Handel’s Alcina

alcina_92365_papatanasiuIn Adrian Noble’s acclaimed production for Vienna State Opera, Alcina is being performed by members of the Countess of Devonshire’s family. You’d have thought Handel’s opera was complicated enough without framing it. But Noble’s concept works well, opening in a fabulous Georgian ballroom, with copper shells bordering the front of stage (designer Anthony Ward.) How appropriate to set the opera in Handel’s time, especially as the guest orchestra in the pit- with soloists appearing on the stage accompanying the singers- is playing on original instruments: Les Musiciens du Louvre, conducted by Marc Minkowski. There’s a sense of urgency, dynamic, rhythmic playing, vibrato-less clarity and freshness, enervating the singers.
It was to be a costume drama like no other. Lady Devonshire , who sings Alcina, introduces her guests; liveried footmen attend dutifully. Georgian aristocratic society brought to life; but the background music is, from the overture on, Handel’s own. Astonishingly, a balloon, in claret and blue, descends, filling the stage. It’s a surrealistic moment, preparing us for the magical world of Alcina’s island.
The backstage panels open up to reveal a bright green island. This is paradise for the living, here heroes are nurtured for pleasure, sing the Chorus (Vienna State Opera Academy Choir.) A ballet, Vienna State Ballet dancers, in brilliant jewel colours, jade, royal blue, orange, purples- take the stage.
Alcina (Greek soprano Myrto Papatanasiu) is holding court: ‘played by’ Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, it’s as if the London aristocracy have moved into an island location (but 200 years before the jet set.) Papatanasiu’s Alcina is very louche, built-up bouffant hair, in a long gown, with pinched waist. She’s fondly caressing her lover Ruggerio (mezzo-soprano Rachel Frenkel). But her man is actually cross-dressed, increasing the erotic charge. Papatanasiu, in her aria, sings, show them the words, the spring, the wells, where I sighed and offered you love.
Bradamante, Ruggerio’s betrothed, comes on a mission to rescue him, accompanied by her guardian Melisso. Bradamante (mezzo-soprano Margarita Gritskova) dressed as a soldier carries a sword; Melissa (Orhan Yildiz) also supposedly a soldier, but bearded, in a great coat, looks more like a 19th century revolutionary. They meet Alcina’s sister Chen Reiss (a spitting image of Papatanasiu as if things weren’t confusing enough), as Morgana falls in love with ‘Ricciardo’, ie. Bradamante disguised as her brother. Yet more complicated, Alcina enters with Ruggerio, who is, literally, under her spell. He doesn’t remember ‘Ricciardo’, nor any lover but Alcina Di te mi rido.
alcina_92338_reiss And Oronte (Alcina’s general) is jealously in love with Morgana, whom he imagines is in love with Ricciardo/Bradamante as his rival! Tenor Benjamin Bruns’ Oronte, unrecognisably gruesome, provides some of the highlights of Act 1. Morgana, promising to protect Bradamante, renounces her love for Oronte, whose passion for her gives him no peace. Reiss, a gloriously scintillating soprano, feistily rails at Bruns, you foolish man loving a woman! Even while she sings protesting her love, she could be denouncing you. Reiss is very sexy in the role. (The embittered Oronte intrigues with Ruggerio; enraged with jealousy, Ruggerio accuses Alcina of being unfaithful.)
Alcina’s impassioned response to Ruggerio’s reproach is a highpoint. In her aria, she sings, although his jealousy wounds her, she loves him regardless. How can his cruel heart so mock her. Her heart is scorned!
The characters in Alcina are human flesh and blood, with real feelings. Handel, unlike his (Italian) contemporaries, avoids simplistic stereotypes. Alcina is depicted not so much as devilish sorceress, rather as the desperate lover.
Act 2 opens with Ruggerio meeting with the disguised Melisso who gives Ruggerio a magic ring to break Alcina’s spell. (Thus Ruggerio is reminded of his love for Bradamante, and his feelings for Alcina voided.) The revelation is suggested by the stage now filled with descending small lights- clever, but also rather a beautiful effect. Ruggerio conspires to go hunting, so as to flee Alcina’s realm. In Verdi prati , affectingly sung by Frenkel , Ruggerio laments that the beautiful landscape is about to decay. Alcina invokes her magic to win back Ruggerio’s love. But in despair, she realises her power no longer works against the ring, ombre pallide.
Accompanied by a violin on stage, Papatanasiu movingly sings, how she senses Ruggerio no longer loves her. At first she seems to faint. Then, in her aria, Oh, my heart, invoking the gods of love, accuses him: the traitor, who she loved so much, leaves her in tears. She falls, but then her anger raises her to her feet: Oh, my heart, you are scorned!
Papatanasiu is passionate, demonstrative; enacts the role with expressive physicality. In Act 3, after meeting Ruggerio, and realising he’s leaving her for another love (his fiancée), she reproaches him, he merely feigned love . She calls upon the demons of the underworld for vengeance: but where are they? Vanquished. What is left, pale shadows. They do not appear. Papatanasiu raises her arms in anguish. Then picks up a silver jewelled wand. Stop my fleeing lover! Have pity even if no longer bound by her magic.
She’s desperate to stop Ruggerio leaving. Ma quando turnerai If he returns, she threatens, it will be in chains. She locks his arms in a grip behind his back. She mauls his cheeks; pushes him down like a dog.
Frenkel’s Ruggerio takes the stage commandingly, Gritskova’s Bradamante on one side, Yildiz as Melisso, his ‘tutor’, on the other. Bradamante strips off her soldier’s tunic, revealing her bodice, and emerging in a frock, coral pink: beautiful woman, Gritskova, her voluminous mezzo ‘full of belcanto elegance.’
Poor Alcina holds the stage, her captain Oronte (Bruns) strutting about , her forces overcome. In a poignant aria , Mi restano le lagrime , she’s left with nothing but her tears; the heavens no longer hear her. (Poor dear, Papatanasiu, she’s still wearing the same gown, distinguished by an excess of necklaces.) A footman hands her a decanter. Not whiskey, surely? She drinks.
alcina_92320_papatanasiuThe stage behind is filled with brilliant green grass, through which walks an elderly, blind-folded figure. (She had him metamorphosed into a lion, hence the profusion of gold curls.) Oberto is ordered to spear his father and cannot. May you be tormented with sorrow and torment, Alcina curses the reunited lovers Bradamante and Ruggerio. She has no need of their pity. Do not hope for mercy from us! (they respond.) Frenkel’s Ruggerio now drops the magic casket -it breaks, (it’s only plastic after all!) Who has restored life and liberty to us at the end of this terrible night, sing the chorus. Papatanasiu calmly takes her place on the couch to put together her broken urn.
The ballet – the gorgeous boys dance gloriously- bare-chested in their cream baggy pants; then standing in a line corralling the rest of the players to join the celebrations. And so the original ‘oak’ panels (of the Duchess’s ballroom) close the back of the stage. Hallelujah! All praise the glorious power of true love, against which the sorceress’s powers failed.
It was our good fortune that Handel’s score was justified on period instruments by Minkowski’s magnificent Musiciens du Louvre, the guest orchestra in the pit, (while Vienna State Opera Orchestra were on tour in Japan.) © P.R. 26.10.2016
Photos: Myrtò Papatanasiu (Alcina); Chen Reiss (Morgana); featured image Chen Reiss
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment)

la_fille_du_regiment_91633 Donizetti’s musical genius lay in comedy, as well as (historical) tragedies. La Fille du Régiment , his first opera in French (1840) has catchy melodies, glorious bel canto arias, unforgettable characters, and brilliant comic timing. But the jokes really work when you understand the plot: impossibly complicated, but comedy derives from misunderstandings. It’s ostensibly the story of Marie, adopted by a French regiment, but who’s in love with Tonio, a Tyrolean partisan. The background is the Napoleonic wars, the Tyrol, where the Marquise of Berkenfield, a Lady Bracknell figure, is surprised by French troops; and as in Oscar Wilde, the comedy hinges on the foundling, product of an affair with a French captain.
In Vienna State Opera’s production (director Laurence Pelly, stage Chantal Thomas), there’s huge map of the Tyrol on stage, folded into peaks, supposedly ‘creating a mountainous landscape’. With he majority of the cast being soldiers, we’re supposed to connect with the Napoleonic war, (says the programme.) In fact, the soldier’s uniforms are out of World War I; and in the Act 2 finale John Tessier as Tonio enters the stage driving a tank. But Donizetti’s is ‘opéra-comique’.
In the opening, in a convoy of furniture, peasants armed with pitchforks, pots and pans, the Marquise is fleeing the French advance. Donna Ellen, the veteran Canadian mezzo, adds a touch of class: also humour, in her imposing fur stole, complaining to her long-suffering factotum (Marcus Pelz), how terrible it is for a lady of her standing. ‘These people have no respect’, repeat the peasant chorus sending her up. She’s standing on a chair, over the peasants with their farming tools. Hort confronts Sulpice, the French sergeant, to obtain her safe passage.
There she is struggling under a mountain of washing. Sulpice (Carlos Alvarez) sings Marie’s as pretty as an angel and has the heart of a soldier. To a military beat that inflects the whole opera, Marie (Julie Fuchs) sings she was born in the sounds of battle. Au bruit de la guerre, j’ai reçu le jour. The whole regiment is like a father to her. Fuchs like a fierce tomboy, has boyish red hair, wearing a singlet, jeans and boots. Fuchs’ light soprano adeptly negotiates the trills of Donizetti’s coloratura. With a bucket of spuds, she has an ironing board centre stage; but, sorry, isn’t that iron rather modern?
What providence when she, a mere child, came into his, Sulpice’s arms, twelve years ago. Sulpice needs to talk to her about her seeing a Tyrolean partisan (Tonio). That’s not why they brought her up. Fuchs, the young French soprano, who comes with a very impressive CV , is full of charm, but I wondered if she lacks some power for this feisty role.
John Tessier, as Tonio, appears in traditional Tyrolean costume, culottes et al. When the regiment bring him in, Marie steps in to save him, just as he once saved her. Later, Tessier’s aria proposing to her- Pour mon âme, he’d give up everything for her – is very good indeed. A sepia-coloured photo of a happily married couple descends for Marie and Toni’s moving duet, Depuis l’instant , (love at first sight).la_fille_du_regiment_91655
In the complicated plot, Tonio toasts his new friends – they take him with them- and Marie sings the regimental song Chacun le sait, le beau vingt-et-unième. RAT-A-PLAN. Tessier now in uniform- she’ll only marry a soldier from the 21st- sings , Quel jour de fête, (happy day to be under the flag.) Tessier is a handsome blonde Canadian, clean-cut, with a fresh, light tenor, that is up to Donizetti’s demanding score. One of the highlights of the evening.
But they want to take her away from him. It turns out that the Marquise of Berkenfield is the regiment’s girl’s aunt, and she’s determined to give her a proper education. Marie has to leave her regiment and her lover. Marie’s aria Il faut partir, accompanied by mournful cor anglais, is deeply felt, emotional-surely an influence on Verdi. In Marie’ farewell to her simple life, her ‘collective father’, Fuchs has both charm and technical mastery of tricky high runs.
So far, so worthy, but rather dull. Act 2, in the Birkenfeld’s castle is anything but. The stage is palatial, luxurious, an oak-lined drawing room. There we observe a choreographed cleaning ritual, the servants like marionettes, rigorously directed. One servant even crosses the orchestral pit to dust the rostrum. la_fille_du_regiment_91613The Duchess of Crakentorp is Ildikó Raimondi, the surprise and sensation of the evening. The diva appears in a glamorous lime gown, wearing a hat in silver like a boat. La-di-da, she sings, as if improvising. Away with Donizetti, and all those composers. Raimondi holds the stage like a cabaret artiste. ‘Give me the oom-pa-pah, When I want a melody… Then I want a melody by Strauss- Just give me your oom-pa-pah.’ But, hang on, isn’t this ‘By Strauss’, by Ella Fitzgerald, out of the 2oth century?
Now as Marie, Fuchs wears a pure white dress, prim and proper. She’s having music lessons, supervised by her aunt Birkenfeld (Ellen), and singing about Aphrodite, and the goddess of love Venus. Meanwhile Sulpice is subverting the lesson by getting her to sing the regimental anthem Rat-a-plan . Ellen, Her music teacher, painfully pulls her by the ear.
In this artificial world of etiquette, Marie yearns for the simple life, Par le rang et par l’opulence , ‘an aria in the Italian form’, accompanied by the cello, underlines the deep emotion. Fuchs in the coloratura has lots of trills; she’s not that powerful, but sings rather tenderly , she’d give her life to touch his hand. What good is all this wealth.
Amongst the Act 2 highlights, are the trio for Marie, Tonio, and Sulpice Tous les trois réunis, after the regiment, with Tonio, burst into the castle. When Tonio asks the Marquise for Marie’s hand, she refuses. Then, for the Marquise’s pre-arranged marriage, there’s a remarkably choreographed scene in which the wedding arrive guests arrive – decrepit, ghost like- as if out of a vampire movie.
Tessier is outstanding in Tonio’s aria. He’d enrolled so he could be close to her; sings he would surely die if Marie no longer loved him and married for riches.
Sulpice tells Marie the secrets of her birth, so she won’t refuse Tonio. All the soldiers led by Tonio, actually driving a tank, come crashing in, Au sécours de notre fille!
This leads, tempo winding up like clockwork, to Marie’s repeat of the cabaletta, Salut à la France !, in all its fervour- an unofficial French national anthem under Napoleon III. It’s a vehicle providing the soprano with numerous opportunities to show off her virtuosity. Fuchs had the vocal range, but somehow lacked the fiery personality and gutsy power.
Raimondi’s Duchess of Crakentorp emits a strident scream, in a pique of rage, storming out after the Marquise agrees to let Marie marry Tonio. She will not sacrifice her daughter’s happiness.
Tessier, repeating his success, was ideally cast as Tonio. The whole cast was exceptional, especially the cameo roles, the ladies Ellen and Raimondi. Evelino Pidò conducted Vienna State Opera orchestra with spirit and elan, Staatsoper chorus, dominating the stage, on magnificent form.© PR. 19.09.2016
Photos: Julie Fuchs( Marie); John Tessier (Tonio); Ildiko Raimondi (Duchess of Crakentorp)
© Wiener-Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Once upon a Time in Hollywood: Axel at Heaven’s Door

axel_an_der_himmelstuere_-_andreas_bieber_bettina_moench_hoc In Axel at Heaven’s Door, Ralph Benatzky’s ‘Hollywood’ based operetta, Axel is the luckless reporter who stakes everything on an interview with ‘unapproachable’ film diva Gloria Mills. So he endangers his engagement to Jessie, who’s conveniently secretary of ‘Scott’, Mills’ Film studio. She turns to Axel’s best friend for consolation, a hairdresser exiled from Vienna. Meanwhile Mills confronts the realities of stardom, in love with a sleazebag posing as a prince.
Benatzky’s 1936 operetta was one of the last in the genre, before many of its (Jewish) composers and musicians were driven out of Austria and Germany by the Nazis. Axel an der Himmelstür, based on the satirical comedy by Paul Morgan, famously depicted ‘Hollywood without exaggeration, guaranteed authentic’, the model for Gloria Mills being Greta Garbo.
Peter Lund’s splendid Volksoper production is film noir as musical. First half, the actors (and action) on stage are in black/white sepia tones, merging into the film projected on the screen behind. In the brilliant opening, the stage set, with art deco gilded panels, comprises a small cinema, for a private film-studio viewing of a Gloria Mills silent movie, Once upon a time in Hollywood , (authentically edited by Andreas Vancsics), with Volksoper orchestra in the pit. This cues into the first musical sequence, HOLLY-HOLLYWOOD: where everybody’s a star: nothing is real, Chaplin, can do it, Buster et al.
But Gloria Mills needs a script; so we’re taken on a trip of the Hollywood studio system. Closing in on Jessie (Juliette Khali) secretary of Scott Film Corp, where reporter Axel tries to get an interview with Mills. Andreas Bieber is nerdy, with wiry hair, in a plaid jacket. A film crew comes in complaining about the ‘impossible’ Miss Mills. The screen behind is constantly changing, with a cartoonist’s illustrations of Hollywood.
Gloria Mills (Julia Koci) enters from the side of stage, ‘I’m a star , how can I possibly moan.’ With boyishly short hair, she’s stunningly dressed in a clinging black silk gown, cut away at the thigh. (Zarah Leander, an overnight star premiering in the role, wore costumes cut so high, they said you could see her crotch.)
Her aria sings of the Movie Star: the idol of the century. (Her many film posters are shown behind her.) But, ‘in the depths of my heart I am alone,’ she confesses. In the role Julia Koci (who interchanges with Bettina Mönch) has charisma: that sultry, aloof star-quality, and vocally , she smoulders diva-like, confidently reaching high notes. (Axel is spotted, huddled under a table, and she, averse to the press, the paparazzi, has him ejected.)
Mills wants to resign. In a (mock) fur coat and a hat resembling a pelican’s beak , she confronts studio head Cecil McScott (Kurt Schreibmayer), an obvious satire on Cecil B. De Mille. A fascimile cut-out of the studio’s limousine knocks over an old man- in fact, Axel disguised by make-up artist Theodor- in a scam to blackmail Mills into getting him into her villa. Now, the old man invited to dinner, Axel’s at Heaven’s Door.
In the sub-plot, Theodor (Peter Lesiak) visits Jessie’s apartment. Modernist white cabinets: profiled against a side-view of a Bauhaus apartment block. Ihnen zuliebe I’ll do anything to please you, he sings: one of the show’s famous numbers, as Theodor appears to cut Jessie’s hair. But their love -as Axel appears- is ‘taboo’, they sing.
Theodor is an exile from Vienna. But the stand-out nostalgic waltz ‘Everyone wants to watch the real movies from Vienna ‘, Echten Film aus Wien is, in fact, a send-up of all the stereotypes: a parody of a Viennese song that’s ‘reconstituted as Hollywood corn.’ The Danube flows through the centre of Vienna; Schubert and Johann Strauss live in the same house; everything’s in English. The cast join a screwball line-up from Strauss to Kaiser William, the Prater and Stephansdom each side of stage. Vienna how it laughs!
(Closing Act 1,) a montage of headlines bring us up to speed on the gossip about Gloria. Will she leave him (Tino); how often does she use cocaine? The closing shot is of Axel entering the gates of heaven (Gloria’s estate), the screen now swirling clouds.
As Axel stands in Mills’ Hollywood palace making notes, we see on the white screen behind him a cartoonist’s sketch of the Hollywood star’s home. The back-stage screen (Sam Madwar) is used as if to illustrate his reporters pad.

(c) barbara pálffy/volksoper

(c) barbara pálffy/volksoper

But the screen lifts on -you’ve guessed it – a spiralling staircase, with five men in deejays , top hats and canes, leading into a dance routine led by Axel.Tenor Andreas Bieber excels as a comic actor: as a singer, he maybe lacks operatic range. He’s as meant to be, a musical entertainer, ideal for operetta.
For Act 2- we’re in Gloria Mills’ home- the set is gold-tinted. And -wow!- Mills (Koci) appears as a platinum blonde, in a lustrous gold creation, a silk gown, and a zebra-striped coat. Now, bathed in a gold light, the show stopper Gebundene Hände– tied hands spell out the end of passion, (or whatever.) Soprano Koci, who has some considerable talent, ended confidently on a gloriously sustained high note. The House erupted spontaneously, the longest applause of the evening.
In the preposterously complicated intrigue, Axel reveals his identity ; but when the Sheriff (Gerhard Ernst) arrives, Mills, like a true actress, shops him. The witty script (Hans Weigel) is forever referencing lines from classic movies. They exchange lines from Robin Hood , he being the Sheriff of Nottingham to Axel’s Robin, who gives him the slip. Mills learns that her beloved Prince is -surprise-a fraudster. Axel thwarts her suicide bid just in time; and she reluctantly lets him spend the night for protection.
Meanwhile, Jessie and Theodor have slipped into the villa: an excuse for the appealing duet ‘Just to please me’, (Khali and Lesiak.) In the ingenious set, we see them sneaking into the upper bedrooms ; later masked characters snoop suspiciously in and out, (are they after the diamonds?) A power cut suspending the alarm; police storm the villa; Axel is seized. In the police lock-up, Axel sings, ‘I must be in Sing-Sing allein (alone)’.- There is no singing.- But this is an operetta!
Axel is reprieved, ultimately everyone exposed. Of course, there’s a ‘Hollywood ending’ Gloria has to admit Axel spent the night with her for an interview. The Holly-Hollywood opening sequence is reprised; and ingeniously, just when we thought it was over, the full cast on stage do a fast-forward re-run. We see the main scenes recapitulated as if a film spool was being re-wound.
I should mention the musical arrangements (of the 1930s originals) were by Kai Tietje, and the Volksoper orchestra – unassailable in operetta- were conducted with real pizzazz by Lorenz C. Aichner. Incredibly, 80 years after its premier, this was a first for Vienna Volksoper. The revival of Benatzky’s operetta is a triumph thanks to Peter Lund’s imaginative direction and the ingenuity of Sam Madwar’s ‘stage’ design. Technically and creatively it would compete with the best in London or Broadway-except, ironically, it isn’t in English (except for the sub titles.) PR.15.09.2016
Photos: Bettina Mönch (Gloria Mills) and Andreas Bieber (Axel); Andreas Bieber and ensemble
(c) Barbara Pálffy/ Volksoper Wien
Photos featuring Julia Koci were unfortunately not available.

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.
butterfly2
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