Wagner’sThe Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegender Holländer)

Vienna State Opera’s curtain -a veil depicting a biblical figure fighting the waves- rises on the Daland’s crew , pulling on heavy ropes, and singing lustily. In Christine Mielitz’s production , the stage (Stefan Mayer), is framed by a solid-wooden , archaic structure resembling a Viking longboat; side-stage, black panels with spotlight portals. Daland (Hans-Peter König), an imposing figure whose rich bass stamps his authority on this production , sings of how they’re blown off course -near to home and his daughter. The helmsman (Thomas Ebenstein’s light tenor), who’s keeping watch, sings (Mein Madel), the wind brings him nearer to his woman; and drops off to sleep.
From behind the cavernous stage, out of the dark figures shrouded in black, emerges the Dutchman (Michael Volle) to sing his monologue, Die Frist ist um, brooding , an introspective ‘aria’ anticipating Wagner’s later operas. Volle, wearing a dark cloak, stocky, greying (older than expected), is impressive , his baritone sensual, but not supernatural: lacking the immensely deep vocal reserves of Finn Juha Uusitalo, or Alfred Dohmen, recently in the role, gaunt, haunted figures both.
Volle’s Dutchman sings of how often he plunged the depths, drove his ship into rocky graveyards: but nowhere could he find a grave. Such is the fate of damnation. Who renewed the terms of his salvation, tell me Angel of God. Was I the object of your mockery? There’s no such thing as eternal love on earth. But he has one last hope: that the earth might perish . The Day of Judgement: Doomsday. When all the dead are resurrected- he’ll dissolve into nothing. Ewige Vernichtung. Tremendous!
Wagner’s ‘aria’, breaking the shibboleths of 19th Century bourgeois good taste: revolutionary, bursting musical frontiers, and anticipating The Ring and Tristan und Isolde. But, no room for applause: straight into the ghostly chorus, ‘May eternal oblivion save us.’

In the encounter between Daland and the Dutchman, at first brusque, the Dutchman asks for shelter. He comes from far away: would they refuse him shelter. ‘The ship has suffered no harm.’ The grim hulk of the Holländer inches slowly, jutting across the stage. He cannot tell how long : he no longer counts years. He’s lost his family, and unable to reach his Heimat (homeland). The ship’s laden with treasures- to pay for his board, the price of one night’s shelter. He’s heard about Daland’s daughter Senta: ‘then let me marry her.’ Daland, greed focused under a red light, sings of the Dutchman’s generosity: he’ll make a good son-in-law. On the bridge of the Holländer, against the black-hooded crew, Volle has a red scar over his left eye , as if attacked by some malevolent creature , or bird of prey.
In the second Act, preceding Senta’s appearance, we see women knitting- part of Wagner’s view of women, (the 19th century) way of keeping women occupied. They sing, ‘Good spinning wheel , my love is out there sailing the oceans.’ In the quaintly charming choreography, some of them get entangled in their skeins of wool. Light relief.
Senta (Ricarda Merbeth), ‘always looking at that picture’, sings her ballad about the Flying Dutchman: how he was cursed by the devil to sail the high seas forever; and who can only be redeemed by the pledge of woman’s love until death. In the middle of the refrain , ‘Where is she , who will remain true’, she jumps up, and exultantly proclaims, ‘Through me you shall achieve salvation!’ (Durch mich sollst du heil.)
At which moment, Erik, the huntsman in love with her, enters. Herbert Lippert appears in a tan leather jacket and modern pants- while, in a costume mix-up, the chorus of women are wearing Victorian ankle -length gowns. Merberth, a stout lady in a white gown, is rather maternal looking. In their duet, Erik, afraid of losing Senta, tries to stop her obsession with the Flying Dutchman, who’s trapped her like a Satan. (Her vision of him speaks to her as if from time past.) Erik is described as hot-headed, but Lippert, a lyrical tenor, beautifully sung, seems rather harmless- a bit of a dolt? But now it’s all clear to her: she must perish with him, her Dutchman.
Daland arrives with the Dutchman , introducing ‘this stranger’. A seaman like him, he bids her welcome him. Banished from his homeland – Daland touts for him – he’ll pay for his hearth. Hans-Peter König’s venal Daland is very good, a powerful presence in his dark cloak, fur collar (a sign of affluence), and seaman’s cap.
Volle’s Dutchman at first sings to her from the vault of the stage. Satan’s malice left him only a throbbing heart (unrequited love.) Now his desire is deliverance! Michael Volle’s baritone has a nobility, a rich timbre ; but he lacks the power of Wagner’s super -Helden : beautifully sung, but misses the supernatural dimension.
In their duet, Merbeth sings of the power buried in her breasts-what should she call it? Would that he could gain deliverance. Now, vocally, she rises to Wagnerian heights. She stands behind him , hands outstretched, then her fingers hold him tenderly. ‘Oh, what suffering! If only she could bring him comfort.’ (She’s an angel to comfort him, a damned soul.) The duet, much better from Merbeth, but Volle is grounded , a mere mortal , passionate , but not immortal.
Act 3, the wedding preparations, opens with Daland’s sailors , and the opera’s big tune celebrating their homecoming. Steuermann…We fear nothing. We laugh at wind and storm. Fabulous singing. The Daland crew , in their modern black suits and crisp white shirts, are knocking back crates of German beer, like stock market traders on a good Friday night. They invite the Dutchman’s crew to join them, but get no response. The Dutchman’s crew are indeed dead: they don’t need food and drink. (You’ve heard about the Flying Dutchman? They’re all ghosts.)
The men throw off their jackets, ready for the girls. And strip off to their vests, first loosening, then tearing off, their shirts. There’s a whole orgy going on front of stage. They, some respectable wives, have to pull off one sailor (coitus interruptus.) Very well staged .
Then, bathed in a red light , as if to suggest a storm, the sea becomes violent, and the Dutchman’s ghostly crew sing an ominous chant. The stage seems to be strewn with black corpses- yes, corpses on a plague-ridden ship.
Erik tries to stop Senta’s seeing the Dutchman. But she stands defiant: she won’t listen to him any more. But Senta, you promised to be faithful, Lippert sings with lyrical passion. Behind them approaches the gaunt figure of the Dutchman, who (hearing this) is convinced Senta has betrayed him. ‘Verloren, heil!- Meine treue ist getan. Einige Verdamn is ist ihr los!’ She should have been rescued. Now she is lost. (He releases her from her promise, and flees to his ship.)
But Senta still insists she is the one to end his suffering. ‘Faithful until death ,’ she plunges into a sea of flames – very realistic, frightfully realistic, a fire on stage demarcating a grave, uncomfortably close. The ship appears to sink.
With each performance, I get nearer to understanding this complex, enigmatic opera- apparently a simple seafaring tale, but its myths , the ‘Flying Dutchman legend, the homeless, endlessly wandering figure, mine the ground-rock of human mythology.
Christine Mielitz’s staging, bridging the classic with the modern- the Norwegian longboat symbolically foreground- is a workable compromise. (At least, this time, I was closer to the stage.) The cast here was not ideal, the leads , Volle and Merberth, in their roles, very acceptable. Chorus was excellent. Vienna State Opera Orchestra, was conducted by the inspirational Peter Schneider, who was not quite on form. © P.R. 8.09.2013
Photos: Michael Volle (Der Holländer); Hans-Peter König (Daland); Ricarda Merberth (Senta) and Hans-Peter König (Daland)
© Wiener Staatsoper /Michael Pöhn

Adès The Tempest

For an opera by a contemporary English composer, Thomas Adès, to be performed at Vienna State Opera is remarkable. The opera ,The Tempest, is based on Shakespeare’s play, but Adès hasn’t put Shakespeare’s original text to music. Meredith Oakes’ libretto is, it’s argued, ‘more singable’, because simplified, without the ‘more obscure and problematic words.’ Adès’ music is ‘exciting, sumptuous, uplifting.’ Fascinated by court music, Adès recreates Baroque forms; and, The Tempest being filled with magic, there’s an incredible range of colours in the score . But the music in Shakespeare’s play is in the poetic language. Adès’ opera doesn’t acknowledge its debt to Shakespeare’s Tempest, its near-identical characters and plot transposed from five-Act play to three-Act opera.
In Vienna’s co-production with the New York Met and L’opéra Quebec, the staging (Jasmine Catudal) is at first problematic: we face an opera house, as if mirrored, back of stage; a chandelier suspended; a miniature sailing boat foreground. Then a sensation: dangling acrobatically on the chandelier , a half-human figure, Ariel. Then a sheet, undulating, reflecting huge waves, the sea with bodies bobbing, fighting for their lives. (‘None were lost, all were saved’, so Ariel later relates.)
‘Hell is empty: all the devils here , a young woman, Miranda (Stephanie Houtzeel) sings, joined by her father, Prospero. The ship is wrecked, it groans: is this my father’s doing? Miranda , you are my care : now listen to your father.’ This Prospero, (baritone Adrian Eröd), ceremonial cloak over one shoulder, bare-chested, tattooed , delivers his ur narrative. I was Milan, I was Duke: he loved his books, and neglected his Kingdom. (We see, spotlighted, backstage the brother , King of Naples, who usurped him.) Miranda was cheated, his narrative continues, ‘fierce the night , they were ‘abandoned on a ship the rats had quit.‘ The text by Meredith Oakes, closely paraphrases Shakespeare’s, frequently sampling from him. So why doesn’t Adès use the original?
Eröd’s Prospero looks like a deranged hippy, his chest painted like a Red Indian’s, while Miranda (Houtzeel) sings of the storm with no wreckage . Why have you summoned such sorrow here? Whatever the text, Eröd and Houtzeel could hardly be bettered, although Eröd’s light baritone seems youthful, and to quibble, Houtzeel is a mature woman, albeit beautiful.
Now Ariel descends on a suspended balcony, singing some indescribable bird song. Audrey Luna’s Ariel is a phenomenon, in a supremely difficult role that requires acrobatic dexterity, both vocally and, physically, in the body language . A whole set of movements require acrobatic skills. And, vocally, the American coloratura soprano is superhuman (in ‘a part only three singers worldwide can handle.’) She modulates from animal to human, reporting to Prospero the fate of the castaways .’They must not be harmed: I wish them charmed,’ insists Prospero . Audrey Luna , in a glittering cat-suit, now sits on Prospero’s shoulders.
By contrast, Caliban, all in black, and wearing dark glasses- like a Japanese WW2 guerrilla stranded on a Pacific island (no disrespect)- rather punky , his head marked by orange streaks. Thomas Ebenstein’s tenor, for Caliban, has a surprisingly high range, but Ebenstein’s tenor is one of the highlights. He sings the story of his mother’s island. He came to save them ,’showed you all the island.’ And he slept by her (Miranda’s ) side : soon she’ll be having ‘little Calibans’ , he taunts. Prospero, enraged- ‘But if you loiter near my daughter’- threatens his superior magic –Filth that you are.
Ariel, have you revived them? Ariel floats by, as if swimming across the stage. ‘Bring him (Ferdinand) to me .’ – ‘Shall I be paid?’ Ariel, ‘twelve years his slave’, is soon to be free. ‘Five fathoms deep your father lies,’ Ariel’s ditty haunts Ferdinand.
Ferdinand, (Pavel Kolgatin), literally rolls on stage: he has ‘suffered a sea change.’ Kolgatin, black-haired, moustachioed, in a white suit, sings ‘as I sat weeping…’ – a gentle-voiced, a lyrical tenor . Miranda rolls on to join him. ‘Are you spirit, are you a shade?’ He thinks he’s the only survivor. She, Miranda , sings, ‘I never knew a man could look like you’ (-hardly comparable to Shakespeare’s ‘A thing divine, for nothing natural I ever saw so noble.’) Prospero, observing them from above, now intervenes , putting the brakes on their romance. ‘Is this your daughter,’ asks Ferdinand. ‘Stupid youth! What’s the use,’ replies Prospero in Oakes’ clumsy text.
Opening Act 2 , courtiers sumptuously dressed, cross the stage, trance-like. ‘Alive, awake! in some place, where the storm has left no trace.’ The men are in evening dress. Unusually (for the The Tempest ) the Court includes women, in long gowns. Improbable. Front of stage, Trinculo and Stephano, in the sub-plot, the drunken sailors in Caliban’s revolt against Prospero.
Prospero observes them all from on high. Ariel confirms Naples and his brother ‘all safe on land.’ Gonzalo, court philosopher, (the wonderful bass Sorin Coliban) counsels ‘Sir, be cheerful, don’t weep.’ (Your son is surely in good hands.) Coliban, huge physically, is distinguished in a smart blazer, with a flower in the lapel- a Wilde figure, mocked by the courtiers (for his botanical interest in the strange island.) In his portrayal of Naples, Herbert Lippert, a very fine tenor, sings movingly , ‘Oh, hear me, Ferdinand, I should have died not you.’ The courtiers fall out amongst themselves, egged on mischievously by Ariel.
In the sub-plot, Caliban mistakes Stephano and Trinculo, for gods ‘dropped from heaven.’ Now Ebenstein’s Caliban , squatting, in a black, distressed, feathery material, looks simian, chimpanzee-like. Looking on, entertained by this freak of nature, are the courtiers overhead. Caliban, (paraphrasing Shakespeare’s great soliloquy,) sings, Friends don’t fear, the island’s full of noises … like playing a thousand instruments.’ Beautifully sung by Ebesntein’s lyrical tenor, and very moving. He sees innumerable riches , then ‘I wake and cry to dream again.’ The stage appears like an enchanted forest.
We see the sailors and Caliban running off with the sunken ship’s booze. We see Ferdinand strung up -a Christ-like figure -singing, lamenting the dream he’s had; only the thought of Miranda comforts him. (Prosaic lyrics.) Miranda approaches him : she sings, ‘Why do I weep,’ Houtzeel’s performance is a triumph. Movingly, she cuts him free. They embrace, begin to make love. Prospero looks on omnisciently, but he’s perplexed, disconcerted. He’s a magician, faith-healer, but , he laments, he cannot rule their minds. Theirs is ‘a stranger power than mine’, he sings.
Act 3, the stage is now dominated by a four-storey scaffold of silver tubing. Side of stage, Eröd’s Prospero, wearing a full-length great coat with medals of office- but still bare-chested- like an exiled general directing a battle scene.
The courtiers occupy all four levels, suggesting plotting amongst them: the conspiracy of Sebastian and Antonio to kill the sleeping King. Fantastically choreographed (Crystal Pike) , Ariel’s nymphs (Ex Machina dancers) unearth a magical banquet. Ariel swoops down in a harness, sprouting huge cactus-like claws. They draw their swords, challenging these spirits. Gonzalo cautions , what they did years ago has come back to haunt them now.
Prospero descends, ‘Souls in torment make your payment! He sings, in his aria, of the feats his magic has performed: ‘With my art I’ve dimmed the sun, broken Jove’s stout oak.’ But ‘Pride, pride, I’ll down my books, break my stave. I’ll rule in Milan beyond my grave’ deferred to closure. (Shakespeare’s ‘This rough magic I here abjure’ soliloquy, deemed his farewell to theatre, is broken up.)
Ariel sings of his feat, the spell works; and -beholding their suffering- ‘My heart would break if I were human. Mine did.’ Prospero confronts his brother and the court of Milan, and rights their injustice to him. Cleverly staged, Ferdinand and Miranda watch a projection of the courtiers, the wrongdoers. Now despair is past, reconciled at last, Eröd sings movingly, Prospero lamenting his lifework is nothingness. ‘Our revels are ended …the globe itself dissolve. Nothing stay, all will fade. ‘ (Shakespeare’s Act IV soliloquy truncated.)
In the subplot, a grotesque caricature of the Court intrigue, we glimpse the absurd sight of Caliban, dressed regally in a red cloak, with his ‘retainers’. To be brought down by Prospero’s magic forces. For the closure, it’s Caliban , left on the island, who has the last words. ‘They were human seeming’. Caliban, magnificently sung by Ebenstein, balances precariously on a tightrope ledge, his aria echoed by unearthly, celestial voices.
This cast is outstanding. Audrey Luna’s Ariel is a miracle. The staging is effective, if mystifying (the tiered opera house backdrop.) But I wanted to tell everybody in the interval -this is not Shakespeare’s text. (But how many native German speakers would know the difference. And how many English/Americans have seen, or read the play?) I may have my doubts about Adès’ opera -but there’s no denying the success of this, Robert Lepage’s, production. Conductor Adès and his opera were enthusiastically applauded by a full house. PR. 27.06.2015 ©
Photos: Adrian Eröd (Prospero) and Stephanie Houtzeel (Miranda); Audrey Luna (Ariel) and Adrian Eröd (Prospero); Herbert Lippert (King of Naples)and Sorin Coliban (Gonzalo); Thomas Ebenstein (Caliban)
© Wiener Staatsoper /Michael Pöhn

Hindemith’s Cardillac

Why this obsession of 20th century modernist operas with social outsiders, criminals, anti-heroes (like Berg’s Wozzeck, or Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Minsk.) In Paul Hindemith’s Cardillac, it’s a serial killer -but a goldsmith operating in the upper social milieu in 1920s Paris.
Hindemith’s music is quirky, with sharp woodwind, and lots of brass. But don’t be put off: it isn’t atonal or dissonant , ( rather, at times , like a 1930s/40s dramatic film soundtrack.) Opening with a chamber orchestra, ( Vienna State Opera orchestra conducted by Michael Boder), there are exotic instruments, and controversially, premiered Germany 1926 , the tenor saxophone is identified with Cardillac. Hindemith’s work was banned in in Nazi Germany (1933) as Bolshevist.
Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production is to marvel: the staging (Rolf Glittenberg) could be out of a German expressionist film set- Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or Nosferatu. Lopsided buildings in silhouette, skyscrapers at night , the effect of nocturnal gloom. Black clad bürgers (citizens) swarm the stage; the men in top hats, the women in long dresses: all in black, menacingly. They recall the respectable German middle classes caricatured by the painter George Grosz. But these are like vultures. The chorus of people threaten, if we come across a dead man in the street, we rage; there’s a murderer amongst us. They’ll seize him; force him to confess (ten, thirty , a hundred victims.) Anyone who laughs betrays himself. The crowd make way for the Provost, accompanied by two goose-stepping dignitaries in white masks. The new court has been set up, the ‘Burning Chamber’: redolent perhaps of National Socialism, (although the location for Cardillac is Paris.) The dark conformity (with its fascist overtones) is the background to the ‘individualism’, albeit amoral, of Cardillac, the renegade criminal.
Zur Tagesarbeit! An die Gewerke! A huge clock, centre stage, defines the lives of these modern slaves, the workers. Society, as in Chaplin’s film Modern Times , is a production line.
Cardillac is identified; they let him through. The Lady (Olga Bezsmertna ) sings she’s heard people talk about him, Cardillac, at court. She’s accompanied by the Cavalier (Gentleman) , Matthias Klink, who’s astounded by her beauty. Klink is a creepy , grotesque figure in black, thin as a rake , in white trousers. Klink, spindly, an Edward Scissorhands prototype, stands, waving her two fans (the decorative type.) He explains to her why Cardillac is treated with reverence, held in awe: he’s the goldsmith, but all who buy his jewellery are murdered. There’s always someone attracted by their beauty and murdered. (Paris suffers under a surfeit of crime, she comments, nonchalantly.) ‘Do you love me?’ she sings. – ‘More than my life.’ The deal is, he must bring her ‘the most beautiful piece Cardillac has ever made.’ Then she will be his.
In Scene 2, red drapes enclose the Lady (Bezsmertna) laid out decadently on an oval, black velvet pedestal. Bezsmertna, wearing a louche, black-feathered dress, sings ,in her aria, Die Zeit vergeht; Rose zerfiel : time passes, the rose has withered. ‘I want to be beneath him!’- Bezsmertna sensuous, erotic- will assuage her passion. On the screen behind her, a shadow waves her fans. She joins him; she accepts the belt he’s stolen; he lays it on her plinth, and starts to make love to her. The phantom shadow of a top-hatted figure looms over them; drums pound ominously.
Cardillac, Tomasz Konieczny, is sitting at his desk , behind him an elaborate antique cabinet. Mag Sonne leuchten! Let the sun shine: far beneath the earth, is created the gold that he’s now forging . Konieczny, that superlative bass-baritone, heard here recently as Wotan, from some such dark place,(Wagner’s Ring .) Konieczny has a rich sonority, like a long -matured wine, with complex notes.
Behind him could be Wagner’s ‘Mime’: Wolfgang Bankl’s long, white-haired gold dealer. As Cardillac shows him his stock, Bankl sings, his hands shaking, all his ill-fated customers are spirited away as if by the plague. Konieczny replies, What I create belongs to me. (Bankl will eavesdrop on the evil spirit in the deep of night.)
The Daughter (Angela Denoke) is alone, in a brilliantly lit ‘closet’, at the goldsmiths; red-haired, in a long gown, she holds a baby doll. Denoke, the most expressive of sopranos, her raw emotion well suited to classic modern roles, sings of how she was carried away in passion. She promised to flee with the Officer, whose car is waiting. But she takes back her promise. Nicht ganz gehör ich dir…halb nur. She’s torn, she’s loath to leave her father. She sees her father in his work like God in the act of creation. ‘Why do you caress your gold, and not me,’ she reproaches him. But Cardillac doesn’t try to hold back his daughter: he’s obsessed by the jewellery he’s creating.
So when the Officer (Herbert Lippert) buys a chain from him, Cardillac is compelled to kill him to repossess the piece; he cannot bear to be separated from his creations: with each new piece, he is rejuvenated.
And, when, in a bizarre scene, the workshop is visited by the King, Cardillac sings, what he creates is worthy of a king , yet is loathe to part with anything. He demands the King (Alexandru Moisuc), diminutive , exotically dressed, accompanied by a skeletal, vampire-like figure, returns the chain he’s chosen. Cardillac eventually,retracts, offering it reluctantly. But he would have murdered him.
In the denouement , Cardillac attacks the Officer (tenor Lippert) , but is unsuccessful, and the gold merchant, who connects Cardillac with the murders, raises the alarm.
The stage reverts to the stunning, atmospheric Metropolis – on a table in the corner, card players are mechanicallyh knocking back drinks like robots. Hovering over the city- more New York than Paris- is a gold neon top hat. The Officer, dangling the necklace (for Denoke ) is strangled with it by Cardillac, who stabs him- blood everywhere. Cardillac, accused as the culprit, a ghostly Konieczny protests, ‘it is heaven’s will he continue his work.’
The crowd’s movements are stylised- like mechanical puppets. Disrupt the night with drunken songs, the people’s chorus sing. Cardillac , at first disguised amongst the black, crow -like figures, defends the murderer, whom he knows. ‘His secret will be mine.’ But when they threaten to seize , and run amok, in his goldsmiths, he confesses. Ich war’s, ich bin’s : must his original creations die, while he lives?
They close in on him in a ritual mass stabbing. Too late, the Officer, his son-in-law, defends Cardillac : ‘Don’t you understand, he was the victim of a holy delusion.’ Denoke begs him to wake up, tries to revive him. We know everything, and love you regardless, she pleads. Konieczny stands, statue-like, wearing a gold hat, turned to stone. A hero has died , proclaim the crowd. He is sanctified, he knows no fear of men, they sing. It’s as if Hindemith (and librettist Ferdinand Lion) are honouring this Nietschian super-mensch – this anti -bourgeois figure. Ist er doch sieger und ich beneide ihn . He is victorious, and I envy him, sings the Officer. Centre-stage, on a pedestal, the monumental figure of Konieczny’s Cardillac , gold hat, gold gloves, holding a necklace. P.R. 25.06.2015
Photos: Olga Bezsmertna (the Lady) and Matthias Klink (the Cavalier); Tomasz Konieczny (Cardillac)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte

Mozart’s Così fan tutte , his third masterpiece with librettist da Ponte, is a cynical, but moving, comedy about sexual infidelity. Don Aldonso , world-wise, a misogynist, wages a bet with two idealist young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that their women, the two sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella , will betray them within 24 hours. In Don Alfonso’s plot, the two officers are called to arms; but they return as foreign gentlemen. The men , exotically disguised, and assisted by the maid Despina, trick their women -threatening suicide – into making love, each with the other’s partner. The ‘former’ lovers return in uniform , the women exposed, the ‘right’ couples are re-united. A problematic reconciliation. But Mozart’s serene music smoothes over the turbulent passions beneath the surface.
Vienna Volksoper’s new production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte (directed by Bruno Klimek) opens on a stark black and white stage (design Hermann Feuchter): a black sliding partition, the floorboards bleached white. Klimek’s appears to be a framing narrative: are they students filing in, as the overture is playing? In fact, we’re observing a dress rehearsal, ‘directed’ by Don Alfonso (Mathias Hausmann) in black, his assistant Despina (Rebecca Nelsen) in black/white checked shirt.
But it’s confusing: they’re reciting from texts/scores, but in the opening scene, parrot fashion. This is not helping us to understand this key scene, in which Don Alfonso engages Ferrando and Guglielmo in an argument about the fidelity of women. Each (Guglielmo , baritone Josef Wagner, Ferrando, tenor Jörg Schneider) insists his beloved is faithful; each has his woman on his lap. They guarantee they’ll always love their partners: everything else is slander. And hence Don Alfonso’s wager. The soldiers (casually dressed,) are called away.
A rail of dresses is wheeled on . The sisters Fiordiligi (Caroline Wenborne ) and Dorabella (Dshamilja Kaiser) strip off . Mercy, we’re to have a costume drama after all! Both women are now in creamy white , full-length gowns. Gradually, the ‘period’ costumes take over, the rehearsal reading from scores phased out.
The sisters, Wenborne and Kaiser, are outstanding out of a solid cast. Musically, there is little to quibble about .The very competent Volksoper Orchestra was conducted by experienced Mozartian Julia Jones.
Their men bemoan their having to leave: all rhetoric, like baritone Josef Wagner’s Guglielmo’s singing, Cruel Fate! it breaks his heart . Ferrando (tenor Schneider),’his words fail him.’ The Chorus, like a motley group of music students, sing of the glories of being a soldier.( Volksoper Chorus are good: but not as smooth as could be.)
The sisters excel bemoaning their departed lovers. Drooling over their first love, both arias seem exaggerated. Dorabella, (Smanie implacabili), sings of her soul torn asunder, and launches energetically into a suicide fantasy: adolescent, but sincere. Fiordiligi (Wenborne) repeats, like rock, she remains steadfast (Come scoglio ): but, repeated twenty times , betrays her vulnerability.
In Mozart’s sublime trio, the sisters joined by the scheming Don Alfonso , all are apparently singing in harmony; but, ironically, backstage, a couple of likely lads stand in civvies.
Despina, Rebecca Nelsen (now stylishly dressed) advises the sisters don’t insult your virtue. Well sung, Nelsen’s explosive, charismatic personality makes her the focus of the opera’s comedy, (later coming on in brilliant red disguised as a ‘notary’ for the bogus marriage.)
Despina , in the opera, is in cahoots with Alfonso . Here Alfonso kisses her. They’re a little like dark figures out of Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the seducer Valmont and the ‘virtuous’ Madame de Touvel being from the same time as Così fan tutte (1790).
The ‘absent soldiers’ now reappear dressed in white robes and head pieces, like Turks (or Albanians, as meant here.) Ferrando sings, Don’t be coy . Josef Wagner is rather good in Guglielmo’s aria extolling the fidelity of love, tenderly embalming the soul.
The ladies being slow to take up their advances, they feign to have taken poison out of unrequited love. Now disguised (in brilliant green surgeon’s robe!) , Despina ‘saves’ the two lovers – Nelsen with stunning high notes – assisted by the two ladies’ kisses. The imposters are lying flat out. They awake; their hearts are pounding; are they in heaven? But the men are again repulsed in a superbly choreographed ensemble.
The Volksoper stage curtain (lifted on Act 2) is a most splendid tapestry, ‘1848- 1898’. A taste of what we’re missing- beauty, imagination, fantasy- in this monochrome staging. By now, virtually the whole cast are in black, but there are clever interchanges between black and white, when the couples swop partners.
But the singing is of a high standard. Especially Nelsen’s Despina who exhorts these ladies not to take everything so seriously : they must be nonchalant, dissimulate with false smiles, false tears; thus command both men and women. Nelsen is super-talented, with fabulous coloratura and bubbling vitality.
And Wenborne (who sang Dorabella at Staatsoper in January 2014) is exceptional as Fiordiligi. In her Act 2 aria (Per pieta ben mio), she sings excusing herself for the treachery of love : what scandal and shame, hidden in the shadows. Wenborne, accompanied by woodwind and horn, was genuinely moving.
Ferrando, who boasts to Guglielmo of Dorabella’s faithfulness, is trumped by his friend, waving a locket with Dorabella’s picture. ( They’ve exchanged lockets as tokens of love.) Guglielmo (Josef Wagner), in his aria , sings passionately, Women, they deceive us all, all, (Donne mie, la fate e tanti.). He plays with, dangles, Dorabella’s locket. They betray us all, he repeats: Why, you know why? he asks.It’s all, by our ( 21st century) standards, uncomfortably misogynistic. Ferrando sings of how he feels betrayed, mocked, lied to by her. Schneider is a fine tenor , but perhaps a little too forte (for Mozart.)
But what of the women’s feelings, how they have been betrayed? Fiordiligi is trying to escape from her new lover Ferrando, who prevents her; while Dorabella is enjoying her ‘new love’ Guglielmo.
In the finale , Don Alfonso advises , what else can they all do but marry their deceiving women. Così fan tutte : that’s what all women do, they’re all like that. (The two new couples promise to marry- in a bogus ceremony, before a notary in disguise (Despina). A drum roll announces the ‘officers’ return. Don Alfonso explains the wager, and attempts to bring the previous couples back together. But the reconciliation is problematic.
A better comedy they’ve never seen, gloat the conspirators, Alfonso and Despina. The Chorus sing of Cruel Fate; a thousand cruel thoughts; Heaven help us. The women excuse themselves, they were enticed by Alfonso. But they sing, if that was true love, they’ll give anything for it. In the closure, it’s an understatement to say ‘the parties don’t find it easy to go back to their original relationships’. Rather like the characters’ awakening after Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Chorus sing, he’s lucky, who can see the funny side: with composure.
After the disorientation of the opening- director Klimek’s unnecessarily irritating framing device- the production settles down. And whatever happened to the ‘rehearsal’? Who cares. It might put some off a musically distinguished rendering of Mozart and Da Ponte’s very sophisticated opera; complicated enough. Also, be warned , this is a German version of the opera (Kurt Honolka), against the usual Italian . Perfectly acceptable. But why are the sub-titles also in German, not English? P.R. 18.05.2015
Photos: Dshamilja Kaiser(Dorabella), Rebeca Nelsen (Despina), Caroline Wenborne (Fiordiligi); Josef Wagner (Guglielmo) and Joerg Schneider (Ferrando)
(c) Barbara Palffy/ Volksoper Wien

Verdi’s Nabucco

What seems like a documentary black/white photo tableau comes to life to show the Vienna stage lined with Nazi war refugees carrying suitcases , and with Hebrew text projected onto a screen. Vienna State Opera (director Günther Krämer ) has transposed Verdi’s opera Nabucco ,about the Israelites’ struggle under their Assyrian oppressors, to a twentieth century context. (Nabucco, King of the Assyrians, has occupied Jerusalem, the last Israelites are holed up in the Temple; Nabucco’s own daughter held hostage, rescued by the Jew Ismaele, her once captive lover.)
Another modern-dress production? Here, why not. Nabucco’s subject is of a people downtrodden by alien political masters. And surely Verdi intended the opera as an allegory for the Italian Risorgimento against its foreign occupying powers, (especially Hapsburg Austria.)
In the first Act , the stage is dominated by a black -veiled screen , which fills up with Hebrew script, as if running a biblical commentary to what’s happening on stage. Verdi peppers the ominous events with a love interest. Nabucco’s daughter Fenena , captured by the high priest, had once helped Ismaele escape from Babylon where Abigaille, Fenena’s jealous sister, had held Ismaele. That Fenena herself is now rescued by Ismaele triggers the love intrigue. Blocking the Priest’s attempt to kill her, Ismaele flees with Fenena , but is spurned by his own people. Ismaele is torn between love and kindred loyalty, a familiar theme in Verdi.
Abigaille, in her scheming a Lady Macbeth figure, later usurps her sister Fenena, made Babylonian ruler in Nabucco’s absence. For Abigaille, ‘the throne is much more than the loss of a father.’ Abigaille is powerfully sung by Maria Guleghina, a formidable physical presence, her soprano in magnificent voice.
Opening Act 3, the Hebrew script fades away, as if to resemble tears falling- a pathetic fallacy for the tears of the Israelites. With Abigaille Queen, the Jews are again in captivity. Israel must die, demands Assyria’s high priest, a death warrant for the Jews.
Now for Nabucco’s famous chorus , Va pensiero , my beautiful homeland is lost, where the sweet breezes gently flow… After its sensational success in 1842, Va pensiero became a symbol of the national hopes of the Italian people, Verdi a prophet of the Risorgimento. (The Prisoners Chorus was to be an unofficial national anthem until 1862, when Italy’s independence was proclaimed. ) Nabucco became emblematic of patriotic theatre.
Krämer’s staging is particularly poignant. The chorus , dressed as refugees, hold up placards, showing enlarged photos of loved ones. And later, in Act 4, Nabucco (Zelijko Kucic) , symbolically lays these photos of war victims. ‘God of the Hebrews , forgive me !’, Nabucco exclaims, picking up photos as an act of contrition. (Nabucco undergoes a spiritual regeneration, repents his life , his attempted murder of an entire people.) Nabucco intercedes to prevent the further extermination of the Jews, and grants freedom to all. The Jews are urged to return to Israel and build a new life.
Verdi clearly used the Israelite/Assyrian narrative as political allegory. So updating Nabucco (slaves) to holocaust refugees is hardly inappropriate. (Vienna State Opera similarly used stateless Jewish refugees in Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron.) Manfred Voss and Peter Bucholz’ sets in Nabucco are no less effective: sombre in their simplicity, eschewing the sensational, (with no swastikas.) Left of stage, a glass cabinet exhibits gold treasures to represent the false gods of the Philistines (and ours.)

But there’s more to Nabucco beyond the biblical epic, with its contemporary political resonances; the monumental crowd scenes, the thrilling choruses. The intimacy in Verdi’s arias reveals something deeper. As in Aida, the characters’ personal torments are played out against the public spectacle. It takes exceptional singers to justify Verdi’s subtle characterisation, pointed up in Verdi’s score, (Vienna State Opera orchestra and choruses under specialist Jesus Lopez-Cobos.)
In the love triangle mezzo Monika Bohinec’s Fenena and tenor Carlos Osuna are routine -well sung , but dull. But Maria Guleghina’s Abigaille explodes on stage. In a brilliant blue silk gown, in her Act 1 aria: ‘Brave warrior, is love all you can fight for. What god will save you?’ Guleghina , a tremendous soprano, thunders, she will have her revenge: love is a fury, it’s life and death. Her ultimatum to Ismaele : ‘If you love me, I will save you people.’ But he rejects her, satisfied with his lot. ‘Save him, and leave me to my tears!’ she despairs. (In counterpoint, from personal lives to public epic, it’s announced the King has razed the temple.)
Nabucco, sung by Zelijko Lucic, no newcomer to the role, and frequently in Vienna, is the other outstanding performance. We hear said of Nabucco that, in his arrogance, he defies the whole world. Lucic, distinguished looking in a fur-collared coat, proclaims, Zion will perish in a bloodbath. This accursed people will be wiped out! Father have pity, Fenena pleads for Ismaele’s people.
But for Verdi (and librettist Temistocle Solera), there’s more to this tyrant than a case history of megalomania. End of Act 2, proclaiming the moment of wrath is approaching, Nabucco announcing he has overwhelmed the Babylonian god, commands ‘Worship me as your god!’ Lucic, standing on top of the showcase of holy treasures, seems to crumple up, as if struck by a thunderbolt. Vulnerably human, he beckons Fenena help him in his weakness: Why am I weeping, he sings.
Abigaille’s aria , opening Act 3, is a highlight of the opera. She opens her father’s letter revealing the secret that she is the daughter of a slave. A slave and worse! My fury shall fall on all of you , she threatens. She’ll destroy Fenena, her father, and all the Israelites. Then, Guleghina, seated on the stage, sings movingly, accompanied by a flute solo, she once knew happiness, love: she wept another’s tears, suffered another’s grief. And, heartrendingly- ending on an astonishingly high note- who will restore one single day of enchantment.
In the last Acts, Verdi depicts Nabucco sympathetically as a tragic figure. Abigaille, now acclaimed by the Babylonians, but blackmailed by the High Priest, demands all Jews be killed. Guleghina, perched over the religious treasures, orders, lock the old man in his room. Nabucco, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, is hounded out by a callous daughter.
The interaction of Guleghina and Lucic is gripping dramatically: operatically, their alchemy is on another level. Nabucco appearing unkempt, and still deranged, tries to re-impose his authority. (He orders Abigaille – Verdi’s music now subversively jocular- to ‘bow down before her master.’) But he’s tricked into signing the Jews’ death warrant. She now tears up his letter (proving her slaves’ descent.) Pity the shame of an old man, he sings plaintively, forgive a father’s foolishness: Deh pardona.
Nabucco, awakening dazed (Act 4), sings movingly of a terrible dream. He sees Fenena in chains , and realises he too is a prisoner. The white -haired Lucic covers his head in bewilderment. He bids forgiveness of the God Jehovah, Dio di Giuda! . Lucic is harrowing in his portrayal of the unruly king, driven mad, but humbled, penitent, seeing the world in a new light. Nabucco pleads ‘deliver me from suffering, and I will profess my faith in you.’ His mind begins to clear, his prayer answered. Nabucco arrives; Fenena and the condemned Hebrews are praying; we see a fire on stage; the statue of Baal crumbles to dust. Nabucco orders ‘O, Israel return to your native land!’
By contrast, Abigaille’s, death scene, to sparse orchestral accompaniment, is given an intimate intensity. Guleghina, dying poisoned, sings poignantly, begging forgiveness, fearing the Lord.
The cast, overall outstanding, were inspired by Jesus Lopez-Cobos’s conducting (Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Choruses.) The rousing choruses and expressive playing could hardly have been more authentic in Milan where Nabucco premiered. P.R. 14.05.2015
Photos: Monica Bohinec (Fenena) and Michele Pertusi (Zaccaria); Zelijko Lucic (Nabucco); Maria Guleghina (Abigaille)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper /Michael Pöhn

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale

Vienna State Opera’s Don Pasquale takes place in a night club. This, according to director Irina Brook, is to make Donizetti’s characters more accessible to modern audiences. ( She likes to tell stories in a language that she knows, ‘which is today.’) But where today do you find larger-than-life characters as Don Pasquale? Isn’t the result to make these ‘stock figures’ less plausible?
And the plot, stock comedy (opera buffa), is complicated enough. Don Pasquale, a rich, old bachelor, wants to marry off his nephew Ernesto for money. But Ernesto rejects the arrangement, prefers the poor ‘widow’ Norina. Now Pasquale wants to get married himself, and enlists his ‘friend’ Dr. Malatasta’. But Malatasta, in with Ernesto, contrives a complex scam, wherebye Pasquale marries the disguised Norina in a bogus marriage, to terrorise Pasquale.
Well, in spite of the objections of ‘traditionalists’ this modern updating works brilliantly. And the success of tonight’s production is attributable to the four leads: Michele Pertusi (Pasquale), Juan Diego Flórez (Ernesto) , Alessio Arduini (Malatasta), Valentino Nafornita (Norina). Although the characters derive from Italian improvisational theatre (commedia dell’ arte), Donizetti’s is more than buffo: “there is a sentimentality in the opera, a depth in the characters that make them capable of suffering” (argues conductor Jesús López-Cobos.)
Setting the scene , while the overture is playing, we see Ernesto and his girl (Norina) stealing in side of stage, Ernesto, (Flórez), taking a drink at the bar of the club (design Noëlle Ginefri-Corbel.) A butler in black deejay tears around frantically like a diminutive Basil Fawlty; and a long-haired drunk is ejected. Don Pasquale (Michele Pertusi) bald, paunchy, appears in a mauve smoking jacket. Pertusi’s acclaimed bass isn’t stretched vocally, but he’s very good as the put-upon comic figure. Dr. Malatasta (Alessio Arduini), tall, bearded , wearing a paisley coat- a wonderfully rich baritone- sings in his aria, (proposing Sofonia/Norina ), ‘She’s as pure as a lily in the spring.’ Meanwhile, he’s giving Pasquale – like a whale landed, a blubber of flesh- a massage.
Of the leads, virtuoso tenor Juan Diego Flórez is the real star. In his first aria- driven out by Pasquale, hopes of marrying Norina ruined – sogno soave e casto ‘, suffers while setting him free’. Flórez, very agile and physical, and with his stupendous tenor, is absolutely right for this serio/comic role. He’s an irrepressible bundle of energy.
In the change of scene to Norina’s boudoir -a surprise, like a dressmaker’s come designer boutique – Valentina Nafornita, in a baroque wig , is being dressed in a lavish blue silk gown, showing off her tall slender legs . She sings, breathtakingly, in her aria, how she has a thousand ways of winning her man, and will use any trick… Nafornita’s soprano effortlessly scales the top notes. She lands up on the sofa with her spinsterish maid. Then she proceeds to strip off layers, revealing herself down to her white bodice, posing like a lingerie model.
Her scene with Malatasta is a triumph, a comic tour-de force. Malatasta (Arduini) arrives to warn Norina of a change in plan: she is to entrap Pasquale, now Ernesto’s kicked out. Behind them a rail of outrageously expensive frilly gowns (costumes by Sylvie Martin-Hyszka), which Nafornita (Norina) samples. But Arduini also takes an interest in the dresses, and holding a brilliant yellow creation- trying it on- Arduini, bearded, looks not unlike Conchita Wurst. They, Nafornita and Arduini, strut around the stage as if enacting a cabaret number, planning their next strategy. Donizetti’s score, increasingly rhythmic- light and frivolous- increasing in tempo, reminiscent of a Rossini crescendo. Wonderfully idiomatic playing from Vienna State Opera orchestra under veteran Jesús López-Cobos.
There follows a haunting trumpet solo – one of the most beautiful in all opera- preceding Ernesto’s aria. Flórez, pouring a drink at the bar, bemoaning his fate, imagines himself betrayed by Malatasta and Norino. In his soulful lament, he prepares to go into exile (cercherò lontana terra). Cleverly staged, Florez sings accompanied by trumpet player (Gerhard Berndl) -as if in a blues club- playing from the next table.
After a make-over, Pertusi now in a wig, mustard suit and toning scarf, Don Pasquale is presented to ‘Sofronia’ (supposedly Malatasta’s sister.) Nafornita now appears all in black, as if fresh out of a convent, face huddled behind a veil. Pertusi’s Pasquale, mutton as lamb, increasingly ridiculous, tries to see behind her veil . Nafornita is quite something, and Pasquale has to be reassured she’s game. (‘She’s incomparably modest, created to make you happy.’) Pasquale preens himself, can’t wait, feels like a 20 year old again! ‘An unaccustomed passion consumes his heart’, (he even imagines the kids frolicking) . In the farce, Norina and Malatasta mock the idiotic Pasquale behind his back; besotted, he gullibly submits to a sham wedding sanctioned by a ‘notary’.
In Act 2 the bar’s had a refit, upholstered in leopard skin prints, the colour scheme candy pink. It looks like a set for La Cage aux Folles : as camp as blazes. There are designer bags all over the place. Sofronia (Norina) had condemned everything as out of date. From convent bride in black pigtails, Nafornita’s wearing a cerise glitter jacket, over leopard print, and shocking-pink leggings to match the décor. She’s forcing Pasquale into leopard’s paws slippers, and he’s helpless, stripped down to his underwear. ‘A hard lesson’ – nothing else will help: the only way to succeed, she sings. He tries to throw her out: ‘My poor boy, don’t be the tyrant and go to bed; sweet dreams grandpa!’ – Divorce! He’ll sue for a divorce: no marriage could be worse than this one, he sings. We see her holding him in an arm-lock, suffocating him with her pink boa. But he intercepts her note, a plot arranging a nocturnal rendezvous.
Now the club has been taken over, the chorus in brilliant colours like a pantomime. ‘The young bride has it her own way’, they sing. For Don Pasquale the pace is too much. E finita. He feels like a walking corpse, he sings. He’d sooner give Ernesto a thousand Norinas…Pertusi’s Pasquale, wonderfully enacted, the vain older lover, humiliated by scurrilous youth.
The highlight of the show is Ernesto’s serenading Norina, com’è gentil, gorgeously sung by Flórez, lamenting ‘How balmy is this April night; everything here is desire.’ Flórez is in a brilliant white suit, white scarf, like an Italian crooner – accompanied by a guitar player in black wearing a sombrero. Flórez -posing as if for a photo shoot -received wild applause.
Their duet ‘Tell me once again you love me (Tornami a dir che m’ami) is sublime. Nafornita’s now in a white, skin-tight raincoat, to match his white suit- but still in punky cerise tights. Such glorious music transcends the tinsel trappings. (Back of stage, surreal blue skies, glitter and feathers everywhere.) And in the farce, Pasquale appears in his mustard suit , waving a miniscule butterfly net, to catch them out. Norina and me under the same roof, never!
So Pasquale finally submits and offers Ernesto a rich dowry. The moral delivered by Norina: an old man who marries a young woman is not quite right in the head; and betokens woes without number. The ‘little monkey’ (Ernesto) has outwitted them all.
One ‘traditionalist’ critic rated the staging ‘course’ -compared to other Donizetti comedies here. If the alternative is stuffy ‘period’ costumes, I’ll go with this. It is over the top, but the high camp stage with pink palms and gold lights brings the comedy into the 20th century: transposing a defunct style (commedia dell’ arte) for modern audiences. It’s hugely enjoyable, hilariously funny. And neither the witty libretto (Donizetti with Giovanni Ruffini), nor Donizetti’s marvellous music have been compromised. P.R. 11.05.2015
Photos: Juan Diego Flórez (Ernesto), Valentina Nafornita (Norina) , Michele Pertusi (Don Pasquale); Valentina Nafornita (Norina); Juan Diego Florez (Ernesto); Valentina Nafornita (Norina/Sofronia). Featured image Alessio Arduini (Malatasta)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Minsk

If you’re expecting Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Minsk to be a version of Shakespeare’s you may be disappointed. (Verdi’s Macbeth faithfully followed the play.) ‘Lady Macbeth’ however is synonymous with the ruthless wife who will stop at nothing: whose lust for power transgresses all law and decency.
This Lady Macbeth, Katerina, comes from a poor family, marries rich provincial merchant Sinowi: a childless marriage. There’s a tyrannical father-in-law Boris to harass her. But the daily monotony is interrupted by the arrival of the servant Sergei. His vicious, lustful amorality spurs them on, firstly disposing of Boris, then, catching the adulterers, Sinowi.
Shostakovich’s opera was banned (1936) on Stalin’s authority: denounced (Pravda) as ‘muddle instead of music’,’deliberately discordant’, ‘its sexual naturalism vulgar’. Katerina’s selfish individualism appeared decadent and bourgeois. And in Shakespeare’s there are no sex scenes. Stalin was anti-intellectual, and a prude.
In Vienna State Opera’s minimalist design (Volker Hintermeier), there’s a bed on a sloping stage. Angela Denoke’s Katerina is lying flat-out on the parquet floor. She can’t sleep. Denoke sings, that morning she had tea with her husband and went to bed. Bored to death! Denoke, red-haired, wearing a grey slip, grasps bedclothes to her, as if yearning for a child, or a man.
Boris (Kurt Rydell) fat, hands in his pockets, enters menacing, bullying . Has she nothing else to do – Shostakovich’s music is dissonant, brutal- pulling away the bedclothes she’s holding. He blames her for her childlessness: she’s ice-cold, passionless. She retorts Sinowi is incapable of fathering: impotent. Boris, the patriarch, is on his knees, pleading; then makes a pass; rebuffed, orders get the poison ready for the rats.
Sinowi (Marian Talaba) appears in a fur-collared overcoat: the chorus of servants lined up are sorry the master has to go away. Make sure she doesn’t forget me: Shostakovich’s trombones are almost laughing with derision. Talaba, a lyrical tenor, here under-powered, sings ‘Be sure no one seduces her.’ Sergei, Misha Didyk, blonde-haired, late 30s, in a light grey suit, slouches insolently. Sergei has a reputation with other men’s wives.
Highly expressionist music, played with passion, and great attention to detail, especially from the woodwind: Ingo Metzmacher, conducting Vienna State Opera orchestra, debuted here 2009 with Matthias Hartmann’s production. A woman is being raped in a washing tub-her clothes stripped-off, thrown up in the air. Sergei climbs in. It’s an ugly, frightening scene, but Denoke looks on spellbound. She rushes in, ‘You men think a lot of your services: women have to sacrifice their lives for their husbands.’ ‘Watch out, I’ll show you what a woman’s good for!’ Sergei- to a playful clarinet solo- pulls her, twists her arm: he wants to wrestle with her! Sergei’s (Didyk’s) face beams with mischief- evil lust. He’s wrestled Katerina to the floor- erotically close- until Boris intervenes . ‘What are we paying you for, louts’, as he disperses the servants looking on. Denoke is sitting on those sacks of rat poison front-of-stage. The music is bristling with a menacing vitality.
The bedroom: now there are silky white curtains back-of stage. Another day, no one to talk to, sings Denoke. A shadow looms. Time for bed, orders Boris: husband’s away, why keep the candles burning. In Katerina’s aria, she pleads, ‘Who will lovingly fondle my breasts; make love to me… ‘ Her life is ticking away without passion. Beautifully sung by Denoke with a sad tenderness. Now Sergei steals in, purposefully removing his boots. He climbs onto the illuminated bed, overlooking the sleeping Katerina lying on the floor. He’s lording it over her. Then they shadow each other, as if tangoing. He’s stronger than her, will tame her. -Stop it!- She’s afraid. (We see a couple dancing erotically behind the screen.) On the bed, they’re rolling beneath the bedclothes, and then rhythmically, to braying horns and trombones. ‘But Sergei! I am a married woman!’ Many women have said that, he laughs. And, insatiably, they’re doing it all over again.
So Katerina is the bored hausfrau. Her revolt is through sex. Katerina’s is that very modern plight, an existential crisis: not (yet) a mortal sin. Boris’s persistent sexual harassment -and his beating Sergei to an inch of his life- are the motive. Act 2 begins with Boris (Kurt Rydl’s richly expressive baritone) singing of how he’s feeling his age. He had a good life when he was young; and – kicking away the chair- Katerina needs someone to console her, (underlined by Shostakovich’s rudely burlesque wind instruments.) In the next scene Boris whips Sergei, the motion aped by the other servants, beating in time. (He may die on us, one sings.)
Later, Boris twiddles his cane at Katerina; he’s hungry, anything in the cellar? She offers more mushrooms.(Sergei is locked in the cellar.) As she serves, he pokes her skirt up with his cane. Mushrooms delivered , now she wields the cane. Boris falls off his chair, groping around in pain. He’s sinned, he confesses, but susses his was no natural death: only rats die like this when poisoned. ‘Who will take care of Sinowi when I’m gone?’ The men’s chorus kick their legs in a bawdy Russian dance.
A long orchestral interlude. In the bedroom , she dotes over Sergei , beckoning him to wake up. ‘Yes, kiss me ! Not like that! Till my lips hurt and the blood runs to my heart!’ Sergei reminds her husband is coming back. He’s sensitive! Wouldn’t he rather her married man? She’ll make a merchant of him. They’ll marry soon, she sings.
Denoke’s Katerina is languid; not strident, or grating. She emotes melancholy; suffers l’ennui , boredom. She’s no prototype Lady Macbeth, but relatively sympathetically depicted. Not the demonical ogre, but transgressive modern woman; hers is a crime of passion. She’s addicted to Sergei, but he, in turn, is a serial philanderer.
With her husband’s return- scored with urgent strings, strident flutes, ribald clarinets- Sinowi notices a man’s belt. (She ‘found it somewhere’.) She complains about the way he treats her; he threatens to beat her.- What does he know about love?- She’s tied him with the belt. Sergei creeps in, and soon they’re sitting on top of him, suffocating him. That’s that!- Sergei washing his hands- to the cellar with him.
They’ve taken over, Didyk in a black suit, Denoke in a stylish white gown. ‘We’re going to church now; everything will be alright, she sings . ‘Today is a our day, now and always. (Behind them white apple blossom.) But a drunken builder( Herwig Pecoraro) stumbles on stage singing his whole life’s a mess; Sergei was poor too ; why did Katerina take him, not me; and, looking for booze, finds Sinowi’s body in the cellar.
The scene in the police station is brilliantly satirical- one reason why the opera fell foul of Stalin’s censors. Bodies pop up, hit with truncheons as if they were puppets. ‘We are always on guard against vice’, they sing. An intellectual, roughed-up -smart coat, scarf, bespectacled, like Shostakovich- wonders why man has a soul and dogs not.
The wedding celebration – the couple seated above their carousing guests falling about, the priest swigging his bottle of vodka- is stormed by police thugs, eventually trampling the wedding banquet, kicking the food off.
Nothing prepares us for the final scene, the forced labour camp. The Gulag! Soldiers in greatcoats: wretched prisoners in threadbare, ragged clothing. ‘The road we travel in chains is never-ending and long,’ they sing. ‘Heat and cold torment us; no one has ever suffered like this.’ It’s deeply moving, totally unexpected. Katerina bribes a guard for vodka. She meets up with Sergei. But he reproaches her: your crime, have you forgotten it. She pleads for forgiveness, sings in her aria, it’s hard , when you’re used to luxury, the endless road is hard. But hardest to bear Sergei’s betrayal. We see Sergei making it with Sonietka (Monika Bohinec). He bribed the guard with money from the merchant’s wife, he boasts: can’t bear the sight of her. (But Sergei goes back to con Katerina for her stockings.) In a truly harrowing scene, women taunt her, the merchant’s wife, as they pull off her clothes. Katerina’s aria sings of a lake deep in the woods where the water is black, ‘black as my conscience’. Denoke, irradiated, motionless, is pointing up to the sky. She’s lost her mind. We see her staring into a cavern, and pushing herself and her adversary in. Both drowned. ‘When will the suffering end…’
The opera was banned by Stalin not because Shostakovich’s music was inaccessible- allegedly bourgeois, degenerate- but rather because the political message implied was unacceptable. P.R. 14.3.2015
Photos: Angela Denoke (Katerina) and Kurt Rydl (Boris); Angela Denoke with Misha Didyk (Sergei) and Kurt Rydl (Boris) ; Angela Denoke (Katerina); Featured image Angela Denoke
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Halévy’s La Juive (The Jewess)

Halévy’s La Juive (1835), in its melodramatic plot depicting Jewish goldsmith Eléazar and his daughter Rachel, attests to the anti-Semitism prevailing in 19th century Europe. In spite of French Jew Halévy’s sympathetic account of Jewish life, it’s as if these Jews must be doomed to a horrific ending. And Halévy’s opera was located in 15th century Constance, perhaps not to offend 19th society’s sensibilities. It is a shocking irony that nearly two centuries on- after the Holocaust –La Juive is no less relevant.
The set, at first a grid of black/white window panels, promised something radical. Men’s chorus in cream jackets and shorts, black and white braided hats, show off their legs and quaint socks; they looked ridiculous waving little white flags. Behind them women in brilliant white frilly dresses-like a (Persil) washing powder ad. But they are stylised, caricatures of bourgeois self-righteous believers. Prince Léopold has defeated the Hussites, and Mayor Ruggerio (Gabriel Bermudez) has decreed everybody celebrate. But not the Jew Eléazar. Bermudez hears loud clinking from Eléazar’s jewellers. He will be punished.
‘What do you want of my life?’ Neil Shicoff’s Eléazar, grey-bearded, formal black suit, white shirt, wearing a coppel, is the archetypal Jew. Since (director Günter Krämer’s) La Juive premiered in 1999 at Vienna State Opera, Shicoff has made Eléazar his life’s role, personalising the gait, mannerisms and vocal intonation. ‘Jew, you should be put to death!’ threatens the Mayor. His execution will be a double attraction for the festivities. ‘I am a son of Israel, so I do not obey Christian laws.’ He’s defiant: his innocent sons died, burned at the stake. Shicoff, after severe laryngitis, is back on form.
Cardinal Brogni (Dan Paul Dumitrescu, physically imposing in white vestments) asks ‘What is their crime?’-‘They dared work today.’ Dumitrescu’s immense bass against Shicoff’s melodious tenor, he asks Eléazar his name. ‘The name is not unknown to me.’-‘Most likely.’ Back then in Rome Brogni wasn’t a priest. ‘Silence! Respect a father’s suffering.’ (He lost everything, God is all he has left.) But Eléazar will be avenged of the judge who banished him. ‘You are a freeman, let us be friends.’ Brogni pleads forgiveness (for the harm done him.) He stands left of Shicoff, who is sitting, dignified, unconcerned, all in black, his legs crossed. Rachel (Olga Bezsmertna) stands to his right in a simple black dress. ‘No mercy is the law by which I abide’, interjects Shicoff. Shicoff’s black overcoat is besmirched with yellow paint from the Star of David daubed on the window.
In Léopold’s aria, ‘Far from his sweetheart, absence brings pain’ Jason Bridges, wholesome looking, his divinely lyrical tenor, defies the intrigue and hypocrisy later uncovered. Rachel sings of that voice dear to her heart. (They duet each side of a panelled window.)
The screen rises to rows of silly chorus waving their flags, singing a drinking song. The Jews marginalised, huddled side-of-stage to see the pageant, Eléazar and Rachel are arrested. ‘The impertinence! A Jew sheltering in the Church doorway!’- ‘Follow the example of the Lord who threw the Jews out of the Temple.’- ‘Show them no mercy; into the lake!’ sing Chorus. Shicoff is fending off rows of ‘believers’ armed with their chairs. Léopold intervenes secretly, the prisoners released. (They’re bemused that these soldiers obey and bow before him.)
The black/white screen is raised to reveal a dazzling white sloping ramp, dominated by a huge chandelier. The clergy are in brilliant white. Léopold is seen with his fiancée and children. Shicoff’s Eléazar and Rachel are front of stage.
The Jews, in the colour-coding, wear black. The upper stage, brilliantly-lit, overlooks the gloom of Eléazar’s quarters’ predominantly black furnishings: the underclass, socially excluded.
So for Act 2’s Passover meal, authentically described, these Jews are underground, beneath the stage floor. Shicoff leads the service like a cantor. ‘If betrayal or pretence appear amongst us, punish the deceitful offender!’ Léopold is amongst the guests, disguised as Samuel. He’s offered the matzos unleavened bread, and refuses; Rachel, concerned, wants an explanation.
There’s a knocking outside. The Seder disappears. (Overlooking them, the glittering social milieu of Léopold.) Léopold’s fiancée Eudora (Hila Fatima) enters to order jewellery. Léopold (Bridges) sings his thoughts : ‘What a hopeless future-tormented by remorse.’ His Eudora sings of Léopold’s tenderness, and casts down paper bills in payment. Front of stage, Eléazar, what a pleasure to deceive these Christians!
The Seder table is reset. (Shicoff is wearing tephillim : the minion of ten men in black coats and hats, authentic!) Léopold approaches from the white upper stage. Il viendra : her heart beats, not with joy but fear. Léopold confesses he’s deceived her. Je suis Chrétien!– ‘Then, when she gave herself to him -an affront to her father and her honour – she was also reviling God! Very powerful rendering from Bezsmertna, an expressive soprano. Yet, he sings, he can only be happy with her.- ‘But your laws condemn us!’- For him, what does it matter, Jew or Christian, he’ll adore her.
Eléazar returns and confronts them, accusing Léopold of abusing his hospitality. (At first willing to let him go; but when Léopold confesses he’s a Christian, will kill him.) Shicoff pins Léopold to the table as if to perform a sacrificial rite. Rachel restrains him, moves him to forgiveness. Yet Léopold refuses Eléazar’s offer he marry Rachel: marriage is impossible because Rachel is a Jewess. Like Shylock, the Jew slighted by gentile, Eléazar vows revenge.
Rachel’s confrontation (Act 3) with her rival, on discovering she’s been deceived, is another highpoint for Bezsmertna. The scene is all the more effective for Eudora’s own innocence. (Soprano Hila Fatima sings, with dazzling trills, of a wonderful dream.) In a festivity in Léopold’s house, Eléazar and Rachel bring the pendant ordered. Léopold has to lean before his betrothed. (Thus Rachel uncovers his real identity.) Rachel accuses Léopold publicly of perjury, and of living with her, a Jewess, as his concubine. And she’s culpable: ‘Do you not know me!’ Léopold sings of the tomb opening for her and for him. Is the stake only for Jews? Léopold is unable to defend himself. Cardinal Brogni accuses all three ‘joined in a fearful alliance.’
Yet (Act 4) Rachel yields to Eudora’s plea, and as a Jewess saves the Christian. Eudora has Rachel brought before her, Eudora pleading from the lower stage. Should she allow him to live, when the poor Jewish girl’s heart is broken, (Bezsmertna poignantly). But ‘it will never be said a Christian is superior to a Jew’. May God keep him: movingly, Rachel bids her live in peace.
In a scene pivotal to the intractable opposition between Christian and Jew, Cardinal Brogni attempts to persuade Eléazar to recant his beliefs and be baptised. Shicoff walks onto an empty stage . Dumitrescu sings, ‘By renouncing his faith, he alone can pull her from the flames!’- ‘Did I hear right?’ Renounce the faith of his fathers? No he would rather die.- ‘The God who calls you is fearsome, yet he abandons your people to ignominy.’ Brogni,’Then you want to die?’- ‘Yes, it is what I hope for!’ But he wants revenge on a Christian; to condemn Brogni to eternal suffering.
In the opera’s greatest aria, Eléazar is tormented with doubts whether he should allow Rachel to die with him: sacrificing her for his revenge. Preceded by lilting clarinets, Shicoff, with heartfelt power and poignancy, sings when God gave Rachel to him, he devoted his life to her. But he hears her voice calling, save me from death. Shicoff, almost crooning with emotion, is on his knees pleading. Shicoff drew on the reserves of his legendary tenor, matured with experience. He brought the house down: a veritable sensation! Endlessly extended applause.
Both condemned; and Léopold? Rachel testifies she falsely accused him.
Peur, j’ai peur. O, horrible doubt; should I save her. But she requests her father’s prayers. Shicoff’s Eléazar wavers; what should he do. Stop: Arrête! Rachel, I will die. Do you want to live?- ‘Without you?’- ‘Will you be baptised by Christ?’- ‘I should become a Christian? Never!’
About to die, Eléazar reveals his secret to Brogni: Rachel is no Jewess, she is his adopted daughter and Brogni her actual father. Thus Halévy’s problematic ending is a testament to the inextinguishable power of faith, Jewish faith. All must die, defiant. In Halévy’s La Juive, both drown in a vat of burning oil. Here (in Günter Krämer’s scheme) horrific red figures in executioners peaked hats storm the stage. (Below, the people’s Chorus turn their heads away.)
The whole production, with Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus under Frédéric Chaslin, was a triumph. And especially for Neil Shicoff, celebrating his 60th, and forty years performing on the Vienna stage. P.R. 7.03.2015
Photos: Neil Shicoff (Eléazar); Rachel (Olga Bezsmertna); Neil Shicoff (Eléazar)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Bellini’s I Puritani (The Puritans)

An Italian opera about the English Civil War? Bronze heads, decapitated, like war trophies, line each side of Vienna State Opera’s stage. The Chorus, Cromwell’s soldiers, sing, Wake up dawn is breaking; trumpets announce a new day; and an ominous drum roll signifies the beheading of Charles I. Thank God it’s period dress! We’ll raze the Stuart camp to ashes! ‘The moon, the sun and the stars give thanks to the Lord’ pre-empts the Puritans’ religious agenda.
‘So it’s all over,’ sings Sir Richard (Riccardo) Forth in fierce Roundhead uniform, all-black, skin-tight, studded leather, white collar. Yet Forth (magnificent baritone Carlo Alvarez) sings ‘Where can I flee to, where hide my terrible fear. In his aria, ‘Without hope and love what can life hold for me: Oh, Elvira, I have lost you forever.’ Lord Valton had promised him the hand of Elvira his daughter; now he knows she’s in love with ‘that Cavalier Talbo’. How tormenting is the memory of love on such a day of mourning: (ironically) sweet dream of happiness, peace and joy.
The historical setting may be the 17th Century English Civil War, but the sentiment of Bellini’s opera is full-blooded 19th Century Romanticism. I puritani is in the tradition of the 19th century romance: could be a blueprint for Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammemoor (based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel.)
Elvira (Olga Peretyatko) sings to her beloved Uncle, why is she so oppressed. Giorgio (incredible bass Jongmin Park) assures her she will be a bride. A bride? No never!! But he’s persuaded her father to let her follow her heart. Elvira’s is the voice of the free-spirited woman : pre-figuring Lucia, ‘if she’s dragged to the altar against her will, she will die.’
Now, preceding the wedding, the staging (Henry Balthes) is positively spectacular. Puritans dressed in black, with white lace collars and high hats, are each side of the stage: a scarlet-red silk clad figure, wearing a dandy red hat, back of the stage. Bellini’s music is surprisingly jaunty, up-beat. A te, o cara ,’Beloved, I once had to meet you in secret,’ sings (Arturo) Talbo, Canadian tenor John Tessier. Now he can stand at her side in joy and exultation. Tessier has a wonderfully lyrical tenor. He wears red in the colour-coding (costumes Jose Mannes Vasques)- Elvira is in black with white collar and long white wedding veil- emphasising the wedding of opposing factions.
Lord Valton (bass Sorin Coliban) a physically powerful figure with long white hair, is seen addressing ‘the female prisoner’. He leaves ‘the children’ to go on with the celebrations: may heaven unite the happy couple. Bellini’s lilting rhythms couldn’t be more Italianate.
Arturo sneaks away. The Prisoner and Arturo left alone, Enrichetta (Henrietta), sees pity and terror in his face. Henrietta, impressive mezzo Ilseyar Khayrullova has to be authoritative. ‘Too late! I am the wife of King Charles 1 and I too may be beheaded!’- ‘No your majesty, there’s still hope,’ he (Talbo)answers. She pleads he change his mind and think of the danger. ‘Don’t make me waver!’ He’ll save her. ‘Don’t talk about the one I love!’ Tessier, red-hot, is singing with full-blooded passion.
Then, preceded by astoundingly held high notes, breath-taking coloratura, Elvira approaches. ‘I am a pretty young woman in my bridal gown. Tell me you love me,’ she entices him. Then, innocently, she asks Henrietta to try on her veil. Henrietta, completely enveloped in white, is ‘as pretty as a bride.’ It’s a shocking irony, she, the widow of the be-headed King. She sings sadly, ‘Such a white veil is destined for an innocent head, not mine.’
‘Stop! Riccardo (Alvarez) almost leaps in, ‘You try to rob me of my of my greatest treasure!’ Not realising it’s the Queen shrouded, Riccardo challenges Arturo to a duel, Riccardo superbly sung by Alvarez. The irony now is that Riccardo, realising it’s the Queen under the veil, not Elvira, doesn’t mind Talbo fleeing: his rival got rid of. But Elvira sings franticly , where is Arturo? She’s stunned by his, she assumes, faithlessness.
In an unforgettable scene (reminiscent of Donizetti’s Lucia) , she stands in her shimmering white wedding gown, ravishing black hair trussed. ‘Elvira’s spirit is quite broken,’ sing Chorus. She imagines he’s looking at her, calling her his bride. ‘Is that Elvira?’ she sings disjointedly. Chorus sing ‘Shame! Come to your senses! She has lost her mind.’ Then, she, imagining Arturo has returned: Come closer: I shall live and die with you.
In a remarkable, moving ensemble, Bellini’s voices are in counterpoint: Elvira, O heaven have mercy; Ricardo, How I am moved by her tears, and Chorus (ominously) She will surely die of her sorrows.
Elvira sinks to her knees praying, behind her rows of Puritans in black. Riccardo sings, the longer he looks at her, the more he loves her and hates his rival. Elvira’s (Peretyatko’s) display of coloratura wavers. She staggers as if intoxicated, appearing to approach Riccardo; but recovers. A terrible fear consumes her. (But you flee from me. How cruel!) Distraught, she’s holding her head in her hands, encircled by Roundheads. Olga Peretyatko was a tour-de-force. Poignantly moving. If the scene seems familiar, Donizetti’s famous Lucia mad-scene came later (in 1835.)
In Act Two Elvira’s deterioration is observed by Riccardo and Giorgio sitting on a blackened stage. Preceded by Chorus lamenting how pitiful, the poor woman dying of grief, Giorgio’s aria is a highlight of the opera. Park sings powerfully of the poor girl festooned with flowers, her hair dishevelled. She asks ‘Where has Elvira gone’; repeats the wedding ceremony, and calls for Arturo.
A shaft of light : Elvira approaches as if blinded.O rendetemi la speme. Oh give me back my hope or let me die! She seems a plaintive, lost figure, her mind disjointed. It was here his voice called me, she sings, here that he swore to be true. Then singing of Riccardo, he is weeping -perhaps he is in love. A heart in love will always suffer. (If she cannot love she will take her life.) Peretyatko’s soprano flutters through effortless coloratura, high register secure. But never affected, natural. Giorgio questions Riccardo on the suddenness of Arturo’s death sentence. ‘If you kill your rival, his death will be followed by another.’ But the Royalist must die if he fights against them. In the finale showstopper Suoni la tromba , they sing to victory and honour.
Act 3, wonderfully colour-coded, low suspended lights bathe the terracotta stage in moonbeams. Arturo wears burgundy, his scenes red for passion: contrasting against the gloomy black and white scheme of Act 2. Tessier’s light lyrical tenor is well-suited to this quintessentially ‘romantic’ figure. He’s sitting in what seem autumnal forest leaves. In the dark night he can’t stop thinking of his homeland. He lies, languishing poetically. Now wandering into the ‘forest’, Elvira : he hears, accompanied by a harp, the troubadour’s song. A una fonte affitto e solo. ‘A troubadour sat sad and lonely by a fountain and sang of love.’ He picks up her refrain. They’re like a couple in a Victorian pre-Raphaelite painting: all romantic ardour. Did she not know it was the Queen, in great danger. They’re embracing, lying front of a stage blossoming with colour. Then Elvira holds her head in pain, distraught as the Puritans invade the stage. She sings, her words disembodied, ‘Believe me Arturo, she cannot love you.’ He sings, the poor girl believed she was betrayed. Tessier’s tenor is so high it’s almost falsetto.
The Stuarts defeated! The prisoners pardoned. The loving couple are under a spotlight: another side of stage a brooding Riccardo. Then suddenly he approaches and thrusts his sword right through his rival. Elvira sings ,’I feel how one heart is not enough to rejoice.’ Completely out of her mind, disengaged from reality.
Marco Armiliato conducted a scaled-down Vienna State Opera Orchestra and their magnificent Chorus, bringing out the passion and rhythmic vitality of Bellini’s gloriously melodic music. John Dew’s production, now over 60 performances, is quite magnificent. It cannot be bettered. Don’t ever change! P.R. 10.3.2015
Photos: Elvira (Olga Peretyatko) and Lord Arturo Talbo (John Tessier) ; Carlos Alvarez (Sir Riccardo Forth); Elvira (Olga Peretyatko); Arturo (John Tessier)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper /Michael Poehn

Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte)

A new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at Vienna State Opera, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. And what a miserable set! What set? We see the cream proszenium, but the darkened stage appears empty. Isn’t this the back of the stage, brown-painted, worn: we even see the radiators. Each side of stage are the pulley mechanisms. Isn’t this flunking the job of stage designer (Christian Fenouillat). Was he paid? But for the Overture there’s sublime orchestral playing from Adam Fischer’s Vienna State opera orchestra in the pit-a lighter textured sound: a clarity that’s revealing.
It opens with flashes of lightning, a shadow of a figure drawing a sword, the spectre of a dragon hovering. The Three Ladies, rather frumpy in beautiful multi-coloured, gypsy-like gowns, peer at Tamino (Benjamin Bruns) laid out front of stage.
The sound of birds. Papageno (Markus Werba) wearing a rustic mustard suit, is dressed as the country yokel. Werba, curly black hair, youthful, has a rich warm baritone with a Kärnten lilt. He’s actually carrying a bird cage containing a live white dove. This Papageno is a wonderfully natural comic, sympathetic, but no idiot. The Ladies punish him for his boasting with a downfall of water; and they silence his voice.
Tamino (Benjamin Bruns), offered the picture of Pamina, is the chivalrous knight to the rescue of the damsel in distress. Bruns, In white culottes, black boots and swashbuckling blue top, sings Das Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön. He feels it: love, like a fire in his heart. It can only be love. Sung with a touching innocence, but powerfully, Bruns’ tenor has gravitas.
Firecrackers on stage! Two luminous crescent shapes precede the Queen of the Night (Iride Martinez)) in an all-red silk gown. Zum leider– all her joy is torment without her daughter, she pitches. Ein Bösewicht , a wicked villain (Sarastro) took her daughter Tamina. But she’s so tenderly sung, how is the young man to know her scheming. If he succeeds , he shall win her daughter’s favour. Martinez, wraps her red scarf around Bruns’ neck and tugs him , like an obedient pet. The Ladies give Tamino the magic flute, which looks like an ordinary tube. Then for Papageno, a basket containing the magic bells. The Three Ladies , who sound angelic- exquisitely light- announce three boys (Knaben) will expedite the journey.
Pamina (Valentina Nafornita) in a modern light-blue silk dress comes on distraught- pursued by a rather fat Monostatus (Thomas Ebenstein) in an over-tight suit. And he’s black, with huge afro hair. Now he’s in his underwear-showing his hairy chest- gross!- threatening. (Why must the villain be black?) Nafornita sings in good German with an accent (Moldavian). Papageno writes down her description. (Is this a smart phone?)
In her aria Liebe, say it again! she sings, she can’t hear enough of the word. Pamina and Papageno are sitting together front of the stage. In their marvellous duet, they sing ,Wir wollen uns die Liebe freuen: Love sweetens everything, seasons everyday of our lives. Man and woman submit to deity. This is the Enlightenment message behind the opera, consistent with Mozart’s ethereal music.
A smoky stage precedes the three Knaben (from Vienna Boys Choir). Tell me, first, shall I be able to save Pamina? -‘Be a man, then your fate is sure’, they sing. Bruns is perfect-an ingénue-but noble, heartfelt.
A white cube, an illuminated prism- like the Louvre extension in miniature-floats towards us, symbol of Sarastro’s religious order. Sarastro’s priest tells Tamino he’s been deceived; the Queen falsely demonized Sarastro; a woman does nothing but gossip! Alone, Tamino blows the magic flute to find Pamina. All manner of strange animals appear. A polar bear and black bear embrace. There’s a rhino; an ape; and a huge dragon peers out from side of stage, which got a laugh from the audience. And there are two ostriches- nimble human legs- quite risible! All to show the magic effects of the flute in calming these savage creatures.
Worse is to come! Monostatus, the black guy (Ebenstein) is apprehended by a line of AMERICAN COPS IN LAPD UNIFORMS – frilly underwear hanging out of their pants. This is absurd; and the audience clapped!
The stage opens to a chorus in contemporary overcoats. In this fancy-dress fable, Sarastro comes on carrying a dead deer over his shoulder. Franz-Joseph Selig, in a leather-beaded greatcoat, sings -a magnificent bass- ‘A man must guide your heart…’ Monostatus is led away – cavorting, afro-hair like a James Brown; we hear his cries. Sarastro threatens love and punishment in equal measure. Tamino and Pamina, seeing each other for the first time, are separated, frustratingly, by the prism symbolising the Order. ‘Cover their heads’: they must be purified, undergo pre-marital trials.
The opening to Act 2 -Sarastro’s order-is more promising. Sarastro addresses a meeting of ‘brothers’, sitting in chairs drawn up in a semicircle, like a masonic order. They hold their hands up in assent; Pamina is praised to the gods.This is all quite convincing. Tamino submits to Sarastro’s trials . Soll ich: how bitter the tears of parting. They are kept separated, Tamino physically held back.
Thunder and lightning. Marcus Werba’s Papageno emerges, comes out from the Opera house stalls. It’s him in the mustard suit. He hugs some white-haired geezer. He sings- in the audience- laughing off the trials he’s supposed to submit to. He’s into food, wine and women. And saying excuse me ,Entschuldigen, leaps through the front row up to the stage.
Now things get absolutely crazy! The House Manager comes on stage to apologise for there being only one of the ‘Three Ladies’. The other two were stuck in the lift. For real! (I thought it was an in-house joke.) They do all come on, their singing to distract Tamino and Papageno from their trials and persuade them to escape.
A moon crescent…Absolute silence… And now Pamina is lying in the prism of light. Monostatus sings, Everyone feels the pain of love, but a black man is hateful. (Weil ein Schwarze hasst ist.) White is beautiful. I have to kiss her! Monostatus is stealthily creeping upon Pamina, (eyeing her up for rape, but the Director is unworthily making it a race issue.)
The Queen of the Night intervenes. Explaining why Sarastro must be killed, she then sings how her heart is aflame with anger. If Pamina cannot kill Sarastro , she will reject her forever. The Queen now has a fit and starts throwing Sarastro’s (prayer meeting) chairs. Martinez in that fabulous red gown, threatens her Rachegötter: you have only one way to save yourself and your mother.
But Pamina is saved from Monostatus’s rape attempt- demanding her love and her silence- by Sarasto’s arrival. Sarastro promises Pamina he will not take his revenge on her mother: In diesen heiligen Land In this holy land, vengeance is not our practice.
The gloom of the Second Act is literally darkened by the set itself. Pamina left alone tries to commit suicide, but is dissuaded by the Three Knaben. Nafornita is not exceptional in her moving aria, but in this staging the scene is lifted by all four floating heaven-bound safely (we hope) on high wires. Pamina accompanies Tamino on his last ordeal, and playing the magic flute, the power of music protects them. Bruns raises their duet to something special.
Of course, the Papageno, Papagena (dressed as an old hag to test him) scenes are the comic relief to the spiritual subtext. Annika Gerhards, finally revealed as a skinny blonde, wasn’t exceptional: Werba, a house favourite, got the applause.
The minimalist staging covered the conspirators in a black tarpaulin that disappeared down one of the many stage holes. In the affirmative Enlightenment chorus -a finale declaring the power of love- unsurprisingly, no stretch to the production’s imagination- a bright orange sphere rose up from the stage, now fully lit. The cast, all in modern grey suits -including Tamina and Pamina now enrolled- resembled a Mormon church meeting. P.R. 07.01.2015
Photos: Benjamin Bruns (Tamino) with Regine Hangler (First Lady) and Ulrike Helzel (Second Lady); Markus Werba (Papageno); Valentina Nafornita (Pamina); Valentina Nafornita and Thomas Ebenstein (Monostatus)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn