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

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