Borodin’s Prince Igor (Fürst Igor)

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

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

Chekhov’s Three Sisters: the opera by Pėter Eötvös

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

Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in Vienna

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

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

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

Donizetti’s Viva la Mamma

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

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

Strauss’s Die Fledermaus in Vienna

To experience Die Fledermaus in Vienna, where Johann Strauss’s operetta premiered, is a special privilege. But you’d expect Volksoper’s production to be inferior to the more prestigious Vienna State Opera’s (Staatsoper). Not so. Both opera houses are funded by the Austrian government, so there’s some pooling of resources, notably those Vienna State Ballet dancers (as seen in the New Years Day concert.) Volksoper’s sets are not as lavish, but Volksoper’s audience is primarily Austrian, and they are connoisseurs.
Musically, Strauss’s score is almost symphonic in its orchestration, much admired by Brahms amongst other composers. The Overture, presenting Strauss’s richly melodic themes, is a masterpiece in itself . So Volksoper Orchestra (under veteran Rudolf Bibl) gave a good measure of the whole: very competent playing, the strings lacking the sheen of Vienna State Opera’s, but beautiful woodwind. Incisive, rhythmic, with a Viennese lilt.
Of course, Vienna State Opera’s Fledermaus has budget for a star cast: Volksoper’s less well-known internationally. But Strauss’s ‘operetta’ wasn’t perhaps written for singers with today’s phenomenal technique- although, arguably, the work, operatic in scale, with its subtle characterisation, benefits from virtuoso performers.
Volksoper’s cast very was adequate, with some exceptional singers in their roles. Elisabeth Schwarz as the chambermaid Adele, impressed from her opening scene , cast in the role of a ‘Cinderella’, reading her friend Ida’s letter, desperate to go to the Ball . She concocts a story about a ‘sick aunt’. Her aria, why did you make me a chambermaid, is a highlight; Schwarz is a petite brunette, but what a voice! Her soprano, light but confident upper range, impressed. In Act 3, in her ‘audition’ before impresario ‘chevalier’ Frank, she proves ‘she has talent’ with a virtuoso display of vocal and acting gymnastics.
Her employer Rosalinde (Ulrike Steinsky), curled-brown hair, pretty, but a little plump, is laid out languidly on her chaise longue. Unmöglich , she, Adele, has forgotten that Eisenstein, her husband, is to serve an eight day charge for insulting a policeman.
Alfred (Christian Drescher), the ‘opera singer’, madly in love with her, enters in a dapper grey suit, and creeps up on her . He’ll only go if he can come back alone. The tenor is forever practising his scales, but he, Drescher, is no virtuoso.
Adele continues with her story, until Eisenstein (Thomas Sigwald) arrives. Eisenstein is first seen arguing with his lawyer, who’s only managed to increase his sentence. Not especially sympathetic, Sigwald’s portrayal is testy, quarrelsome. The naughty man slaps Adele’s bottom- he’s seen her ‘sick aunt’ on the street- and bossily orders her get his food from the inn. Sigwald’s is an unexceptional tenor, but a good character actor. He makes Eisenstein a figure of fun. Not a nice man, he locked Falke out of a party, to find his way home in a bat costume.
Dr. Falke (Daniel Ochoa), slick, balding black hair- in fact, a notary- has a Slavic accent. in their duet, he needs to persuade Eisenstein to come to Orlofsky’s party, to implement his revenge. Ochoa’s a tremendous baritone, impressively refined. Although Sigwald is only competent, the duet goes well.
Rosalinde, expecting Eisenstein to be going to prison, sings how shall she bear her husband’s leaving home- (while secretly harbouring other plans). He joins in the duet, Oh, the terrible blow . But Eisenstein is Falke’s guest at the party! Adele gets the night off, after all.
Alfred arrives and usurps Eisenstein’s place, wearing his dressing gown, and taking supper. Alfred’s duet with Rosalinde, Liebe dich, is very nicely sung by Dressler, and especially the famous duet Drink with me, Trinke liebschen, trinke schnell’ . But it’s all going too fast for Rosalinde. Happy is the one whose life cannot be changed, sings Alfred lording it in Eisenstein’s chair, in one of many wittily ironic moments in Strauss’s very stylish libretto.
Frank, the prison director (Martin Winkler), who’s come to arrest Eisenstein, sees Alfred apparently in the role of the husband. Is the situation not perfectly clear? the trio sing, as Rosalinde goes along with the charade to get rid of the overbearing Alfred. (Alfred’s even prepared to go to prison for her.) Winkler, a formidable baritone, is absolutely authoritative in a marvellously comic role. Exemplary. Dressler and Steinsky, if not exceptional vocally, enact their stage parts with adroit comic timing.
The Ball of Act 2 is beautifully staged (Pantellis Dessylas), with terrific gowns (Doris Engel): no expenses spared, and highly professional dance sequences. Cleverly, ornate chandeliers and centre-piece statues with (late-Victorian) bulbous lights disguise the trompe-l’oeil painted columns and arches.
Prince Orlofsky, seems unusually old, but Annely Peebo is imposing with silver-blonde hair, wearing black pants, and oriental-patterned cloak. Orlofsky’s role is traditionally played by a woman. Here there are subtle lesbian overtones. Commanding, authoritative, totally convincing. She has Eisenstein in her control, dangling him like a bauble, plying him with vodka. When superb mezzo Peebo threatens ‘if I see anyone here bored, I throw them out,’ she’s refined, when you expected a roar.
So far, Act 1 had been only so-so . Until Orlofsky. Chacun a son goût aria has real charisma. Peebely sits on her couch controlling proceedings, standing at her side a black-suited ogre as her bodyguard. She expands, like some exotic man-eating plant, spotting Adele, who’s consumed alive.
She rebukes Eisenstein, who, disguised as a Marquis, exposes the disguised Adele. He should know better. ‘Olga’s’ manners, comportment, tiny waistline, are not what you expect of a maid. It’s marvellous ‘class’ satire. Orlofsky forces Eisenstein to apologise; she’s defiant in her ‘laughing song.’
Then his wife Roslinde arrives, dressed as a Hungarian countess. She, Steinski’s, in a flame-red dress and matching mask, furious when she recognises Adele in one of her gowns! She listens in while Eisenstein boasts about his watch he’s used in countless seductions. And Eisenstein, unwittingly, rises to a new challenge, the Countess, who determines to secrete that very watch.
Steinski, in the Countess’s showstopper, singing of her Hungarian origins, is a little disappointing. Kälnge der Heimat, when she hears the sounds of her homeland- bright, green fields- lacks that Hungarian feistiness. ‘Drinking the fiery wine of Tokay’ lacks verve, although Steinski, hits exciting high notes.
The Chorus numbers, featuring Orlofsky, however, are outstanding. Peebo launches into praise of champagne, the king of wine. And Brüderlein und Schwesterlein, shows off Volksoper’s excellent Chorus.
The climax, worth the cost of the ticket, is Strauss’s Thunder and Lightning Polka, featuring Vienna State Ballet’s Dancers. The off-stage backdrop is like a winter palace. Male dancers perform incredible somersaults: others kicking their legs high (in a cancan.) ‘Ballet’ dancers intermingle with chorus and cast in a spectacular choreographed Die Fledermaus waltz. They all collapse, a heap of brightly colourful costumes, and disperse.
The drab brick-lined prison interior of Act 3 couldn’t be more of a contrast. There’s a lot of dialogue , but even to non-German speakers -there are English surtitles-it’s witty and hilarious. Prison warder Frosch (Robert Meyer), cantankerous, and pissed as a newt, bets himself a glass of schnapps that Alfred (the tenor) will start singing again. Then Frank, prison governor as ‘Chevalier’, arrives from the ball, twirling around drunk, humming the Champagne melody. He collapses in his chair, cigar sticking out of the newspaper over his head. Frosch and Frank’s are an hilarious double-act, Laurel and Hardy prototypes. Eventually everyone converges on the prison. Eisenstein drops his Marquis disguise to interrogate his wife’s infidelity; but she trumps him holding up his watch, and he has to beg her forgiveness. Orlofsky , as ‘a patron of the Arts’, adopts Adele’s acting career. In the slickly choreographed grand finale, ‘Champagne was to blame for everything’.
Volksoper’s Die Fledermaus may lack the star attractions of the more famous Staatsoper’s, but it’s authentically wienerisch. Musically, and as stage performance, it justifies Strauss’s operatic masterwork. P.R.1.01.2016 ©

Photos : Günter Haumer and Vienna State Ballet and Chorus of Volksoper Wien; Thomas Sigwald (Gabriel von Eisenstein) and Beate Ritter (Adele); Annely Peebo (Prince Orlofsky); Theme featured image Annely Peebo and Thomas Sigwald
© Barbara Pálffy / Volksoper Wien and Dimo Dimov/ Volksoper Wien for Annely Peebo

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena

The story of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, is endlessly fascinating. How Henry was so infatuated by her, he broke with Rome , and set up the Church of England , to engineer a divorce (from Catherine of Aragon.) Was it because Anne couldn’t bear him a son- only a daughter (to be Elizabeth 1, no less)- that she had to go? Were the revelations of an affair (rather a flirtation) with court musician Smeaton a trumped-up excuse? And the allegation of a ‘secret marriage’, prior to Henry, with Lord Percy, an attempt , by Henry’s advisors, to nullify Henry’s marriage to Anne?
Donizetti’s opera may be an operatic masterpiece. But, artistic imagination fired, he (and librettist Felice Romani) play fast and loose with ‘historical truth’. Whatever the foundation to these amours, Anne’s fate, to be imprisoned and beheaded, is a tragedy, which she forbears with great dignity.

Vienna State Opera’s Anna Bolena is a handsomely mounted period production, (directed by Eric Génovèse.) The superbly constructed stage set (Jacques Gabel) has stone courtyard and pillars depicting Windsor Castle. The lavishly detailed costumes (Luisa Spinatelli), richly authenticated English Renaissance, would justify a Cecil B de Mille Hollywood film set.
The cast excelled, with Edita Gruberova-a legend in Donizetti bel canto roles- in the title role. But Gruberova, in the first Act, sometimes strained in her top notes, sounded a little shrill. Perhaps she was saving herself for the ever-more demanding second Act, which Anna dominates. Here Gruberova, with her stage charisma, triumphed.
And, close-up, (I was close to the stage), I wondered, is she too old to be in the role of a child-bearing woman? But opera is all about the voice, and, as in theatre, we must suspend belief and banish insolent thoughts. Gruberova is a superb actress, as when (Act 1, scene 3,) she fights with all her will to deflect Percy’s advances, he swearing his undying love. (She admits she loves Percy, but rebuffs him, still loyal to Henry.) Here the top notes were a little unstable: the coloratura a roller-coaster ride. Celso Albelo’s Percy, handsomely bearded, has a beautifully rich tenor. Henry VIII (Marco Vinco), who has arranged the apparently chance meeting between Percy and Bolena, hopes to catch them out , so he can accuse Anna of adultery.
In Donizetti’s opera (Romani’s libretto), musician Mark Smeaton (Anna’s page) is supposed to have stolen a miniature of Anna, which he tries to return to the Queen’s chambers, unnoticed! Smeton (sic), mezzo Margarita Gritskova in a ‘trouser role’, makes the complex plot still more complicated. Slightly overacted, but ‘she’ has a boyish face, and the mezzo role is expressively sung. In a potentially farcical situation, Smeton jumps out of hiding , as Percy draws a dagger to kill himself. At which moment Henry enters! Marco Vinco’s Henry (Enrico), is taller than we expect, and, his long hair tied at the back, very elegantly attired in long leather coat and striped tunic. And what stage presence! In contrast to the puerile Smeton, Vinci’s Henry, with his formidable bass, exudes authority. And he’s very sexy.
Henry holds up the medallion and triumphantly shows it to Anna. She pleads, as if kneeling on a couch, while Henry continues to brandish her locket; then he grabs Anna by the arm and pushes her away. The Queen protests fiercely; ironically, she’s been brought down, not by her previous affair with Percy- who’s advances she has now rebuffed- but by a boy’s infatuation. Gruberova’s soprano soars powerfully in the tremendous Act finale, In quegli sguardi impresso . She tries to explain, but Henry will see her in court. Anna! Ai giudici! her last note is almost a shriek of horror.
Anna, now imprisoned-and deprived of her ladies-in-waiting- is visited by Jane (Giovanna) Seymour. Their duet provides one of the greatest scenes in the opera, although Donizetti would have us believe that the astute Queen did not know of Seymour, her lady-in-waiting’s, affair with Henry. In her aria,’ Oh, all-seeing God, have I deserved all this?’ now Gruberova’s in simple white silk, adorned against the gold of her crown. Seymour (mezzo Sonia Ganassi) appears pale, trembling. Awful- appalling: can I bring you happiness? The King is prepared to dissolve her marriage. But his message is, if Anna admits her guilt, he will save her life. – You would advise me to do that? – Do you want disgrace and death, counters Seymour. ‘Who is the ‘miserable woman’ Henry loves? She has brought unhappiness on me! May God punish her! Gruberova is formidable, shatteringly powerful. Now ‘the traitor’ kneels before her. YOU MY RIVAL, YOU MY SEYMOUR!
In this emotionally wrought scene, Seymour (Ganassi) sings, she sighs and weeps, but tears cannot quench her love, (Dal mio cor punita io sono). Ganassi, a high-calibre mezzo, is a match even for Gruberova. These two spark each other off: Götterfunken. Heavenly. Now Anna bids her, Go, unhappy woman, and take Boleyn’s pardon. She offers her compassion and love. He, Henry alone, is guilty. Outstanding duet!
Henry has told Smeton Anna can only be saved by his testifying to having an affair with the Queen. Smeton commits perjury and unwittingly signs his death sentence. With Henry’s discovery that Percy and Anna were previously ‘married’, the Queen will be convicted of multiple adultery.
Vinco’s Henry looks absolutely splendid in white silk, intricately patterned, gold-brocaded. Anne throws herself at his feet: you can kill me, but preserve my royal dignity. Her guilt is in valuing the throne higher than the noble heart of Percy. Her crime was to think there was no greater bliss than being a King’s wife.
We see Percy and Lord Rochefort (magnificent bass Speedo Ryan Green) imprisoned in the Tower; although reprieved, they determine to die together with the Queen. Rochefort deserves to die, he sings, because he persuaded Anna to aspire to the throne. Percy counters, Albelo’s tenor resplendent, Vivi tu . In their stirring duet, they will defy death. Loudly cheered, the ladies didn’t take all the awards.
By contrast, the Ladies choir in Anna’s closing scene, sing to a very solemn orchestral accompaniment, who can see the poor tormented woman without weeping. Anna is, as if in a delirium, haunted by her thoughts. Al dolce guidami . Gruberova’s voice is fragile, almost breaking. Anna imagines it is her wedding day; and the King awaits her at the altar. Gruberova appears in black, in a doorway, swaying, her ladies grouped around the stage. Anticipating the mad scene in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Anne’s aria is disjointed. She’s dejected, begs forgiveness. What joy! Do not let me die alone…Accompanied by cor anglais, she’s now seated on the stage. Harrowing, heart-rending, Gruberova sings with consummate artistry. The voice of a lifetime’s experience in opera, especially Donizetti roles. The tumultuous applause seemed inappropriate- to the drama, the private anguish.
Then we hear a drum roll. What is that sound? why are they arousing her from her delirium. … the men are dying on her account, Rochefort, her brother, and Percy (who the King promised to save.) A pizzicato strumming: Smeton, where is his harp? The Chorus repeat, ‘Anna, her senses have left her again’. The strings are muffled , ‘like the strings of a dying heart’. Anne sings plaintively, Cielo, a’ miei lunghi spasimi , heaven release me from my suffering .
Tremolo strings: an upbeat brass fanfare, summoning the execution, sounds like a celebration. The people are greeting their Queen, she sings. But as the King’s marriage to Seymour is announced, she calls for heaven’s mercy on the guilty couple. Perhaps not the Anne Boleyn, observed by eye-witnesses, who faced her execution with calm dignity, devoutly reciting her prayers.
It is astonishing that Gruberova- in black, with her hair let down; unruly- looks radiantly young again. A great performance has transformed her like alchemy.
Evelino Pidò conducted Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Choirs. © P.R. 23.10.2015
Photos: Edita Gruberova (Anna Bolena) and Margarita Gritskova (Smeton); Edita Gruberova (Anna) ; Marco Vinco (Enrico VIII); Sonia Ganassi (Giovanna Seymour) ; Featured image : Marco Vinco and Sonia Ganassi
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn

Verdi’s Macbeth at Vienna State Opera

Verdi, like other great 19th Century composers, was inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. Verdi’s Macbeth faithfully follows Shakespeare’s . The focus is on the central characters. The ‘tragedy of Macbeth’ is the fall from grace of the once noble man, who sacrifices all- soul and self-respect- for power. He is egged-on by an over-ambitious wife to gory murders (from the visiting king to his henchman Banquo.) The genius of Shakespeare and Verdi is in showing they pay too high a price: the psychological cost of guilt is despair and madness. Shakespeare’s embittered, world-weary soliloquies – Macbeth’s ‘Out, out brief candle’, and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene- are transposed by Verdi (and librettist Francesco Piave) into powerful musical arias that broke the operatic mould.
Swirling clouds, smoke billowing as if from a volcano: the backdrop to Verdi’s overture. A whole coven of witches line each side of Vienna’s stage, beneath granite-like walls: divided by a chasm. Verdi’s music is surprisingly spritely -even cheerful. (Vienna State Opera Orchestra excel under Alain Altinoglu.) Never have I seen such a wild and beautiful day, sings Macbeth, (George Petean). He and Banquo (Ferruccio Furlanetto), in (designer) blue camouflage, are like modern-day soldiers.
Mysterious words, comments Macbeth: the witches predict his fortune from general to King; and Banquo ‘not a king , but father of kings’. But black-suited messengers now hail him, as prophesied, Thane of Cawdor. ‘The witches speak the truth,’ sings Petean’s richly complex baritone. Yet why does his hair stand on end. ‘But often the spirits of hell will tell us things to deceive us’, cautions Banquo, Furlanetto’s great Verdi bass celebrating thirty years on the Vienna stage.
The messengers all-in-black, sharply-cut suits and hats, seem out of a film-noir. At first , the outfits seem like a mishmash in Vienna State Opera’s new production of Macbeth. Director Christian Räth has transposed the opera to late 20th century : a modern twist, suggesting some Latin dictatorship. The sets (Gary McCann) for Macbeth’s castle are gloomy concrete minimalism, central staircase discretely lit neon . It works, unless you were expecting tartan kilts. Shakespeare’s (1605) play was located somewhere in the Scottish past: Verdi’s opera (1847, revised 1865) three centuries later. So there is no ‘authentic’ set.
In the letter scene(2) ,the first of Lady Macbeth’s great arias, we see Tatiana Serjan, wearing a figure-hugging silver-grey satin costume. She at first reads the letter (in broken Italian) of how Macbeth met the witches on the day of victory. Then the voice, Serjan’s voluptuous soprano, soars: ‘You are a man of ambition, Macbeth, you strive for greatness.’ She’s singing her innermost thoughts, fired by the prophesy: ‘the witches have procured you Scotland’s throne’. Serjan, a petite brunette, with short modish hair gestures like a mini-potentate. Wonderfully expressive, her coloratura is effortless, but natural: no self-conscious diva mannerisms.
She orders Macbeth, Duncan, coming tonight, must be treated with full kingly honours. But secretly she beckons the foul spirits of night. Vieni! t’affretta! Let the night wrap us in her darkness, hiding the dagger and the heart it pierces. Serjan’s Lady is a feisty modern bitch!
Petean’s Macbeth enters in his greatcoat. Their scene, Verdi’s duet, is the crux of the piece. ‘Don’t you understand!’- ‘And what if I fail in my attempt?’ -‘Come with me now and give him a warm welcome.’ She, the mastermind, has to lead him step by step. This Macbeth, Petean, looks distinguished, a decent man, but he has no imagination: the good guy has to be corrupted.
In his aria- Verdi’s music is ominous- Macbeth is already fearful. Mi si affaccia un pugnal ‘Is this a dagger I see..Your blade draws a trail of blood.’- ‘What was that call?’ We see Tatiana Serjan huddled up, anxious. Verdi makes her plausibly human, no ogre. She has to steel herself for the deed.
Petean’s lyrical baritone (emphasising vulnerability) sings of the voice he’s heard: ‘he shall have nothing but thorns for his pillow’. Serjan’s Lady taunts his whingeing: You are ambitious, but lack courage. He trembles, lashes out, raves. Where is the bold victor of yore?
(After the deed) she has to order him to take the daggers back, and smears them with (Duncan’s) blood. He slobbers, frightened by every word. ‘If only I could banish the crime from my mind.’- ‘Pull yourself together’, she constantly extorts him.
The morning after, Furlanetto’s Banquo, now in a dashing blue uniform, sings of that terrible night, the voices he heard, the bird of ill omen. Macbeth’s modern servants sing repeatedly, ‘Only with thy light are we able to penetrate the veil of darkness.’ Wonderful singing from Vienna State Opera Chorus, Verdi in Verdi. (Macbeth, black-suited, Lady Macbeth in red, deflect the blame onto Malcolm (Duncan’s son,) who escapes to England.)
Verdi’s Act 2 opens to a bedroom scene, the Macbeth’s. ‘There’s more blood to shed!’ Shall Banquo’s children, as prophesied, ascend the throne? Lady Macbeth, straddled over him, is stroking his hair. ‘You won’t change your mind.’ It must be so. Her sexual charms are a potent instrument of persuasion. But in her aria, she exults, invoking rapturous night : ‘Oh, the ecstasy of power. You satisfy every desire.’
The chorus of Verdi’s assassins are Mafiosi- sleek-suited, gabardine raincoats, shades – dark figures against the grimly modernist concrete building. Banquo, full of premonitions, sings, on a night like this , his dear King Duncan was killed. Furlanetto’s magnificent bass, subtly modulated over its wide range, is silenced too soon. The stage is invaded by Macbeth’s mobsters who liquidate their prey.
In the so-called Banquet scene, Serjan , centre stage in scarlet silk gown, raises her glass to the Macbeth’s success; Banish all sorrow, let joy abound. The celebrations are interrupted by Macbeth, remonstrating with Banquo’s ghost (invisible to the party). Is he mad? Be seated, my lord, consider your guests…(But this is a stand-up do, with drinks passed around.) So is it all in his mind ? Christian Rath’s is a modern take. The stage is cast in shadows, as Macbeth drives the spirit away. I am a man again, he boasts. (You should be ashamed, my lord, she remonstrates.) But Petean sings, front-of-stage, the phantom is after his blood, and will have it.
Superstition plays a key role in Macbeth , but Shakespeare and Verdi are as concerned with the psychological workings of their characters. Verdi’s 19th century was fascinated with the gothic and supernatural; whereas a modern audience might read in ‘subconscious’ motivation.
So opening Act 3 (in Räth’s plausibly modern reading), Macbeth lies in bed; around him, witches move, casting their spells. Is it a dream? What are you doing here, you secretive witches. But he still wants to know his fate. Effectively staged, we see the spectre of the crowned King looming over a small boy chalking a sketch of the branches of a tree. This becomes a symbol of the budding revolt against Macbeth: finally, the branches (Birnam Wood) camouflage Malcolm’s soldiers marching on Macbeth’s castle.
Macbeth, in Verdi’s aria, imagines the sons of Macduff, wearing his crown, occupying the throne: And you are not even alive, you horrors! Petean appears to faint. The witches warn Macbeth beware of Macduff (‘not by woman born’). Black-hooded figures chalk up the branch symbol backstage . Chorus sing of their downtrodden fatherland. They are led by Macduff, magnificently sung by tenor Jorge de León, a highlight aria bewailing his children murdered by tyrants: In vain they cried out to him, where he’d fled. ‘Our Fatherland betrayed, may Gd’s wrath destroy the villain’. A line of exiles -Macduff, Malcolm- stand together, invoking their oppressed country, Ah, la paterna mano , in what could be a Risorgimento anthem.
Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene is preceded by mournful clarinet and oboe. Una maccia è qui tuttoria, her obsession with cleaning the blood from her hands- not all the perfumes of Arabia can sweeten them- is nothing less than Freudian. Who would have thought the old man would have so much blood? Serjan’s Lady Macbeth is outstanding . Harrowing, low-key -this cannot be the diva – she is stripped back to the vulnerable, pitiful, pathos-ridden woman.
Macbeth, in his battle-cry against traitors, stands defiant. Yet, in his aria, he feels the life in his veins draining away from him. Petean sings sotto voce of Pietta, rispetta, amore , he waits in vain for compassion, respect; but, repeatedly, ‘miserable wretch, curses alone shall be your funeral dirge.’ Plaintively, beautifully sung.
A truly glorious brass section (a trumpet voluntary) announcing Vittoria, radiant the hero (Macduff) who kills the traitor. Glorious Verdi choruses! Never mind Shakespeare’s speeches- Malcolm’s appeal to his countrymen for reconciliation- Verdi’s music says it all. It’s all over in a chorus. © P.R. 21.10.2015
Photos: Tatiana Serjan (Lady Macbeth) and George Petean (Macbeth); George Petean and Tatiana Serjan; Ferrucio Furlanetto (Banquo) and Jongmin Park (Spy); George Petean (Macbeth)
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Offenbach’s Paris Life (Pariser Leben)

Jacques Offenbach, considered the creator of operetta, satirised the pomp of mid-19th century French society (Second Empire.) In Pariser Leben (La Vie parisienne) Swedish Baron Gondermark and his wife are victims of a scam: the womanising Gardefeu seduces his wife, while Metalla, a hooker, (and Gardefeu’s ex), distracts the randy Baron. How does this translate into a modern dress production? And French libretto (Meilhac and Halevy) into German? (Vienna has a great Offenbach tradition; many definitive versions of his operettas originated here.)
Offenbach showed a contemporary Paris for tourists, in a holiday mood, a Paris divorced from reality. So Volksoper’s (director/designer Michiel Dijkema) modern Paris has souvenir sellers, and street scenes showing the underbelly of Paris, an alternative Paris with streetwalkers, transvestites. It’s cutting edge, but we were expecting large sets, and glamorous revues. Where’s the Parisian elegance ?
Volksoper’s near-empty stage shows a sign for GARE DU NORD, and a stadium section jammed with tourists. How easy it is to travel around Europe, sing the chorus, rather half-heartedly. Sorry, the German dialogue- Achtung Gleich sieben over the intercom – doesn’t help, somewhat lacking in charm. Metella (Annely Peebo), an ‘Escort-Dame’, with a client, doesn’t recognise her former lovers Gardefeu (Daniel Prohaska) and Bobinet (Rasmus Borkowski) . Does she know them: she can’t decide. Nope, she doesn’t know them. Peebo’s Metella looks really tacky in a pink velour skirt, short check jacket, and ridiculously large hat.
In their duet, Bobinet and Gardefeu, in modern outfits, lime jacket , terracotta pants, (Prohaska) grey pants and blazer, sing, From now on we follow new rules of play, we’re looking for a woman of style today.
The supporters’ terrace of holidaymakers reappears: they disembark. The Swedes at least , (the Gondermarks), are elegantly dressed , Baroness (Birgid Steinberger) in a cream coat, Baron (Morten Frank Larsen) in brown overcoat. Gardefeu swops with the tour guide for his red blazer and cap- the Gondermarks ‘sold’ to him in a deal. As he claims his fee, asks what would they like: just between ourselves, no taboos. ‘Paris is open to us. So much lies in store’, they sing (with some irony.) Is the Grand Hotel in a good area?
The modern facades show a run-down district. A Brazilian tourist (Boris Pfeifer) in a white fur coat and hat makes out with the girls- very outré outfits- a parody of streetwalkers. (Sorry Pfeifer, weak-voiced, isn’t up to it.)
The ‘Paris’ ensemble, ‘All countries and creeds ‘ sounds like a promotion for multiculturalism. ‘Foreigners gather from all over the world looking for fortune,’ they sing. Not bad , the staging , the tourists divided into two groups, each side of Prohaska. But generally, it’s underwhelming, drab, lacking in pizzazz.
Incongruously, the Grand Hotel sign is suspended on the side of the boot shop. The ‘hotel’s always overbooked’ explains Gardefeu, so he’s bringing them to his private apartment, ‘the VIP wing of the Grand Hotel’. The Baron has a letter of recommendation for a ‘Metella’; he’s only a short time in Paris, can hardly wait. Morten Larsen’s bass is, at times, a little strained. (The Baron insists on a table d’hôte. So Gardefeu has to arrange guests to pose as members of fine society.)
Gardefeu, in an aria, confesses he’s in love with the Baroness. Prohaska is very acceptable, but this wonderful aria needs a real star. The Baroness has found a ring, Metella’s. Metella arrives, Peebo a peroxide blond in low-cut top, flimsy long skirt, the hat too much. But mezzo Peebo is impressive, in terrific voice. Especially when, reading the Baron’s letter of recommendation – he’s hoping for what she offered his friend- promises to give her reply ‘in two days.’
When the so-called ‘table d’hôte’ guests arrive, the outfits are so exaggerated, like drag artists, they could be out of an early Pedro Almodavar movie. On the menu are pizzas and ‘spritzers’. And this lot are drinking beer. So far no advert for Paris. However, a small van circles the stage advertising ‘Théâtre sur la Seine, Le nouvel Opéra’ -and with a French-speaking driver-the first authentic taste of Paris. The street vendors send up the nobility. Chorus sing Offenbach’s lambast on their intent to impersonate fine ladies, their manners only a veneer, false social hypocrisy. Rather well sung, but the setting is tawdry. Cecie ne pas Rue Covette ‘ as it says on the barely-visible poster.
The Baron in a duet with the ridiculously dressed platinum-blonde Pauline (Julia Koci)- purple midriff, flowing skirt, boobs protruding- barely keeps up with her. They sing ‘Love makes you feel like you’re floating on a cloud.’ At the party, the impossibly complex scheming is to keep the Baron occupied while Gardefeu seduces his wife.
In Offenbach’s plot, ‘the champagne flows freely’ (the Baron provides them with wonderful wine). But in this travesty, the guests are drinking beer out of bottles (?!) when the Baron goes off to enjoy Parisian night life. There’s one good moment: the mannequins walk out of a shop window (Maison du bon goût). But the bottle-swigging is crude and vulgar: out of keeping with the operetta- whatever the time period.
But, at last, (ending first half) there’s a glitzy black and white spectacular, featuring Vienna State Ballet: a pyramid of style. The dancers front of stage, guys in black one-piece cat suits, the girls in silver striptease, ermine pompons, white feather plumes. Then the boys, slickly choreographed, fall about fighting. On the staircase, men in black deejays and top hats, women in cloaks.
Then, the finale , the CANCAN, la piece de resistance: the dancing girls in their extravagantly plumed headpieces, skimpy bikinis, kicking those leggggs. The saving grace so far.
In the second Part (Act 4) we see the Baroness’ bedroom, with Gardefeu as if pouncing on her. Outside a poster for a Cancan Revue; beneath, over-spilled dustbins and people sleeping on the street. (What did they drink, they carouse.)
Steinberger’s cool, blonde Baroness sings, yesterday she was a tourist. Now she’s deeply moved by sweet dreams; gives herself over to her man. She’s sensed this handsome stranger. (He sings he’s not sure of love.) She’s no good as a mistress, she admits, but she’s in love. Prohaska is a pleasing tenor, but outclassed by the superb Steinberger. She swoops up to, sustains, her high notes confidently; but also warm and affecting.
But once she learns of the trick played on her, the Baroness determines on revenge, assisted by her visiting aunt (redoubtable actress Helga Papouschek) who, disguised as her niece, shares Gardefeu’s bed.
Metella eventually rejects the Baron’s advances , bored with her ‘professional life’. No longer the woman she was, she seeks a new life to be shared with only one man, Gardefeu. In a powerful aria , (perhaps Offenbach’s private agenda), Peebo sings movingly, Paris by night is an illusion. They’re all seeking their fortune. Yes, Paris by night is a machine- pleasure without scruples. This town’s a wild party that never ends. And, most condemnatory, Paris injects poison into our veins. …So we won’t have a night of fun, remarks the Baron.
All the dancers are now under a red light. The Brazilian and Gabrielle (the erstwhile prostitute), now engaged , raise their glasses to Paris, a lover’s paradise. (But we know otherwise.) So ‘that’s why the champagne flows’, in Offenbach’s number. The orchestra reprise the Cancan refrain, as the Swedish couple sit forlorn (at the Gare du Nord) awaiting their train.
Volksoper orchestra conducted by Sébastian Rouland was on excellent form. The problem was with Michiel Dijkema’s vulgar staging . The cast was generally good, some Steinberger and Peebo , especially . I can’t complain about the German version. Vienna Volksoper, home of operetta, is dedicated to making opera accessible to a German-speaking public. But I’d love to hear it in French! P.R. 18.09.2015 ©
Photos: Daniel Prohaska (Gardefeu) and Caroline Melzer (Baroness Gondermark ) ; Boris Pfeifer (the Brazilian) and Volksoper ensemble; Annely Peebo (Metella)
© Barbara Pállfy/ Volksoper Wien

The White Horse Inn (Im weissen Roessl)

Ralph Benatzky’s operetta Im weissen Rössl, about the lady innkeeper and her headwaiter, became a worldwide hit, as The White Horse Inn, ‘the first European musical ‘.From a once popular stage comedy to lavish musical spectacular, it’s success ‘was Wunderbares’ – wonderful indeed, as the love-infatuated Leopold sings in one of the hit tunes. Im weissen Rössl has at least five composers, including Robert Stolz, who sued in vain over the inclusion of his two songs.
Vienna Volksoper’s stage is a snow-capped Alpine backdrop- kitsch! But clever, when the framed picture postcard, back of stage , shows this (clichéd) mountain scene with white t-shirted joggers. And the moving stage has hilarious jagged waves cut-outs, with rowing boats crossing. Out they come, the tourist schleppers, headed by their bossy tour operator (Helga Papouschek) . She addresses the audience, letting us in on her tricks. Now, you’ve seen it all , she gloats.
The bill please, Herr Leopold. Boris Eder, looking absolutely gorgeous in black, they in white- No need to hurry! he sings in his first number, offering them the menus. The sunshine is like the tips he’s hoping to get. But, aside, ‘What a rabble!’
He’s in love with his boss, ‘hotel’ owner Josepha, who’s not interested. Her entrance is preceded by a clatter of dishes, and a threatened slap. What’s he looking at her like that for? Singing to Ursula Pfitzner’s innkeeper, Eder delivers Benatzky’s stand-out aria , ‘It must be wonderful to be loved by you , Es muss was wunderbares sein (based on a song by Franz Liszt). For once, he wanted to tell her what’s on the first page of his diary. She rebuffs him, ‘You’re here as a waiter not a Cavalier.’ Then, getting on his knees, he repeats the refrain, It must be wonderful. Her guests are parched! Everything must be ready when the steamboat arrives. Pfitzner’s soprano, in traditional dress, is pleasant, but not quite the dragon she’s reputed to be. And roses in water for her favourite, lawyer Dr. Siedler, (who will fall in love with his opponent’s lawyer Giesecke’s daughter.)
The steamboat arrives , greeted by the parlour maids of the White Horse, in the first spectacular, ‘It’s the smell of the season, filling up the tills.’ Giesecke , the underwear manufacturer (Bernd Birkhahn), turns out to be a pompous , arrogant Berliner. He sees a pretty young man , wearing one of his competitor’s designs- a one-piece, in pink! – and kicks him off the stage. The cantankerous Giesecke is forever moaning , ‘In Berlin they’re glad to see the back of the snow!’ He’s insufferable, everything you love to hate about Germans. (The Austrian hosts love to ribald their German guests.)
Siedler arrives. Down comes this miniature plane-landing on stage, as Siedler (Carsten Süss) is greeted by Josepha , with the show’s signature ‘The White Horse Inn where happiness greets you.’ Now at last the rather pedestrian dance routine bursts into hot razzmatazz (Vienna State Ballet). The rhythms let loose are jazz-influenced, but incorporating zither and lute Styrian folk music.
In a hotel farce reminiscent of ‘Fawlty Towers’, the lawyer Siedler insists on the room he’s reserved which is taken by (his rival) Giesecke; but renounces his claim when he sees Giesecke’s daughter Otillie (Renate Pitscheider). Meanwhile we see pleasure boats paddling across the stage, behind the commotion.
For Die ganze Welt ist himmelblau , The whole world is sky blue when I look in your eyes’, the classic by Robert Stolz, everything is bathed in pastel blue, as Siedler (Süss) dances with Otillie. Around them waft cupid figures with wings, and carrying arrows. And a ballroom light reflects moonbeams. Outrageous camp. But as a send up, a Monty Pythonesque group of cowherds look down from the picture-postcard frame backstage . Yes, the whole world is sky blue- magically rendered by Suss and Renate Pitscheider. (Not everything works- the cowherds descend for a hillbilly number.)
Leopold is slapped by Josepha for asking for ‘just one kiss’ -and what a slap! He refuses to take flowers up to Dr.Siedler- What am I, a man of the night, he retorts- and she dismisses him. Cue for Leopold’s melancholy, ‘I can’t bear to watch’. (If I don’t play a part it breaks my heart.) But as if poking fun, so things don’t get too serious, we see two mountaineers watching with binoculars (from the framed window above.) Boris Eder’s (Leopold’s) tenor hasn’t a very high range, a crooner, more than adequate for operetta: but he has got personality. And it’s very well acted, as in his advice to the cute bell boy, Never lose your heart to an ungrateful landlady. She, Josepha, in a reprise of the big chorus number, In Salzkammergut da kann man gut lustig sein ,(Once again the world is sunny)- another dance spectacular- she tries to persuade the grumpy Giesecke , standing side-stage, who’d rather be anywhere else. Pfitzner’s is a very pleasing soprano.
In Act 2, the comedy mix up thickens with the arrival of a stingy German professor, (bargaining for the cheapest rooms), and his daughter with a lisp (Franzisca Kemna), who falls for Sigismund (Peter Lesiak), who’s the son of Giesecke’s business rival. (If you must know, Sigismund arrives, supposed to marry Ottilie, Giesecke’s daughter; to patch up the legal dispute?!) Anyway, it’s an excuse for ‘Was kann der Sigismund dafür , das es so schön ist.
But, in the main plot, the principal romances , the highlight for me is the Robert Stolz number Mein Liebeslied muss ein Walzer sein. But when the violins play , my love song must be a waltz, sings Siedler sings to Ottilie . Carsten Süss is superb. And the song that says I’m yours can only be a Viennese waltz… Thrilling. Renate Pitscheider is also very good, and , of course , they break into a waltz, the centrepiece of waltzing couples.
In the plot, the Kaiser (Franz Joseph) is expected to stay overnight at the Inn. So Josepha schmoozes up to the drunken Leopold, to get him back. But on his terms. The Kaiser ( Wolfgang Hübsch) with his handlebar moustache like an old walrus, arrives , preceded by a brass band playing Strauss’s Radetzky March. Leopold flunks his welcome speech. ‘Good man, you seem quite addled- but I’m used to that from my Ministers,’ comments the Kaiser. (The Kaiser’s welcomed by a posse of ‘Maidens of Virtue’- old bags- who faint with excitement.)
But Hübsch’s Kaiser is a nice man and gives advice to his hostess Josepha , consoling her, when she realises Siedler loves Ottilie not her. Now she doesn’t want Leopold to go after all. Leopold, singing the melancholy refrain, ‘If I don’t play a part’, returns for his reference. So she dismisses him as her head barman , and hires him as her husband. Now I am the steed, he boasts. It ends – celebrating three engagements- with the show stopper Im weissen Rössl am Wolfgangsee, dort steht da Glück vor der Tür ‘In The White Horse Inn, where happiness greets you.’
It’s not quite an operetta, the central relationship is, dramatically, underdeveloped: rather an excuse for one song after another (many still vintage.) But this Volksoper production, directed by Josef E. Köpplinger, a reconstruction of the premier performance, is outstanding. Musically, Volksoper orchestra and chorus, under Michael Brandstätter, excelled. The cast too, although I’d liked to have seen the alternative leads. Especially commendable are the inventive sets and costumes (Rainer Sinell) . The classic musical, a mild satire on Alpine tourism, has been updated, with witty Monty Pythonesque sketches subversively commenting on the main action. The result is hilarious, a musical treat, unique to Vienna, authentically performed. © P.R. 14.09.2015
Photos: Sigrid Hauser (Josepha); Daniel Prohaska (Leopold); Carsten Süss (Dr. Siedler) and Mara Mastalir (Ottilie). Regrettably, photos of Ursula Pfitzner and Boris Eder were not available.
© Barbara Pálffy / Volksoper Wien