Korngold’s The City of the Dead (Die Tote Stadt)

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Korngold’s expressionist opera, Die Tote Stadt (1920), a great success in its time, was described by Puccini as ‘the strongest hope of new German music’. But Korngold’s ‘essentially lyrical, neo-romantic style’ fell out of favour to austere modernism and the Schönberg School; exiled under the Nazis in 1930s, he was hugely successful as a Hollywood film composer. In Korngold’s post-war renaissance, Willy Decker’s (2004) production is the third of Vienna’s revivals.
The oak floors and heavy doors of Vienna State Opera’s handsome set suggest a mausoleum , where time stands still. Brigitta, the servant (Monica Bohinec) brings in a heavy glass case of memorabilia. She sings she has no idea what life is; has always lived alone, totally devoted to her master. Slumped in a leather armchair sits Paul (Herbert Lippert), a Proustian figure in an aubergine suit. ‘Certainly beautiful’ comments Frank (Adrian Eröd) of the portrait of Marie; ‘she was beautiful.’ Nein, sie lebt, Paul suddenly awakened, ‘She is beautiful’, and sings of his dead wife in a dead city. He sings of meeting a woman with an uncanny resemblance to Marie: yet pleads, God grant his dream and give her back.
Lippert filled the role at very short notice, replacing Florian Vogt. Perhaps lack of rehearsal time, somehow Lippert- at the very least adequate- didn’t have the vocal range , and at times strained. But, dramatically, enacting the part, it was a tour de force.
Eröd, formally dressed , his baritone always imposing, warns him, you’re a dreamer; he sees things. He’s raving over a phantom. His intense feelings have led him astray. Photos of Marie are scattered over the floor. Lippert holds up a huge poster-size image of Marie: who can understand the soul. Give her back to me!
Marietta, Camilla Nylund, a stunning, Nordic blonde, bounces in wearing a glamorous gold coat, vaguely 1920s . Immediately she feels stifled, as if she were in a tomb. Is the photo gallery of women he’s loved? Uncannily wearing the same dress (as Marie’s) , she provocatively lifts up her legs in his armchair. Marie? No, she’s called Marietta. What’s wrong? She’s tolerably well for someone by nature cheerful. She’s lucky in love. But what’s troubling him? He sings a song he’d heard in his youth, the story of lovers doomed to die. Their duet is a high point- Together our hearts beat in fear/ though sorrow comes ever near. (One of the opera’s more famous numbers.)
Nylund, at home in Straussian roles, is perfectly cast as Marietta, Korngold’s role similar to Strauss’s Arabella, free-spirited, carefree, her soprano both light and capable of enormous power. She comes from Lille, she sings. She’s a dancer: to dance sets her on fire, what passion. And she proclaims, Marie, her rival is dead, but she is waiting. Everyone, knows where to find her: at the theatre. So Marietta represents libido; the lustful Marietta the very antithesis of Marie, a source of morbid guilt for the fetish-obsessed husband.
And even if the 23 year old Korngold hadn’t read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams , Freud’s psychoanalysis was in the air in early 20th century Vienna.
01_Die_tote_Stadt_94353_LIPPERT O, dream do not leave me, Paul pleads for his dead wife’s return to him. He’s left slouched in his armchair, the glass case of memorabilia on his lap. Back of the mirrored stage sits his double in he same suit. At first you wonder if it’s a film we’re watching. We see a vision of his wife, wearing the hair piece he fetishes: her voice (Nylund’s) sings, Our love is, was, always will be, Gluck, das mir verblieb, while Lippert sings repeating it. His alter-ego on the upper stage communicates with the now ghostly Marietta (Nylund) , who is entertaining a group of carnivalesque players all-in-white.
In Wolfgang Gussmann’s brilliant design, the stage ceiling tilts down suggesting the surreal. Phantom houses float by as Korngold’s multiple percussion effects describe the bells in his head. He tastes bitter pleasure: he missed her, Marietta, at the theatre. Bruges, he sings, pious city once lived in its virtue: now filled with a restless passion. Birgita (Bohinec) is seen carried away by a ghostly procession of white nuns, carrying a huge crucifix.
In this dreamscape we see a spectre of Eröd’s Frank perched on a roof top. She fascinates us, he sings.- She fascinates you too?- He’s fallen under her spell, Frank’s now deceiving him with Marietta. In the dream, a burlesque troupe in white evening dress, Vienna State Ballet dancers, perform a brilliantly conceived choreography.
Nylund’s phantom Marietta, in a top hat, is carrying a whip. Down with dull pretence, she sings , now approaching us from the lower stage. The troupe are supposed to be improvising the Resurrection scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable, with Marietta playing the resurrected Helene: (Just so you know, Meyerbeer has fallen out of fashion.) She takes him, (Lippert), into her arms , and Paul, that Proustian figure, sinks back into his armchair. My reverie returns to the past, he sings.
They come running when she beckons- tremendous singing from Nylund- who wants to dance and sing Helene’s solo. On the upper stage , a ghostly spectre in black- Nylund as Marie- is stretched out across Marie’s crucifix.
Now the dance troupe are holding blood-red masks, as if enacting Paul’s subconscious torment, pulled between his loyalty to Marie and Marietta. Es war meine Gatin (She was my bride.) You look like her, but are unworthy of her . She’s spoilt his perfect dream. While a wall of icons show Marie displayed back of the stage, Nylund insists, I’m alive: live for pleasure! She mocks his piety, blind faithfulness. She bewitches him. Would he really give her up for his phantom? – BEGUILING WOMAN! He invites her; she will come o him in his wife’s house.
Come the Act 2 interval, after 1½ hours, Lippert’s voice is straining; his lyrical tenor at breaking point was no pleasure. In the ingenious set, the upper stage seems to get bigger as his fantasy world takes over.
Now , a huge blown up image of Marie faces us .In Marietta’s aria , Nylund, upstage, is on a mission, as if to exorcise Marie’s ghost. Leave us, do not haunt the living! She’s a real woman; in dancing she’s found happiness. 12_Die_tote_Stadt_94328
Against the enormous spectre of Marie’s ghost, a religious procession is taking place behind the stage screen. (Paul spends the night with Marietta, and is guilt-ridden.) Marietta mocks his piety in this psycho-drama of religious devotion to his dead wife and the passion raging within him. He protests, he believes in holy eternal love. She proclaims the happiness she’s found in dancing. She’s opened the locked door and found herself.
Finally , she siezes the glass case , removes Marie’s hair piece, (Nylund has had to shave her head bald), and sits over him lewdly. Then she hits him with it, the hair, and dangles it before him. Paul tries to wrest it, pushes her down, and eventually strangles her. Remarkable .Heightened by Korngold’s orchestration, with high-pitched wind instruments.
He awakens; Lippert is lying flat out on the stage. Brigitta opens the door: behind her brilliant daylight floods in. He holds up the glass case. The actress Marietta returns for her roses. A dream destroyed my dream, he sings. (Ein Traum hat mir den Traum zerstört.) He will leave this city of death: Leben trennt von Tod , wait for me in heaven, he sings.
Mikko Franck conducted Vienna State Orchestra and Chorus in an unmissable performance of Korngold’s infrequently heard masterpiece. The magnificent staging does justice to Korngold’s opera, the period, fin-de-siècle dress, spot on. PR 9.1.2017 ©
Photos: Camilla Nylund as Marietta; Herbert Lippert as Paul; Herbert Lippert; Featured image Herbert Lippert
© Wiener Staasoper/ Michael Pöhn

Kálmán’s The Circus Princess

© barbara pálffy / volksoper

© barbara pálffy / volksoper

Kálmán, after Lehár, was the leading composer of the ‘silver age’ of Viennese operetta, combining Viennese waltzes with Hungarian czardas. For Die Zirkusprinzessin, Kálmán uses the glittering world of the circus for his follow-up to Gräfin Mariza (again librettists J.Brammer and A.Grünwald. )Tsarist St.Petersburg is the exotic setting for the operetta. But, premiered in 1926 Vienna, this was to distract the Viennese audience from grim post-war realities- hyper-inflation, unemployment, begging, slums, and strikes- into a nostalgic fantasy world.
At the centre of this fiction is the legendary Mr X (Carsten Süss), whose bravura act is so dangerous as to defy realistic staging : after a violin solo, he leaps out of the circus dome onto a galloping horse. But Mr X’s story, like his act, is pure fairy tale. Because of his infatuation for Fedora, the wife of his uncle Palinsky, Fedja was disinherited, and joins the circus, a world of escapism and changed identities. And fate leads the now rich widow Fedora- but accompanied by her admirer Sergius- to meet the circus horseman, (unbeknown to her as her nephew.)
And, in the sub-plot, the circus being a melting pot of society, Tonio, the self-styled son of the Archduke Karl, introduces himself to Mabel, an American circus girl, who is in fact Viennese and from a titled family!
In Thomas Enzinger’s production, Vienna’s Volksoper’s cavernous, circus-top stage (design Peter Notz) is surrounded by a balcony. In his opening aria, Mr X sings Wieder hinaus ins strahlende Licht, once again under the spotlight. Carsten Süss enters in a black gymnasts outfit, wearing a red velvet dressing gown. His is a richly varied tenor, a joy to behold, but without undue technical bravura- that’s off-stage.
For Fedora, Mr X, masked, incognito, is a mystery. Whereas for him, it’s pay back time: she owes him, being partly responsible for his present fate. He sings, he will always love her.
In one of the star numbers, as Princess Fedora, Ursula Pfitzner sings of love, what draws our hearts and gives life meaning. Pfizner is all-in-black, black fur collar and matching hat. Pfizner is a very pleasant soprano; the role doesn’t demand vocal extremes, but does require considerable acting ability. As with Countess Mariza, there’s a lot of dialogue: these late 1920s operettas are the forerunner to Hollywood musicals, from Busby Berkeley to Astaire and Rogers.
Pfitzner and Süss really enact their parts. Meeting the circus horseman, her manner is, at first, reserved, in this class-ridden society, as befits her social superiority. Would he, exceptionally, reveal his face to her, she asks. He declines, emphatically not.
But they are a natural together: splendid in their duet, one of the show’s big tunes. Those words, I love you, this hour strikes only once in a lifetime. Joy breezes softly, they sing.
‘The jump’ happened so suddenly- I was looking at the circus master in the stalls- not the stage. I missed it! Anyway it’s a cue, in the plot, for Prince Sergius , who wants to introduce Mr X to the Princess as ‘Prince Korossow’. Sergius, the excellent baritone Kurt Schreibmeyer, approaches Mr X . ‘You’re good at jumping. Why not make a leap into high society?’
© barbara pálffy / volksoper The fun is provided by the other couple, Toni and Mabel. Mabel, the circus girl is approached by Toni, whose father owns the Erherzog Karl Hotel in Vienna (but mistaken as the son of the Archduke Karl.) It’s love at first sight. The American dog groomer Mabel (Juliette Khalil) is dressed in an over-the-top red and gold outfit, like a cheerleader, her hat with sci-fi antennae. She’s a chanteuse on roller skates. Khalil, recently the diva in Axel at Heaven’s Door, wows us with her gorgeous soprano. Nimmt man Abschied von dieser Stadt: if you meet a Viennese girl in a foreign land…
Otto Jaus as Tonio looks very handsome in a black deejay, and with his wienerisch dialect and warm Gemütlichkeit, strikes a rapport with the packed, and appreciative Viennese audience. Toni sings to Mabel how sometimes Fate strikes terrible blows- you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Jaus, perfectly poised, is not too serious, against Khalil who’s wildly absurd. Chorus sing, We small girls in our leotards, but they’re over six foot in their high-heels, and built-up hair dos.
Opening Act 2, there’s a hunt, with guests including Fedora and Mr X, (Sergius observing as Fedora falls in love with the pretender ‘Prince Korossow’.) Sergius gives Fedora a forged letter, allegedly from the Tsar: she’s ordered to choose a new husband, and marry him today! Perhaps she’s already found one? As Korossow, Süss in a great coat, looks the part; and sings impressively with beautiful intonation.
© barbara pálffy / volksoper But Fedora is furious with the tsar’s letter; she won’t marry against her will. Kálmán’s women are strong and feisty, the Hungarian type. (She will tell the Tsar her letter arrived too late.) But she’s subsumed in their love duet. You and me, wrap your arms around me; the world fades when we’re entered by happiness. Hers is a pleasing soprano, his tenor, authoritative, always interesting.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, Jaus’s Toni staggers around a little pissed- ‘I’ve tipped over a lass’, (in the clever English sub-titles.) For Mabel, it feels as if she’s in a fairy tale castle, Du süsses Märchen: Es war einmal! (Once upon a time). Of course, he’ll only make love to her after the wedding. Khalil, a red-head, is dressed in a truly stunning sky-blue, art-deco frock, with matching headpiece. Their dance routine brought the house down.
Wedding at midnight? Back in the main plot, Pfitzner’s Fedora, reprises the hit song ‘Joy breezes past’- watched over by a dancer on the stage balcony, wearing so many feathers she could have taken flight.
Now my highlight moment, the bridal dance, with ‘Cossack’ dancing couples. It must be Vienna State Ballet again, with everything from cartwheels to a pink-skirted lady catapulted into the air. Then the circus performers, a brilliantly coloured, motley extravaganza of misfits.
But in the Act 2 Finale, Sergius, who’s invited the circus troupe to the wedding, pulls a fast one. He reveals the newly married Korossow to be Mr X. Fedora is furious. Pfitzner faints, laid out front of stage. But Süss, the exposed Mr X, sings he’ll be back: It was all for love. Du süsses Märchen, the fairy tale ends: can you forgive me?
Just when you thought it was over… The actual finale is brilliantly conceived, the scene changing to the Erherzog Karl restaurant, with walk-on stage celebrities, and Viennese café society. There’s a spectacular 1920s dance number, with Vienna Ballet’s dancers doing the ‘black bottom’. Toni returns with his wife Mabel- they’re not engaged, they’re as bad as married! Elizabeth Flechl, as Toni’s mother, chokes over the word ‘circus’; until re-assured Mabel’s father is the Major, (who she once nearly married.)
And how did it play out for Fedora , after her humiliation as ‘Circus Princess’? Fedora and Sergius are dining out. On another table, sits Mr X, who is back in town with his circus. Will they…? No conventional Hollywood ending!
Volksoper Orchestra and Chorus were excellent. Laurence Aichner gracefully conducted the orchestra as if riding a team of horses. An unmissable revival of Kálmán’s classic Viennese operetta. P.R. ©
Photos: Carsten Süss (Mr X ) and Astrid Kessler (Princess Fedora Palinska); Juliette Khalil (Mabel Gibson) and Otto Jaus (Toni Schlumberger); Carsten Süss (Mr X/ Korrosow) and Astrid Kessler (Fedora); Featured image Ursula Pfitzner and Vienna State Ballet dancers
© Barbara Pálffy / Volksoper Wien

Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel

04_Haensel_und_Gretel_84733_PLUMMER_REISS Hänsel und Gretel is no mere children’s opera. Richard Strauss, who gave its premier in 1893 Weimar, regarded Humperdinck’s opera as a masterpiece, as did Gustav Mahler. Humperdinck as devotee and assistant to Wagner composed a post-Wagner opera, at once listenable and complex, multi-layered and poetic: appealing equally to children and adults through its familiar plot and hit tunes. Hansel and Gretel are sung by adults, as if prefiguring 20th century child psychology: the notion that adults never quite grow up, our childhood fantasies locked away in the subconscious.
Adrian Noble, once Royal Shakespeare Company director, and behind a string of legendary West End musicals; now opera producer he directs Vienna State Opera’s fantasy-rich Hänsel und Gretel, using Anthony Ward’s imaginative sets. The stage curtain is a gigantic eye, the size of the whole stage- comprising clouds in motion (video Andre Goulding), its blood-vessels resembling trees. It lifts on a traditional late-Victorian living room, with Wedgwood cameos on the walls, and a Christmas tree in the corner. A family are watching black-and-white slides, a ‘magic lantern’, showing a fantasy world. This is the backdrop to the overture, sumptuously played by Vienna State Opera Orchestra passionately conducted by Axel Kober. The set moves away to show the adult-size Hänsel and Gretel in white walking into the forest.
02_Haensel_und_Gretel_94111_ELLEN_HOLECEK A chalet, with father, Peter, (Sebastian Holocek) at his workbench, ‘the cobbler has leather, but no last.’ Gertrud (venerable soprano Donna Ellen) sits knitting. Nothing but dry bread! As Gretel, Chen Reiss’ soprano has a gloriously affecting clarity. How long since we had a square meal. Hänsel is rather big-built, Margaret Plummer in a ‘trouser role’ , but these are short trousers. Written for a ‘highly lyric mezzo, or full-bodied lyric soprano’, according to the programme, with vocal power needed to make this ‘spirited boy credible.’ But for me these voices are not sufficiently differentiated- although Reiss fits ‘the high, clear, bright, girlish lyric soprano par excellence’ called for – the very qualities Reiss drew on playing Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen (in 2015).
The mother Gertrude arrives furious, and gives him a good slap: to see them dancing around as if in a village fete! She hasn’t knitted stockings; he hasn’t bound any brooms. She sends them out into the forest to pick strawberries. And if the basket isn’t filled…
Donna Ellen’s Gertrude’s lament about their miserable life is genuinely moving. O, God please send us some money. Not a drop of milk- she’d knocked the jug over in her temper- only water, she complains.
Tra la la: I’m home bringing good fortune, Gertrude. Everything tastes good when you’re hungry. Jovial, white-bearded, Holocek has a fabulous bass-baritone. The role of Peter Besenbinder could have inspired Anatevka‘s Fiddler on the Roof (although Polish shtetls are far-removed from this proto-Wagnerian world.) Yes, hunger is a tremendous thing. It’s been a wonderful day, hasn’t it; he’s sold all his brooms and bought food. Now, what’s for supper? She’s got nothing.
But where are the kinder? Their joy is dampened. He sings to her about the Ilsenstein witch in the depths of the forest, who gets her magic from the devil himself. She tempts children into her cottage with her magic cookies- then into the oven, out come gingerbread children. (Sounds like an advert for lebkuchen.) But this is all deadly serious, and they rush out to find their children before nightfall. Grimm’s Fairy Tales , on which the story is based, were known for their grisly social realism in an age, the 19th century, when young children were exploited as slave labour in factories and sold into prostitution.
We see the children’s silhouettes as if through a gigantic telescope in that magnified eye. They’re gaping in wonderment. Ein Männlein steht im Walde ganz still und stumm . They sing the opera’s signature tune (a traditional children’s song.) Her basket is full; mother will be pleased. Hey, do you see the wood…Kuckuck, eigentlich (an actual cuckoo). It’s all quite charming, evoking childlike innocence. She makes a wreath; they play games, eat all the strawberries lose track of time and their way. ‘Gretel ich kenn den Weg nicht mehr!’
The sandman, like a good angel (Maria Nazarova) , a platinum blonde figure in a trailing sky-blue gown patterned with cloud motifs, beckons them to sleep, Abends wenn ich schlaffen gehen. . Wonderful stage effects. A man-in-the moon amongst floating clouds; indicating heavenly paradise, moonbeams shower the stage; then, in a dreamscape, a balloon tree, and angelic girls in white dresses march in holding up white balloons.
01_Haensel_und_Gretel_84755_REISS_PLUMMERThere’s a doll’s house centre stage. Did you hear it, the heavenly wind? Did you smell that- the gingerbread cookies to entice them . The witch! In a crinkled shiny black dress , a white pinafore daubed in red hand imprints, wearing gook black spectacles. Michaela Schuster creeps up behind Plummer’s Hänsel, lassoes him with her thick rope and tightens the grip. Right of stage we see a surrealistic oven , the grille as if smiling, thin-lipped. And a huge cage suspended, with perched above, a giant bird of prey, its beak extended. Behind, in the shadows ghostly mannequins of children. She sings, promising great joy: she loves children (and intends to fatten Hänsel up.) Hänsel tries to escape; she casts her spell, he freezes and in a trance enters the cage. Humperdinck’s music is playful, ironic , with macabre hints. Schuster, her dark-toned mezzo self-ironic, sings gleefully, the little girl’s asleep; how the young sleep. Gretel, she’ll be tender and plump. 07_Haensel_und_Gretel_84224_SCHUSTER
The witch story should be so scary as to send shivers up your spine- young or old (writes Oliver Lang in Prolog.) Schuster, tremendously powerful in Wagner, here creeps around like some camp fairy. Not really frightening: but our shock threshold has changed since the relatively tranquil late-19th century. Schuster does a tango with her broomstick, waving the broomstick around, swinging it like a baton. Behind, lightning forks and the clouds whirl at high speed. But this witch is hardly more credible than a panto dame! But, of course, you don’t get Michaela Shuster at the Brighton Pavilion.
Her plans to push Gretel into the oven backfires. Poor Gretel; the heat of the oven which scalds her hand looks real enough, but Reiss, acting dumb, gets the witch to show her around the oven. They push Schuster in : now she’ll be the roast. The spell broken, the children cast into lebkuchen emerge liberated; just look at all those children! Centre stage , there’s a gingerbread dame, they dance around, Hänsel and Gretel reunited with their parents. They sing, Wenn die Not aufs Höchste steigt, Gott der Herr sich gnädig zu uns neigt.. When the going gets tough …
This is the classiest pantomime you will ever see. But much more. Humperdinck’s score -originally composed as a short fairy tale piece of four songs- is an operatic masterpiece: a musical delight, its tunes ringing in your ears. Noble’s post-modern update, ingeniously based late 19th century, isn’t perfect, but infinitely preferable to those moribund, antiquated forest settings.© PR. 2.1.2017
Photos: Margaret Plummer (Hänsel) and Chen Reiss (Gretel); Donna Ellen (Gertrude)and Sebastian Holocek (Peter Besenbinder); Michaela Schuster (the witch); featured image Margaret Plummer and Chen Reiss
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Massenet’s MANON

img002Massenet’s Manon is not quite the Manon of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. True the central roles are the same, Manon on the way to a convent, chaperoned by Sergeant Lescaut, here in Massenet, her cousin. And she’s lusted over by two rich, older men, the financier Guillot , then De Brétigny, a wealthy landowner who offers her the life of luxury she cannot resist. With Des Grieux, wih whom she absconds, it’s love at first sight. But whereas in Puccini the plot is to abduct Manon, in Massenet’s opera it is Grieux who is kidnapped in a plot by the old Count to preserve the family name. And it is Manon who tracks him down, training in a religious order.
This matters because Jules Massenet’s Manon is depicted as the transgressive woman who ‘corrupts’ Des Grieux. Adapted from Abbé Prévost’s (18th century) novel, (libretto by Meilhac and Gille), the context of Massenet’s opera is a 19th century dominated by religion and severe moral standards: Puccini’s is ambivalently modern, a free spirit, and tragically, the victim of men’s conspiracies.
Vienna State Opera’s updated Manon opens in a ‘Victorian’ railway station, huge arches, like the Musée d’Orsay , with a colourful period (fin-de-siècle) posters. However, Andrei Serban’s production (staging Peter Pabst) confuses with life-size cut-outs of ‘Victorian’ figures and ‘modern’ costumes; and Manon’s Paris is nearly up-to-date with neon signs and cars.
What’s important is the music, from the Overture there’s passionate, authentic playing from Vienna State Opera Orchestra, and Choir on magnificent form under Frédéric Chaslin. And in the key roles Marlis Petersen debuts as Manon and Jean-François Borras sings Des Grieux , both outstanding in a high calibre cast.
In Manon’s first aria (Je suis encore tout-étourdie), Petersen is ravishing, exploding with sheer joy as the girl seeing so many things at once ‘she has wings’. Petersen’s light soprano is utterly charming , and convinces as the innocent ‘girl’. She finds Guillot amusing (Alexander Kaimbacher in a business suit), posing as a comedian , but ruthlessly amoral. Isn’t he rather old for her, comments one of the women in the tavern. She’s protected by Lescaut (Adrian Eröd), who’s responsible for the family honour.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Manon, sitting on a railway bench, sings of how beautiful the ladies are in their expensive dresses and gorgeous jewels. But then, be sorry Manon, forget your dreams and desires. Petersen is captivatingly sexy in a nautical-inspired outfit.
Grieux hesitantly introduces himself and falls head over heels. Enchantress Manon, sings Jean-François Borras, in a three-piece suit, wearing a cravat, the romantic with long-flowing hair. But I am a pure girl who has done no wrong; others will put her in a convent. ‘That is the story of Manon Lescaut’. He can’t believe such cruelty, can’t allow her to leave. She’s his body and soul. Borras is some terrific tenor, (reminding of Johann Botha, albeit a Wagnerian tenor, who died in 2016.) They leave for Paris, united forever. What joy for their whole life long, they sing ecstatically.
In the second scene Grieux , in a red dressing gown, is at his desk; she, in a very sexy black corset, comes up behind, affectionately blindfolding him. He’s very afraid; writing to his father, he wants her to be his wife. Lescaut (Eröd) intrudes on their bliss, as if apprehending them en flagrante. Yesterday she turned sixteen, (‘Victorian’/19th century attitudes were quite different to ours.) Lescaut, accompanied by a disguised De Brétigny (Clemens Unterreiner), had come to warn her of his father’s plot to abduct Grieux.
Petersen, in Manon’s aria, sings she’s heard ‘the voice that’s lured me away against my will.’ She’d turned down Guillot; now she’s tempted to be De Brétigny’s mistress for a life of luxury. But she is weak and fragile. Petersen is kneeling on her bed, white-on-white, her hair in a long plait. She sings a maudlin farewell to the little table that had united them . They needed so little space for their love. He sings of his dream, En fermant les yeux, the sea and landscape, of waking up without her, Borras’s tenor lyrical, exquisitely sung. ‘Child, let go of me’ ; there’s a knock at the door.
Act three: we make out a windmill, ‘Moulin Rouge’, behind the stage curtain, with a 1960s Citroen projected crossing the stage: Paris with all the iconic neon signs. A huge billboard shows a cinema poster of a woman in low-cut gown, her breasts fondled by the lover behind her. Why is this being updated to post-war, 1960s/70s? To feed on the clichés of contemporary Paris?
The stage resembles some seedy club. Rosalinde the strip artiste; Eröd’s Lescaut depicted like Pindar the procurer, in a vision of flashy bling. Guillot, who offers ‘a jewel for a kiss’, contemptuously misogynistic, sings ‘woman is after all a wicked creature’.
Petersen’s Manon is seen in a black-patterned frock , holding a bouquet, behind her and around her a flower stand. My beauty has made me a queen, she sings. What an adventurous life I lead! She’s beautiful and happy. But, ominously, if Manon has to die one day, then with laughter on her lips; and, with a tremendous flourish of ascending high notes, as long as her beauty lasts. Men are literally lying at her feet. The Chorus sing, seize the flower of youth, for springtime is short.
Guillot is looking on, like Belmondo’s gangster in Borsalino , in white suit and white hat. Count Grieux (Dan Paul Dumitresco), tipped off by Guillot, tells his son he’s to enter holy orders. Manon, disguised, wants to know, did he, Grieux, suffer; did he talk about her, the woman. Dumitresco sings movingly, What happens after we experience love? Does the perfume linger. One forgets, one forgets…
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA In the moral scheme, Grieux is the victim of Manon’s lust. Grieux, now Abbé, preaching in a convent (Act 4) tells his father, he finds only bitterness in his life. He had a life? the Count responds, what experience has he had : he should marry ‘a nice girl’.
Grieux’s aria Je suis seul , is a highlight, wonderfully sung by Borras. Nothing gives him greater solace than his faith, but the thought of Manon’s name brings him back to her, (Ah, fuyez, douce image.) Manon, who charms her way into his monastery, begs for Grieux’s heart. To a background of church music, Forgive me, dear Lord.
In Act 4, we’re in the Hôtel de Transylvanie, a gambling den. Men, Lescaut, Guillot, playing cards at a side table; a long bar; another gambling table reflected in a huge mirror above. And Manon is one of the women at the bar. It’s all rather louche. In the 19th century stereotype, Manon is the fallen woman who can’t help but bring her man down. Petersen is lying on top of the bar, in a sparking silver gown. So we’re in no doubt of her moral lapse. Yet as foolish as you are, I love you, Grieux sings. She persuades him to gamble: you will have my entire being, my love and my life.- Manon, you astonishing sphinx. You siren!- Ever more money for Manon, she sings. Hers is a greed for life.
But she provokes Guillot by flaunting herself at Grieux, so that Guillot accuses him of cheating and calls the police.(For atmosphere two ‘molls’ are fighting on the floor like wildcats.) Count Grieux comes to rescue his son from the scandal that worsens from day to day. Manon, conscience-stricken, begs Guillot for mercy. They take them away, (of course, Grieux will be released later.)
The final Act, a huge chasm , a depiction of a prison; women, prostitutes, sitting on the ground waiting to be transported. Lescaut’s rescue plan is aborted, but Grieux and Manon left alone. As in Puccini, she can’t walk any further and collapses , (but here on the way to the harbour.) No, she will never see the distant lands, he sings ironically. She realises the goodness of his heart, why she has fallen so low. In their duet, happiness lies ahead of us again. (What a wonderful diamond! She’s still a coquette.) In her glittering gown, Petersen, laid out in his arms, is like a good-time-girl, or a streetwalker. The stage is bathed in red. © P.R. 7.11.2016
Photos: Marlis Petersen © Wiener Staatsoper
Jean-François Borras (Grieux) and Marlis Petersen (Manon); Marlis Petersen (Manon) and Jean-François Borras (Grieux) © Wiener Staatsoper / Ashley Taylor

Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann (Hoffmanns Erzählungen)

2016-10-12-ohp-hoffmann_bp_3-akt-121The bald devil-like figure of Josef Wagner storms onto the Vienna Volksoper stage threatening, there will be no performance tonight. This is a clever reference to the fires that broke out in opening performances in Vienna (1881) and in Paris at the Opéra Comique (1887), where the whole orchestral area was destroyed- the devil’s revenge for Offenbach’s satrical representation of hell in Orpheus in the Underworld.
However, Renard Doucet and André Barbe’s production of Hoffmanns Erzählungen opens in Luther’s wine and beer cellar with a cheeky “Hell” sign. In the boozy atmosphere the Muse (classical inspiration for poets) is embodied in the genderless Niklaus (Elvira Soukop.) She urges Hoffmann, think of your writing, free yourself in art. He’s weak, she sings, but he responds to beauty and music.
Lindorf (Josef Wagner, whose impressive bass features as Coppelius, and Dr.Miracle, in the other tales,) is also in love with the singer Stella, and marks Hoffmann as a rival. Lindorf haunts the poet like an immovable adversary, as if to blame for all Hoffmann’s doomed love life.

(c) barbara pálffy/volksoper

(c) barbara pálffy/volksoper

In the opening they carouse drinking songs: they’ll drink until tomorrow. Hoffmann (Wolfgang Schwaninger) sings to the students a satirical tale about little Kleinzach. A minimally dressed go-go dancer positions herself at the very front of the stage . Luther is recognisable in a red cap. In the opening, the least successful scene, the stage set is dominated by a huge skeletal head, consisting of an enlarged clockwork mechanism: an ominous grim reaper symbol, reappearing in Act 5. There’s also a hand clutching a key, pointing like a cannon.
Much better is Act 2 in which a Frankenstein physicist has created a mechnical doll, Olympia , who he presents as his daughter. Hoffmann becomes obsessed with Olympia, and offered some magic glasses by Copelius (again Josef Wagner), imagines her . The stage is filled with weird half-human creations: a fantastical Hieoronymous Bosch tableau brought to life. Olympia is a clockwork cinderella , a pantomine dame with green hair and hooped skirt. But unexpectedly in Elisabeth Schwarz, she’s endowed with the most beautiful soprano, capable of astonishing runs of coloratura. The joke is that she moves , while her ‘legs’ are hanging over the huge canopy of her skirt. And she’s complemented by the wonderful tenor of Schwaninger. In spite of the kranky, curiously old-fashioned sets – surrealistic, gothic- the singing is wonderful. Schwaninger is outstanding as Hoffmann, a star tenor in the making, and Schwarz would grace any opera house.
In Act 3 Hoffmann is engaged to the singer Antonia (Cigdem Soyarslan), and opens with her aria Elle a fui , The dove is flown away. The set is like an ice palace , everything frozen , as if snow has drifted in onto the stage. Her father Krespel (Stefan Cerny), white-haired, is a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ figure, whose wife, a once famous opera singer, died of a mysterious illness. 2016-10-12-ohp-hoffmann_bp_2-akt-138 They play her records on a wind-up gramophone. Note the opera box within the stage. Soyarslan, all in white satin and tiara, sings a gorgeous aria . She’s forbidden to sing – what may have have killed her mother; but on Hoffmann’s return, rapturously re-united, they sing of their love, C’est un chanson d’amour. Their love scene is in the French operatic tradition , but a little melodramatic: she feints with exhaustion.
Hoffmann orders Antonia she must give up singing, to save her life, and her mother’s fate. What a terrible sacrifice! But the doctor, a vampyric figure, (Wagner again), maliciously conjures up the voice of her dead mother. She’s lured into singing again by a chorus waving their fluorescent strips, like wands. She’s spellbound; but when she falls – what a collapse- her fall looks painful. Their love song is played on a flute – excellent playing from Volksoper orchestra under Gerrit Priebnitz. Finally, the devil as doctor enters one of the Volksoper boxes- occupied with an elderly lady looking on in astonishment. What theatre!
We’ve had to wait until Act 4 for the Barcarole (‘Belle nuit’) but the wait was worth it. Behind a shimmering curtain, a cloudy scene as if under water. Out of an ornate gold-patterned, art nouveau portal emerge a can-can review which moves to the front of stage. They are minimally dressed, almost naked. Across the stage move sets of occupied plush red velvet chairs. (Are they meant to be gondolas?) In Hoffmann’s Chant Bachique – the song heard all over Venice- Schwaninger sings, Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour . But Hoffmann has lost faith in love, and sings in praise of pleasure and fun. Yet he’s passionate about Giulietta , Kristiane Kaiser, a cool platinum blond, as the courtesan, the third of his three loves.
In the preposterous plot Hoffmann , to prove his love for Giuletta, has to kill the jealous Schlemihl (yiddish for idiot), for her appartment key. But Giuletta hands over the reflections of her lovers to the scheming Captain Dapertutto (Wagner again). Wagner, a classy baritone, sings sublimely of Giuletta’s irresistible eyes. Shining diamond! And the spotlight hits the mirror of the portal, to dazzling effect.
2016-10-12-ohp-hoffmann_bp_3-akt-127 In their duet, Giulietta demands Hoffmann’s reflection. She’ll make a toy of him, he counters: that a woman could make a pact with the devil! But she reassures him, ‘listen to love singing’, Kaiser a very competent soprano. Hoffmann, a soft touch, professes his love for her. Again tremendous singing from Schwaninger.
The plot gets very complicated in this ‘fantastical opera’ , but the main thing is the dazzling spectacle. The dancers move in gold behind the shimmering curtain, in Doucet’s stunning choreography.
She’ll follow wherever he goes; he’s drunk with glory. But Hoffmann, outraged, sings he’s been deceived, he a new victim of her perverse pleasures. In a rage , he stabs at her reflection. Mirrored glass shatters – a body falls, he and Niklaus escape – the glass re-formed in a geometric pattern.
In Act 5, ‘And so ends the last of my three loves’, the stage-set reverts to the symbolic giant skull and its clock parts. Offenbach worked seven years on the opera , but left it unfinished in 1880. ‘Hoffmann’ would kill him, he wrote. ‘The Tales are dreams, or nightmares: a journey into a composer’s unconscious, the attempt to find love and ultimately create a masterpiece.’
In the last Act , Hoffmann is drunk, too drunk, to speak to Stella, (who leaves with Lindorf.) He’s helped up by Niklaus’ Muse (Soukip) , whom Hoffmann embraces, (also metaphorically.) In the opera’s final tableau, the stage cast come together; his three past loves are sitting in the stage’s opera box. Behind the muse they sing, the greater the love the greater the pain: On est grand par l’amour et plus grand pas les pleurs. But tears of unhappy love are good for a writer’s soul, and they pick up pages of Hoffmann’s poetry strewn all over the stage.
Please note, although the libretto is in German, ‘to make sense and retain dramatic integrity’ many of the songs and musical ensembles are in French. Don’t let that put you off! Unaccountably, the sub-titles are in German, hardly welcoming to English speakers. PR. 3.11.2016
Photos: Kristiane Kaiser (singer) and Josef Wagner (Dapertutto); Wolfganf Schwaninger (Hoffmann) ; Josef Wagner (Dr. Miracle) and Cigdem Soyarslan); Kristiane Kaiser
(c) Wiener Volsoper/ Barbara Palffy

Gluck’s ARMIDE at Vienna State Opera

Gaelle Arquez as Gluck's Armide at Vienna State Opera Gluck’s ‘reformation’ opera, departing from the baroque, was enormously influential, anticipating amongst others Mozart. Gluck strove for opera cleansed of unnecessary virtuoso showpieces, extended coloratura, technical bravura. Music should serve the text and plot, opera be true and simple, avoiding distractions.
But Ivan Alexander’s production of Armide for Vienna State Opera – the first in 124 years- is controversial. Armide usually seen as the seductive sorceress, is cast as young man dressed as beautiful woman; and used as a sex trap by the Muslim side against the crusaders. A fantasy creation to confuse foreign Christian soldiers, (as, historically, men were lured by spies into love affairs.)
armide_92200_arquez The Vienna State Opera stage is a labyrinth of cages, grid-like boxes connected by staircases. On the top level, a figure in black, a soldier, stands guard. Armide, (mezzo Gaëlle Arquez), a brunette with long flowing hair, wearing a gold gown, descends the stairs. She is seen making love to a blonde soldier, who’s whisked away, his head covered in a black hood. She pulls off her wig ; now with short-cropped hair, leans against the stage, sullen. Why are you so sombre on this glorious day, sings her maid, Phénice the magnificent soprano Olga Bezsmertna. Armide need fear nothing: the power of her eyes sufficed to weaken Godfrey’s regiment. Yet, she sings , she cannot subdue Renaud, whom she despises. He remains indifferent; her humiliation would be terrible if she cannot conquer him. Phénice advises, forget him: against her magical powers, he will be defenceless. Arquez sings of a recurrent dream in which she wins him: an inexplicable spell makes her loveable, her heart pierced. Arquez, intense, brooding with dark passion, yet with a faultless clarity of intonation. A drum roll – extraordinary pitch- emitted by Les Musiciens du Louvre’s original instruments, conducted by Marc Minkowski.
Paulo Rumetz (Hidraot, the Syrian king), thunders, his only wish is she chooses a husband. Rumetz, a mellow, richly experienced bass, feels death closing in. But the fear of marriage alarms her, every heart grows unhappy robbed of its freedom. The might of hell is at her service, sings Rumetz. armide_91973_arquez You master my art better than I do. She’ll unleash the powers of hell against her enemies. But he sees her magical beauty, beguiling enemy soldiers into capture, is also a problem for her.
We observe how Armide and her Syrian father practise the evil arts; thus the Muslims are tarnished as evil – the other- against the Christian crusaders. In this obvious polarisation of good and evil – the background to Armide is the first crusade- the Crusaders are colour-coded in white, the Christians blonde, their Muslim adversaries in black, and dark-haired. (Gluck’s Armide (1752) uses Philippe Quinault’s 1686 libretto- based on Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered ; a time when the Turks conquered Eastern Europe, by mid-17th century, at the gates of Vienna.)
So, in Alexandre’s vivid, excitingly paced production- in this stereotype of orientalism- the stage is filled with muslim boys, wrestling, jousting, doing press-ups, somersaulting. In black pants, unbuttoned shirts they, Vienna State Ballet Academy are like some advert for Levi’s black denim. Phenomenal dancers, and beautiful, they’re a welcome distraction.
Arquez’ Armide, in her Act 2 aria, sings how Cupid delights in her power, but does not touch her heart; then joins in a chorus, singing ‘let us hound to death the foe who offends us.’ We note how they are ‘blacked up’, in Alexandre’s schematic demonization of the Muslims, the Christians adversaries.
Artémidore (Bror Magnus Tødenes), blonde-haired , all in white, warns his riders about Armide’s magic powers. He has been freed by Renaud, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, a lyric tenor, magnificent in his debut, another handsome blonde, in white, distinguished by a huge sword resembling a crucifix. Of course, Renaud is oblivious to the danger and sends Artémidore back to fight. Meanwhile Hidroat and Armide invoke the demons of hate against Renaud. Renaud is lured into an illusory magical domain.
armide_91879_de_barbeyracStunning stagecraft and lighting. A searchlight in gold reveals a harem, each room in gold occupied by exotic dancers. Renaud sings how he has resisted her with indifference; if he can resist her eyes there is no challenge he cannot win. Barbeyrac has an elegant, lyrical tenor. A chorus softly urges him, why try to deny pleasure for honour. The chambers of ‘the house of pleasure’ are copper-panelled, but the lighting effect is of gold. Gluck’s orchestration, I should add, is immeasurably inventive, and melodious.
The ‘good guys’, a Danish knight and Ubalde, have headed out to rescue Renaud from Armide’s grip. They sing of gaping chasms everywhere, and hold up a plaque as a shield. They protest no fear of Armide or her charms; they will deny pleasure in pursuing their mission. They’re the morality police, the puritan party poppers! They accuse Renaud of languishing in indulgence. Voices sing of the sweet sanctity of love. A lady in a white wedding dress appears, a vision of the Danish knight’s lover; but they will not be lured.
In a key scene, Arquez, dressed in a black cloak , like an executioner, looms over Renaud, laid out asleep centre-stage. She stands holding a crescent-shaped sword, which she cannot wield. And she takes him in her arms. Is it not enough if love punishes him. Then she’ll hate him! Arquez sings, she yields to the conqueror- but hide her shame and weakness to the very end of the world.
In Act 3’s sensational, extended aria , Armide struggles to understand her changed feelings and begs ‘Hate’ (La Haine) to restore her antagonism to Renaud. Arquez sings with a purity of voice, stripped of artifice, eschewing extraneous vocal effects, as Gluck would have wished. Hate (Margaret Plummer)approaches to extinguish her love, but Armide realises – her heart in revolt- life without love is no longer imaginable. She orders Hate out; and implores love for help. Unhappy Armide: she must follow love to the abyss.
In the final Act, they’re sharing a bed, he Renaud, Barbeyrac, lying naked under the bedclothes. But he senses Armide is leaving him. (She must seek advice in hell!) She knows how happiness enchants, but fears its end. Whereas he’s learned to love, her experience is of fear. She knows ‘stern duty’ rules over heroes like him. But, in their duet, they’d rather die than relinquish their love. She leaves him with her ‘consorts’ to entertain him till her return.
In a remarkably ambivalent scene, his bed is taken over by a whole bordello of young men. He sits bemused, apart. Then the Dane and Ubalde reach him to break the spell. He’s called to war. ‘Victory will bring him eternal fame.’ They censure him; how this enchanted place overflows with sensuality.
Armide returns and, ultimately, in a desperate fury, she swears revenge- surely one of the great scenes in all opera. Betrayed. Alas what torture. Take her as captive , if not as lover. Si vous souffrez, après la gloire! No, he’s never felt the charms of her love. No his heart isn’t human. Her wrath is as great as her love. She sings, deceitful Renaud is leaving her to die. Arquez is sitting at the edge of the stage, top of stairs into the pit: all that is left is the pleasure of revenge. She summons demons, destroy my palace! Abruptly, in a chilling coup-de-grace, stunning stage effects, all is extinguished in smoke and flames.
None in that packed house will ever forget it. The applause was enthusiastic for this too-rarely heard masterpiece in Alexandre’s imaginative production: all strong roles, and especially Gluck’s music brought to life by Minkowski’s Les Musiciens du Louvre. PR.29.10.2016 ©
Photos: Gaëlle Arquez (Armide); Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Renaud)
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michel Pöhn

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.