Verdi’s The Robbers

rauber_18x24Posters for the Vienna Volksoper premier show dark silhouettes in black of the three key players, like male models for a photo-shoot. Fortunately Alexander Schulin’s production isn’t a modern update. Verdi’s opera on Schiller’s Die Räuber is set in I8th century Germany; costumes are a mix of baroque and Revolutionary . Only the names are changed for the German version of Verdi’s I masnadieri.
For the prelude, a cello player sits in a narrow room on a tableau-like stage, and plays a hauntingly beautiful solo. About him sit three ‘children’, Karl, Franz and Amalia : the triangle on which the drama hinges. A family tragedy of two rival brothers, the younger Franz who plots against Karl, the Count’s favourite son ; and Amalia, Karl’s betrothed , the victim of the men’s rivalry.
Long live freedom! Karl’s aria is a plea to live in a world without pain and suffering. Mehrzad Montazeri, as the Count’s firstborn in exile, long-haired, dissolute, dressed in frock coat and brocaded waistcoat, has befriended rough company. He’s written his father a letter begging forgiveness, hoping to be allowed back. Montazeri- who alternates in the role with Vincent Schirrmacher- is rather short, but a refined tenor with a good middle range. But Franz (Boaz Daniel), the embittered, ambitious younger brother, has intercepted the letter, to ensure his father’s rejection. False humanity! Karl, deeply disillusioned, in his aria, shows signs of the despair that brings on an inner disintegration. He becomes the leader of a bunch of outlaws.
Raeuber_KHP1_BP_308At the end of the first Act, Count Maximilian (Kurt Rydl) is brought news that his once beloved Karl has died in battle. (Franz’s conspiracy is to disinherit his older brother and kill his father with the shock.) Rydl staggers around as if afflicted with severe back pain- I know the symptoms- and collapses as if dying.
For Act 2, against a white stage (design Bettina Meyer), there’s a huge black cube – a stage within a stage- with a built in tableau. Franz is celebrating his coup with a riotous feast. Meanwhile Amalia (soprano Anja-Nina Bahrmann) is pining for her lover Karl, the fiancée she believes she’s lost. The villain Franz exploits the situation, pleading his love, and urging her to marry him. Yet it’s a little dull, in spite of terrific singing from Bahrmann, in a dark blue silk gown, and Daniel’s distinguished (Vienna Staatsoper) baritone. She refuses him; he threatens her with rape; and she defends herself with a knife. The whole scene rather palls. Maybe it’s the oppressive, cramped, boxed-in set, with its dark colours. Raeuber_KHP1_BP_525
But it’s Verdi, and the Act reverts to form with the outlaws and the return of the captured Roller (Thomas Sigwald), who’s rescued from the gallows by Karl. (Problematically, we see a group of women – bruised , beaten, clothes torn – apparently escaping from a fire, their homes burnt.)
The ensemble chorus (lustily sung by Volksoper Chorus) is pure Verdi. Their anthem sings, they fight for freedom, the downtrodden against their rich oppressors: we support the poor, and murder the rich. Stirring, inspiring. (So they are not ‘robbers’, but outlaws fighting for justice?) Yet Montazeri’s Karl sings, shocked by man’s debauchery, and with self-remorse; he’s tormented by thoughts of Amalia.
Amalia, escaped form Franz, but lost; Bahrmann sings movingly, she’s tired and depressed. Then we hear the outlaws’ anthem.
At first, she doesn’t recognise him, Karl. Their duet, their joy at seeing each other again, is a highlight. Only death can separate them, they sing, prophetically. The sun will drive away their storms. But she wonders why he’s so sad: he can’t tell her he’s an outlaw. These two, Montazeri and Bahrmann, are one good reason for your visit.
But also the Verdi choruses. Behind them- exciting stagecraft- the cube opens up to a become a tableau of robbers, dressed in ‘fur’ coats, like wild west outlaws. At first with their backs to us, then lined-up, they belt out their credo, Freedom is our passion: we rob , murder, torture. Yet, ironically, Verdi’s jaunty blood and death anthem has the lilt of a ( Viennese) waltz. They raise their rifles defiantly. Fabulous!
As often in Verdi, the swing is from the crowd scenes to the solitary aria: Karl in his melancholy, sings there’s peace only in sleep. Montazeri holds his pistol as if signalling suicide; but retracts, he’s no coward!
We hear the voice of Rydl from a deep recess back of stage: the Count locked away in a tower by the vengeful Franz. His own son, Oh, eternal chaos! Rydl, in Count Maximilian’s aria, is broken up with pain, abused by his own flesh and blood. ‘You can rot, you’ve lived long enough;’ taunts Franz. One thinks inevitably of Shakespeare’s King Lear, abused by his children. Rydl, bedraggled, unruly white hair, is a Lear-like figure, in a night gown, ragged, as if out of bedlam. Rydl’s powerful, but poignant, world-weary bass is another reason to be here. Karl swears his brigands to holy revenge, their battle cry anticipating later Verdi (Don Carlo).
Daniel excels in Franz’s aria – now finally tortured by guilt, and remorse. Can it be the dead rise from their graves. In his dream appears a garden; suddenly all disappears , goes up in flames; each gives up its dead, he sings, Daniel’s baritone rich and dark-toned.
Raeuber_KHP1_BP_1034 In Karl’s reconciliation with his father, he asks for his father’s blessing without revealing who he is. Maximilian fears nothing: name the sins he has committed. (My Karl , where are you .- I’m guilty, forgive thy father- take my blessing.) The outlaws storm the palace and virtually disband the stage-set, the ‘cube’, plank by plank.

Amalia is led in by the outlaws. Only now does Karl confess he’s committed murder and robbery. She, Bahrens’ Amalia, stands silent, aghast. Their embrace, their reunion, is moving, Bahrens endearing, Montazeri’s tenor bitter sweet, simply beautiful. Then he loses it: he stabs her.
Is it that the others remind him of the oath he’s sworn to them; or that he’s losing his mind? Incomprehensible! With such an ending, how can it, the opera, but fail. (In its time I masnadieri was performed only four timed after its London Haymarket premier, where they ‘found Verdi’s music disagreeably violent.’
Too modern, existenstial, Dostoyevskian, before its time. But magnificent! This Vienna Volksoper revival, excellently staged, with a fine cast, and an unforgettable performance from Rydl, Volksoper orchestra and chorus conducted with verve by Jac van Steen, must not be missed.© PR 27.10.2017

Photos: Vincent Schirrmacher (Karl), Kurt Rydl (Count Maximilian), Boaz Daniel (Franz); Kurt Rydl (Maximilian) and Boaz Daniel (Franz); Sofia Soloviy (Amalia) and Boaz Daniel (Franz); Vincent Schirrmacher and Chorus
© Barbara Pálffy /Volksoper Wien
Unfortunately photos of Mehrzad Nontazeri as Karl and Anja-Nina Bahrmann (Amalia) were unavailable

Puccini’s Tosca

01_Tosca_103038_PIECZONKA_LEEVienna State Opera’s classic Margarethe Wallmann production of Tosca recreates the ramparts of the Fort St.Angelo prison from which Angelotti, the freedom fighter escapes. He’s befriended by Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover, in the Angelotti Chapel, regularly visited by his sister. And it is her image- not Tosca’s- Cavaradossi is painting in the first Act. It is from Fort St.Angelo’s ramparts that Tosca will fling herself. Puccini’s opera is historically based on Victor Sardou’s play. The year is 1800, Rome under Police Chief Baron Scarpia’s reign of terror. Puccini was so obsessed with operatic realism , he travelled to Rome (1897) to hear for himself the Church bells from Castello Sant’Angelo. So it’s inconceivable that the opera be updated, and mercifully Vienna have retained Nicola Benoit’s magnificent traditional sets.
The church in which Mario Cavaradossi is painting is more like a cathedral, with vaulted roof and stained glass windows. The priest (Alexander Moisuc) is constantly rebuking the artist- a Republican – for his lack of respect. But there is a humorous interaction between pious priest and the ‘bohemian’ artist. Cavaradossi is sung by the magnificent Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee. (This may be ‘theatre’ but he doesn’t look remotely Italian.)04_Tosca_103024_LEE But Lee, short, very slim, wearing a smock, looks credibly like an artist.
My beloved Tosca has black hair; you, mysterious beauty are blonde. (Women in church smack of the devil, moans the Priest.) But, as he painted, he thought only of her, Tosca. Lee, a hit with the audience, his aria is enthusiastically applauded. But although Lee’s glorious tenor has a stunning high register, in Puccini, bel canto singing isn’t everything. Puccini’s operas are truly musical theatre, his main roles character studies. Lee, irresistibly likeable, would win top marks in international competitions, but his style is sometimes over-acted, too demonstrative, not naturalistic. The libretto, however, by Gialosa and Illica is always witty and authentic. One cannot talk to these Voltairean dogs, carps the Priest. Don’t forget to lock up when you leave.
Out-of-hiding, befriended by Cavaradossi, Angelotti (Ryan Speedo Green) unshaven, surely looks like an escaped convict. Hurrah for a black singer: the brother of the blonde Marchesa, we’ll have to pass on realismo with a bass like his!
In the Tosca/Cavadarossi duet, Tosca is suspicious: why is the door locked. He makes to kiss her. Not in front of the Madonna, she insists. But Mario is yours- Lee, a slight, almost beautiful, figure, against Tosca, Adrianne Pieczonka’s attractive brunette, wearing white with maroon velvet cloak. They appear very much in love, their embraces and kisses quite natural.
Tosca explodes. Attavanti, (the Marchesa). You’re seeing her! Pieczonka, at times, appears coquettish, the younger woman. Yet Tosca is the mature, worldly- experienced singer/actress- who men fall for; and who will grapple with the Baron Scarpia, one of her admirers. More like a stalker, as we would see him.
But give her black eyes! The jealous Tosca is (almost) reassured by Mario that he is innocent. She wittily engages with him; she’s no pushover.
Pieczonka’s dark beauty is a soprano with an enormous range, richly nuanced, her subtle intelligence perhaps better known in Straussian roles. Here in Puccini, she was impressive; but a little cool, not incandescently emotional.
Yet, sings Mario to his fugitive Angelotti, he keeps her in the dark. She would tell her confessor everything. Angelotti sings of Scarpia, ‘that hypocritical satyr’. But if it costs me my life, I shall save you, Mario vows prophetically.
02_Tosca_103031_MAESTRIBaron Scarpia, Ambrogio Maestri, in a white wig, dressed in princely finery, goes snooping around the church for clues of Angelotti. Maestri’s insidiously subtle Scarpia is the highlight, quite unforgettable. Maestri, a great character ‘actor’, is world renowned for his Verdi Falstaff. He sings of the fan she left as more than a clue, but a way to incite Tosca’s jealousy.
Iago had a handkerchief, and he will use a fan (Iago framed Desdemona to arouse Othello’s jealousy.) Scarpia plants the fan he’s found, bearing the Attavanti coat-of-arms. Like a Satan, Scarpia sings, the poison begins to take effect. Maestri closes up to her, Pieczonca, almost caressing her shoulder, as if to comfort the distressed Tosca, betrayed by a two-timer. (While his henchman discreetly trails Cavaradossi…)
In Scarpia’s aria Va Tosca – Release the falcon of jealousy- Maestri’s mellow baritone savours every word- his corpulent stage presence almost reptilian, salivating with lust. Oh, to see him on the gallows, and her in my arms, inflamed with passion, he repeats. Tosca, you make me forget God. Sheer stagecraft, utterly compelling.
Actually the Cavaradossi arias, the gorgeous duets with Tosca, however beautifully sung, are not quite what the opera is about. For me, the drama is in the study of evil – the most interesting characters are the Baron, and his prey, the innocent, but vulnerable, Tosca. And she, the feisty heroine, only appears to succumb. Puccini’s modern woman apparently outwits her male predator. Outmanoeuvres this lecher. (Even if she has to kill him.)
In Act 2, he’s lording it on his private dinner table, in gold-braided jacket, served by his manservant. Ha più forte sapore. I crave! I get what I desire. Then off to new conquests! God created so many beauties. And good wines. It’s like a sexist manifesto. (Trump could have fitted the role, had he the wit, culture, the refinement.)
Pieczonka’s Tosca enters in a sumptuous velvet cloak. Maestri exudes civility, sipping wine from cut-glass goblet. This business with the fan- foolish jealousy. (Nothing escapes a jealous women.) And finally, the truth would save him more pain. (He orders Mario’s chains removed.) He sings, never was Tosca more tragic on stage. She, what has she done to be treated to this torture.
Maestri wipes his brow with a serviette, dabs his lips. He offers her a glass of fine Spanish wine. They say I am a mercenary, but a beautiful woman will never pay me with money. He wants something else. He has seen her in a new role.
Cavadarossi is brought on. Scarpia is the voyeur , as they embrace. He’s turned on by her tears. How you hate me and yet I desire you. Flaming rage; flaming passion. (The drums roll for the execution.)
Tosca’s famous aria Vissi d’arte is a highlight. I lived for art and love: never did anyone any harm. Secretly she gave help to the poor; brought flowers to the altar. Why, oh why, do you desert me in my hour of need. It cannot fail to move, but somehow it doesn’t quite hit the spot. (I clapped dutifully.)
Finally, she raises her head, be merciful, I am vanquished.03_Tosca_103036_PIECZONKA
‘You are too beautiful: all I ask is an instant.’ Scarpia signs the pass for Tosca: the execution is to be feigned. Tosca, mine at last! As in Turandot , Puccinis theme is love in death. Tosca stabs him. Now he’s dead, she has only contempt. And to think all Rome trembled before him.

The final Act, the denouement. The ramparts; a huge statue of a horseman. The intermezzo; those bells: Vienna State Opera orchestra never better in Puccini than under Jesús López Cobos, impeccable detail, enormous passion.
In his letter, remembering Tosca, of his impending death, Lee sings with phenomenal top notes. The Tosca/Mario duet awaiting the execution, a fest of Puccini romanticism, here failed to move this jaded, cynical observer. Lee initially condemns her betrayal; she had promised herself to Scarpia; but then, his exclamation, you killed him, you so pious and good! Lee oozes old-style dramatic rhetoric, kneeling to her, body language florid. But there’s no denying the vocal mastery. Pieczonka in a purple gown efficiently endures the fake execution; cannot revive the fallen Mario; and flees in despair in one of opera’s iconic scenes. © PR.23.10.2017
Photos: Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca) and Yonghoon Lee (Mario Cavaradossi); Yonghoon Lee (Cavaradossi); Ambrogio Maestri (Baron Scarpia); Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca)
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Prokofiev’s The Gambler

12_Der_Spieler_101941_DIDYK_GUSEVA In Vienna State Opera’s new production (Karoline Gruber), the set looks like one of Trump’s palaces- 1930’s pomp, all black and gold, but smashed up: there’s a huge frame at the back of the stage, the glass in fragments. Objects lie around- symbols of whatever – resembling a Salvador Dali painting. Foremost is the funfair merry-go-round, and the playground horse: representing the wheel of fortune, a carousel whose bright lights offer the illusion of happiness.
How can Alexei (Misha Didyk) explain to Polina, his passion, that he’s lost all the money she asked him to gamble with? (Actually, she’s in debt to the Marquis, her former lover.) And she’s the step-daughter of the General, another heavily-indebted gambler. The General (tremendous Russian bass Dmitry Ulyanov), reads a telegram, and sings his grandmother is not well at all. He’s madly in love with the scheming , but penniless, Blanche, his floozy, Elena Maximova, wearing a shimmering white roaring-twenties creation with tassels. He’s hoping to inherit to marry her. And he’s also deeply in debt to the Marquis (Thomas Ebenstein), who runs an extortion racket, enforced by mobsters.
So in this aristocratic, rich-man’s world of bling, all isn’t what it seems. And although Prokofiev composed his opera in 1917 – the year of the Russian Revolution- red-jacketed waiters polish the marble-effect floor like serfs. One is on his knees, a bucket on his back, in a frozen pose like a street performer.
Yes! This is supposed to be (in Dostoyevsky’s novella) mid-19th Century Germany: Roulettenberg, the pun intended!
Didyk’s Alexei is black-suited, white-shirted- he’s meant to be a tutor, so the General berates him, he should have his wits about him and not play roulette. Didyk’s magnificent tenor voices Dostoyevsky’s deeply mystical vision: singing of a nightmare of six generations of debts passed on from father to son.
07_Der_Spieler_101910_EBENSTEIN Seated on a gold bullet blown up to surrealistic proportions, Ebenstein, the Marquis, dressed like a gangster, in black jacket, brocaded waistcoat, and jeans, metes out credit to a long line of 1920s partygoers, and fashionistas – his enforcers in black-shirts.
By contrast, Didyk’s Alexei embodies Dostoyevsky’s Russian soul. In one of a number of soliloquies as arias he sings, he doesn’t know what’s happening to himself, or in Russia. The poet, he is indifferent to everybody else. And enigmatically, Hamlet-like, ‘You probably didn’t have a good heart, but the mind is irrational.’
In her Act 1 aria, Polina, Elena Guseva , a lyrical soprano with a powerful upper range- another magnificent Russian soprano- challenges Alexei: so you want to buy me with your money. She plays with the love-obsessed Alexei. No, it’s difficult to explain, he sings; he sits in his garret and muses. But led on by her, in his desire, he could devour her. Guseva, with her mousy blonde hair, wearing a navy silk gown, does, indeed look gorgeous. He sings, he’s burning with fever: but he knows it’s just impossible. She sits coldly. (Why should she force him to do that? No use to her.) Prokofiev’s music is spiky, brass and wind players bristling.
A glimpse of the Marquis’s strong-arm ‘debt collectors’: The General, in his gold-braided uniform, is still at the mercy of these spivs, one of them marking him with a pistol.
Then- in another episode- Polina, playing on Alexei’s devotion to her, orders him to offend the Baron and his wife. Who is that woman, the Baroness, to eye him like that! Polina, the paragon of 1920s cool indifference, just wants to have a laugh. 03_Der_Spieler_101996_GUSEVAProkofiev’s music pointing up the subversive mood, veers from harsh metallic dissonance to lush romanticism. Didyk removes his shirt – waving it over his head like a soccer fan – baring his muscular chest.
Opening Act 2, the stage is dominated by a long banqueting table, but it’s covered in green felt like a gaming-table. The star turn is provided by Babulenka, the marvellous Linda Watson, in a white wig, who announces she would rather gamble away her fortune than bequeath it to anyone else. (And she seeks Alexei’s help.)
The General, Ulyanov in white, wearing black boots, soaked in vodka, slumped in his armchair, rails at his lost inheritance. He wanted to stop her; she waved her cane at him. She’d already lost 40,000; it was an insult to a gentleman.
The set is now a revolving stage of half-opened black doors, with enclaves of debtors: a gambler’s purgatory. There’s a message from the General to Alexei not to destroy him. And the General is warned by the Marquis of a bill outstanding: business is not doing well.
Alexei sings there’s nothing to be done. Such a mess: what will become of them. Didyk’s is a wonderfully expressive tenor. Oh, Polina, why are you shouting my name like that? Where is the Marquis- the rogue, he sings – now realising he has a hold on Polina.
09_Der_Spieler_101982_WATSON_ENSEMBLE Good day, my dear Alexei. Please put up with an old woman. Linda Watson’s Babulenka, frail-looking, is trailing a fur-like coat, which someone greedily tugs away. They- grotesque figures in glitter jackets- pull off her jewellery; sold to others behind the scenes, ‘fences’, or pawnbrokers. Please forgive an old fool; she bids them well. She will build a church. Down to her nightdress, they even rob her of her sticks as she exits.
She’s defamed the nobility, it’s all gone, moans the General. Meanwhile Blanche leaves him the day before the wedding. We see her, Maximova, dancing off the stage with a slick Latino, brilliantined hair and Valentino moustache. Ulyanov’s brutalised figure seems to choke to death with rage, collapsed in his chair.
(Opening Act 4) Didyk is sitting alone on the edge of the stage. Guseva’s Polina grabs him and pulls him to her in a passionate kiss. And she begins to strip. She sings of a letter from the Marquis- forced to leave immediately- having lost all his loans to the General. He will now waive the 50,000 she owes him. Now she has the chance of a new life. That rogue! How she’d love to throw the money in his face! She kneels, coaxing Didyk seductively. But he leaves (convinced that, with her money, he will win, and her too.)
Prokofiev’s score has a rhythmical momentum- a train of Fate inexorably moving forward. Now the stage is a fairground roundabout. The gamblers, party animals, throw up gold dust – coins from heaven- in a remarkably choreographed scene (Stella Zannou). Rien ne va plus. They are gamblers, obsessed, addicted. (One sings he’d lost everything on red.) The stage is showered in gold dust. Croupiers wear glittering emerald jackets The table is now closed. Alexei has won 60,000. He broke the bank twice. What a man!
Alexei, by himself, Didyk appears disfigured; he’s kind and good-natured, but keeps challenging his luck, one sings. The gamblers wear carnivalesque masks- their grotesque appearance reflects their inner torture. Clever staging, but all too extreme. Nevertheless, a tour-de-force of choreographed spectacle.
Didyk is standing triumphantly on the gaming table. He reaches up to heaven; goes berserk , (like you would if you won the lottery.) ‘Insane luck’ he sings, staggering like a cripple. Polina can’t accept his money.
In the powerfully enacted closing scene, Didyk sings he’s offering her his life. He’s paying a high price- 50 thousand: the Marquis’ mistresses cost less! Now she deserts him: he’s like the Marquis, just like him. But do you love me, she pleads. It’s always been hers, he insists. Then she throws it back. Take your money! He’s been corrupted, fallen for ‘a far more capricious mistress.’
The staging (Roy Spahn) was bizarre, a concept misunderstood, incomprehensible to all but Gruber. But what a cast, the leads, Russian and outstanding, Vienna State Opera orchestra excelling under Young’s baton. Prokofiev’s opera -he composed the libretto- is a revelation. The operas, too rarely heard, contain some of his finest music.© PR.20.10.2017
01_Der_Spieler_101974_DIDYK
Photos: Misha Didyk as Alexei, Elena Guseva as Polina; Thomas Ebenstein (Marquis); Elena Guseva (Polina); Linda Watson (Babulenka); Misha Didyk (Alexei); Featured image: Misha Didyk
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Richard Strauss’s SALOME

01_Salome_101798_BARKMIN_OSUNARichard Strauss’s Salome, premiered 1905, provoked a furore, both for its scandalous subject, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, (Strauss’s German libretto), and the modernity of its music. Strauss broke the boundaries of tonality- the opera’s final cord shocking in its dissonance; truly revolutionary, years before Stravinsky’s iconoclastic Rite of Spring (1912).
Oscar Wilde,famous for his brilliant wit, was yet a moralist and commentator on society. He was fascinated by the Christian biblical tale, in its perverse eroticism and barbarism. Also Wilde’s aestheticism was preoccupied with beauty for its own sake, independent of conventional morality.
It’s appropriate then that Vienna State Opera’s stage set draws on jugendstil (art nouveau) design , suggesting a luxuriant decadence that defined the new art at the turn of the 20th century.
The tiered steps of the Colosseum-like stage set (Jürgen Rose) are covered in a Klimt inspired decoration, gold symbols in a mosaic of jewelled colours . Back of stage there’s a Japanese tree in silhouette , stylised as in a mural.
03_Salome_101811_BARKMINSalome- Herod’s daughter, who leaves the banquet in a surly mood- is described as seltsam (strange), like a woman who is dead. So pale, never seen her so pale, like a white rose. Grun-Brit Barkman, platinum blonde, is a slight figure, a slim, cool beauty- physically the adolescent young woman. Her soprano has a crystalline clarity, but colourless, somehow lacks reserves of dark passion: the psychotic capable of demanding, in revenge, the head of John the Baptist, who all but ignores her lustful advances.
Jochanaan der Taube (John the Baptist), the prophet who emerges as if out of the dead, is being held captive in a cistern, an underground cell positioned in the middle of the stage, guarded by Roman centurions. Salome, fascinated by the voice she hears from underground, demands to see him . Against Herod’s wishes, she persuades Narrabeth (Carlos Ozuna) to free him . Barkmin, a very physical actress, wearing an alluring white silk dress with embroidered gold decoration , all but seduces the Captain of the Guard. How terrible it must be to lie there, (beneath what looks like a drain cover.) She simply wants to see the curious prophet. Barkman’s is a light seductive soprano.
A wild figure all in black emerges, Jochanaan, (Zelijko Lūcik) in a black cassock, with long black hair. Lucik’s baritone has glorious timbre . (He’s frequently cast here as Nabucco.) He sings with enormous dignity and nobility. He, other-worldly, a spiritual man , is being tantalised by a silly girl. She sings of his ivory white skin. She wants to get closer. He doesn’t want to know her, the daughter of Herodias. 02_Salome_101801_LUCICBut for her, his indifference is music to her ears. He pulls away from this ‘daughter of Sodom’. I’m in love with your body, sings this teenage girl (like she saw him on Facebook with her I-phone.) Get back, daughter of Babylon! He will listen only to the voice of God. It goes on, she, lewdly suggestive- his hair is like a vineyard, his lips red like a pomegranate- his repeating, there’s only one who can save him.
This Jochanaan, Lucic, seems relatively young, good-looking -not the gnarled, hermit-like figure we would expect. So their interchange- a sparring match between the monk and the profane bitch – has an electricity because plausibly dangerous.
Herod’s court assemble on the top of the ampitheatre steps. Herodias (Iris Vermillion) wears an outrageously plumed hat, her dress, exotic art nouveau design, out of a Klimt pattern book. With her husky mezzo, she has a camp manner; but deadly serious in demanding the blood of Jochanaan for repeatedly condemning her immorality: she wants him silenced once and for all. Now is the time!
But Herod, (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) is concerned about Jochanaan’s status as a cult religious leader, even rumoured to be a Messiah. Ablinger-Sperrhacke, dressed in splendidly patterned robes, comes over as effeminate and indecisive, lacking the heft of authority.
Herod want his daughter dance for him: Salome agrees, provided Herod grants her every wish. In the famous Dance of the Seven Veils , Barkmin is the real thing. Can she dance! It’s astonishing that the role makes exceptional vocal demands, while requiring formidable dance skills. Salome demands ‘the volume, power and stamina of a true dramatic soprano’, convincing as a young woman; and physically ‘the agility and gracefulness of a prima ballerina.’
Opening with an array of brightly coloured veils, the brilliantly choreographed movements become increasingly frenzied. Barkmin dances as if possessed, down to the last and black veil, her back to us as she faces Herod and Herodias naked full-on.

07_Salome_101807_ABLINGER_SPERRHACKE Herod admits he entered into an oath, ein Eid geschworren. But he demurs, holds out to the end. He offers her just about everything , from emeralds to the palace itself. But she still demands the head of Jochanaan on a platter. (Her revenge for his contempt of her?) Herod may well be frightened to hysteria at the unforeseen consequences; nevertheless Ablinger-Sperrhack’s lyrical tenor can hardly prevail over the sheer weight of Strauss’s orchestration. Vienna State Opera’s orchestra pit was filled to capacity with a full orchestra, (percussion including 5 timpani,tam-tam, tambourine, castanets, glockenspiel and xylophone.) Simone Young, highly regarded, is repeatedly invited back to conduct Strauss.
Shrill flutes and piccolo, stabbing intervals of woodwind, snare drum rolls: sounds out of a vision of hell. Barkmin holds ‘the head’ on a silver plate, front of stage. In her monologue, she sings, you didn’t want my mouth to kiss you: now she will kiss his mouth, bite on it like a ripe fruit. The stage is now bathed in a blood-red light. He spoke nasty words to her: now she can do what she wants. Barkmin is wearing a black gown , embossed in an oriental gold pattern. She gloats, I’m living , you are dead , and your head belongs to me. You have seen your God, Jochanaan, but never seen me. I was a Princess, a virgin, and you despised me . And the secret of love is greater than the secret of death. Und das Geheimnis der Liebe ist grosse als das Geheimnis des Todes.
In her aria, Barkmin’s singing is technically proficient , but lacking in that desperation, the sense of high drama -even of derangement or psychosis: Barkmin is too cool. I don’t remember any exceptional high notes. (And dramatic sopranos in this iconic Straussian role are legendary.)
Herod curses her as a monster , Ungeheuer, ordering her execution. We last see Barkmin, front stage, addressing the head at her feet. She has kissed his lips. A bitter taste. They say love tastes bitter. (Surely Wildean ?) Strauss’s orchestration uses dissonance, an ‘expressionism’, radical for its time, chilling in its intensity. Uncomfortable, prescient of the 20th century, its modernism with contemporary resonances.
Plaudits to Vienna State Opera for keeping Barlog’s magnificent jugendstil production. Even if tonight’s cast were not ideal , Simone Young’s Vienna State Opera Orchestra excelled.© PR. 16.9.2017
Photos: Grun-Brit Barkin (Salome) and Caros Osuna (Narrabeth); Grun-Brit Barkin (Salome); Zelijko Lūcic (Jochanaan); Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Herod)
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Verdi’s Il Trovatore at Vienna State Opera

11_Il_Trovatore_101425_PETEAN_EYVAZOV_SIRI Cards on table. Il Trovatore isn’t my favourite Verdi. The plot seems too far-fetched, preposterous: the son of a Count rescued from a fire by a witch- the troubador Manrico, who falls in love with Leonora, the beloved of Count Luna, his arch-enemy. Unbeknowingly ‘Blood Brothers’. And it’s so bloodthirsty, with witch burnings, eye-gouging gore. And yet this gothic intrigue, of its time , so appealing to 19th century audiences, is much for our time. Against the demonization of witches, Azecuna, is so powerfully portrayed, she’s sympathetic.
We seem to miss the psychologically complex characters of Verdi’s later operas, yet this action drama is thrilling stuff, an exercise in Verdi’s orchestral colour. And the choruses are amongst the greatest in all Verdi.
Well, time for a rethink. Il Trovatore, of a trio of brilliant successes -flanked by Rigoletto (1851) and La Traviata (1853)-has been rather eclipsed: misunderstood, condemned for its sensationalism. Perhaps unappreciated for its unconventional, almost ‘modernist’, episodic format. As to Verdi’s incorporation of witches and gypsies- part of the 19th century obsession with mystery and the supernatural- could be seen as Verdi’s genuine interest in the ‘underdog’, the socially marginalised . Verdi espoused ‘freedom fighters’ against the corrupt political establishment. So Manrico, brought up by a so-called ‘witch’ Azecuna, is caught up in the ‘civil war’, along with ‘the gypsies’.
The episodes/Acts switch between establishment, aristocratic protagonists, and the dispossessed, alternative society, the itinerants. Manrico is a troubadour, a street singer, after all.
If any production needed to convince us of Il Trovatore’s worth, this Vienna State Opera production (Daniele Abbado) was it. And conducted by a great Verdian, Marco Armiliato, with a star cast.
The stage (Graziano Gregori) is ‘traditional’, a courtyard- sandstone-effect walls, bleached-wood – with balconies on either side. The soldiers’ uniforms, in the opening scene are vaguely modern. Ferrando, (the tremendous Korean bass Jongmin Park) incites his men’s hatred of gypsies, narrating the ‘official’ Luna family history. He sings of a ‘grisly old woman- clearly a witch- staring, with blood-shot eyes at a little boy’; and how ‘the old hag’ was driven out. What joy to hear lusty Verdi choruses- sung with robust fervour by Vienna State Opera Choir- even if it’s an exercise in machismo, and the message is racist. In the folklore of rumours and fear-mongering, some have seen the witch (Azecuna’s mother) crawling the roof tops, rat-like.
06_Il_Trovatore_101413_SIRIBy contrast, Leonora (soprano Maria José Siri) is dressed in white, and a rose-pink over-gown. In her aria, she sings (to her maid) her man was revealed to her as if in a dream. Tacea la notte placida. One serene night suddenly she heard the sound of a troubadour singing a melancholy song, like a man appealing to God. Siri is warmly expressive, endearingly self-effacing, her pure soprano technically accomplished. The earth was transformed into heaven. Then, filled with apprehension, her voice rising, if she cannot live for him she will die for him.
Count Luna (George Petean), opening ‘The Duel’ episode, wears a red-brocaded coat. Petean, black-haired, bearded , looks swarthy; his magnificent baritone is a highlight. He sings, every fibre of his body is crying for her. But his reverie is jarred hearing the sound of the troubadour off-stage. (In the plot, Manrico approaches Leonora in the arms of Luna, ‘whom Leonora, in her excitement, had mistaken for Manrico’!) A trick of fate has brought him to her, she sings. Tenor Yusif Eyvazov (on very good form without Netrebko) appears in a crumpled beige suit. The men come to blows, in their jealousy, a duel takes place. Luna is overpowered, Manrico about to fatally stab him, is inexplicably held back.
‘The Gypsy’. Azecuna, movingly sung by mezzo Luciana D’Intino), is on all fours in the middle of a group of soldiers taunting her. Again the soldiers’ (Anvil) chorus- bravado male bonding, preparing for battle – is irresistibly catchy. Who brightens up our days, what gives them their courage, a young girl. (The soldiers are carrying an effigy of a saint.)
Azecuna (who nurses the war-wounded Manrico), sings in her aria, Stride la vampa the hair-raising story of her mother’s burning at the stake, surrounded by her executioners. D’Intino’s mellow mezzo is plaintive, vulnerably human. Verdi’s aria is sympathetic. 05_Il_Trovatore_101405_DINTINO D’Intino, gothic long black hair, carried away in emotion, hits terrific high notes singing how she felt a shudder through her at the death of her child. No, the Count’s son perished, her own survived, she assures Manrico. She urges him, every drop of Luna blood shed is revenge for her mother.
In Verdi (and librettist Cammarano’s) dramatic counterpoint, we switch back to the ruling classes. In Luna’s aria , believing Manrico is dead, Petean powerfully confesses his fear of Leonora entering a convent. He plans to abduct her, abetted by his soldiers, positioned in black uniforms on each side of the stage. He sees the Church as his rival- and deranged- seizes a crucifix. When Manrico appears- as if from the dead- it’s seen as a ‘divine judgement’. Leonora, Siri, in a poignant aria, sings to ‘he who offers consolation.’ And, as if in a dream, is confronted by her Manrico. The staging is spectacular, with Luna’s men raising – but refusing to use – their rifles, while Leonora sings to Manrico come from heaven, with Luna powerless to stop their escape.
An old woman is caught wandering around the camp. In a frightening scene, Azucena, caught in the soldiers’ ropes – lassoed like a steed- is interrogated. She sings, her aria a cri-de-coeur, D’Intino almost appealing directly to the audience. She has been poor all her life, but happy; everything she did was for her son, but he left her. Never has a mother loved so dearly. Then Petean’s Luna -reminded by Ferrando about the Count’s son captured fifteen years ago- realises she’s Manrico’s mother, and he’s in his power.
Fearsome! There’s a very real-looking fire in a trench at the front of stage- giving off smoke- and various men with burning torches. They turn her round and round in a gruesome ritual.
From the subplot, the marginalised, to the main protagonists: the aristocratic Leonora absconded with Manrico, the gypsy’s son: a bold subversion of the social order. Siri and Eyvasov in their duet are outstanding. ‘At such moments , you must allow sublime love to speak to your heart’. There’s a lot of feeling from Eyvasov. He kisses her affectionately (perhaps imagining his wife?) His spirit will be fearless if slain by his enemy, he sings.
01_Il_Trovatore_101419_EYVAZOV_SIRIThey are interrupted by news that ‘barbarians’, the Count’s soldiers, have lit the funeral pyre. Eyvasov sings, Di quella pira, with impressive high notes, his heart is inflamed by the horrible blaze.
The scene shifts to Luna, planning a victory celebration, and plotting revenge. Where are you, heartless woman? Leonora begs him to have pity on Manrico: Drink my blood , but spare the troubador. His fate must be crueller than cruel, counters Petean. Più l’ami e più terribile divampa il miu furor! the more you love him , the worse will be my anger. In their duet, she almost screams, but you shall have me, cold and dead. Finally, submitting, she sings, she can tell Manrico that she it was who saved him. Petean gloats- repeat you are mine! ( She is his; he can hardly believe it.)
Beginning the execution scene, the stage is strewn with blooded corpses. Realismo! The tower where prisoners are held. In Leonora’s aria, her mournful sighs will fill his dungeon with hope, D’amor sull’ali rosėe; offstage, Eyvasov’s troubadour song.
A staircase out of the back of stage. Mother and son tortured. It is harrowingly moving: mother can’t you sleep? Eyvasov, not quite the show-stopping virtuoso tenor, rather sombre and soulful. D’Intino’s Azecuna sings, a dreadful weariness torments her.
Luna allows Leonora to persuade Manrico to escape. He reproaches her. What was the price? She, how cruel and unfair you are to me. In their sublime duet, she confesses she has taken poison; Eyvasov’s Manrico now tormented by his curses. Siri, with great pathos, she preferred to die with him than live with another.
In the nemesis, Luna orders Manrico’s execution. To be told by Azecuna, he was your brother; you are avenged mother.
The ending is Shakesperean – Hamlet, Titus Andronicus– a senseless blood letting , without remorse, the fulfilment of blind Fate. As opera it’s as great as any Verdi masterpiece. I thank Vienna State Opera for my conversion.© PR.13.09.2017
Photos: George Petean ( Count Luna), Maria José Siri (Leonora) and Yusif Eyvazov (Manrico); Maria José Siri (Leonora); Luciana D’Intino (Azecuna); Simina Ivan (Ines), Yusif Eyvazov (Manrico), Maria José Siri
© Wiener Staatsoper /Michael Pöhn

Pelléas and Mélisande all at sea

01_Pelleas_et_Melisande_100073_BEZSMERTNA_EROED Marelli’s staging at Vienna State Opera. Grey marble slabs, built-up, line the stage – cliff-like, perhaps resembling a fortress; there’s a seaview; and a grotto, or is it a small lake? There are 5 Acts, over 14 scenes in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and this, with some small variations, is the gloomy setting over three hours, with one interval.
Simon Keenlyside as Golaud, in modern hunting gear, is playing with his rifle as if to shoot himself. Keenlyside’s baritone is probably the star attraction in an impressive cast, with Alain Altinoglu, arguably the finest exponent of French repertoire, conducting Vienna State Opera orchestra and chorus.
The start of the first Act is shrouded in mystery. He’ll never find his way out of the forest, he sings-thought he’d killed it, the boar. Lost-perdu– the dogs will never find him. There’s a boat right of stage, he wades thigh-deep through water. A woman, the glorious soprano Olga Bezsmertna as Mélisande, fearful, trembling, sings repeatedly, Don’t touch me! He insists on staying; she need have no fear of him. Who has hurt you?- Everyone, everything! She ran away, escaped . Je suis perdu. The crown he gave me, no she doesn’t want it anymore. She’d rather die. He announces himself as Prince Golaud.
So it’s a medieval tale brought up to date. He, a man like any other, hunting in the forest pursuing a wild boar. Yet she, Bezsmertna, red-haired, chic, is dressed in white designer suit? They’re both lost. It could be Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad, everyone in an existential puzzle, trying to find their way out of a maze. Anyway, Keenlyside has impeccable intonation, Bezsmertna’s French is also very impressive.
In Debussy’s opera the interludes are nearly as important as the action. In Scene 2 their mother Geneviève (Bernarda Fink) reads Golaud’s letter to Pelléas, explaining that he’s married Mélisande; but vowing not to return if the family- the patriarchal grandfather Arkel- will not accept her. Geneviève sings of ‘the woman who keeps on crying six months after she married him.’ (The blinds backstage reflect the shimmering water.)
Arkel, (Franz-Josef Selig) one of the highlights, sings of the reverse side of destiny. He’d thought the bride he’d arranged would make him happy. But so be it.
21_Pelleas_et_Melisande_100300_BEZSMERTNA Bezsmertna, now in white lace (a wedding dress) arrives in Allemonde and finds the darkness oppressive. Geneviève tells her she too had to come to terms with it. There could be a storm that night, the mist is lifting slowly. In the opera’s symbolism, everything is covered in mist.
Pelléas (Adrian Eröd), Golaud’s half-brother, literally bounces onto the stage. Eröd, as the ingénue, is a wiry figure in an off-white baggy suit. Eröd, a superb light baritone, though immaculately sung, physically lacks the aura of the romantic hero.
In Act 2 Pelléas and Mélisande are sitting at the back of this grotto, supposedly the abandoned ‘fountain of the blind.’ Bezsmertna appears to be hanging over the fountain- like a lake on stage- her long plaited hair actually submerged in the water. (Is it a hair piece?) Her hands trembling, she throws up the wedding ring- more symbolism- and drops it; and she’s up to her knees looking for it. There’s no need to worry about a ring! sings Eröd. What shall we tell Golaud?- La verité. The truth.
And as if simultaneously, Golaud has had a heart attack, while Bezsmertna is lying on the upturned boat. A wounded Keenlyside is carried in by seamen in oilskin coats. His heart seems to have been ‘torn out’; now he’s strong and healthy, he sings. She dotes on him. 17_Pelleas_et_Melisande_100222_KEENLYSIDE_BEZSMERTNA
In their powerful scene- Keenlyside and Bezsmertna’s duet outstanding- she thinks he doesn’t love her. But there’s love in his eyes. He’s still young- albeit greying hair. – Could she not get used to life there. It’s true you can never see the sky here , he sings. She saw it for the first time today. (More symbolism.) Besides isn’t it summer now? But Mélisande cannot stand the eternal gloom. Nor we.
Opening Act 3, we see Pelléas and Mélisande on a boat. Bezsmertna lies, reclining , dressed in white. ‘My hair is so long’ , she sings. She was born on a Sunday afternoon at noon.- He too,(et moi.) He, Eröd, is lying beneath her . They are raising their hands in unison.
Yet, in Maurice Maeterlinck’s French libretto, he sings ‘he can’t climb any higher’ and she ‘can’t reach his hand with her lips? Her hair is ‘tumbling down.’
But isn’t this supposed to be that medieval tale, the damsel locked in the tower; the young lover climbing the ramparts. Which doesn’t make sense in this modern reconstruction.
Marco Marelli’s staging is nonsense. In the libretto, Mélisande’s hair is ‘draped over the willow branches’. No he won’t release her tonight; she is his prisoner, he sings. He’s tying her hair to the willow branches. But where’s the tree Marelli?
Here, sitting side-by-side, enveloped by her hair, he holds her hair behind his ears. Then, ‘she hears something down there.’- It’s the doors of the tower flying open. Then she, ‘Wait, her hair is tangled in the branches’.
Keenlyside’s Golaud arrives ,and sings, ‘Mélisande, don’t lean so far out: you will fall!’ Don’t play in the dark , he admonishes them, You’re like children. But they’re both dressed in white – Eröd an off-white suit- and under spotlights.
More convincing is Golaud’s leading Pelléas down to the dungeons (steep steps back-of-stage.) They’re as if suffocating. Eröd sings of the air as heavy as paste. Suddenly Eröd rushes out into the daylight. Debussy’s music rises in a crescendo to describe the epiphany: the sight of freshly watered flowers. Golaud again warns Pelléas to stay away from Mélisande.
Keenlyside effectivelyconveys the man obsessed by jealousy: ruthless in questioning his son Yniold (Maria Nazarova) about his half-brother’s relationship with Mélisande. Do they like each other: do they often quarrel? Mazarova is remarkable vocally, convincing in the trouser role. But again the staging is anachronistic. Golaud bribes him with a ‘quiver and arrows’. Mazarova sings, the’yre always crying, and how pale Mélisande is.Do they kiss? The boy is standing on a boat, precariously balanced, looking into a narrow window.
Later Keenlyside twists Pelléas’ arm. And turns to Mélisande, accusing her ‘great innocence’.(He knows those eyes.) When she tries to escape, he holds her by the nape of the neck, pushing her down. Geneveviève and Arkel are cowering for their lives. Selig sings , if I were God , I would have pity on the lives of men.
In Act 4 the family reunited, it’s to be their last evening. Pelléas will leave, as his father’s wishes. Selig, in an affecting arias, sings of Mélisande’s troubled look, expecting tragedy: ‘too young and beautiful to be inhaling death day and night.’
03_Pelleas_et_Melisande_100276_BEZSMERTNA_EROEDLa dernière fois. Pelléas and Mélisande arrange one last meeting. Eröd sings, everything must come to an end. He’d been in a dream ; but he’d never looked into her eyes.
They finally declare their love for each other. Je t’aime– she sings it in ‘a voice from the end of the earth.’ Now that he’s found her, she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. Come into the light. She is heureux et triste, happy and sad. How beautiful in the dark: his heart is suffocating. Yet the stage is lit up?
Golaud’s prowls around back of stage, Keenlyside knee-deep in water. They’re embracing, He in the water, she in the boat. (Not quite convincing.) Golaud kills Pelléas, and wounds Mélisande.
Act 5 is magnificently sung, but the staging again verges on the absurd. Keenlyside sings, he killed without reason, against his will; saw them embracing. Bezsmertna, still in white , raises herself up- but why is she in that boat, in ‘the lake’? the men standing on the shore?
Mélisande, can you forgive me.- But for what, she sings. She’s dying, but Golaud must know the truth. La Verité. Did you love Pelléas ? A forbidden love. Non. They were greetings of nothing. She slips into unconscousness.
There are three women, as if sleepwalking -now seven- in bright summer dresses. They push the boat out. There’s a brilliant sunrise. The most colourful moment of the evening. And there he is again, Kennlyside, playing with his rifle, now with his son.
Marelli obviously has a thing about water. With all the resources of Vienna’s stage, he could have done better. At least musically it did Debussy’s rarely performed opera justice. (Shame if Vienna has to live with this for another 20 years.) © P.R.1.7.2017
Photos: Featured image: Simon Keenlyside (Golaud); Olga Bezsmertna (Mélisande) and Adrian Eröd (Pelléas; Olga Bezsmertna (Mélisande); Simon Keenlyside (Golaud) and Olga Bezsmertna (Mélisande); Adrian Eröd and Olga Bezsmertna
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

COSMIC RAGE: Strauss’s Elektra

01_Elektra_100478_STEMMEVienna State Opera’s previous Elektra reminded us of the opera’s classical roots through giant dismembered Greek statues. Uwe Laufenberg’s new Vienna production is modernist, brutally minimalist. It looks forward into the 20th century. As does Richard Strauss’s expressionist music- nothing, except for Salome(1905), that we’ve heard before- dissonant, its ‘fluid tonality’ anticipating Schoenberg. A radical departure, it crossed for Strauss a red line never to be repeated.
Left of stage, naked women cavorting in what looks like a latrine. Blood-splattered, they’re being showered down with a hose! What seems a volcanic heap, actually a coal bunker. Five women, watched over by female prison guards in grey uniforms, are talking about Elektra. ‘Is she not a King’s daughter?’ – Nothing in the world is more royal than her. The one who sticks up for Elektra – none of you is worthy to breathe her name- is put into a straight-jacket. It’s a grim vision, between penitentiary and concentration camp, ‘the Kommandant’ armed with a baton.
Totally alone. Allein weh, ganz allein. Her father gone, slaughtered; murdered in his bath, purple blood flowing from his wounds. Nina Stemme’s Elektra, very manly in a double-breasted suit, her hair slicked-back, is as if de-sexed. Far removed from Stemme’s romantic roles, the sex goddesses, it’s a brave characterisation. With soaring intensity, her soprano a power house, she holds the stage for much of two hours.
Agamemnon, where are you father? She pleads, hasn’t he the power to carry her away. Now it’s our turn. His woman sleeps in what was his royal bed. Stemme truly enacts her cosmic rage. She plays with, and finally opens, a black suitcase, her father’s. She lays out on a silk handkerchief, his cap his gun; then cleans and holds high an axe, prancing and dancing across the stage: her victory dance, Siegestanze, tansen!
Chrysothemis, her sister ( Regine Hangler) has come to warn her. What does her mother’s daughter want? Chryso appeals for conciliation with their mother Clytemnestra and her consort, Aegisth. Hangler in a white lace dress, her soprano is expressive, with powerful reserves. She is a woman, she insists, and wants a woman’s fate, to live, to have children. Better dead than live without life.
The façade of this high-rise palace lights up revealing lifts moving up and down. Guard dogs sniff around beneath the coal heaps. Clytemnestra descends. Waltraud Meier, white-haired, her sparkling diamonte evening wear suggests luxury and excess. She sings of her sick-livered body, of the god’s remorse. (Why must her powers be crippled.) Her distinguished mezzo lacks some ballast. Her daughter Elektra patrols outside the lift area. Finally, she will come down to speak to her. Meier is led off in her wheelchair.
2_Elektra_100504_MEIER_STEMME The dramatically-charged mother-daughter faceoff is a highlight scene. Do you dream mother? – Her every limb cries out for death. Meier sings of her gruesome nightmares: this dream must have an end. Stemme replies cryptically, when the blood sacrifice is made, you will dream no more. (The staging is curious; Stemme is moving around in Meier’s wheelchair.) Stemme mentions her son Orestes, ‘a taboo in this house’. (He is coming? She’ll position her armed guards.) Finally, Stemme, Was bluten muss, your neck must bleed. And I will see you die at last- Stemme on a tremendous high note- then you’ll stop dreaming. Meier crumpled with guilt, brutalised by her daughter’s grilling, is wheeled off. The guards shine their torches on Elektra.
Chrysomethis’s rushes in, her news, Orestes is dead- initially denied by Elektra. (No one can know!). It occasions another high-powered scene in which Elektra tries to win her over in her revenge plans. Who will kill Aegisth, their stepfather? Elektra goads her sister on; you are so strong. Stemme ugly and brutalised convinces as Elektra worn down by others’ guilt. Finally Chryso runs away. Elektra now alone, wipes the axe and cowers.
A hooded figure appears, weirdly dressed, like a rough sleeper, in a black leather coat. Is she one of the women of the house? Held, shaven-headed, chin white-stubbled, his powerful baritone has impressive stage presence. He sings of an assignment. Do I have to see you? Stemme is actually spitting out her emotion. He’s come on behalf of Orestes, who’s glad she is living.
Elektra is barely recognisable. Verwandt bin ich dein Blut– he’s related, a blood brother, both without their father. Elektra sehe ich dich. He sees her, yet her eyes are terrifying furchtbar, her cheeks sunken. Orest lebt! Orestes lives, uninjured!
Wer bist du, denn, Who are you, she asks. The dogs recognise him. A moment of revelation, the orchestral strings uneasy, like a windstorm. He and she remove their coats. They embrace in a corner of the stage. They fondle each other with – in this production- some suggestion of incest. Oh, let her eyes see – more beautiful than any dream. Noble, indescribable: stay with me. Then she will die, more blessed than she lived. 06_Elektra_100490_STEMME_HELD
In Strauss and Hoffmannstal’s poignant scene, Stemme sings, she believes she was a king’s daughter, then beautiful when she looked in the mirror. Her glorious hair, before which men trembled. Now dirty, tangled. Stemme sings, a harrowing figure. Does he understand, she has had to give everything up. Her glamour, her beauty, her youth. She kneels. Why is he looking so anxiously at her?
He will do it! In haste. He opens up her father’s suitcase, uncovering his military uniform. Stemme stands by in a plain black dress, black stockings, as if still in mourning after all these years. He leaves, then she realises she didn’t give him the axe!
Lippert’s Aegisth stands on a darkened stage . Lichter, is no one there to light up? Who is the strange man who calls himself Orestes? And the announcement that he’s dead? Indubitable! She, Elektra, is as if dancing around him, the one she’s been waiting for. (Held’s Orestes, hooded, gets into the lift with him.) Murder- you are murdering me! Down the other lift , the body of Clytemnestra.
Chryso, like a fair-weather bell, enthuses at Orestes side, and rushes across to Elektra. As if a thousand birds are released, the music comes out of her.
In Elektra’s powerful aria, Stemme sings, with her rage spent, she cannot move, or lift herself . Her limbs stiffen, she is doomed to silence. She is done for by the gods. The ‘burden of happiness’, the hope of a new start, is thwarted by a relentless, inescapable fate.
Yet, in Laufenberg’s scheme, Stemme leads a dance of celebration! She sings,’she carries the burden of Fate, and dances for them’. It’s a frantic, desperate troupe, a commotion leading off stage.
With this star cast, and headed by a tour-de-force from Stemme, it would be churlish to complain about Rolf Glittenberg’s staging. (I overheard an American saying, it reminded him of Nazi Germany.) Vienna State Opera orchestra (and Chorus) conducted by Michael Boder were on exemplary form in Strauss’s stunningly modernist score. Strauss/Hofmannstahl’s opera is a grim, nihilistic masterpiece without religious consolation, its characters caught up in a web of fate. A portent for the 20th century. © P.R.26.06.2017
Photos: Nina Stemme as Elektra; Waltraud Meier, Klytaemenestra and Nina Stemme; Alan Held as Orest and Nina Stemme
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

BEGGAR STUDENTS IN FAKE ROYALS SCAM! The Beggar Student

barbara pálffy/volksoper

barbara pálffy/volksoper

Carl Millöcker is up there with the greats of the first “golden era” of Viennese operetta, along with the waltz king Johann Strauss, Franz von Suppé and Carl Zeller. Millöcker conducted the first performances of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, but his own masterpiece Der Bettelstudent was one of the most successful Viennese operettas in both Europe and America, (with between 1896 and 1921 almost 5000 performances in German.)
Millöcker’s musical comedy is a staple of Vienna Volksoper repertory, who give it a traditional period dress production, wisely as it’s based in 18th century Polish Cracow. So there’s a historical subtext- the fight for Polish independence against their German masters- beneath this romantic comedy. Musically it’s full of “eminently hummable polkas, krakowiaks, polonaises, marches, and waltzes and brilliantly constructed and scored” (Richard Traubner.)
The lush romantic overture- a pot-pourri of Der Bettelstudent’s surprisingly familiar melodies- is used to set the scene, Anatol Preissler’s imaginative production for Vienna Volksoper is never tacky, but tasteful. A globe fills the stage, homing in on Cracow in 2016, and through postcards, leading us back to 1704. We are treated to a classic ballet sequence, Vienna State Ballet male dancers enacting a baroque fantasy. There’s polished playing from Vienna Volksoper orchestra under Guido Mancusi.
(c) barbara pálffy/volksoper By contrast, at the front of the prison, jailer Enterich (Boris Eder) is busy confiscating the gifts, food and money brought by the prisoners’ wives. Good man Enterich, don’t be such a raging madman! He looks like a pirate. A group of Saxon officers- a weird bunch of aristocratic degenerates, they’re the baddies- announce Colonel Ollendorf, Governor of Cracow’s visit. Ollendorf, sung by Morten Frank Larsen, has the operetta’s big hit ,Ich hab’ sie nur auf die Schulter geküsst. He only kissed her on the shoulder, and she hit him with her fan! (The Countess won’t have her daughter Laura marrying a braggart.) Ollendorf, a social-climber, the ‘respected hero’, considers himself slighted.
So, in Ollendorf’s revenge scam, two students are released, Symon (Lucian Krasznec, a thrilling lyric tenor) to pose as ‘Prince Wybicki’, and Jan (David Sitka, another competent tenor) as his servant. So, Ollendorf sings, the game begins, his revenge plan in place. (Das Spiel began…es greift unser Racheplan.) The memory of it still makes him shudder, to be so insulted!
Imagine students imprisoned for debt! Krasznec’s Symon sings, protesting he’s only a poor student – ‘he’s no beggar, but in debt’ – and at first swears at Ollendorf. Swindler, and hypocrite! Then, can you get us pardoned; really a Duke? – All he has to do is to marry a woman for his freedom!
The Ladies at the Cracow Spring Fair, Countess Nowalski (Sulie Giardi) and her daughters, are a snobbish lot. They’re out shopping. With ‘Ooh and ah’, they’ll only pretend to buy. Actually, they’re broke , they’ve spent the last of their money on Laura’s (Anja-nina Bahrmann) dress. Potatoes from America are newly in vogue, (it being the 18th century), so Bronislava, the younger sister (Anita Götz), obviously starving, stuffs her pretty face.
‘Prince Wybicki’ is supposed to be fabulously wealthy – a millionaire, perhaps more!- and, he’s travelled the globe. Yet sings of the praises of Polish women, Die schöne Polen. Krasznec’s is a pedigree tenor: he’s got real stage presence. Laura is spellbound, he -in the scam- asks her to marry him, and she accepts without hesitation. He sings of tears of delight, she counters affirming jubilant joy, Bahremens an exquisitely light soprano.
Meanwhile, (Act 2), with Laura preparing for her wedding, the Countess and her daughters are like panto dames counting their fortune. Jan,(Sitka)- remember he’s Symon’s sidekick- confesses his love for Bronislava, and asks for her hand in marriage. Their duet is a highlight: I ask just for one thing of you, love me true, and the moving, In love I bind myself to you, unser Bund geweiht.
Equally powerful, Symon and Laura’s duet. Krasznec, in his aria, wonders if he should speak out or remain silent. She sings, ‘what’s on his mind’. But how does he tell her the truth? Supposing I was a vagabond, just supposing, he sings. She counters, even if he were poor, or in disgrace, love doesn’t think of such things.
Bronislava accepts the discovery they are, after all, both students. Hardly bothered if her Prince is only a beggar.(Der Fürst soll nur ein Bettel sein und mich ruhrt es kaum. But Symon notwithstanding writes the Countess a letter of confession, which the meanie Ollendorf keeps until after the wedding for his revenge. barbara pálffy/volksoper
Preissler’s Vienna Volksoper production is distinguished by its set pieces with sensational choreography for the famous Bettelstudent Polka in Act 2 featuring Vienna State Ballet dancers. The wedding staging is impressive, the ballroom’s minimal props, lifted by a tapestry backdrop.
The light, sometimes slapstick, comedy in the first Act is replaced by a more serious tone. At the wedding reception Symon is exposed publicly for only a beggar student, and Laura is disgraced. But in the complicated plot Jan consoles the love-sick Symon when he enthuses over Poland’s cause. He is in fact a Polish Duke – a freedom fighter for Poland’s independence from Saxon occupation. And with Symon’s help, he escapes to join the uprising.
The denouement is spectacular. In the March for the Fatherland (Marsch für’s Vaterland) , the stage is dominated by the national symbol of Poland in gold, suspended against a red , then blue backdrop, with cannon effects proclaiming the success of the uprising. This being a comedy, the two pairs of lovers are re-united, Laura declares she loves for Symon whoever he may be, and the stage is packed for the Finale, the patriotic chorus Befreit das Land! The lavish costumes attest to a class production. In Millöcker’s best known masterpiece Der Bettelstudent there is so much to discover, and this Vienna Volksoper production is something of a revelation. P.R. 2017
Photos: Lucian Krasznec (Symon Rymanowicz), Elizabeth Flechl (Countess Nowalski), and Martin Winkler (Governor Ollendorf); Boris Eder (Enterich); Martin Winkler (Ollendorf), Lucian Krasznec (Symon),Alexander Pinderak (Jan Janicki)
(c) Barbara Palffy / Volksoper Wien
Unfortunately photos for all the May 2017 cast were not available.

Wagner’s Siegfried at Vienna State Opera

06_Siegfried_98566_LANG_VINKEVienna’s Siegfried, in Sven-Eric Bechtholf’s Wagner Ring cycle, has a minimalist staging. Rolf Glittenberg’s sets are imaginative, functional, and unobjectionable. The subterranean workshop, where Siegfried’s sword is being forged, like an alchemist’s factory, has 1930’s Flash Gordon Expressionist feel, with orderly workbenches and ventilators like clock-faces. Mime, who’s brought up the orphaned Siegfried- left only the fragments of a sword by his mother Sieglinde- hopes to use Siegfried to refashion ‘Notung‘, the magic sword, to obtain the Nibelung ring.
Stephan Vinke’s Siegfried has close-cropped hair, like a skinhead; rather brutal. He sings contemptuously of washing and scraping: he hates his ‘father’. A juvenile delinquent figure, he runs into the forest to escape from his master: and, strangely, communes with nature, his secret, poetic side. He cannot abide Mime, (the unfortunately-named tenor Wolfang Ablinger-Sperrhacke.) But why does he always return, mocks Mime: the young long for their parents. Then why do the young leave their nests, questions Siegfried. So far Vinke’s tenor is accomplished, not yet exceptional; but Vinke develops into the role, and after his exploits, growing into manhood, by the end of Act II ready to confront the world, in Act III, in the scenes with Brünnhilde, he’s sensational.
But Siegfried and the first Acts, are not to everyone’s taste, and can be interminable; as relentless as the persistent hammering, climaxing Act I, as the sword is unsheathed. Ablinger’s Mime is rather eccentric, not the malevolent dwarf as described . Vinke, in a black nylon smock- rather thuggish- is not at all god-like. And unfortunately, Ablinger’s is not a distinctive tenor.
04_Siegfried_98626_KONIECZNY At last a voice of real distinction. A black-hooded figure – silhouetted in the doorway backstage, the Wanderer (Thomasz Konieczny): Is a guest allowed to enter? Konieczny’s immense bass-baritone – regularly cast here as Wotan – is to be-wonder. Only the evil fear misfortune, he sings. Konieczny, like the great Finnish basses, has an other-worldly quality both man and god. Now tell me what race Geschlecht rules on high? The gods of Valhalla, spirits of light; Wotan, god of light, rules over them. Konieczny’s Wotan as Wanderer aria is for Wagner a narrative recap of the story so far. Guardianship of the world rests with he who has the spear, he sings, referring to Notung the magic sword, and his chosen successor Siegfried.
In the action packed 2nd Act, Mime’s brother Alberich (Jochen Schmeckenbecher), is exceptional in his confrontation with the Wanderer; then later in conspiring to get the dragon Fafner (Sorin Coliban) to hand over the ring. Siegfied’s slaying of the dragon, represented by a huge eye backstage, Coliban spookily on stilts- is surprisingly chilling.
The highlight is Wagner’s sublime Siegfried motif: Siegfried’s magical power to understand birdsong. The woodbird (the ethereal soprano Hila Fatima) sings to Siegfried of the ring and the treasure. In his aria, contemplating his loneliness, Vinke looks like a bovver boy, sings like an angel. Outwardly, he’s course, blunt, but rather endearing. He’s an ingénue, a noble savage, trying to discover the secrets of his birth: enchanted and inspired by the wonders of the natural world.08_Siegfried_98591_VINKE But ruthless, in an elemental sense, killing Mime without compunction in self-defence.
In the Prelude Vienna State Opera Orchestra excelled, the orchestral colours, especially horns and woodwind, absolutely sensational. Peter Schneider regularly conducts The Ring at Vienna State Opera; the huge applause was deserved.
After the claustrophobic gloom of Acts I and II and the battles against evil and its dragons, Act III come as spiritual relief. Maybe it’s the feminine influence: man’s misguided valour and machismo, tempered by the wisdom of the maternal , mother earth itself.
Wotan (Konieczny) wakes Erda, Ewigesweiss the eternal woman, from her sinnliche sleep. Okka von der Damerau, blonde, shrouded in white sheets, emerges from her sleep of knowledge. Wotan, the Wanderer, for all his power, angst-ridden, wants to know the hidden depths: none wiser than she. How to stop a rolling wheel, (the decline of Valhalla’s gods). Why didn’t he ask Wotan’s child , the brave Valkyrie Brünnhilde. (Presumed against Wotan, punished, under a spell, surrounded by a ring of fire.) She, Erda, is confused: the world’s path is awry. (We know!) Does he who taught defiance, now punish it? Does the defender of justice (Wotan) and guardian of oaths now shun justice? She wants out: back to her sleep. How does a god overcome anxiety? She puts him down, ‘You stubborn wild man’: You are not that what you think yourself. Why did he disturb her. Konieczny’s Wotan sings he’s leaving everything to Siegfried, who knows no fear. The god yields to the ever-young hero.
There he is, (Vinke’s) Siegfried, with his back-pack. – Which way, youth, does his path lead?- Siegfried treats ‘the Wanderer’ with the same contempt as he treated Mime. Inquisitive old man . He’s blocking his way.- If old, he retorts, then maybe he should treat him with some respect.- All his life an old man in his way! Siegfried mocks him: why is he one-eyed, and wearing a large hat?
Konieczny cuts a rather sad figure, hat knocked off, humiliated by the young stripling: he who is so dear to him. Vinke’s Siegfried pulls him by the hood (while Konieczny tries to persuade him from taking that path, to Brünnhilde, rasendes Kind.) Vinke lays him low with his sword. Zieh hin!, Vinke’s golden heroic tenor is resplendent. Wotan can’t stop him.
Grey cliffs like concrete slabs, rocks strewn to the side, a red glow lights up the backstage. A figure lies huddled in a cocoon. This inexperienced youth is helpless: he’s got that sinking feeling. How does he wake her. He goes weak at the sight of a woman lying asleep.
And all I want to know is whether Petra Lang can possibly substitute for the divine Nina Stemme, in the Brünnhilde role, Stemme the voluptuous, incandescent Nordic beauty- the soprano to beat all comers.
05_Siegfried_98610_LANGBreaking out of a tangle of white cloth strips, emerging in a grey silk dress, Petra Lang, mousey-haired, holding her eyes as if blinded by the sun. Heil die Sonne!. Lang war mein Schlaf. Who is the hero? He walked through the fire screen? –Siegfried bin ich.- Greetings gods! Greetings world! Lang. Not the maternal figure, more the maiden. But what an exquisite voice! And their interaction is superb. She beholds him: holds her hands up in awe, girlish, shy. O, Siegfried, heiliger Held! Lang is a slight figure against other strapping Wagnerian sopranos.
But she is too young. There should be a hint of taboo in Siegfried’s being wooed by an older woman. (A Mrs Robinson?) Complex, interesting, and technically competent though Lang’s soprano is, hers is not yet the power of Wagner’s she-goddesses. You name them: Birgit Nilsson et al. It’s ‘Hello Young Lovers’, rather than the verboten, the pleausures of the boudoir, being seduced by the femme fatale.
Lang’s body language is that of the virgin. (He sings one blessed selige has stopped his heart.) Without the shield he’s cut away, she’s defenceless; a weak woman. His blood boils in passion. Oh, woman, quench the fire.
She protests, no god has come close to her: the heroes respected her virginity.(She was chaste when she left Valhalla.) What shame and humiliation: she covers herself with her arms. (Yet we know, in Wagner’s Ring narrative, she’s old enough to be his mother.) She sings, she was always concerned for his welfare (like his mother.) Oh, Siegfried , laughing hero, leave her be. Siegfried, radiant youth, Liebe dich und lasse dich.
Bu she is outstretched on the stage, singing O Siegfried , I have always been yours. -Then be mine now. Auge in Auge , mund in Mund, he sings passionately. Now divine peace overpowers her. Her eyes devour him. Is he not afraid of the wild passionate woman? He’s quite forgotten his fear. (Wagner’s Siegfried leitmotiv soars) Let us laugh and love. Leuchtende Liebe, Lachender Tod. Radiant love, laughing death. They rush into each other’s arms.
It was, especially Act III, a triumph, moreso for being unexpected. Vinke , a fresh, youthful, unconventional Siegfried, Lang quite enchanting. And Konieczny, in Vienna, claiming the role of Wanderer as his own. P.R. 6.5.2017
Photos: Featured image, Stefan Vinke; Petra Lang (Brünnhilde) and Stephan Vinke (Siegfried) ; Thomas Konieczny (the Wanderer), Stephan Vinke (Siegfried); Petra Lang
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Wagner’s Parsifal in Vienna

26_Parsifal_97100 In Vienna State Opera’s new production, director Alvis Hermanis sets Wagner’s Parsifal in pre-World War Vienna; the stage design cites the Viennese architecture of Otto Wagner, his hospital complex in Steinhof and the Wagner Church. For Hermanis, the search for the Grail is also a pursuit of spiritual enlightenment; and Gurmaniz and Klingsor are two doctors, in a polarisation of good and evil, fighting for control of their patients’ soul.
It opens in a hospital ward with rows of white beds; on the lower stage, ‘the Doctor’ Gurmenanz (René Pape) at his desk, behind him a glass bookcase. The Wagner Spital , a progressive psychiatric institution outside Vienna, was spectacularly beautiful in the jugendstil (art nouveau), as recreated in Hermanis’s set. The backdrop is an arched stained-glass window of the chapel; and elaborate jugendstil motifs embellish the walls.
In the introduction, the awakening patients in white cross themselves before four statues of saints, while ornate screens slide across the stage separating the ‘wards’. This is the backdrop to Richard Wagner’s sublime Prelude: what we hear is profoundly moving, Vienna State Opera Orchestra (Chorus and extra Choruses) conducted by inspirational Semyon Bychkov.
Nina Stemme’s Kundry, the archetypal transgressive woman in Wagner’s scheme – she wanders restlessly from age to age, once ‘laughed at Jesus on the cross’- is dragged in like a mad woman, attended by nurses with syringes . Amfortas, (the King of the Grail wounded by the holy spear Klingsor stole), is wheeled in on a bed brought front of stage. He looks grey and dying. But his voice, Gerald Finley’s rich baritone, is very much alive.
06_Parsifal_97148_STEMME Kundry is kept in a cage (representing an isolation ward?), under the doctor’s observation. She alone is dressed in black against the predominant white of other patients in night gowns (sitting in group therapy.) We see her having a fit in her cage: is this a new diva thing?
In the plot Parsifal appears in the Grail’s domain, a sacred area where only the chosen are allowed. Gurmenanz, a comrade of Titorel, the first King of the Grail (Jongmin Park’s resonant bass), leads ‘the young Parsifal’ to Amfortas’s castle . Christopher Ventris, an always competent but unexceptional tenor, appears as the archetypal 19th century romantic hero in a rustic forest green outfit , but with a gold waistcoat (or is it brass armour?) Parsifal’s entrance is preceded by the discovery of a dead swan, connecting with Wagner’s Lohengrin narrative (where Lohengrin finds the Holy Grail.) Pepe’s Gurmenanz dominates the first Act, and has the longest solo as he takes Ventris’ Parsifal under his wings, believing he has found the proverbial ‘Pure Fool.’
The set is a white marble effect, with Hapsburg imperial-green panelling . Very effective are the decorative panels which slide open, as a multitude enter for the Order’s religious ceremony: including a bearded, balding character uncannily reminiscent of Gustav Klimt. A glow envelopes the stage as the Grail’s golden dome, suspended, is lowered. Intricately embossed, it is both suggestive of religious sacraments, also quintessentially ‘jugendstil’ (modelled on the Altar dome of the Otto Wagner church.)
Parsifal looks on as Amfortas (Finley) pleads to be relieved of his duty uncovering the Grail. But obliged to submit, Amfortas is led on, supported on each side. Verdammt zu sein , Finley’s wonderful baritone is both powerful and plaintive, Park’s (Titurel) incredible bass reverberates.
Backstage the warm gold light illuminates the stained glass windows (of the chapel at the rear) , depicting the Order’s coat of arms, elaborately-feathered bird of prey. The nurses distribute bread to the inmates; later sacrificial wine. The concept seems so right, be it a 19th century hospital, workhouse, asylum: and here a ‘Christian’ order, the bread and wine as sacraments. They drink as bells ring against Wagner’s orchestration. The sliding doors close off the stage as Parsifal , seemingly impervious to Amfortas’s suffering, exasperates Gurmenanz his mentor with his silence, as he disappears off stage.
04_Parsifal_97576_SCHMECKENBECHER It all started so well. But Act 2 goes too far; it opens in an operating theatre, table centre-stage, where Kundry is receiving electric shock therapy (not in 1900, surely?) and wakes up screaming . Die Zeit ist da (now is the time), sings magnificent tenor Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Klingsor.
Nina Stemme is on a luxurious red-Persian patterned couch, with presumably her psychoanalyst hovering over her. Schmeckenbecher, facing her on the opposite stage, handles a giant model of a brain. She wanders through beds of sheet-covered corpses, presumably his experiments: pretty nasty connotations, anticipating Nazi (Mengeles’) brain research on disabled and psychiatric patients.‘Eine Wunde trägt jede nach Heim, cites a caption projected back of stage. Klingsor’s white surgeon’s coat is blood-stained!
Parsifal has somehow entered Klingsor’s domain- the ward. The stage is invaded by countless look-alikes (the flower girls), all with long, white gowns, their hair, like Stemme’s, an auburn red. Wagner’s ‘sirens’ are enchanting, beguiling. Sensational effect, as they freeze in their movements.
Stemme’s Kundry, in a shimmering gold dress, her long trestles trailing, wearing a gold broach, earrings the size of headphones. A jugendstil goddess out of a Klimt painting. An oasis of beauty against the horrid, clinical, white-walled operating theatre. She’s resplendent on that oriental couch. And, really, Stemme’s soprano oozes sensuousness. She’s holding a white bundle, as if representing the child Parsifal she’d brought up instead of his mother.
Now it’s Ventris reclining, then perched on a hospital trolley. Gold spangles in her hair, gold art nouveau earrings, who could resist this Eve’s temptations? 08_Parsifal_97211_VENTRIS_STEMME She cups his head, and kisses him passionately, he laid out on the trolley. He jumps up startled, as if bitten by a snake. Wunder.. The gold dome of the Grail has been lowered. Ventris stretches out his arms as if to embrace it. Stemme is again lounging on her couch. The dome withdraws upwards.
More captions of the plot (from Wagner’s original score?) are projected back-screen. An iconic Jesus figure (juxtaposed against the script), a reproduction of Non me tangere– Jesus holding off Mary Magdalene- comments on Parsifal’s rejection of the seductress Kundry.
Stemme, with her long brown curls, looking like some she-wolf predator, takes Ventris’s head in her arms. He holds up his hands to stop up his ears. She’s now standing, as if to fly off her trolley- commanding her magic powers, Stemme, her hands raised like a queen of the night. Ventris holds the magic spear, like a golden sword, and exits through a side door.
In Act III, Im Gebiet des Grales, we revert to the Wagner Hospital , the patients in their ward behind one of the jugendstil screens. But to spoil it there’s that grotesque brain – now even bigger- as if it’s going to take over like in a horror movie. Front of stage Stemme’s Kundry is in bed, under bedclothes. Still there, Gurmenanz shouts at Kundry. Get up! He thought she was dead. She is one apart from the others. Oh, day of mercy, Heil, du mein Gast, sings Pape movingly.
01_Parsifal_97525_VENTRISOn walks a warrior figure, in gold armour, carrying a golden spear and shield, and antique helmet, reminiscent of knights of old. Seated on her bed, Kundry now calm, beckons to him. (Inmates stare through the partition.) Do you still recognise me, He, verändert durch alles , underwent a transition to find the path to holiness. Oh, Mercy! Pape holds up the sacred spear. Stemme sits by Ventriss’s side. She pulls off his leggings, and leads him centre stage where he sits enthroned. She washes his feet (another Magdalene reference.)
Wagner’s sublime Good Friday Music. Mein erstes Akt verricht ich so, sings Pape. Patients are sitting still, observing in wonderment. Bells ring. They gather round the brain of white matter pushed centre-stage. The panels withdraw, revealing the arch backstage, (reminiscent of the Otto Wagner Pavilion), inscribed beneath, Die Zeit. In walk the Knights of the Holy Grail radiant in gold; the Grail’s dome descends. Amfortas rises from his bed, in such pain. Oh welches Wunder, welches Glück, wonderfully sung by Finley. Stemme’s Kundry tends the Holy Grail like a priestess. The suspended Grail is now placed onto the giant brain. Strange, rather grotesque. So it’s a ‘humanist’ ending glorifying the human mind and science.
But Hermanis has taken an inspired idea, using the Wagner Hospital, to crass extremes; yet the jugendstil-inspired sets have a timeless appeal, as with the Pre-Raphaelites, revering the medieval, the very mythology behind Parsifal. Musically, with Bychkov conducting Vienna forces, and a cast headed by Finlay, Pape, and Stemme, there can be no quibbles.© P.R. 30.3.2013
Photos: Nina Stemme as Kundry; Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Klingsor ; Christopher Ventris as Parsifal and Nina Stemme, Kundry; Christopher Ventris, Parsifal
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn