explains Sharpless to Suzuki. ‘The spirit of the ancestors come back for the little one’, Nakani’s Suzuki passionately defending her mistress. Sharpless knows they can offer Butterfly no comfort. And the lady’s to come into the house? – Better if she confronts it. Pinkerton sings, he’s filled with remorse. Sharpless warned him, he didn’t listen. Now Petri in his Adio, fioriti asil aria, admits his weakness and cowardice. He’ll never forget her. We might almost believe him.
Suzuki must talk to her alone, knowing Butterfly will weep (Nkani powerfully moving with Opolais.) That woman, what does she want of me! They want to take her child. Generously, Butterfly addresses Mrs Pinkerton, not to be sad on her account.
The denouement is indeed shocking. Cio-Cio-San coolly assesses the situation. She will give her child to her father and no one else. Alone she takes leave of her son (Opolais as if he were her own.) He must never know his Butterfly died for him. She goes behind a screen and we hear the knife drop.
Vienna’s is a ‘traditional’ Japanese production. But aren’t these Japanese cultural artefacts – timeless, the cultural ‘other’ against the onslaught of globalisation – just as relevant as in 1904? P.R. 14.09.2016
Photos: Kristine Opolais (Cio-Cio-San); Piero Petri (Pinkerton)
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn
Featured images reproduced from Wiener Staatsoper programme Puccini Madama Butterfly (1991) of posters from the Milan 1904 premier.

Netrebko as Puccini’s Manon Lescaut

Department store windows! Shoppers with designer bags promenading. In Robert Carsen’s production at Vienna State Opera, Des Grieux (Marcello Giordani), Puccini’s student, appears as a cameraman photographing the street scene, who falls in love with Manon. Her brother Lescaut (David Pershall) is, in the plot , supposed to be taking her to a convent. Improbable in this staging where chorus break into a dance routine celebrating youth. Welcome beautiful evening! Giordani, in Grieux’s muse, exalts, gloriously sung, youth is our nature, hope is our goddess.
Manon, Anna Netrebko, in a white midi trench-coat, and cute white cap, is carrying a suitcase. An older man, the banker Geronte, (Wolfgang Bankl) observes her. Wearing a glitter-blue skirt, she’s hardly the novice -and Netrebko is rather older -but in Carsen’s radical updating, we have to suspend disbelief. It does rather confuse, but at least musically, the line up of singers is very special indeed- not least Netrebko and Giordani- and Marco Armiliato, conducting Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus, is peerless in Puccini.
Netrebko in her chic, is approached . ‘Beautiful young woman; allow me.’ Her face is new to him: his heart feels an unusual beat, Giordani sings. At daybreak she’s going into a nunnery! No she mustn’t go; her fate is under another star altogether. Together they will overcome fate. Netrebko is enchanting, both in terrific voice.
In Giordani’s aria, Donna non vidi mai, Grieux’s never seen a woman like her before, her name Manon Lescaut, indelible in his deepest heaven, Giordani effuses, his tenor a joy, but powerful.
Wolfgang Bankl’s Geronte, bald and corpulent, in a grey business suit, has real authority, (in the role since 2005.) Lescaut, as his sister’s champion, fulfils his task like a good soldier, sings Pershall in a fashionable combat outfit, holding up a can of beer. He’s rather like a pimp; Geronte’s attendants pass him money. A limousine backs onto the stage. Yes, it’s confusing.
Netrebko emerges from the plate glass doors (side-of-stage) of a hotel. In their duet, her smile doesn’t fit her melancholy contempt, he sings. She, ‘was once happy.’ Her eyes speak longing for love. In her heart there is magic. ‘I am a poor young woman’, she sings. Her longing is without end. They go off- the ‘mad pair’ elope together. Geronte fumes: they will be punished. But, Lescaut advises, leave them, Manon will tire of poverty.
In a hotel suite, white leather seating centre-stage, servants are bringing yet more gowns for her approval; beauticians everywhere, Netrebko is holding up a mirror. He has rescued her from a student’s life- Pershall now in an designer pin-striped suit, but still holding that can of beer. She’d have lived in a bourgeois house, with this young man, Grieux, upright, but poor.
Netrebko, stunning in a fluffy, scarlet-red creation, ballooning out like a ballet frock. She admits to Lescaut, she misses Grieux. Netrebko’s aria, In quelle trine morbide , is one of many highlights: some deadly silence fills these rooms; silent and cold. She was used to the passion of love from glowing lips. Now her comfortable life unfolds, like a golden peaceful dream. Netrebko, whose soprano has deepened, exudes sensuousness and sensuality; richly expressive, she really enacts the part. Wonderful. Long applause.
Long enough to allow Lescaut’s entrance. As she knows, Grieux is a good friend of his. He’s tormented by not seeing her. In their duet, while Lescaut sings of ‘the old man who gives us money’- she, Netrebko, (to herself) wants the old passion back, those hot kisses. Am I beautiful, she asks herself.
Musicians are performing for her. Then, on the arrival of Bankl’s Geronte, the stage is prepared as if for a photo shoot. The ‘photographer’ Grieux has sneaked in. Netrebko is writhing centre stage on cushions, like a 1930s screen goddess. Giordani begs her not to be taken in by all this bling. (She’s in a fashion shoot.) Her head is pulsating; she hears his ‘golden words of love’.
Bankl returns, sexy in a royal-blue designer suit; matching her blue-sequined gown. He sweeps back her hair revealing a diamond necklace. Netrebko sings of the wonder of love – then, what a high note!- see how the wonder of love drives the clouds away. She, Netrebko’s really in her element. The diva dressed as diva; the whole stage like a film set! She asks Geronte to wait for her: he kisses her passionately in parting.
In Manon’s scene re-united with Grieux, Netrebko and Giordani smoulder with passion, their interaction a wonder of symbiosis. He reproaches her for deserting him: she doesn’t love him anymore. What he sees is a show of money: material wealth. She lies at his feet. She has deceived him. She pleads for forgiveness. Is she not more beautiful than the Manon of old? He, Giordani, sings her magic blinds him: he’s overcome. She sings, lock Manon in your arms. Press her breasts to him. Manon desires you alone. He smothers her with his kisses; he lays on top of her, prepared for making love … In the depths of her eyes he reads her fate. Love and enrapture me.
Geronte, who’s been observing them, his henchmen at the ready, bursts in. Has she forgotten. She’s in his house. She mocks him. Love! Love? ‘My honourable gentleman’. He threatens, he knows his rights, his duty, and what he has to do.
There’s a terrible sense of suspense and foreboding as Manon- urged to leave- cannot quite part with the luxury she’s got used to. She bursts out laughing -they’re free: free as air. Lescaut warns her: she must rush. Servants storm the stage with countless red suitcases. And she has to leave her precious things behind: she kneels to pick up her jewellery.
Bankl, assisted by Mafiosi-types in dark glasses, storms in, like an oriental potentate, and slaps her down, like some sex slave. And appears to rape her. Very effectively staged.
Act 3, preceded by the sublime orchestral Intermezzo. Fortified walls suggest some penitentiary. Manon has been arrested. Grieux sings of his terrible fate: waiting, his suffering goes on. Grieux and Manon fall into each other’s arms; he didn’t leave her in the lurch. They’re observed by Geronte and his men. In the plot Grieux and Lescaut’s plan to rescue Manon fails.
In the confusing staging, Manon enters in what looks like a line of fashion models, or are they prostitutes? But as they pass, we notice that they’re handcuffed: to be deported. in Anthony McDonald’s interesting staging- as out of a 1950’s black-and-white Italian movie- Grieux pleads before Bankl’s Geronte, who resembles a godfather figure. Surrounded by men in dark glasses, sleek black suits, Giordani sings heartrendingly, he would give his life to save her. (Finally he’s allowed to join her in exile in America.)
Whereas in Puccini’s final Act, Manon is dying in the desert- she begs Grieux to find water- it’s back to the shopping mall. Grieux and Manon stagger huddled together; they look bedraggled. Netrebko wears a grey two-tone belted raincoat, but Netrebko’s is dressed-down chic. Puccini’s desert has become, in director Carsen’s scheme, an allegory for the wasteland of modern life consumerism: the shopping mall, soulless materialism. The mannequins in the window displays- representing the false values she pursued- look down on her as a reminder. For Manon everything is at an end, but she perseveres -seeing a land of hope. The past oppresses her. Finally she longs for the peaceful silence of the grave.
Such is the power of these great performers. Giordani is distraught, Manon dying, pleads, console me with your tender love. He strokes and kisses her ‘golden’ hair. She is laid out pathetically on a pavement strewn with garbage. But rises. Are you crying? She hears his hot tears.
Sola, perduta, abbandonata. Everything is lost- the sky darkening, abandoned in this desert, but she sings, she will not die. She loves him too much, and she is dying. Netrebko is indefatigable- just when you think she’s about to expire, she rises again. But it’s magnificent. She was full of love, this Manon! Does he remember her radiant in her youth. ‘Her sins will be forgotten , but her love won’t die.’
Leading an outstanding cast, Netrebko generously took her applause with Giordani at her side, the ovations overwhelming, warm and respectful. P.R. 27.6.2016 ©
Photos: Anna Netrebko (Manon Lescaut) and Marcello Giordani (Rene Des Grieux); Wolfgang Bankl (Geronte) and David Pershall (Lescaut) ; Anna Netrebko (Manon Lescaut); Marcello Giordani (Grieux) and Anna Netrebko (Manon Lescaut)
© Wiener Staasoper /Michael Pöhn

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov

Don’t be fooled by the cover photo! This is a modern dress production. René Pape’s Boris Godunov, donning a crown, wears his gold cloak over a black suit. His henchmen, like secret-service agents, are all in dark suits; soldiers are carrying Kalashnikovs. Nothing wrong with that; the trope of an ever-suffering Russian people, from serfs under the Tsar to suppressed masses under the Soviets, is irresistible. It’s just that all this black and grey makes for gloomy staging- not just the costumes but black-panelled sets IN Yannis Kokkos’s Vienna State Opera production.
In the opening scene the crowd are being stage-managed in a demo pleading with Boris to be their Tsar. The Chorus repeat, ‘ O father! You are our provider, don’t abandon us’. With soldiers in greatcoats standing by, they’re ‘orchestrated’ by a fierce black-leather clad thug who complains they’re not loud enough. They are to reappear next day outside the Duma. But he will not ascend the throne: no hope for our country, shaken by anarchy! May God enlighten Boris with divine inspiration, they sing (ironically, as Boris will later be tormented by hallucinations.) Vienna State Opera Chorus (augmented by Slovak Philharmonic chorus) are on splendid form. Also Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Marko Letonja in Mussorgsky’s richly descriptive score, with long orchestral intervals, using a full range of percussion, especially Russian bells.
After a religious procession, with icons of saints held up- to foreground the pervading religious belief and superstition- outside the Duma, with its burnished gold proscenium, they sing ‘Long live Boris!’ Described as “the world’s most charismatic bass” (Opera News), Pape, resplendent in gold, appears to float up out of the crowd. In his pivotal aria, Pape, his expressive bass richly sensual, sings (to us) how his soul is tormented, his heart seized by an evil premonition. Behold the tears of your faithful servant, he repeats. May he be righteous and rule his people in glory! We hear flutes, gongs , a glorious cacophony.
In the monastery scene, the black backstage with a slanting crucifix, the old monk Pimen has one last chapter of his history of Russia to complete. Pimen, magnificently sung by bass Kurt Rydl, reminisces of his long life. Think of the Tsars, supremely powerful, but how many have retreated to the monastery? Ivan sat before him, quiet and contemplative, tears of repentance in his eyes. Of the death of Dmitri? He was murdered lying in his own blood, betrayed by his nurse: then seven years old, would now have been seventeen, the very same age as monk Grigori (tenor Marian Talaba), raptly listening. Then Grigori, alone, reading the elder monk’s manuscript. He sings, deeply moved, swearing revenge, ‘Everyone trembles before you Boris, but you will not escape judgement.’
(In the next scene, Grigori, a wanted man, is seen with two fugitive friars, in a camp – supposed to be a tavern- waited on by a louche woman in red, who plies them with wine, but not Grigori, who abstains , and narrowly evades a patrol.)
In a central scene, we see Boris with his children: comforting Xenia (soprano Aida Garifullina), who has lost her betrothed; and his son Fyodor a ‘trouser role’ sung by mezzosoprano Margaret Plummer, who, centre-stage, is reading a map. ‘One day, Fyodor, you may inherit the entire realm.’
In Boris’s key aria, he sings he’s reigned for six years, but his heart is heavy. Pape sits in a dull brown overcoat. He takes pleasure neither in life, nor power, nor fame. Now huddled , front of stage, he bemoans the betrayal and rebellion (against him), hunger, plague, and devastation everywhere. The people believe he’s responsible for their misery: his name is cursed throughout the land. Pape is especially moving, in enacting the part of the pitiful human being beneath, stripped of the trappings of power: rather as in Verdi’s Philip II’s Don Carlo aria (where the all-powerful King suffers privately, alone.) He, Boris, had hoped for consolation with his family; had prepared a wedding for his daughter: aborted. How fearful is God’s wrath. And he can’t sleep- his voice stifling emotion- for guilt over the child.
Prince Shuisky ( Norbert Ernst) brings him news of a ‘Dmitri’ pretender to the throne, supported by people and Pope, who has appeared in Poland. Boris’ mind wanders: has he heard that dead children can be resurrected. Shuisky, (a witness to the crime,) has to repeat how the child was murdered, and lay for days by the road. Ernst, a lyrical tenor, sings wondrously, how the corpse lay, his features were unchanged, as if lying in his cradle.
Pape is stooped, ‘Abominable!’ He’s suffering, his hands raised in a plea, ‘Such terrible remorse!’ He sings , he sees the child covered in blood; he can’t stop trembling. Pap is very impressive; yet, this time, he didn’t chill me to the bones.
The stage is enlarged for another crowd spectacular, in which the Holy Fool (Pavo Kolgatin) is robbed of his last kopeck. (Supposedly in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the starving are begging Boris for bread.) He would order them all to be killed, just as you (Boris) ordered the death of the Tsarevitch!
Pape sings, shed bitter tears; weep Russia’s soul; weep for the starving people of Russia. It’s powerfully sung, although Pape, to be churlish, does not have the lower range of the greatest Russian basses, or of Ferruccio Furlanetto , who sang in this production in 2007. But is this overwhelming gloom , this monochrome set , quite what Mussorgsky would have intended?
In the final scene, a gold throne centre-stage : all are in black, gold-embellished, as is the stage. First an announcement of a people’s insurrection, (whoever he is must be strung up.) The Prince addressing the Boyars, has come to inform them: how he left the Tsar in a distressed state; his white body trembling, bathed in sweat; mumbling incoherently; gripped by a secret torment. And he suddenly he cried out (as if to a ghost) : ‘Be gone!’
Pape walks in wearing his gold cloak of office. The old monk Pimen – Rydl outstanding, commanding- ‘a humble man knows nothing of worldly affairs’, needs the Boyars’ help. He sings to them of a shepherd, blind since childhood, who had heard a child’s voice: go to the Cathedral Ugulith, Tsarevitch Dmitri, God has made him a saint.
The Tsar appears to have a fit; is carried to one side, his son near him. He’s dying, pleads, ‘Never ask me how I came to Russia’s throne! Farewell my son’, his lawful successor. He gives his advice: punish all treachery; don’t trust the Boyars. Preserve the Russian faith, honour the Saints. We hear, ominously, tubas , the death knell , and of course those Russian bells. Heavenly powers, save my children. Pape collapses beneath the throne, laid out over stairs to an abyss, his son leaning over him.
Pape returned to a huge cheer. I was impressed, but the charming Russian lady next to me would have preferred a Russian Boris, with a lower bass! The overall impression of Yannis Kokos’s production is of dark gloom, relieved by some inspired singing (notably Rydl, Ernst and Pape), and throughout Mussorgsky’s highly expressive, luminously descriptive music. And the magnificent combined Choruses (directed by Thomas Lang.) © P.R. 16.05.2016
Photos: René Pape (Boris Godunov); Kurt Rydl (Pimen); Aida Garifullina (Xenia) and René Pape ; Norbert Ernst (Prince Shuisky)
© Wiener Staatsoper /Michael Pöhn

Wagner’s Lohengrin at Vienna State Opera

If you were expecting -as I was- spectacular tournaments, knights in shining armour, then you’d be disappointed. Vienna State Opera’s set is a polished-oak hall, starkly puritan, reflecting German Protestantism. While the famous Prelude is being played the hall serves as a chapel, with a coffin laid out; then a wedding celebration interrupted, with chairs toppled- a trailer for the action, rather than the spiritual invocation of the Holy Grail. Vienna State Opera Orchestra play under the competent Graeme Jenkins. But onstage it’s State Opera’s Choirs that seem omnipresent, the men dressed in traditional green blazers, hats and shorts, similarly the women. Producer Wolfgang Gussmann is right to set the opera in the 19th century: the medieval narrative is seen through the prism of Wagner’s own time.
Lohengrin attests to the 19th century interest in medieval chivalry, Arthurian legend, the Knights of the Holy Grail. In Wagner the mythology has a modern psychological dimension, in the heroine Elsa’s dream of her knight; later in her pre-wedding doubts, marrying a man she’s never been intimate with.Ostensibly the plot is about Elsa’s right to succeed her father, Duke of Brabant; her brother disappeared in Ortrude’s conspiracy.
In the opening, the King (Kwangchul Youn), intercedes in the dispute, with Telramund (Thomas Johannes Mayer) accusing Elsa (Camilla Nylund)- described as a ‘perpetual dreamer’- of murdering her brother: ‘robbed of his precious jewel, her terrible guilt for all to see.’
Nyland, in a white slip, her hair unadorned, enters looking bewildered. But instead of replying to the chorus assuming her guilt, she sings of her dream. She had prayed for her poor brother; and in her loneliness. As if in a religious revelation, a knight appeared, resplendent in armour and helmet, offering to defend her. He comforts her with friendly gestures. Nylund, in her simplicity, her powerful soprano clear, artless, is well-suited to this ‘angelic’ role.
By contrast, Telramund in Mayer’s excellent portrayal, the villain egged on by his scheming wife, protests his honour and reminds the King of his service; in medieval protocol, ‘God alone shall decide, through a trial by combat.’
The ‘trial’ is like a spiritual revivalist meeting. Elsa calls upon her knight; Nyland stands immutable, as if possessed. ‘In this silence, God directs. See what a wonder’. She holds a white swan aloft; then they’re all holding their hands up, like in a prayer meeting. She seems to collapse exhausted. A figure in white toga-like robe, hidden by the crowd, emerges. Klaus Florian Vogt is blessed with a gloriously pure, dare I say ‘angelic’, tenor. ‘I shall give you all that I am’. He offers Elsa his protection and marriage, on condition of his anonymity.
The ‘unknown knight’ defeats Telramund in a wrestling match (on a raised platform)- Vogt in preppy green blazer, Mayer, bearded, wild-looking in white top and shorts- all over very quickly. Ortrud stands by, Michaela Schuster, red-haired, sensuous in maroon velvet.
If all this seems too sanctimonious, then Act 2 , with Ortrud like a Lady Macbeth goading her lily-livered husband, is full-blooded Wagner. The sloping stage, table upturned, simple as in a mountain lodge – could be Act II of Die Walkure . In fact, Schuster debuted here as Sieglinde in 2006,and has sung Waltraude and Fricke. Her magnificent soprano made my evening. Erhebe dich , she exhorts Telramund, rise up. Barred from the wedding celebration, her honour is lost. (Meine Ehre habe ich verloren.) And she had lied to him; said that she saw Elsa drown her brother. She, the last line of Brabant, had deceived Telramund into marrying her. Lied! –Entsetzlich! (dreadful). Will he threaten a woman, she thunders. As for the Knight, she, raised in the dark arts, will show him how weak his God is. (Her strategy, to make Elsa doubt the Knight: thus extinguish his magic powers.) Then Telramund could win back his honour. They embrace, like the Macbeths, in complicity. Tremendously acted.
Bathed in a gold light, enters Elsa. (Nylund) sings she must tell the heavens of her joy; he’d journeyed through heaven for her. She’s observed by Ortrud. It’s the eternal battle between good and evil. Oh, but you are happy! She’d happily send her to her death . Ortrude sings, invoking desecrated gods, Entweihte Götter – Wodan god of strength, help her in her revenge. Schuster is exhilaratingly bloodthirsty.
Now Ortrud insinuates herself into Elsa’s trust. May he never leave you, as he came to you, by magic. Elsa counters, has she, Ortrud, never known the happiness that comes from trust?
The wedding day. Tables laid out, Nylund in white, ladies-in-waiting fitting her wedding dress, praising her chaste fervour, as Elsa’s walks to the altar. All disrupted! Ortrud disputes the legitimacy of the marriage; Elsa cannot give her husband’s name! Elsa is floored by Ortrud, Schuster in red, triumphantly commanding the proceedings, standing on top of the white-clothed wedding tables. But your husband, she rails at Elsa, who knows him? You cannot give his lineage, his nobility.
The knight arrives, hailed by King and courtiers as their saviour. But what secrets is he harbouring? Telramund accuses the knight of sorcery. Doubt is implanted in Elsa’s mind. But, ‘it would be ungrateful for her to question her saviour in public’, he urges. Vogt, who stepped in at short notice, could not have been bettered in the part. Long, blonde hair, bearded, radiantly handsome, but an innocent, his tenor still with a choir-boy’s purity. ‘Does the power of doubt not let you rest’, he asks of Elsa.
The sublime Prelude, leading into the Wedding March. Facing over separate tables, they’re alone for the first time; no one can hear the secrets of their hearts, he sings. He ‘breathes with an ecstasy only God could give him’. He draws close to her. Elsa, meine Welt.’ – ‘Will you not let me hear the sweet sound of yours?’ Now they’re alone, she wishes to know his secret, where he came from.
His response is almost arrogant. He’s already placed his utmost confidence in her; he will esteem her above other women if she has total confidence in him. Her unfaltering love is his expected reward. (In Wagner’s world, 19th century patriarchy demands woman’s unquestioning submission.) He sings, he comes from a place of radiance and joy. But she’s filled with sadness: how can her love suffice for him if he’s to return to this heaven. Her anxiety is to keep him here.
We see Telramund sneaking in and hiding. Vogt slays the intruder: ‘Now all happiness is lost.’ Vogt, distraught, orders Telramund’s nobles take the corpse to the King.
King Heinrich is hosting tables lined with white-shirted regiments. ‘German swords shall protect German soil: we shall prove the might of our empire,’ they sing lustily. (Uncomfortable resonances.)
Chorus sing of the virtuous Elsa, how sad and pale she looks; of the hero of Brabant, they welcomed; his wife misled him into betraying himself, her solemn promise broken. Now he will reveal his name.
Vogt stoops, sings of a vessel, in a distant land, served by angels and priests, called the Grail; the heavenly power bestowed on its worshippers, sent to distant lands; he, sent by the grace of his father, Parsifal. ‘I am its knight, I am Lohengrin.’ How he longed to experience a year of happiness by her side! (We might, in another world- our 21st century- expect this alien to take off in his space ship.)
Elsa, of course, feels wretched that he must return. Ortrude had transformed Elsa’s brother into a swan. Now Lohengrin breaks the spell. A pale boy, in a foetal position- like an extra-terrestrial- crawls backwards centre-stage.
After nearly five hours, Wagner’s spell has suspended any disbelief- as a sci-fi epic transfixes a multiplex audience. Gussmann’s production, (dramaturgy Werner Hinzle), however, hints at a 19th century evangelical service. The ‘sequel’ is Parsifal, but I’d rather The Ring’s pagan gods of Valhalla. PR. 10.05.2016
Photos: Featured image, Wiener Staatsoper Ballet Academy (cover photo Wiener Staatsoper programme; Michaele Schuster (Ortrud); Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin) and Camilla Nylund (Elsa of Brabant)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Puccini’s Turandot new at Vienna State Opera

Once upon a time, somewhere in China, lived ‘the ice princess’ Turandot, who put countless suitors to the test: to answer her riddles, on pain of death, or marriage. All failed until Prince Caleb, but will he win her love?
The story is a fairy tale, Puccini’s opera Turandot a psychological take engaging with themes of love in death; and made fabulous by Puccini’s score featuring original Chinese melodies. Puccini, ever-obsessed with authentic detail, deliberately chose the oriental setting. How else would it make sense?
Modern directors always know better. The distinguished Marco Arturo Marelli is both stage designer and director for Vienna State Opera’s new production.
In the Prologue , there’s a musical box; and a desk on a raised stage ; then a Chinese-themed curtain is raised on a live puppet show ; and the mandarin’s proclamation of the law: Turandot will marry only the man who can solve three riddles, and whoever fails, dies.
Yet facing us, rear of the stage, sit a modern audience – mirroring conventional operagoers- in evening dress. They, in tiered rows, are watching the show from behind.
Marinelli’s concept is too clever by half. He seems to be framing the Turandot narrative as if it’s being watched by a contemporary audience in some eastern totalitarian state. So the secret police, threatening plain-clothed and uniformed, seem to be Princess Turandot’s henchmen, instrumenting her tyranny. Meanwhile, Chinese jugglers, acrobats and choreographed puppets interweave the main narrative. Confusing? The result interrupts the dramatic flow; we aren’t allowed to get involved , suspend belief, in this fairy tale. We are denied the emotional catharsis of identifying with the characters, of being swept away in the big story, the great aria.
And, unfortunately, this production lacked truly great performers in the lead roles (although support cast were exceptional) to compensate for the staging. The ‘unknown’ Prince Calaf – (Yusuf Eyvavazov) , dark, bearded , in a white coat- intercedes to save the condemned Persian suitor; and is spellbound by Turandot’s cruel beauty. In his unexpected encounter with his long-lost father, Eyvazov’s tenor is not exceptional , whereas Timur, white-bearded Dan Paul Dimitrescu’s bass, has tremendous ballast, and is movingly enacted. He’s accompanied and comforted by the slave Liu (Anita Hartig), secretly in love with Calaf; and she, in her unselfish love, will sacrifice her life for him. Hartig is the highlight of the evening – in a role usually diminished by the other two leads (in the love triangle.)
Turandot is the tall, red-haired Lise Lindstrom. Calaf appeals to her divine beauty (Oh marvel, oh dream!) – spellbound, intoxicated by her perfume, he suffers. A chorus – shockingly misogynistic- rail at him to give up women (with a hundred women, you have all legs and breasts.) Beware of her gong!
Liu can hear no music. Her heart is breaking for Calaf. Hartig, in peasant’s garb, has a purity and clarity – like clear spring water- in Liu’s aria, her innocence and charm enormously moving. Do not weep! Her master may not be alive tomorrow. She will make Timur’s exile easier. Eyvazov’s Calaf, however, is no great stage presence; he shuffles around in his greatcoat looking moved.
The Ping, Pong, Pang interlude serves as comic relief, but also as a political commentary on life in China under Turandot’s despotism. They come on in black, like morticians, behind them a glass cabinet, displaying a selection of heads decapitated. Farewell love: China no longer exists! Their tranquil life ended, ‘they are ministers of the executioner.’ Each is homesick for his provincial home, one in Honan (reading sacred books); another in Tsian, the other in Kiv. (All specific Chinese places, testifying to Puccini’s librettists’ – Giuseppe Adami and R.Simoni- attention to detail.)
A frail, white-haired man is wheeled on, behind him three dignitaries in purple. The Mandarin (Paulo Rumetz) tries to dissuade Calaf: an oath forces him to implement harsh laws. Enough, young man, leave, he warns; he will not have another on his conscience. Yet Calaf will undergo the trial; impelled as if by a strange obsession with death, Liebestod, love in death. (Puccini noted in a sketch for the final duet: ‘and then Tristan.’)
Lise Lindstrom’s Turandot enters in a cobalt-blue silk coat , Lindstrom with spookily long red hair and white makeup. In her big aria, In questia Reggia, a thousand years ago a hopeless cry sounded in the palace; she sings of her ancestor who ruled with joy; then fear and terror reigned. Now she will avenge her death on him. ‘No one will possess me! Grim death lives in me’, she repeats. Lindstrom’s is an expressive, psychologically modern take; expressionist, anguished. Lindstrom’s high range, seldom tested, is solid. In putting Calaf through her tests, she eyeballs him with contempt; then increasingly unnerved with each win. Yes, ‘Hope’ always misleads. She pokes him with her scroll, helplessly, in frustration. His ‘fire’ will thaw her, he sings. Her ceremonial cloak of office is removed, now revealing her in brilliant red. She pleads with her father. He cannot give his sacred daughter to him like a slave. (Don’t look at me like that, ridiculing her pride!) She takes a knife as if to stab herself.
She looks desolate – pitiful in her disgrace. Now Calaf poses her his own riddle: ‘Tell me my name before daybreak’, and he will gladly die. (The onstage ‘audience’ behind are actually waving yellow flags. Why?)
A camp-bed upper stage: Calaf sprawled out in, apparently, an attic cell. Eyvazov’s Calaf, in a linen suit with mandarin collar, Nessun dorma! You in your cold room . My secret is safe. No one will know my name. He will tell it to her when day breaks. His kiss will break her silence- the heavenly hushed chorus whisper ‘nightfall’- I shall win. Eyvazov’s was competently sung, but there’s no real personality, and without any of those tingling high notes to inspire an audience. The obligatory applause had barely begun , to be abruptly stopped -by secret police who, flashing torches, storm the stage. They drag on near-naked strippers. (‘They are beautiful beneath their veils.’) Bad move, Marelli! Deliberately curtailing the applause is like breaking a spell, cutting short the audience’s emotional release.
However, the high point comes unexpectedly. Liu offers to save Calaf. She knows his name; rather she die for him. ‘Who gives you such strength? Princess, it is love! Love? A love (like hers) never confessed. By her classical poise, purity of tone, secure top range- eschewing artifice- Hartig was quite wonderful, a highlight of the evening, dramatically and vocally. ‘Now enclosed in ice, you will be overcome by passion and you will love him,’ she addresses Turandot.
The seduction of Turandot , which should be climactic, is adequate without real spark between the protagonists. Calaf is lying on that camp-bed . ‘Princess of death, come down.’ -‘Do not desecrate me!’ Turandot approaches in her red dress; they kiss. For her, it’s as if she’s lost her virginity; and dignity. Whereas he proclaims her day is dawning. She is conquered : You are mine!
Lindsrom sensitively and movingly conveys the release from the throes of trauma. But her submission (for 1926) is hardly that of the new woman. He’s like an eastern potentate (Eyvazov’s from Azerbaijan ): her glory is just beginning, he declares. She despised those suitors, but she fears him. And, in Marelli’s production, the onstage audience celebrate her submission.
The finale, completed from sketches, is conventional. ‘Father, I know his name, the stranger’s name is love!’ Shamelessly unctuous, it prefigures every other blockbuster musical of the 20th century. The music is opulent, lush, exotic, like a Hollywood movie soundtrack. Appropriately, conducting Vienna State Opera’s orchestra and choirs, was Los Angeles Philharmonic’s superstar Gustavo Dudamel.
But Puccini’s opera was not best served by this confused production. Turandot – unfinished, flawed- hinges on Calaf, a virtuoso tenor role , that demands a powerful tenor at full throttle. As yet, Eyvazov, like a cuddly Russian bear, is not quite the part. P.R. 8.05.2016 ©
Photos: Lise Lindstrom (Turandot) and Yusif Eyvazov (Calaf); Anita Hartig (Liu) and Dan Paul Dumitrescu (Timur); Lise Lindstrom (Turandot); Lise Lindstrom and Yusif Eyvazov (Calaf)
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Borodin’s Prince Igor (Fürst Igor)

Borodin’s only opera Prince Igor – its ravishingly beautiful melodies famously used in the Hollywood musical Kismet– is now seldom heard, except for the Polovtsian dances. Yet its epic choral scenes and distinctive characters made Price Igor ‘the most important national opera since Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.’
Borodin aimed to compose a National opera, like Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky’s, based on Russian legends, in which Russia and the Orient would meet. Two musical styles are opposed, the classic Russian, against the beguiling Oriental – emphasised by Rimsky-Korsakov (Sheherezade), who assisted in the work. The styles are quite different, the Russian defined in the opening Prologue’s celebratory anthems.
Vienna Volksoper’s staging (sung in German) picks up on these differences, with a black and silver thematic for the Russians. With silver mirrors either side, the Choir (tremendous singing from Volksoper Choir) are dressed like crusaders, in silver mesh, holding up white crucifixes. They sing songs of rejoicing, fighting for homeland and faith.
Igor is an idealist who must prove himself in battle, in spite of bad omens, and his wife Juroslavna’s pleading (soprano Melba Ramos). Sebastian Holecek , a refined bass-baritone, physically imposing, warrior-like in an elaborate silver coat, looks the part. War is the prince’s duty he sings. Prince Galitsky (bass-baritone Martin Winkler) is entrusted to look after his sister, the Queen; Igor misguidedly lays his trust in him – Winkler, fearsome, bald-headed, powerfully enacted, imposingly sung.
Contrasted against the sober monochrome of the Russian believers, the Polovtsian camp is brilliant Technicolor. Act 1 opens to nymph-like figures in crimson, waving huge sunflowers- Vienna State Ballet dancers are utterly enchanting- symbolising the exotic orientalism , the dangerous lure of the east. Behind the dancers, the stage is ablaze with giant sunflowers, triffidly creepy, in director Thomas Schulte-Michels’ stage design.
In sumptuous red and gold gown, Konchakovna (Annely Peebo) the Khan’s daughter, in her aria, summons her man to her. Peebo’s mezzo is solid, attractively sung. Responding to her, Vladimir, Igor’s son – father and son now imprisoned- in a beautiful, internationally famous aria, sings, where is she, he’d give everything… Predictable lyrics, but Vincent Schirrmacher’s is a quality tenor, and with his oriental good looks, meltingly convincing, as he holds her shawl. Her father (the scheming Khan) would be glad to welcome him, but what would his father say?
Igor, of course, is in despair, blaming himself, he alone, for the defeat. In his aria, he sings of the freedom he’s lost; defeated, a prisoner, he’s failed his people; but he’ll come back to triumph and restore his honour. Holecek is an impressive bass-baritone, but perhaps, singing amongst these giant sunflowers, disadvantaged. In this surreal landscape, singing of how to rescue his country, he lacks some authority. But the audience was enthusiastic.
The point, presumably, of the exotic set is to emphasise the temptation, and accordingly Igor’s courage, in refusing to submit. (He refuses a Polovtsian’s help to escape; flight is unworthy of a King, he sings.) Whereas his son is enticed. Igor’s adversary Konchak at first tries to console him, that all’s for the best, that he isn’t a prisoner. Igor, could be Konchak’s ally, if he wanted ; together they would conquer the world.

Konchak (Sorin Coliban) in the Khan’s aria sings of what he can offer Igor. He’s cruel, sometimes resorts to any means, he admits. Coliban, a super-powered bass-borrowed from Vienna State Opera- suitably bearded, every inch the potentate, is absolutely the part, the standout role in the production. But even he appears a little absurd, seated in the middle of a giant sunflower. He offers Igor eternal friendship, the most beautiful women- (as long as he doesn’t threaten his land.) But Igor stubbornly resists. Hence the great feast in his honour: the singing, the Polovtsian dances.
On come the Polovtsian dancers- that gorgeous ‘Stranger in Paradise’ tune- an invocation of homeland, the dreams of youth. They have him trapped, Igor seated in amongst a harem, surrounded by man-eating sunflowers. The male dancers in purple do backwards somersaults; elaborate gymnastic contortions; breath-taking acrobatics from the women in cerise. Unbelievable! Headstands, twirling like break-dancers, on a tablet. These Vienna State ballet dancers are pulling out all the stops to impress us, and the captive Igor to give in to temptation. (But some people are never satisfied. This woman in front of me was actually checking her I-phone!) The balcony boxes next to the stage are now filled with exotically-dressed Polovtsian dancers, flashing electronic candles.
The second half (Act 3and 4) is a darker affair depicting the suffering of Igor’s people, tyrannised by Galitsky. The chorus of Russian soldiers, in vests and braces, is spectacularly choreographed. Are you happy, dear Prince, they mock their absent ruler; Galitsky, Winkler bare-chested, wearing a paper gold crown and red cloak, stirs up their revolt. Young women file in, one of them laid out centre-stage, in a mock rape scene. The bald Galitsky appears to mount her…
Cut to Igor’s wife, who in her aria pines, so long as he’s away she waits; where are the days of carefree happiness. Exceptionally sung by Melba Ramos, to oboe accompaniment, it reminded of Verdi.
A chorus of girls sing how some were seized and abused. Who is guilty? Who is the man? They’re afraid to say. But the truth must out: Galitsky does what he wants since Igor’s away. Protect us women! Princess Jaroslavna demands an explanation. Galitsky boasts, he’ll do what he pleases. Exciting tension between Melbos and Winkler! ‘The day of reckoning is not far off. Watch out!’ she warns him.-‘Igor is long forgotten’. If only she knew, he taunts her: ‘You’re too young, your husband is far away.’ Winkler’s Galitsky is sung with malice and a mocking laugh. She is too weak, and too tired to fight. Again Melba is tremendous in the part.
Troops sing of a curse broken out; the enemy is too strong. Now, brilliantly coloured, a line of Polovtsian soldiers punch the sky in triumph; more of them surge forward. The Khan is submerged in the midst of his concubines- we see their heads sticking out, encapsulated in a monster-sized flower shape. He’s standing knee-deep in women! Coliban swaggers, embodying the archetypal ‘oriental’ potentate. Igor tries to escape, but is recaptured. But Vladimir, persuaded to stay, the Khan spares his life. Ever cunning, Konchak offers his daughter in marriage, to guarantee Igor’s non-combat. (You’re my stepson from now on! To war and booty!)
Finally, we see Igor’s wife lamenting her man so far away; she invokes the great (river) Dnieper that controls Man’s fate. (A distant chorus is heard ; the Khan’s troops have released Prince Igor.) Igor and his wife re-united. In their duet, she’s incredulous; they’ve come to each other as if in a dream.
Skula and Yeroska, the clowns and turncoats of the piece, immediately change sides and call the people together to sing Igor’s praises. They rejoice in Igor, their saviour from Galitsky’s reign of terror. The opera closes assymetrically, as it began, with the Chorus, ‘We are the people!’
Surely Borodin’s opera, albeit completed by Glazunov, is a flawed masterpiece, inexplicably neglected. Vienna Volksoper’s production does it justice musically, for which Volsoper Orchestra under the distinguished Alfred Eschwe may also take credit. The cast was sterling, almost the measure of a Staatsoper roll call, without the big names, (except Coliban.) The Volksoper Chorus excelled, and Vienna State Ballet dancers are world class. What lets down this splendid revival is the (oriental) set. Those monster flowers are kitsch- ridiculous and vulgar; they detract from an otherwise distinguished production.
P.R. 22.3.2016
Photos: Sebastian Holecek (Prince Igor); Martina Mikelic (Jaroslavna), Sorin Coliban (Konchak)
(c) Barbara Palffy/ Volksoper Wien

Chekhov’s Three Sisters: the opera by Pėter Eötvös

The genius of Chekhov is to make comedy out of his characters, stranded in Russia’s provincial backwaters, cut off from the Moscow society they crave; seeking happiness in work, frustrated love affairs, nostalgising over their past, idealising the future. It could all be so tragic were not these earnest characters so amusing, wittily interacting in Chekhov’s social gatherings. Like Shakespeare, Chekhov holds a fine balance between dark tragedy and light comedy.
Pėter Eötvös’s 1998 opera Tri Sestri (co-libretto Claus Henneberg) is based on Chekhov’s play, but the plot isn’t a ‘linear’ narrative, but in three sequences, the story told from different perspectives. Eötvös uses ‘specific intervals, rhythms, and ranges of contrasting instruments’ to tell the story, so the flute identifies Olga, oboe Irina, clarinet Masha.
Chekhov’s plays speak to us in any language: they communicate humanity, human emotions, both joy and suffering. Eotvos’s vision, (if you can call it that), is often a nightmarish world of subconscious dreams: his characters sometimes ghost-like apparitions, floating across the stage, or frozen motionless. There’s no laughter, no comedy, no irony. No joy.
But there’s no doubting the quality of this, Vienna State Opera’s premiere production, with a superlative cast, many Russian, including the sisters; or of the creative staging (director Yuval Sharon: set Esther Bialas), however gloomy the concept.
In the Prologue, the three sisters are on swings: we shall find the cause of our distress, they sing. The set is rather creepy, a decaying palace, with huge doors either side, over-lit by candles. Eötvös’s music has strains of accordion; white smoke emanates from the doors. All that remains is memories, they sing. And life will start anew ; and there’ll be work : life ! The ‘girls’ are in white, frilly, ‘period’ (end 19th century) gowns. The swings ascend.
In the first section, Irina, red-haired Aida Garifullina, discards her frock, down to her slip. ‘Everything’s forgotten, I’m getting so forgetful’, is her refrain. Garifullina’s Irina has a haunting fragility: her lyric soprano plaintive, exquisitely beautiful, was for me a highlight. We’ll never move to Moscow, she laments. Her dream is all dried up. She’s consoled by Olga, her older sister, (mezzo Ilseyar Khayrullova), in a tailored costume. Little sister, take my advice and marry the Baron Tuzenbach, (who Irina doesn’t love.) Olga holds her head as if suffering from severe headache, or migraine: a teacher, she carries their burden.
Behind them, the third sister Masha (Margarita Gritskova), stunningly beautiful, silky black hair, sophisticated, in a kimono-like, exotically-patterned silk gown. On wafts a spirit figure in a fluttering lace night-gown, carrying a candelabra. Did she start the fire; there are murmurs. Other characters pass through on the moving stage.
Eötvös’s music is sparky, spooky rhythmic- featuring percussive effects, from huge, diverse drums, and with an emphasis on brass and woodwind. For the uninitiated, it could be the soundtrack for a horror movie: discordant, unsettling. Pėter Eötvös himself conducts a much-reduced Vienna State Opera orchestra in the pit; the larger orchestra play from a balcony backstage.
Soldiers appear in late 19th century tunics, wearing high boots. Tuzenbach, (baritone Boaz Daniel) pleads with Irina, ‘how long will I go on living with a deep passion for you.’ She, however, won’t speak of love. (In Chekhov, everybody’s in love with the wrong person, love passionately expressed, unrequited, rejected.) You’re so beautiful, Irina, Tuzenbach pleads on his knees. ‘So beautiful’, picks up Irina. But the three sisters’ lives have never been beautiful, she responds mournfully. He, the Baron, admits he’s never worked, or been useful to other people. Yet, he insists, he hates laziness in society! (His comment, you won’t be around in 25 years, thank God, is strangely prophetic- Chekhov’s play written 1901- as if intimating the Russian Revolution.)
But Irina is also being wooed by Solyony, who, in turn, declares his ‘boundless’ love. The handsome soldier Solyony (deep bass Victor Shevchenko) cannot live without her any longer. The tall black-haired , moustachioed Russian hunk grasps her to him; for the first time he’s bared his heart. He threatens to kill his rival Tuzenbach. She retreats, shaken, distancing herself, and takes refuge against a wall.
Natasha, that spectral figure, hovers over a cradle. She wants Irina to give up her room for Andrei’s son. We hear that the last soldiers are leaving next day. Irina, isolated, decides to marry Tuzenbach, and leave town with him. It is Olga- (‘How can I tell you’)- who breaks the news: the Baron was killed in a duel.
In the second sequence, from their brother Andrei’s perspective, Gabriel Bermudez- brown-suited, bespectacled, lank hair- sings in his aria of how tired he looks, how feeble he’s become. He’d dreamed of becoming a professor. (Irena, we glimpse, singing the ‘Everything’s forgotten’ aria). The sisters reproach him for neglecting his responsibilities: spineless, a tool used by Natasha to take control of the household. We see the hated stepmother, passing by with a burning candle. She floats around. Rather struts, as Natasha is played by counter-tenor Eric Juvenas.
Eotvos’s interlude is a gloomy brooding musical nightscape: as if probing the fearful subconscious of the protagonists. It’s relentless, like their fate.
Natasha emerges out of a closet (a towering wardrobe), now wearing a kitsch brown-silk patterned costume, her peroxide curls and big-bodied physique hinting at transgender. Fearsome, she thrusts herself bullyingly- a petty dictator. And like a Nazi sadist, she pushes the old servant, (who’d earlier pleaded with Olga to keep her on), out of her chair- too exhausted to stand, never mind work. Natasha’s taking over the house they’ve inherited from their father: (even instructing them all to move downstairs.)
Notable is the Doctor figure, to whom Andrei confesses he’s out of love with Natasha. The Doctor, (a remarkable performance by tenor Norbert Ernst), is one of Chekhov’s eccentrics, philosophising ‘existentially’. Devil take them all ! he sings in despair, that everyone expects miracles; but in reality, he can’t do a thing, bewailing the patients he couldn’t save. Then he breaks their mother’s old glass-clock. Is existence only an illusion?
(In Sharon’s scheme) the walls are covered in a black-and-white expressionist film , showing early footage of their mother. The hands of the clock projected onto the backstage are turned back. A masterstroke. Then all fades back to the grim wall-covering.
Passing across the stage are huge wardrobes – representing his claustrophobic existence – against which Andrei, Bermudez’s lyric baritone, sings how he was once cheerful, still romanticised. Then, his present and future shone. In Chekhov, this outburst would be sad, but comic; in Eötvös, however powerfully sung, it’s melancholic.
In Sequence 3, devoted to Masha, Gritskova tall, her long hair coiffed, chic in a gold trouser suit. In this take, the sisters celebrating Irina’s ‘name day’ drink tea with officers. They’re joined by Colonel Vershinin (Clemens Unterreiner, a dramatic baritone). The future looks so beautiful, fantastic sings Vershinin.
She’s having an affair. Masha, with a long cigarette holder, is presented as the modern woman. They ‘married her off when she as just 18 years old.’ To Kulygin (Dan Paul Dumitrescu), gross, paunchy, balding, in a tobacco-coloured suit; no disrespect, Dumitrescu’s a magnificent bass.
Vershinin , unhappily married, confides in Masha, he’s in love with her; but is repulsed. Masha later confesses to Olga she’s desperately in love with him. Olga objects; if she were married, she would stay home and love her husband.
Silver-grey trees on stage representing a forest. The three sisters are standing front of stage. As if in a tableau, a military band play on a balcony. Vershinin says farewell ; Masha clings passionately to him. ‘Write to me…Let me go’; he appeals to Olga for help. ‘It’s alright, it’s alright.’ Olga waves; Masha stands languidly. ‘God, where has everything vanished’, again Irina’s refrain. Then a (wardrobe) frame, through which Irina exits into space- anticipating the surrealism of a Dali painting.
“If only we knew, if only we knew”, so ends Chekhov’s play on a note of optimism and sadness. Eötvös’s opera, supposedly after Chekhov, is a darker world without hope. I prefer the play , but I’d like to hear the music again. This cast, this Vienna State Opera production, (conducted by Eötvös), is surely definitive.© P.R. 16.03.2016
Photos: Ilseyar Khayrullova (Olga), Margarita Gritskova (Masha), Aida Garifullina (Irina); Aida Garifullina (Irina); Eric Jurenas (Natasha); Margarita Gritskova (Masha)
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in Vienna

Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is an opera within an opera. It’s a comedy about putting on an opera, and the artistic compromises the composer faces to satisfy his patron, here ‘the wealthiest man in Vienna.’
Vienna State Opera’s new (2012) production (Sven-Eric Bechtholf’s) is a triumph of good taste, and creative imagination. The magnificent sets (Rolf Glittenberg) befit a Viennese palace, where the opera is set. Richard Strauss’s opera premiered in 1916 Vienna, and the costumes are contemporaneous, or early 1920s.
It opens in an elegant state room, overlooked by the Composer (mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch) on piano. Koch, in a tweed three-piece suit and boots -a cross-dressed figure familiar in Strauss- is seen kneeling on the marble floor, sorting her score. Behind, huge French windows onto the garden, with curious guests arriving for the soiree. Koch sings of her first opera (Ariadne auf Naxos), a rarefied world of mythological gods -symbolic of the would-be creative genius’s alienation from the real world. It would ‘poison her soul forever’, be unthinkable, that anyone would want to change anything. Maybe ‘because the opera is boring’, it’s paired with an Italian farce.
Plush red velvet curtains are drawn back of stage. Brilliantly lit, white theatre dressing-room chairs are now centre-stage. The dancers for the masquerade are a motley crew. Zerbinetta (Hila Fahima ) stands out in a bright-red polka-dot frock. The dance master (tenor Norbert Ernst) is identifiable, wearing a beret, camply dressed, in black matelot top, cravat, and two-tone spats. Behind the scenes there’s bickering amongst the cast. The internecine rivalries – much of it rapidly-fired spoken dialogue – is difficult to follow, even for a native German, (a lady from Hessen, sitting next to me.)
The stage, emptied, is dominated by an elderly man, the super-rich Viennese patron. Bald-headed, magisterial, the distinguished Austrian actor Peter Macic sits centre stage, commanding his universe. ‘The performances are to run not a minute over nine o’clock!’, the time he’s arranged for a fireworks display for his guests.
That the opera and masquerade have to be performed at the same time is just too much for Koch. It’s a humiliation for the composer’s first public performance, meant as ‘an authentic fulfilment of his artistic world-philosophy, Weltantanshauung.’ He withdraws.
The confrontation of the two opposites, the earnest composer and the flighty, sexy cabaretiste/ chanteuse Zerbinetta, sparks, unexpectedly, drama and pathos. They fall in love in an Augenblick, love at first sight. Hila Fahima, a light soprano, is cute, bubbly, with a charming accent. Sophie Koch’s mezzo, richly calibrated, and at times intenesly moving, is the highlight for me (although Fatima’s comedy got more applause.) Their duet was something else, one of Strauss’s rarest and most beautiful. Ein Augenblick– a look says it all… She, Koch, appears cheerful; but she’s sad; appears sociable, but is lonely, (strains of Marshallin and Oktavian in Der Rosenkavalier.) Koch sings of fidelity, what she feels. Will they ever forget that look. They kiss; the piano tinkles away. Music is a holy art – the most holy of the arts- sings Koch, (probably Strauss’s sentiment.) But he accedes to the Herr’s wishes. The opera will be performed after all, with intervals of Italian comedians.
For the performance of the ‘opera’ there are tiered seats in plush red velvet, at the back of the stage, and facing us. This isn’t just artful: Strauss’s opera is self-reflexive, interrogating the very nature of opera. Turning his opera inside-out could almost be called ‘post-modern’.
Front of stage, the set is just weird. There’s a capsized piano; a black-lacquered coffin, upturned, the lid opened. Three ladies appear in plumed, feather boa, hats, flowing dresses, brightly coloured. They help the sleeping Ariadne (Gun-Brit Barkmin), in black and silver gown, to her feet. They take her by the hand, as she finds the first steps ‘back to life’. Strauss’s music, on sparse strings, is ineffably beautiful- heavenly, bewitching. Gun-Brit Barkmin is expressive, moving, a quintessentially Straussian soprano. To string accompaniment, and mournful, exceptional, horn playing, Ariadne sings, she wants to forget, (she was abandoned to Theseus in the mythology.) She must find herself again, the girl she was. Ariadne? Not she. Poignantly, she covers her head in a black veil. Wo war ich? Tod? And not quite alive. Und ist doch kein Leben.
Send in the clowns! The opera buffo dancers have come to cheer her up. One in a harlequin costume, another in boating blazer; another wearing a green top hat. They sing of something beautiful, of light and truth. They will free her. Clowns wheel up in their scooters, encircling her, to remind her Gibt es Tanzen ob Singen, of the joy of singing and dancing.
Zerbineta, Fahima in a black top, and bulbous red midriff- surreal, like a bunny girl. She must talk to her about her weaknesses. Her aria brazenly advises Ariadne not to shed a tear for her former lover, and to open herself to new love. Fahima is flighty, a deliciously light soprano- a good foil to Barkmin’s moody musing. Leben muss du , she sings. (One of the troupe, a handsome young baritone, flirts with her.)
The composer Koch stands, ghost-like, listening to the realisation of his life’s work; and as if to encourage (and prompt) Zerbinetta, in her never-ending aria, who fluffs her lines. Zerbinetta, a bundle of energy, slides down the upturned coffin, as if it were a roller-coaster. Both the audiences, behind her and in house, applauded enthusiastically. I found her exquisite, but -sorry, does she go on, and on… But where is she, asks one of the dancers. In a colourful umbrella dance routine, she’s then seen with some dishy cavalier.
“A boat is coming now…A radiant youth is seen approaching: it is Bacchus, the god of eternal regeneration”, according to the programme notes. In the legend, he’s escaped from Circe.
But Herbert Lippert, in dark grey coat, middle-aged, is surely no youthful Bacchus. Even though Lippert, with a sexy tan, has had a make-over. She greets him, the Bote, thinking he’s the Messenger for the god of death. He sings, ‘You beautiful deity, are you the goddess of this island; these your servants?’ She at first doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Tone, süsse Stimme. They’re bewitched. Transformed, as if reborn, ‘mystically united’. Barkmin’s Ariadne and Lippert’s Bacchus are well sung, but they’re not transcendental. Lacking the passion, and vocal power, to transport them heaven bound. (Titian got it right , in his Bacchus and Ariadne painting, showing the dashing youth descending from heaven in his chariot, with an exotic entourage of misfits, sweeping up the awe-struck damsel in distress.)
Meanwhile, at Vienna State Opera, the Orchestra , under the youthful Cornelius Meister, excelled. Sven -Eric Bechtholf’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos is masterful, the sets drop-dead magnificent. I can’t wait to be back, next time maybe, to be swept away. P.R. 12.03. 2016 ©
Photos: Peter Jelosits, Wolgang Bankl, Hila Fahima, Manuel Walser, Joseph Dennis; Sophie Koch (the Composer) and Hila Fahima (Zerbinetta); Gun-Brit Barkmin (Ariadne). Featured image Gun-Brit Barkmin
© Wiener-Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia)

Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia) is so popular as to ensure a full house, so Vienna State Opera could be forgiven for putting up any cast. (Not tonight!) Their stage set is a classic (original production Günther Rennert) that’s seen over 400 performances. But let’s not get snobbish: Rossini’s opera is a comic masterpiece, which even Beethoven, who composed only one opera, envied.
Rossini’s music- epitomised in The Barber of Seville– has an irresistible rhythmic quality, a perpetuum mobile. Like an engine, it drives the comedy along, building up steam for Rossini’s signature crescendos. Italian conductors especially are able to sustain this rhythm , enervating the quieter recitative scenes. Jean-Christophe Spinosi, conducting Vienna State Opera orchestra, achieved luminous, light textures. But not quite that inexorable perpetual movement.
Vienna State Opera’s set (designer Alfred Siercke) is a magnificent traditional Spanish villa on three floors, balconies centre. Serenaders troupe in. Count d’Almaviva (Antonino Siragusa) sings beneath Rosina’s balcony, ‘The sun rises to greet you; will you not awaken? Siragusa’s tenor is nothing special: for a bel canto role, rather dull, not going anywhere. (If this were a talent-spotting audition, it wouldn’t go to the next round.) Siragusa’s tenor is really struggling, not strong enough to transport onto to the top floor, never mind Rosina’s heart. He does get to that top note in the end. They clapped. The Chorus (as always at Vienna State Opera) are splendid as Almaviva pays them off.
Figaro (Christopher Maltman) enters from the stalls, side of stage. At last some real singing. Maltman, with his richly timbred baritone, simply takes over. Centre stage, he’s addressing us, the audience, in his iconic, dazzling cavatina ‘Day and night, I’m on call’, brushes, and combs and knives at his command. There’s an alacrity and bustling humour and mischievousness to his phrasing . And what fabulous high notes. Largo al factotum, Old and young ask of me here and there…Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro. Ah, what time he’s having. (Now he’s holding onto, pivoting from, a drainpipe.) ‘Fortune will always side with me: I am the factotum of the city!’ True to life: just a little money in his pocket, with a girl in Seville.
Maltman’s Figaro runs rings around Almaviva. Almaviva sings, he once saw a beauty, the daughter of a Sevillian merchant. Enamoured, he now stands beneath her balcony. I happen to be the envy of all trades, boasts Figaro, the man to go to. The balcony door opens. Rosina (Adriana Kucerová), a dark beauty, throws down some little trifle which her guardian and uncle (Wolfgang Bankl) slavishly picks up.
Almaviva serenades Rosina with a ballad, Siragusa’s light tenor, not put to the test, very pleasant. She looks down captivated. -Go on singing , my dear- Student ‘Lindoro’ (The Count’s alias) can give her no treasures, but he offers his faithful heart. How dearly Rosina loves her Lindoro, Adriana’s soprano forever being interrupted in the comic set up.
Figaro with Alamaviva, the Count promises a rich reward for Figaro’s ‘services’. Figaro exults, what a wonderful effect gold has on him. Maltman’s baritone soars exuberantly: at the thought of the metal , his heart is a volcano.
Isn’t that a brilliant idea? In their duet, Figaro’s ‘brilliant’ idea to get the Count into Bartolo’s house: the army being requisitioned in Seville, all the Count has to do is to dress up as a soldier to claim accommodation. Maltman, wearing a red hat, in short jacket and culottes, stockinged, and physically commanding, against Siragusa’s shorter, squat Almaviva. Ah, he feels the flame of love, sings Almaviva, while Figaro hears the clink of gold.
In Rosina’s famous aria, soprano Adriana Kucerová, sings Una voce poco fa, the sound of his voice has pierced my heart. Yes! I swear Lindoro shall be mine. Kucerová smiles radiantly, her coloratura confident: rather characterless , but charming. In their comic duet, Figaro sings to Rosina of a very beautiful, deliciously plump, high-spirited brunette he’s in love with, very nearby. She could give lessons in malice, he sings . But, in Figaro, she’s met her match. In their banter, Kucerová is fired by Maltman’s scheming Figaro; feisty, she’s really singing.
The plot you know: Figaro agrees to deliver her letter to ‘Lindoro’, but prevented by Bartolo’s arrival with Rosina’s music master Basilio, (very well sung by bass Jongmin Park.) Bartolo, spying on Rosina in her room , notices a missing sheet of paper, and assumes she’s written a secret letter. She’s deceiving him, a Doctor of his standing! As Bartolo, Viennese bass Wolfgang Bankl is well experienced in the role; beautifully sung, but he’s not nasty enough! After all, he’s her uncle and guardian, taking advantage of his niece: he even admits to Bartolo his hopes of making her his wife.
But Bankl is well up for the comedy, as in the ensuing scene, when Almaviva arrives as a drunken soldier. Almaviva, Siragusa now glamorously dressed in green and red top, breeches and boots, makes fun of Bartoli’s name. Bankl, taunted by Siragusa’s out-of-control drunk, insists he’s a doctor and exempt from fighting.
The Act finale is terrifically staged, as the police, (called by Bartolo) enter side of stage, and search the villa, taking over the upper rooms. Basilio, Rosina , Almaviva and Bartolo are all singing at cross-purposes. It all ends in marvellously orchestrated confusion. Yet musically, under Spinosi, Rossini’s crescendo perhaps lacked the controlled frenzy- that ecstatic orgasmic release of energy.
Disguised again as the cleric/music teacher in Act 2, Siragusa is good in the comedy, giving Rosina music lessons, while they flirt under Bartolo’s beady eye. But tonight, this tenor hasn’t got what it takes- vocal heft, agility, upper range- for this bel canto role. The scam with Bartoli, explaining why he’s replacing Basilio, is amusing enough. To distract Bartoli, Figaro shaves him, their conversation a cover for the lovers.
Kucerová’s Rosina, in her aria, sings ‘For a heart in flames, love will always triumph. Ah, Lindoro, if only you knew how my guardian enrages me!’ Very pleasantly sung, lots of smiles, very compelling, but maybe a little colourless. ‘Dearest, I trust you!’ The trills of her coloratura are, technically, perfectly accomplished, but it isn’t stirring, doesn’t enrapture.
The comic timing of the ensuing farce tightens relentlessly, with the arrival of the real Basilio, ushered away by Figaro. Bartolo susses the planned elopement; and Rosina, hearing malicious rumours (La calunnia) about Count Almaviva, agrees to marry Bartolo. In the plot, Almaviva assisted by Figaro, and under cover of a storm, crashes the ‘wedding’, revealing to Rosina that Almaviva and Lindoro are one. Bartolo, arriving too late with soldiers, has to bless the Count’s marriage to Rosina, Di si felice innseto . The frantic finale is consummately achieved.
Maltman’s Figaro, cutting a handsome, dashing figure, holds this performance together; stands out against an otherwise distinguished cast, except for Kucerová, on unexceptional form. Siragusa’s Almaviva is good as a comic, but this Count has no real stature that this social satire must undermine. Comparisons with Juan Diego Flórez in this role (2014) are odious, but this Almaviva was disappointing. Siragusa, with an international reputation, tonight lacked form.
Spinosi, conducting Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus, achieved very fine playing, especially in the storm effects Act 2; but not quite the panache and rhythmic pace of the Italians who regularly conduct Rossini here (Marco Armilliato especially.)
The constant is Vienna’s traditional ‘Sevillian’ stage set -an historical artefact- that still could hardly be bettered. P.R. 8.1.2016 ©
Photos: Antonino Siragusa (Count d’Amaviva) and Christopher Maltman (Figaro); Christopher Maltman (Figaro); Adriana Kucerová (Rosina); Adriana Kucerová and Christopher Maltman; Antonini Siragusa (Almaviva) and Adriana Kucerová (Rosina); Featured image Adriana Kucerová
© Wiener Staatsoper /Michael Pöhn

Donizetti’s Viva la Mamma

Donizetti’s comedy opera , is a ‘Noises Off’, an opera within an opera: a send-up of an operatic rehearsal in a provincial theatre, where they’re playing some obscure Italian opera. Behind the scenes , there’s every operatic stereotype: the diva Corilla, who disagrees with the director; a tussle between a mezzo and soprano over a role; a Russian tenor, who doesn’t understand Italian. And there’s La Mamma , Agata, who bullies the producer to get her daughter Luisa on stage; and herself takes over the vacant part of Queen. It’s a brilliant spoof, wittily conceived and composed by one of the great opera composers of his time, who had the wit to send up his profession. To add to the dramatic irony, Vienna Volksoper’s director is Rolando Villazón, no less, but not in a singing role.
Donizetti’s 1827 Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrili (Theatrical customs: good and bad) is now a post-modern production. In Vienna Volksoper’s cleverly designed set (Friedrich Despalmes), there’s a stage within a stage: even its own orchestral pit at the front. The smaller stage revolves, so we even see pinball players ‘behind the scenes’. The ‘director’ and ‘conductor’ are constantly stepping onto the stage to direct their singers.) The prima donna Corilla (Rebecca Nelsen) is of course in a bright pink top. The stage cast are fantastically dressed, as if out of a sci-fi pantomime , some in pointed hats , some in silver. There’s a photographer, forever taking shots of the cast ‘on stage’ . (Why would he bother?) The ‘conductor’ is slumped asleep on the score. The ‘Russian’ tenor, (who speaks no Italian) , is played by Korean JunHo You. A voice coach is giving him lessons (in German); and we hear more of JunHo You’s superb tenor.
Now a sensation. ‘Mamma’, a figure in drag- traditional Austrian ‘Tracht‘, and bright orange hair- explodes onto the stage. ‘What’s with the rondo?’ If Luisa (her daughter ) doesn’t sing , the whole city will revolt. The shock is the voice: Martin Winkler’s baritone, with its deep timbre, is phenomenal. ‘She’ runs amok in the director’s space, and even pinches the (‘rehearsal’) conductor’s bottom. Then Mamma climbs onto the stage arguing with the director, fighting her daughter’s case. Luisa needs encouraging. Mara Mastalir appears an anaemic, meek blonde girl, wearing a violet pinafore like her mother’s. But Luisa’s voice will grow in confidence, Mastalir’s soprano getting better and better.
There’s wonderful camp as Mamma confronts Corilla, the prima donna, whom she exposes as formerly a mere chorister, and the wife of a chestnut seller. Stefano, (Ben Connor in a slick silver-grey suit), is now both her husband and agent. He gives a resumé of Corilla’s ‘glorious career’, Mamma interrupting with guffaws and yawns. He will defend his wife whatever, and tips Mamma’s armchair over. Agata, Winkler in that outrageous Alpine outfit, lays into Corilla: her father had a market stall, no wonder she’s so arrogant. In a slagging match, Corilla threatens to pull Mamma’s hair out; Winkler retaliates, she’ll strangle her with her wig.
As well as the high camp, Winkler treats us to some splendid singing: her aria, ‘O God give me a moment’, then her plea to the theatre manager (Wilfried Zelinka). Desperate after the mezzo walks out, he casts Agata in the vacant role of Queen. There’s chaos as the tenor also walks out (and Stefano is cast as ‘Romulus’, although he’s a baritone.) And in this spoof on putting on a show, the theatre manager has money problems, so they all demand an advance.
Ironically, in the opera, they all complain about the production. But Vienna Volksoper’s production, directed by Rolando Villazón, also becomes increasingly incoherent. The director’s task should be to help the audience understand the piece, not confuse them. Villazón (in an interview) rightly argues the Romulus and Ersilia piece is not to be taken seriously. But he also hints at Donizetti’s more serious themes, so he surely doesn’t intend an outright farce. The director in Viva La Mamma wanted the Romulus piece played a thousand years in the future, Villazón argues . ‘Naturally there are some problems.’
The Act 2 sets are a mix of Star Wars and pantomime. But, cleverly lit , it looks expensive. The soprano (Rebecca Nelsen) is interrupted by a Star Wars R2-D2 robot . (‘That is a duet’, insists the Director!) Nelsen rushes off in a pique. She returns, singing Ersilia’s aria, ‘This is the day of joy. Flee to me.’ Then Mamma drags the diva off stage and stops up her mouth. In spite of the farce- the two sopranos Luisa and Corilla in a standoff- Donizetti’s music somehow prevails, seriously and beautifully sung by Volksoper Chorus, the Vienna Volksoper Orchestra (conductor Wolfram-Maria Märtig) sustaining a Rossini-like rhythmic vitality.
There are also stand-out arias. Mamma’s, Winkler expressive and moving, that a professional artist has to sing about his wage. Then when Mamma negotiates with the theatre director (Zelinka). Let her sing just once, she pleads. (She promises to pawn her jewellery to prevent the production from folding.) She will sing! Viva la Mamma, Viva la Mamma! Agata, Zelinka realises , is irreplaceable. ( And she can hardly wait for what her daughter will achieve.)
Then, totally unexpected, against a darkened, hushed stage, the tenor (JunHo You), with a suitcase, launches into the most moving aria. He follows her like a rainbow, a friendly jackal… Sung with self-effacing sincerity, it reminds of Nemorino’s more famous aria in L’elisir d’amore. Quite outstanding.
Also memorable, Mara Mastalir, her soprano now at full range. ‘Oh, don’t neglect me, trust in your daughter,’ surprisingly well sung, her coloratura impressive.
There’s also a superbly staged ballet sequence, danced by Vienna State Ballet dancers. The choreography is so precise, it’s not sabotaged by Winkler’s Mamma interrupting the proceedings. These space-age pantomime figures are like a comedy review. Then the ‘triumphal march’ in the rehearsal piece – ‘Hail great Romulus’ – takes over.
In the closing medley (should it be ensemble), some of the cast hold up placards- ‘Save our Theatre!’, ‘Money for Art!’- in an agit-prop reminder, as rehearsals continue, of funding cuts and subsidies in the everyday life of an opera company. But, thanks to Agata, finances are secured just before the premiere, hence the Viva la Mamma! festive finale.
Of Vienna Volksoper’s production: a lot of money has been expended on these outrageous, but ridiculously silly, costumes . Also included in the line up, two ‘Star Wars icons’ (there’s a Chewbacca-like ape)- a gimmick conveniently coinciding with Star Wars VII’s release. However, the Mamma figure played in drag, as Donizetti intended, couldn’t be more topical; it makes the scheme even more confusing, but this is opera buffo, and she (Winkler) truly the star.
Villazón’s intentions may be serious, but the staging is rather a mess. Donizetti’s music, his glorious score Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrili, however, survives. We should be grateful for that. © P.R. 4.01.2016

Photos: Agata (Martin Winkler); Rolando Villazón in a dress rehearsal; Ensemble with members of Vienna State Ballet
© Barbara Pálffy/ Volksoper Wien