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

Lehár’s The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe)

On Vienna Volksoper’s spectacular stage set (Marco Arturo Marelli) men in black dinner jackets, first playing gaming machines, lead us into a huge ballroom, with couples waltzing, the event the Baron Zeta’s ball. Back of the stage is a huge window looking out over Paris. The set furnishings for Lehár’s The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) exude glamour; there are art deco pillars with bejewelled intricate patterns; and the costumes are lavishly designed , the ladies’ gowns no expense spared. It’s Paris after all, and an embassy ball.
‘I am a respectable woman and cannot take such a risk.’ The Baron’s young French wife Valencienne is trying to fend off her would-be lover Camille Rosillon. ‘You are well aware you are paying with fire.’ Their ‘affair ‘ is the sub-plot. Valencienne loses her fan with Rosillon’s ‘I love you’ inscribed. Who will find the fan? -the fan, a symbol of a lady’s virtue, lost fans representing infidelity, and a source of intrigue.
Hanna the rich widow (Caroline Helzer) makes her entrance surrounded by her avid admirers. She sings, ‘You gentlemen are very kind on account of my vast fortune.’ She’s heard ‘how coveted widows are’. Melzer, brunette, is wearing a sparking full-length black gown, and a diamond hair piece. It’s remarked that she’s a child of nature, just like Danilo: our first intimation of their inevitable pairing.
A hand reaches out from behind the stage curtain. Danilo (Kay Stiefermann ) approaches a chair backwards, and he’s so drunk he can’t sit down without falling off! ‘A little relaxation after so much work: that’s when he goes to Maxim’s.’ (Da gehe’ ich zu Maxim.) Stiefermann’s is a very good tenor, full-blooded, and he acts convincingly. It’s the fourth night he hasn’t slept, he sings- wiping under his arms. Danilo, always falling asleep, is lying , head- covered, flat-out on three chairs put together.
He’s approached by Hanna, who hesitantly recognises him. Then his hand reaches up her legs: ‘Are you living now in Paris?’ Hanna would like to renew their affair. If only things had gone as they should have, but his uncle was against it. (Class distinctions always getting in the way of lovers.)
She sings to her cavalry officer, ‘Stupid, stupid horseman who can’t understand her.’ Melzer’s soprano is surprisingly gutsy. ‘Ride, ride on!’ But after a slickly choreographed ‘Ladies choice’ -her suitors surrounding her in a crescent of chairs- we lead into one of the opera’s most memorable melodies: their duet ‘Just as flowers bloom in the springtime…’, the Ballsirenen waltz.
Act II, a garden party at the (‘Pontevedrian’) embassy is an excuse for a Hungarian dance fest. The men are wearing Fez hats in orange. They all form wide circles, kicking their heels. (A reminder that Austrian Franz Lehár had Hungarian ancestry.) Hanna, giving the party, opens with the Ballad of Vilja. Vilja , you maid of the woods. Let me be your true love!’ Melzer , in a glittering silver gown, wearing a white veil, reaches out to Danilo. She traps him in her veil, as if it were a net. Vilja, tinged with nostalgia, its lingeringly haunting melody, an evergreen famous beyond the opera, was beautifully sung by Melzer (although her top notes were a bit shaky.)
By contrast the men’s chorus Studium der Weiber , the study of women is gruelling: how should they treat women so they stay faithful. It’s half -mocking: they all want other things…and so, and so on. Followed by the ladies reflecting on their men, ‘The Study of men isn’t hard,’ should leave us in no doubt that the operetta is a war of the sexes. And in the then prevailing climate, fin -de siècle, however light-hearted, women are at a disadvantage.
Hanna and Danilo, in their first waltz, to the Ballsirenen refrain, are temporarily reconciled. But Danilo will off to Maxim’s where ‘three-quarters’ virtue is lost in three-quarters’ time.’ So one can lose even the first quarter of one’s virtue, exclaims Hanna. Thus the man is free to go off ‘clubbing’- impossible for a woman with a reputation to guard.
‘I am a respectable woman’ (Ich bin eine anständige Frau), sings Valencienne (Martina Dorak) the Ambassador’s wife, fending off Camille’s advances. She must act in accordance with etiquette, she insists.
As Camille Rosillon Vincent Schirrmacher’s super tenor is thrilling (although he seems rather short in his deejay.) ‘Just as rose buds blossom in May love has blossomed within my heart’. He sings of a feeling he’d never experienced before. Valencienne’s reply is ‘you’re making me lose my senses.’ No wonder! Schirrmacher’s the tenor who stepped in for an indisposed Neil Shicoff (Turandot) to acclaim. Absolutely the highlight, if not the operetta’s best known aria. ‘There in the darkness of the pavilion love’s secret reveals for us…’ We get it!
In the intrigue, the Baron (Andreas Daum) eavesdrops, but out comes Camille with Hanna, who’s covering for him. ‘Just as rosebuds blossom in May’, it will be a pavilion wedding; and cue another fabulous dance routine. Hanna’s announcing her engagement to Camille (to protect Valencienne) leaves Danilo consumed with jealousy. He sings an anecdote about a Prince tricked by a Princess: ‘You’re no better than your flirtatious sex,’ he scorns her.
Act III ‘at Maxim’s’ Valencienne takes part in the Cabaret with Maxim’s dancers like a true grisette. Waiters come in carrying trays and chairs -sensational choreography- and take their seats for the review. The Maxim’s dance numbers, incorporating members of Vienna State Ballet, are the most exciting I’ve ever seen here. First, seven women in red wigs, white coats, and revealing a glimpse of red silk petticoats beneath. Only Valencienne wears a frock; the others are like bunny girls in red. They’re doing the cancan! And how sensational. There follows a ballet routine with white feathers against skin-tight black outfits: highly synchronised like 1930s Busby Berkeley set pieces. Back come the cancan girls doing cartwheels and every conceivable dance trick. These dance couples from Vienna Ballet with their stunning routines would make a laughing stock of any Come Dancing finalists. Above is a gigantic top hat suspended. Nothing quite like it in Vienna ; you wouldn’t see better in Paris.
And now a reprise of Hanna/Danilo’s refrain ‘Lips are silent, while violins whisper’, (Lippen schweigen,’s flüsten Geigern; hab’ mich lieb) Every touch of your hand told me clearly… Melzer is not quite the world’s greatest soprano, but she’s got what it takes for the role!
In the ‘intrigue’ Baron Zeta wants a divorce from Valencienne, and offers to marry Hanna ‘on patriotic grounds’. But he’s gob-smacked to hear that according to Hanna’s husband’s will, she will lose everything if she marries again. Notwithstanding Danilo finally confesses his love to Hanna; prepared to marry her, albeit poor. Only to find, stipulated in her husband’s will, Hanna’s millions will be transferred to her new husband. And in the final coup-de-grace, Valencienne shows her husband what’s written on the fan, ‘I am a respectable wife.’ (Ich bin eine anständige Frau). He didn’t know that! So now the Baron can forgive her.
Vienna Volksoper Orchestra (and Chorus) were conducted by Michael Tomaschek and they were impeccable. The whole production (directed by Marelli) was breath-taking, the cast polished, with some exceptional soloists. I have never heard such enthusiastic applause in this house; and from a fastidious Viennese audience.
P.R. 2.01.2015
Photos: Caroline Melzer (Hanna Glawari, die lustige Witwe); Volksoper ensemble; Una Zubovic (Ballet) Volksoper ensemble
(c) Dimo Dimov/ Volksoper Wien

Vienna’s new Rigoletto

At Vienna State Opera, a new production ( directed by Pierre Audi) of Verdi’s Rigoletto. The first disappointment was that Simon Keenlyside had been replaced by baritone Paolo Rumetz as Rigoletto. And, in a barely intelligible pre-performance announcement, Rumetz had a cold. Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda (unexceptional soprano Erin Morley) are the crux of the opera. Even with bravura tenor Piotr Beczala as the Duke. So the performance was bound to be out of balance, showcasing glamour at the expense of the inner drama.
The second disappointment was Vienna State Opera’s new set (Christof Hetzer). We’re greeted by a snow-clad barren landscape, with stunted trees, stark branches. There’s a staircase leading to a wooden hut. The black/white grey monotones- Japanese influenced minimalism- are broken by a burnished copper back panel, like a late Turner impressionist painting. At least the costumes are ‘period’. But which? Rather 19th century frocks, the men’s breeches more 17th century- a mishmash.
Beczala, however, is splendid in the Duke’s opening aria: He takes his pleasure where he finds it (Questa o quella). He’s wearing a long wig- moustachioed like a Cavalier- and looks rakish, flirting with Count Ceprano’s beautiful wife. Beczala’s supremely confident, effortless virtuoso tenor, is made for the role. He dominates a very raunchy staging-a ball- the masked courtiers playing fast and loose with the ladies in long, low-cut gowns.
Paolo Rumetz, short, white-haired, appears rumbustious, firing wisecracks. But Chorus sing the Jester has a mistress; ‘the cripple has transformed into a cupid’, they mock him.
Count Monterone (Sorin Coliban), his incredibly deep bass from the depths of hell itself- wearing a blood-red silk outfit- interrupts the orgy. A dream from hell has led him there. He complains the Duke has seduced his daughter. Monterone, seized by the Duke’s soldiers, Rumetz taunts him with his sword. Monterone curses both Duke and his jester. Sensational playing from Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Myung-Whun Chung.
There’s a very rapid scene change -(too fast !)- to Act 2. ‘The old man placed a curse on me,’ (Quel vecchio male divami!) sings Rigoletto repeatedly. Rumetz- out of his court garb- is seen with Sparafucile, the assassin, Ryan Speedo Green flashily dressed in black: dark glasses, bearded, villainous looking in a black cap. They’re under a raised hut, the desolate landscape now darkened.
Rigoletto’s seminal aria Pari siamo ‘We are alike, the assassin with his dagger, he with murderous tongue’ is constantly interrupted by the refrain, ‘The old man put a curse on me!’ Verdi’s Rigoletto is a tragic figure depicted with psychological realism. ‘How terrible to be a cripple; a clown deprived of everyman’s right to weep. How he hates those scheming courtiers!’ Yet Rumetz failed to move me.
Upbeat flutes anticipate ‘the other person in his life.’ A wooden cage is lowered, containing a young woman, table and chairs. Yes, Gilda is virtually held captive by her over-possessive father, but this is too obvious! She only leaves the house to go to church: she’s never seen the town.
‘At least tell me who my mother is’ Erin Morley, a brunette, in a white gown, sings angelically, ‘Calm yourself father!’- Rigoletto, ‘Only you are left to me! I am your father, that’s enough!’ Morley is well-sung, but characterless. In her aria, (she sings to her maid), the young man she meets in church is handsome, so refined. She wouldn’t want a nobleman. (The duke is disguised as a student.) Dreaming and waking her heart thinks only of him.
On cue appears Beczala in Titian-blue silk top. The god of love has inseparably bound his fate to her, he croons. In am outpouring of rhetoric, like a Petrarchan sonnet, ‘Fame, glory and power fade away…so let us love, divine creature!’ – ‘Tell me again you love me!’- He, ‘Adio, Adio, you alone will be my hope..’ Adio, she repeats. Now Erin Morley in her aria Gualtier Malde , to a limping version of his theme, sings of his beloved name Caro nome, emblematic of the delights of love. Morley, in a charcoal grey cloak, is delightful in a superficial way, her soprano exercising her register, an excuse for coloratura.
While she’s singing, her cage is lowered, and ‘cavaliers’ lounge around like dossers. Rumetz stumbles upon them. They sing of abducting Ceprano’s wife. But in the heist, he’s duped, blindfolded, bundled off in a cask. Verdi’s magnificent all-male chorus sings ‘Quietly let us take our revenge. We’ll steal his mistress and he’ll be the laughing stock at court.’ Vienna State Opera Chorus can do Verdi like no other (outside Italy.) But why this dismal staging?
Act 3 opens in what’s supposed to be the Duke’s palace (here like a rehearsal room of stage panels.) Beczala sings, where can my angel be. Due to her purity, he was overcome by virtue…It’s almost convincing. (But he’s the incorrigible lecher in the last Act.) Believing his own rhetoric, Beczala is carried away by his gorgeous tenor. Empty, but applauded, ironically!
The chorus, his courtiers, sing jauntily, ‘Together walking down there at nightfall, we discovered a beauty, Rigoletto’s mistress!’ They sing of how their Prince’s mood has changed. ‘Love summons me. I fly to her!’ Beczala to the rescue, his gleaming white teeth like a matinee idol.
Rumetz as the grief-stricken Rigoletto is – after the recent triumph of Leo Nucci here – frankly disappointing. Rumetz wears a white top with ruffed collar instead of jester’s harlequin. Rigoletto’s appeal for his daughter should be hardly bearable. ‘Cowardly courtiers, you can have everything for money,’ is simply lacking the power required. ‘I can only weep’; he appeals to one courtier’s kind heart. He’s bumbling, fumbling, pathetically enacting his tragedy; but the voice is not up to projecting it musically. Low key even against the (superb) cello accompaniment. ‘Give me back my child!’-but his anger isn’t conveyed (against these courtiers he once dominated.)
With Gilda, ‘It was just a prank. But why are you weeping!’- ‘The disgrace!’ In her powerful aria Gilda confesses every day in church she met her student. ‘Then he left, and I was filled with hope.’ But although perfectly sung, Morley is superficial. Rumetz sings how he fought to keep her from corruption; and poignantly ‘Weep my child to my heart’. Sorry, it’s not Verdi’s overwhelmingly moving father-daughter bonding.
Act 4 (and the white/grey abstract stage curtain) reveals a Japanese structure, white screens either side. Upper floor of Verdi’s ‘inn’ Maddalena (Elena Maximova) wears a red-lined cloak. Beczala’s Duke-disguised delivers the La donna e mobile aria, magnificently swaggering. ‘Her pretty face is false, whether weeping or smiling.’ Arrantly sexist, misogynist, but it’s sung with panache: Beczala’s male peacock besotted in self-glory, revelling in his own voice. ‘You must know I love only you,’ sings Beczala. (‘Traitor’, sings Gilda off-stage.) Then Maximova’s buxom blond in bright-red silk frock is sitting outside at a café table. She’s dangling her legs. They’re almost making love- while Gilda beholds them, side-stage, in torment.
‘You see how he lied to you’: Rigoletto with Gilda, will make sure she’s avenged. Again the La Donna refrain ‘woman is wayward’.
‘The moment of vengeance is here at last’. (Mysterious night, a storm in the heavens.) The body-sack is dragged out of Sparafucile’s cellar. ‘Just take a look at me, the Jester! Now he’s at my feet.’ Then the Duke’s refrain from the inn. The voice a delusion? Then the realisation that it’s Gilda -whom he’d sent away – in the sack. My daughter, impossible? Yet there’s hardly any modulation to Rumetz’s register, just going through the motions.(What a contrast to the unbearable intensity of Nucci’s rendering.) Even Morley hardly convinces as the dying woman. She’d deceived her father, died for her Duke. ‘Do not die, you must not leave me alone.’ -‘In heaven’, her reply softens celestially.
It didn’t move me. And the applause-over after only the minimum curtain calls-indicated that the Vienna audience weren’t all that impressed either. P.R. 30.12.2014

Photos: Piotr Beczala (Duke of Mantua); Erin Morley (Gilda); Piotr Beczala (Duke) and Maddalena (Elena Maximova); Paolo Rumetz (Rigoletto) and Erin Morley (Gilda)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn

Puccini’s Turandot

Puccini’s exotic feast, a gruesome fairytale, is set ‘once upon a time’ in China. The icy Chinese Princess Turandot offers herself to any man who can answer three puzzles. He who fails pays with his life. Prince Calaf can solve the tasks, but he in turn presents Turandot with his own challenge. Puccini’s Turandot is also a parable with modern psycho-analytic resonances: the reason for Turandot’s frigidity lies in her identification with her ancestor, once raped and abducted by a foreigner. Each suitor’s death is an act of revenge. She’s resolved never to belong to a man. But, as in the best Hollywood Freudian case studies -like Hitchcock’s ice-cold female protagonist in Spellbound – Calaf’s love melts her ‘complex’.
In Vienna Volksoper’s production (Renaud Doucier and Andre Barbe), the bold concept depicts a land of insects which revolves around Princess Turandot: a fantastical and cruel world in which human life has no value. The concept nearly works.

Act 1 opens with a highly stylised changing of the guard, the soldiers like ants; black bodies, luminous white skeletons, round helmets. Costumes get more exotic with rank. The prince of Persia, in gold, faces execution; and in the crowds an old man, Timur, falls down- helped by Prince Calaf, his son, long separated after Timur was ousted from power. Timur, grey-bearded , limping, movingly sung by Peter Naydenov, is waited on by slave girl Liu, (Kristine Kaiser), a smaller role, but a stand-out performance. This trio – the dramatic crux of the Act- are dressed in drab khaki, contrasted against the spectacular rituals centre stage . An imposing, fearsome half-woman, her head silver-claws, is at the centre of a sensational dance number, her minions in black dresses with ghostly white faces. Death, death, death! A ritual – ‘Why does the moon delay’ – anticipating the arrival of Turandot.
Calaf (Neil Shicoff) interceding for the Persian prince, is outraged at Turandot’s cruelty, and curses her. Shicoff, who appeared in spite of a pre-announced throat infection- greying blonde hair, no longer the youthful figure we’re accustomed to- is still impressive. And with his experience of Puccini, his insight into the part more than compensated for his golden tenor sometimes a little strained. With the appearance of Turandot, Calaf enthralled -against the pleas of his father- strikes the gong to hear the riddles.
Act 2 opens with Ping, Pang , Pong, Turandot’s ministers, in brilliant orange, pink, and purple outfits with white masks, bewailing the same ritual: ‘Three beats on the gong, three riddles, and off with their heads.‘ Drinking cocktails on a low bar front of stage, they’re very well sung. A beautiful trio reminisces nostalgically on their homelands. Then they remember her suitors. Dead! Long live love, they sing; and a night of surrender in which Turandot will experience love. Meanwhile it’s all over with China, (until she brings peace.) Their slickly choreographed number -using gold-braided black umbrellas-is the best so far.
The stage is like an insect colony come to life in gilded colours: rendered human, anthropomorphised. At the back of the stage looms a huge spectre in gold-awesome and frightening. (No, it isn’t kitsch: rather it’s mind-boggling.) The old Emperor, Turandot’s father, pleads with Calaf to withdraw: there’s been enough shedding of blood. Shicoff’s Calaf repeats mantra-like, addressing the son of the heavens, he wishes to compete for Turandot.
The ensuing spectacle is all-consuming. Chrystallis shapes arise out of an ascending platform, amongst them Turandot (Melba Ramos) appears all in white. She sings In questia Reggia in this palace a thousand years ago a desperate cry was heard – now lodged in her soul- her ancestor Ling Liu. Princes come from all over the world to woo her and die: she hears in their cries her ancestor’s cries. Melba’s projection is too weak; not overwhelmingly powerful, as it should be. We should experience the terror her aria conveys. No one will own her: I am proud, she sings, untouchable, invincible.
Foreigner, don’t push your luck, (sing the Chorus.) Shicoff stands looking up to her on a plinth- ‘Put the foreign prince to the test’. Ramos, like a goddess, raises her arms. She’s in white , a spooky creation with white feathers like antlers. She poses the three riddles. (Chorus:’Speak, your life depends on it!’) In the third riddle he answers, successfully, his fire will neutralise her ice.
Turandot defeated, staggers off the holy platform (which sinks down to mortal earth.) She pleads with her father to save her: fearing she’ll be treated like a slave who’s committed a crime. The oath is sacred, he insists.
‘Will you force me into your arms?’, she sings now addressing Calaf- ‘No, he wants her aflame with love’. She’s standing front of stage, abased, humbled before the audience.
Now he’s answered her three riddles, Calaf puts her to the test. ‘ You don’t know my name.’ If she knows his name by daybreak, he will die tomorrow.
Turandot orders no one in Peking shall sleep. Nessun dorma. Exotic insect-like figures on night watch roam, their heads carrying luminous red lamps. Shicoff’s Calaf wanders onto the stage. Nessun dorma -no one will sleep: also the Princess in her chambers staring at the stars. ‘No one shall know my name . Only your lips betray it in the morning light. Your kiss will break my silence …’ Chorus repeat his refrain. Shicoff was enthusiastically applauded. Handicapped, perhaps underpowered, but consummately delivered.
The three Advisors plead with him; bribe him, offer him licentious women. No deal. Foreigner, you don’t know what cruelty she’s capable of.
The name: the slave Liu, knows his name . But Liu will not betray Calaf. She endures Turandot’s torturers for his sake. ‘You, too, will love him, Princess .‘ Kristiane Kaiser’s Liu, powerfully sung, is heart-rending. ‘What gives your heart so much power: love!’ Her moving aria Tanto amore, secreto e inconfessato is the outstanding moment of the evening. Torture me! all she can sacrifice is her love. Princess hear me, you the cold one che digel sei cinta will love him. She, Liu, will never see another daybreak. (She’s smitten by the scorpion-headed creature; Timur desperately tries to revive her.)
In their duet Shicoff and Melba are convincing dramatically, if not exceptional vocally. Your body is near, but your soul is faraway. ‘Your coldness is a lie’, he sings -like a psychoanalyst releasing her from her spell, her sexual neurosis. But, undaunted, he wants her. And, reassuringly, the pain of her ancestor must not be repeated. No, her kiss sends him into eternity.
They run into each other’s arms. ‘What am I? I’m fallen.’- ‘My flower of the morning,’ he breathes her scent. She reproaches him, how dare he win? Turandot yields, fallen: love ascends with the sun. The godess sheds her first tear. She’s afraid for herself: in his eyes she sees the light of the hero. Then why does she hate him and love him at the same time? She’s defeated, not by the test, but overcome by fever. Puccini’s opera, libretto Adami and Simoni, is surprisingly modern in its psychological realism.
Much better singing from Melba; Shicoff risen to the occasion, on recognisable form. Dramatically their interplay is gripping. Calaf reveals his name, his life is in her kiss. The ice is finally broken: she no longer fears him. Calaf is led before the people. She announces, ‘dear father, I know his name the name of the stranger is love.’
Now the finale stage is too busy, the ‘concept’ no longer a novelty; but distracting. A pantomine not befitting the profundity of their declaration of love, and self-discovery. ‘Love is the light of the world’ (Luce del mondo e amore) is the final chorus. Now Vienna Volksoper Orchestra under Guido Mancini barely pass muster, lacking their usual polish. However, Volksoper Chorus were more than adequate, and ‘ the eleven’ from Vienna State Opera’s Ballet-Academy stunningly good. P.R. 4.11.2014
Photos: Neil Shicoff (Calaf) and Jee-Hye Han (Turandot); Kristine Kaiser (Liu). Photos of Melba Ramos’ performance as Turandot were unavailable.
(c) Barbara Palffy/ Vienna Volksoper