Bellini’s Norma

Another dream come true in Vienna, the city of dreams? This one’s at Vienna State Opera: Edita Gruberova, legendary in the title role of Bellini’s Norma, had to cancel due to a broken leg. It’s the fairy tale of the diva giving a younger artist a break. Sounds familiar -remember The Boy Friend, Ken Russell’s 1960s film, where Glenda Jackson has to sit in the audience and watch her understudy (Twiggy) steal her part? As Norma, Maria Pia Piscitelli opened with warm, if lukewarm reviews, and gradually made the role her own.
Don’t let the plot put you off Bellini’s masterpiece! As Pollione, Massimo Giordano- world-famous, who was billed – a supple tenor with rich timbre- sings to Flavio, Norma serves the bloodthirsty Druid’s god as priestess. Her anger was revealed to him in a dream. (Freudian guilty conscience, he’s swopping her for her younger initiate Adalgisa.) Giordano sings, he was standing at the altar of Venus- orchestra almost jaunty, with syncopated rhythms- intoxicated with love and desire. Then ‘a shadow came between us’, he’s enveloped by a Druid’s cloak. (Cymbals and chorus build up to anticipate the arrival of Norma.) But Pollione boasts to Flavio, he’s protected by a power greater than hers. Giordano’s tenor is like a full-blooded red wine, glorious, affirmative.
There a lot of orchestral intermissions in Bellini. Introducing Norma, Oroveso (distinguished bass Dan Paul Dumitresco) announces Norma carries her hair wreathed in verbena, the snake held in her hand gleams… Not in this concert (Konzertant) performance. Maria Pia Piscitelli, in a long green dress is standing facing the audience. Has the Roman eagle not defeated their land (Dumitresco’s bass powerful, authorative). But for her the time for revenge has not arrived. ‘What has the god revealed to you,’ now demand the Chorus.
Norma, (in her seminal aria Casta Diva ) sings ‘Keep the Peace’ repeatedly to gorgeous, soaring notes. Now, her aria introduced by a flute, Chaste goddess, temper their zealous hearts and this fervent passion. Spread on earth the same cloak of peace that prevails in heaven… This sublime aria should be obligatory listening for soldiers before going into battle!
Now the holy rites over, the orchestra has a military swagger: when the gods demand the Romans’ blood, let the first blow fall. But Norma sings she’ll be unable to punish him. Norma’s inner conflict is between her duty and her private passion. Piscitelli sings tenderly, Ah! bello a me ritorna Oh, beloved, bring back the beauty of our first love; I will be your defence against the whole world. Piscitelli’s Norma is not quite the measure of this complex, impassioned Elizabeth- ‘Virgin Queen’ figure. (Anyway, Norma has consummated her passion, and has children by him.) But Piscitelli, constantly improving, gets even better.
As Adalgisa, Nadia Krasteva, a latin beauty, holds her hair alluringly, looks around. She’s smouldering, in her aria, How that Roman made her transgress her vows. A little hope! An irresistible force drives her back for more! Then she pleads, ‘Oh, God protect me: I am lost, take pity on me.’
Giordano’s Pollione appears. She should pray to the god of love, not the altar. And what of our love?- She’s renounced it, sings Krasteva defiantly. Giordano, engagingly powerful, Go, heartless woman! Offer your cruel god my blood as sacrifice. Then, as if retracting, even if every drop of blood spills, he cannot leave. ‘Only you were promised : God gave your heart to me.’ She sings of the grief he’s caused her: her distress standing before the divine altar. Now Giordano rising emphatically: Would you really leave me, Algadisa? Krasteva emotionally overwrought, she’ll come with him. Your love gives me confidence: together they’ll be strong.
In the first of the two powerful duets between Piscitelli and Krasteva, Adalgisa unburdens her heart to Norma, unaware that it’s Pollione she loves. Norma filled with compassion, releases her from her vows. Adalgisa brings back memories; the same thing happened to her. But which man is your lover? Learning it’s Pollione, Norma reveals her own secret affair, Adalgisa aghast. Piscatelli, in an impressive display of coloratura, insists ‘She is innocent! Tremble you vile rogue!’
Norma confronts Pollione, she is the victim of a vile deception. He taunts Norma, spare your reproaches- which of us is the guiltier? Giordano, smooth, potent- invites, Come Adalgisa – his tenor gloriously surging. But Adalgisa rejects him, Norma curses him.
In Norma’s aria opening Act 2, she considers killing his two children Dormono entrambi. Yet they must not die, they are her children! Piscitelli’s range seemed lacking; but she has warmth and fully engages. Adalgisa is summoned, Norma, contemplating suicide, begs her to take her boys with her to Rome.
The second of their duets is a stand-out triumph for Piscitelli and Krasteva. In Norma’s aria -Take them , protect them, allow your heart to be moved – Piscitelli sustains superb high notes. But Adalgisa has another idea: offers to persuade Pollione to return to Norma, (Krasteva, now in black gown, pointing to Norma’s little children.) These two ladies are superlative in duet, playing off each other, bringing out heir best qualities. ‘Relent! I loved him; but now!’-‘I shall be with you until the final hour.’ -‘With you I can defy life!’ The women pledge their solidarity; all girls together. Quite outstanding!
In this second Act, Piscitelli, noticeably thaws, her facial gestures more expressive, against that immobile priestess, opening scene, addressing her people. Now her soprano rises to sublime heights. ‘Roman blood will flow like a river!’ Crashing percussion; the bell is sounded. Chorus demand to know what has happened. What, a bloodbath? but before she called for peace. The Chorus- Vienna State Opera’s magnificent in Italian repertoire- thunder Guerra, guerra : War! Will she complete the rite? Who will the sacrifice be? Pollione is arrested for attempting to abduct Adalgisa.
In Norma’s scene with Pollione, finally, left to question him, he is in her hands. She offers him freedom if he gives up Adalgisa.- Giordano, defiantly, No he’s not that weak; no one can break their bonds; he refuses to renounce Adalgisa. But her wrath is greater than his love.
Piscitelli is quite into the part. The Romans shall be slaughtered in their hundreds; kill me but have pity on her, she insists. Piscitelli seems to have found hidden reserves. Her soprano seems to have matured, strengthened. An astonishing improvement. He’ll be adequately avenged when she dies before him. Can I accuse an innocent woman of her crime? Norma announces to her people, a priestess has betrayed them. ‘Norma!’ sing the Chorus in hushed shock, ‘You are a sinner!’ Then, variously, ‘We do not believe her’, ‘What a disgrace!’ In Norma’s aria- ‘May this terrible hour show you who you’ve betrayed. In vain, he attempted to flee- Piscatelli renders with such passion. Chorus sing, ‘Compose yourself, reassure us’; she, insistently, I am the guilty one. Too late, Pollione now sees hers as a transcendent woman. In his remorse, his love is rekindled.
Something really special has happened in the last performance of Piscitelli’s debut as Norma: a stand-in for Gruberova. It’s what makes live opera magical. She pleads to save her children; don’t make them die for her sins. Piscitelli’s face is contorted with distress and emotion. She will perish on the pyre; he will join her, inspired by her courage.
The long orchestral and the prominence given to the choral parts make this a logical choice for a concert performance (Konzertant) , with Vienna State Opera orchestra actually on stage with rows of Vienna’s chorus behind. The conductor Andriy Yurkevych was competent, but not of the best; but these musicians and singers. P.R. 17.05.2014
Photos: Maria Pia Piscitelli (Norma); Nadia Krasteva (Adalgisa) and Maria Pia Piscitelli
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn

Countess Mariza

Vienna Volksoper’s spectacular new production of Emmerich Kálmán’s Countess Mariza (Gräfin Mariza) opens with a gypsy woman singing, ‘Love is a fleeting drama.’ Against a stage covered in white fabric, Annely Peebo in traditional Hungarian dress, a black sequined gown, sings it’s a story full of music we danced. She’s accompanied by a gypsy fiddler. The stage is taken over by young gypsy dancers in black, who perform front of stage. My God ,they are sensational- members of Vienna State Ballet- and very erotic, the five virtuoso couples gorgeous looking.
The white sheets collapse to reveal a palace state room, furniture covered over. Count Tassilo (Daniel Prohaska), whose family are bankrupt, is acting as manager for Countess Mariza’s estates. He’s welcomed by children, dancing for him in traditional Hungarian costumes. While Prohaska’s steward is white- suited , his friend Karl is in a sharp double-breasted geometric pattern suit, and sporting patent shoes. Very roaring 20s! The background is the 1920s financial crisis, post World War 1. Tassilo’s estate is being auctioned off; and they’re not the only family to go under, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
They reminisce of better times: the cue for the opera’s stand-out number, ‘Grüss mir die süssen, die reizenden Frauen in schönen Wien. Do you remember, when the evening falls, drinking a glass of wine, the sweet charming ladies? It’s a tribute to charming Vienna : the Danube, the waltzes, hidden alleys where couples linger. Mein Wien! Kálmán’s tribute has the measure of Johann Strauss. Tassilo’s romantic vision is sung by Prohaska, a very adequate tenor; but he looks good, and has charm.
Cut to Mariza’s welcome home party to celebrate her engagement to a ‘Baron Koloman’- absent- invented to ward off gold-digging admirers. Another Gypsy song, one of the glamour highlights, with the men in cream suits wearing boaters, and the girls in 1920s shifts, very short and sexy. The stage rotates to reveal the Countess on the steps of her castle, surrounded by bodyguards in black hats and shirts, wearing dark glasses. Very camp. It’s brilliant staging. Come and set yourself free, play with feeling, party the night away! The gypsies are contrasted against the cream, gold set, two girls side stage, and the fiddler playing, black-hatted, looking very mean and moody.
Kálman’s operetta Gräfin Mariza, premiered in Vienna 1924, defined a new realism, with plausible characters, and gritty dialogue (A.Brammer and J.Grünwald.) Ursula Pfitzner’s Mariza, very modern, pulls on her cigarette. Her fiancée is ‘absent’; introduced to her new ‘steward’, she treats him condescendingly. Tassilo recognises his sister Lisa (Anita Götz) in the Countess’s retinue, but, ‘not a word’, Tassilo’s real identity kept secret. They ‘know each other’. The siblings meeting is a cue for Meine Schwesterlein. The stage opens up to a fantasy children’s playground, brought to life with animated figures.
The man the Countess is engaged to doesn’t exist. But a Baron Koloman Zsupan introduces himself! Thomas Sigwald, outrageous in a bright red brocaded blazer- looking uncannily like Graham Norton- rode straight to Budapest when he read he was to marry the Countess. He sings, he’d always dreamed of marrying a woman like her, only to be found in Hungary. His passion burns hotter than a goulash. His duet with Mariza Komm mit nach Varasdin is a showstopper. Suddenly, a whole row of Koloman look-alikes in red blazers and white pants lead in. They perform an ingenious dance routine, using over-sized garden tools as percussion instruments.
A disconsolate Tassilo, excluded from the ball, sings how he was once the Czarda’s cavalier. Prohaska is swigging on a wine bottle: it may all be different tomorrow. Background, a couple of gypsy lovers very uninhibited, are embracing; and lead into a gypsy fest extravaganza. The stage is filled with the Countess’s guests holding up umbrellas for a ‘When it rains’ ensemble.
The Countess in white is confronted by a gypsy offering her a glimpse into the future. Before the month is out her heart will be given. The man is not far away: a Cavalier! Now Mariza moves from the castle steps into her dining room on the revolving stage. Tassilo – ‘her steward, not there for her enjoyment’- now performs for her the Komm, Zigany number he’d refused after all. Their intimate meeting is ‘all very surprising’: he pushes the bottle he’s drinking from over to her, while she’s smoking one cigarette after another.
In the pause between the Acts, a little girl sings to the gardener, (telling her the story in a framing narrative), ‘The story’s over. They love each other?’ The old man replies, ‘if only it were so simple!’
The Countess reappears in a slinky grey silk jacquard skirt, low -cut blouse. ‘Yes, supposing you have all those millions, but you’re not happy,’ he sings. Dancing a favourite waltz number, they sweep into a room of waltzing couples – women in swirling chiffon, men in DJs.

Tabarins is the star number of Act 2. ‘Tonight at Ten, we’ll be at Tabarins’ Those sexy gypsy dancers- the guys in black hussar outfits, white commerbunds, against the girls in stunning white Charleston-era sheeny tops and head bands. (Now we know where David Rose’s The Stripper came from!) The dance troupe are a sensation.
Tassilo (Prohaska now in black DJ) warns Mariza, don’t you see all your friends are out for your money. But he is himself exposed by her admirer Prince Populesco: Tassilo is ‘the ideal Cavalier’. ‘To learn all that takes five hundred years at least.’ The Countess, furious, vows to crush him: leave him to me!
The stage revolves to a banqueting hall, the occasion for her revenge. (Simply the best staging I’ve ever seen here!) ‘Hey, Mariza, pull off your masterstroke!’
She knocks chairs over. – We hear the ‘Play on gypsy’ refrain- This gentleman is mad about romancing ,but she knows his game; and she throws money at him. Her only condition is he never speaks of love again. Tassilo sings, he fell in love once. She was a proud, fair lady. Komm, Zigany ‘Play with feeling – his number- show me what you can.’ Mariza sings -ironically- the gypsy’s refrain, ‘Before the month is out…’ (Pfitzner’s high notes are a little shaky.)
Earlier in the Sag mir, mein Lieb (Put on your prettiest dreams, be ready at ten), duet, Prohaska’s top notes were adequate, but not thrilling. She, Pfitzner, is pleasing and a little more. Their voices are fitted to operetta, not powerful, but as required. Kurt Schreibmayer’s Populesco, also ensemble, added ballast.
In the denouement, Sigwald, a terrific comic turn as Baron Koloman, reveals he’s only an actor. He’s actually in love with Lisa, Tassilo’s sister (Mariza’s once-imagined rival), who’ll marry him anyway. Sigwald sings well with Anita Götz’s very competent soprano.
The staging and costumes by Toto (in Thomas Enzinger’s production) are a world -beater- miles better than the rather threadbare affair for Kálmán’s recently performed Czarda’s Princess. Alexander Rumpf conducted Vienna Volksoper forces with panache, orchestra in snazzy black suits and red ties, attuned to Kálmán’s syncopated dance rhythms. Worth a trip to Vienna. P.R. 15.05.2014
Photos: Vienna Volksoper ensemble; Daniel Prohaska (Count Tassilo) and Nicholaus Hagg (Karl Liebenberg); Ursula Pfizner (Countess Mariza) and Daniel Prohaska (Tassilo) and members Vienna State Ballet ; Featured image Ursula Pfizner and Vienna State Ballet
(c) Barbara Palffy/ Volksoper Wien

Andrea Chénier

Giordano’s Andrea Chénier is the story of the poet of the French Revolution who sacrificed his life for his ideals. Giordano’s fourth and greatest opera, Chénier is described (by Vienna State Opera) as a ‘must for all opera lovers.’ For once this was no hype, the opera -new to me -was a revelation.
Through Chénier we see aspects of the French Revolution, from pre-revolutionary aristocracy to the reign of terror. Chénier’s commitment to freedom and humanity provokes enmity and suspicion. First at a pre- Revolution celebration at the Contessa di Coigny (where he falls in love with her daughter Maddelena); in the Jacobin Terror he’s a suspected counter-revolutionary on the run. Chénier is the artist always at odds with corruption and political repression.
In Otto Schenk’s design , Vienna State Opera’s stage for the Countess’s party has faux painted walls (resembling tiers of an opera house): front stage, the salon has antique furniture.
The valet Gérard (baritone Anthony Michaels- Moore) sings passionately, ‘You have fathered slaves’: how he hates their gilded house, their stylish gallants. ‘Your fate is sealed!’
Maddalena (soprano Norma Fantini) appears rather plump. She suffers in a tight corset; her servant Bersi (Alica Kolosova) thinks it’s absolutely superb. She also complains about her hideous petticoat: even if born a beauty, she now looks terrible. This is an unnatural world- the aristocracy- of artificial courtesies and sycophantic flattery. So her mother, white-haired, haggard, is greeted, ‘how elegant, absolutely charming’, ever youthful. It’s all flattery and teasing.
The poet, Andrea Chénier (Johan Botha) stands out, against the frills and frippery, in a navy jacket and culottes. Botha is unmistakeable to any opera lover, especially for his Wagner roles. He stands observing the show from the side-lines. They’re talking of ‘dark clouds’, impending revolution. But the ladies sing about the tomorrow they await in an innocent pastoral. Botha seems to scowl in contempt as a harp plucks in the background.
Maddalena, this figure of curiosity, asks how a poet is inspired by his muse. Chénier’s aria is a highpoint of the opera, and Botha’s lyrical tenor sublime beyond words. ‘Poetry, he replies, is as capricious as love; the muse is unpredictable, not to be commanded. He gazes up at the eternal blue of the heavens, the world bathed in golden sunlight, a boundless treasure. He extols his beloved fatherland. But the revolutionary poet criticises the Church, the Priest deaf to the pleas of an old man. And the nobleman does nothing against such poverty.
Turning to Maddalena, beautiful woman, do not scorn the words of the poet. ‘You know nothing of life, a divine gift, don’t deride it!’ She’s entranced by Chenier. (‘She’s a strange girl’, comment the other women.) Gérard is also deeply impressed.
A demonstration outside of starving peasants disturbs the party. Gérard resigns. The Countess’s guests will, nevertheless, return to their gavotte. Botha was enthusiastically applauded. Botha sang Walther in Wagner’s Meistersinger, the outsider to the guilds’ cant and ceremony: here the whole rotten feudal system.
Act 2 opens to a huge square, left stage café tables and chairs; a white statue; and an upturned carriage. A Revolutionary tribunal hearing. Gérard promoted to the Chamber of Deputies. Secret police agents -black-hatted, dandy- tick off a list of suspects: Chénier is included. In Chénier’s aria, Botha sings movingly of a power that says you shall be a poet. So, although advised to leave by his friend Roucher (Boaz Daniel) , his destiny demands that he should stay. And -bewildered by a lady’s anonymous letters-the name of his destiny is love. ‘Believe in love, Chénier.’ Botha’s rendition is ardent, captivating. Botha- his life undone- accepts Roucher’s pass.
Giordano’s music is a revelation- surging late 19th century romanticism, contemporary with Puccini (La Boheme, 1896) : an exhilarating experience, especially with Paulo Carignani conducting Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
Through Bersi, her former maid- who shelters Maddalena, now sought by the police- Chenier makes contact with Maddelena. In their duet, Maddelena, in a white shawl recognises Chénier: ‘Do you remember me?’ Now Fantini is more shapely: the artificial padding she wore as a Countess’s daughter discarded. (The aristocrat’s clothing represented unnatural constraints against real feeling.) Their destiny was to meet again. She sent him the letters. She’s alone, in danger, and afraid. Will he, her last hope, protect her? Fantini is rather good. And Botha magnificent singing of their moment of blissful love. To an oboe accompaniment, she washed away his last cowardice: he’s prepared to die. Despite the danger, the Terror, they pledge to stay together; even unto death! ‘Magnificent moment of blissful love’, they proclaim in duet. (This has the measure of Puccini’s best!)
Act 3: a Revolutionary court. The window facades are blacked out, a crowd of observers looking on; but elegant furniture front of stage. There’s talk of France attacked on all sides, by Prussians, Austrians. Women are urged to contribute their jewellery; mothers to give their sons to France, the motherland. ‘Old Madelon’ -Monica Bohinec in an unforgettable cameo- sings how she’s lost both her sons. She offers her grandson- barely a boy- yet he’s instantly conscripted.
A creepy police informer is dressed in black hat, frock coat, breeches and boots- rather foppish with a walking stick. Gérard (Michaels-Moore) is barely recognisable in a dashing black tailored jacket, braided in red. In his aria, Gérard hesitates- disillusioned – to sign Chénier’s death warrant. Once he was driven by hate. But now realises he’s still a servant: all he’s done is change masters. He was a child of the war of liberation. Why does he no longer have faith in the vision? (He wanted to arouse a conscience in the people: turn the world into a paradise.) He has betrayed his calling; he is a libertine, still slave to his passions.
Madame di Coigny introduces herself, now in a simple white dress. He’s captured her lover Chénier. Now Gérard confesses he wanted her, even as a small girl – his life-long passion, he, the servant always eavesdropping. He grasps her, wants to bury his hands in the sea of her blonde hair. If her body is the price of Chenier’s life, then take her.
Maddalena’s aria, La mamma morta, poignantly sung by Fantini, reminds of Verdi (Amelia’s plea in Un Ballo in Maschera ).They murdered her mother in the doorway of her room. She was alone, in poverty, trouble and danger. Bersi prostituted her beauty to save her. In all this wretchedness, love came to her. But she offers to dry his tears and watch over him. Does he (Gérard) see blood all around him? She will help him forget. ‘I am love, love, love! Mine is the body of a dying woman , so take it!’ (Tremendous!)
Out of love for Maddalena and his earlier sympathy for Chénier, Gérard helps him escape; but Chénier is nevertheless arrested. Gérard accuses the Court of violating justice: of murdering poets. Michaels-Moore powerful, impassioned: his life is a ship on course for death, so be it. But he will fly the standard for his country. You will not drag it through the dirt: Chénier is no traitor.
The Marseillaise is heard in the background. Maddalena has offered to take the place of a condemned prisoner so she can be with Chénier. They run into each other’s arms. Chénier sings of his troubled soul, but she is all he ever desired. So they will go to the guillotine together: in the hope of a new life, together in death. Their final duet vicino a te is terrifically sung. The feeling is Wagnerian, reminiscent of Tristan und Isolde’s Liebestod, love in death. ‘Death! Eternal love!’, ‘death arriving with the sun.’ Maddalena (like Isolde) walks to her death. Strains of Wagner-realising something new is, after all, the reworking of the familiar- did not detract from discovering a major operatic work, Giordano’s masterpiece. P.R.9.05.2014
Photos: Johan Botha (Andrea Chénier) and Maria José Siri (Maddalena); Anthony Michaels-Moore (Gérard); Alfred Sramek (Mathieu), also featured image. Photos of Norma Fantini as Maddalena were not available.
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn

Verdi’s Rigoletto

Vienna State Opera’s spectacular period production Rigoletto (stage Pantelis Dessylas) opens in the Duke’s palace. The banqueting hall where the Duke is entertaining his Court has rich oak panelling; the costumes, late Renaissance, appear authentic. So Verdi’s plot is dramatically more plausible than those modern stagings using the Court as a Mafia analogy.
The opening scene sets in motion the tragedy. The Duke (Piero Pretti) sings boasting, he finds pleasure today, he may be with another tomorrow. And without scruples, proceeds to woo the beautiful wife of Ceprano, his loyal retainer. Pretti, well named, has an irrestibly mellifluous tenor. We’re in no doubt about his lechery, but he’s charming.
Rigoletto role is that of court jester -a Shakesperean Fool- aiding and abetting his Duke, and mocking his courtiers. But he’s victim of his own intigues. Rigoletto’s tragedy is inherent within the characteristically Verdian relationship between over-possessive father and daughter seeking independence and love.
Leo Nucci’s Rigoleto, short, red-haired, appears slightly stooped, in fact a hunchback. And he’s actually wearing a harlequin outfit. Nucci is an operatic legend, celebrating his 500th stage appearance (4th April 2014) and 35 years performing at Vienna State Opera. His Rigoletto is a special treat for opera lovers. His distinguished baritone has enormous timbre, and he inhabits the role with subtle characterisation. Nucci holds the stage firing his caustically witty ripostes.
But the tragedy is sealed by Count Monterone’s outburst, demanding an explanation of the Duke who’s dishonoured his daughter. Rigoletto scorns the slighted father. Monterone curses both master and servant, but it’s Rigoletto who is haunted by the curse.
Act 2 , returning home, Rigoletto is accosted by Sparafucile, a professional assassin, (in whom Rigoletto sees a reflection of his own life.) Rigoletto’s aria -deeply troubled by the curse- is a highpoint of the opera. It reveals insights into his complex nature, the demon that drives him. To cellos and double basses- unsettled, disturbing- Nucci sings movingly, we are all alone. Rigoletto compares himself to Sparafucile: Sparafucile murders with his dagger, he uses words. He repeatedly sings , mantra-like, the old man put a curse on him . Now echoing Shakespeare’s anti-heros- Richard III , Iago- sings Nature has made him vile. How terrible it is to be crippled. But he may not weep. His young, handsome master orders him ‘Make me laugh’. If he, Rigoletto, is evil, it is because of him.
But here-(at home) -he becomes another man. Now upbeat orchestral strings: his daughter Gilda appears. His love for her humanises him. Gilda (Valentina Nafornita, a charming brunette ), complains she ony ever goes to church. – ‘Don’t remind a man of the happiness he’s lost’. His wife died. Only she is left to him, his mercy.-‘But what grief,’rejoins Gilda, ‘Calm yourself father.’-‘Only you are left to me.’ In a powerful interaction between Nucci and Nafornita, Rigoletto, Verdi’s obsessive father, ‘You are my family, country, universe.’ She’s been there three months, hasn’t seen the town. ‘Is the door locked?’ – ‘Always. Your precious flower will never be broken.’ . (Rigoletto instructs the housekeeper, Giovanna, she needs to be vigilant.)
Gilda confides in Giovanna (Juliette Mars), she’s been seeing a young man in church, (‘a student’). He’s generous, and refined. She doesn’t want a nobleman; she’d love him all the same.
‘Say those sweet words again!’ The Duke (disguised) has insinuated his way in. Pretti’s tenor is melting, melodious. ‘She is the sunshine of his soul’. Physically, Pretti is short and slight in relation to Nafornita, who’s seated on the garden bench, he standing over her. Their duet is well delivered. Their voices melt; she coos along. (The Duke is shameless, such is the power of rhetoric!)
In Gilda’s aria , Let his name be engraved on my heart, Nafornita is accompanied by a flute solo: jaunty rhythms introduce the well-known Caro nome, ‘Beloved name, may you always remind me of love…’ Nafornita’s display of coloratura is pleasing , but (standing left of stage by a well) she sounded a little shaky at one point. (She was unwell.) Elsewhere, Nafornita’s gorgeous stage presence and acting compensated.
We see the sumptuous palace interior; tables strewn with chess sets. Pretti sings angelically, he’s overcome by her virtue. And sententiously, she has been stolen from him. (The Duke’s courtiers have abducted the secreted-away Gilda, believing her Rigoletto’s mistress). With saintly indignation, he sees her tears as she calls to ‘her beloved Gualtier’ (his disguise). Terrifically sung by Pretti in a rich red velour house coat: the devil has all the best tunes.
Chorus- Vienna State Opera’s excel in Verdi- sing, ‘He has discovered a rare beauty’. In one of the great Verdian choruses- ‘They carried her out…blind-folded the girl.’ They actually sound quite charming. Verdi gives them a jaunty swagger, mocking their false bravado. The Duke sings of the poor girl: love summons him (Possente amor) . Chorus repeat (ironically), why is he so agitated.
Nucci’s scene, searching for Gilda (end Act 2) is harrowingly well played. They mock him, ‘Poor Rigoletto! What’s new, jester?’ They taunt him- Where can she be?-Verdi’s strings sardonic, almost laughing, jeering. Nucci, hunch-backed, is pitiful in his jester’s costume. In his aria -The girl you abducted last night is my daughter- their contempt changes to embarrassed silence. Rigoletto begs for pity; he can only weep. He pleads, have a heart. Then, a long sustained note, ‘You are fathers…’, accompanied by a superbly played cello solo. It was powerfully rendered. The applause for Nucci went on and on.
Gilda is brought in. Distraught, shamed. She’s been deceived, but confesses her love. Rigoletto sings, have no fear my angel. We are alone, speak. Gilda admits she saw the young man every sunday in church. She said nothing, but their eyes spoke. He came to her secretly yesterday, then left. But she ‘was filled with hope.’
Nucci sings poignantly, he hoped she would rise up as high as he, Rigoletto, has fallen. Weep my child to my heart! He swears to avenge the honour of fathers. Terrible vengeance is his one desire. The jester will strike him down. (The Duke sings, side of stage, he suspects me.) The scene ends tremendously, Verdi’s conflicting voices in ensemble.
Opening Act 3, an imposing rocky stone building (the Tavern). Maddalena (Nadia Krasteva) salaciously tempts the Duke. ‘All moral sense vanishes in the act of love.’ There is no doubt of his deception of Gilda. The Duke is incorrigible: ‘Come here and hear his heart beating.’ She is leading him on- dangling her legs- all thighs. Krasteva’s mezzo is excellent!
Now the Duke’s iconic aria La donna e mobile… ‘Woman is as wayward as a feather in the wind. Her pretty face is deceitful, whether weeping or sleeping.’ It’s insolent, bragadaccio, misogynistic; and accented by a soaring clarinet solo. Outside they’re overheard by Rigoletto and a despairing Gilda. He’s given Gilda time to get over him. Would she still love him if he were deceiving her? Besotted, she continues to love him. (Later Rigoletto negotiates with Sparafucile: Kill him and he’ll double the reward.) Again we hear the Duke’s swansong. Cruel misogyny! Pretti, in a grey swashbuckling outfit: Lamentable the man who puts his trust in a woman! But it is superbly sung, reaching thrilling high notes. Well applauded.
For Rigoletto the moment of vengeance is here at last. (A storm brewing, a sack is delivered.) ‘Take a look at me, the jester. Now he is at my feet!’ Then he hears the Duke’s refrain, as if mocking him, from the balcony, (La Donna e mobile), so beautifully sung by Pretti. Insidiously alluring, satanic?
So who’s in the sack instead? Impossible! She left for Verona. We hear Nafornita, her voice feeble. She deceived her father. She loved him too much; disguised to save the Duke, must die for him. Crushed, Rigoletto, declaims, ‘Oh terrible God!’ She has been struck down by revenge. Pathetically, if she goes, he’ll be left alone. The sheer abjection of human despair- man juggled by fate- is akin to the desperately pitiful King Lear picking up his smitten daughter Cordelia. In Verdi, fusing music with high drama, the scene cannot fail to move.
Nafornita performed in spite of illness: against the towering performance of Nucci, and Pretti’s virtuoso tenor. Jesus- Lopez Cobos, distinguished in Italian repertoire, encouraged Vienna State Opera orchestra to their Verdian best. And that glorious Chorus! P.R. 4.4.2014
Photos: Valentina Nafornita (Gilda) and Leo Nucci (Rigoletto); Valentina Nafornita and Piero Pretti (The Duke of Mantua); Featured image Piero Pretti (the Duke)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn

Puccini’s La Boheme

The star attraction of Vienna State Opera’s La Boheme are the stage sets, especially Franco Zeffirelli’s bustling cafe scene on two levels. These were designed in the 1960s, but still stunning-like a Manet impressionist painting come to life. So it’s brave of Vienna not to have updated them with the latest minimalist concept transposed to the 21st century. Zeffirelli’s immaculately painted detail is true to Puccini’s obsession with realism, here social realism. Yes, this Paris burgeoning with artists is long past, but it endures through Puccini’s music.
La Boheme is autobiographical, recalling scenes and characters from Puccini’s life as an impoverished student in Milan, but, unembittered, burnished in a soft golden light. It remembers not the desperate poverty, hunger, but celebrates the camaraderie, close friendships, and youthful optimism. (Lang)
The garrett- peeling roof with two holes, the furniture threadbare, junk. Puccini gave detailed stage directions. Bearded Rodolfo (Ramon Vargas) in frock-coat, waistcoat, and bow tie, declaims, the fiery drama he’s writing will warm them: throws his manuscript, an ardent love scene, into the fire. Marcello (Adrian Eröd) is painting the Red Sea. The pawn shops are closed over Christmas. But they’re joined by musician Schaunard (Alessio Arduini) who got lucky and brings in some food. The script is brilliant, witty, plausible.
And Puccini’s score dispensing with overture, we’re swept away by the opening motif- Rodolfo’s -representing young, romantic, unbounded love. Agitated chords, anything but maudlin, suggest a bunch of young guys joking, determined to have fun. So, interrupted by the landlord demanding arrears, they rib Benoit (Marcus Pelz), in a brocade smoking jacket and embroidered fez, who boasts about ‘the pretty girls he has, now and then’, (the skinny ones are so morose, like his wife); and they eject him for besmirching their ‘virtue’.
They go out on the town. Rodolfo stays to write an article; and as they exit- ‘Be careful on the stairs in the dark’ he warns -as one of them falls.
That detail is crucial, (in Puccini’s dramatic authenticity), as a prelude to the knock on the door from Mimi: ‘I’m sorry, my candle’s gone out.’ She’s ‘so pale’, she excuses herself, a little out of health. She collapses in his armchair, her head to one side. ‘What shall I do now?’- ‘A little wine?’- ‘Just a little.’ Maija Kovaleska’s affecting soprano sounds feint, not feeble. She and Ramon Vargas truly enact their scene of (literally) fumbling introduction. ‘How silly of me! Where is my key?’ The candle goes out. They’re on their knees searching – Puccini’s orchestration playful. He holds her hand- How cold your hand is (Che gelida manina!) – and helps her up. Luckily the moon is shining. Vargas, as if blocking the door, tells her about himself. Chi son!- Sono un poeta…E come vivo?- vivo. ‘And how do I live? I live.’ In dreams he’s a millionaire. Occasionally all his riches are stolen by two beautiful eyes. In this great aria, Vargas, a fine tenor, is modest, sincere: he eschews the vituoso’s swagger.
And she? (Kovalevska) Mi chiamano Mimi. La storia mia e breve. ‘People call me Mimi.’ She embroiders flowers. Artlessly sung by Kovalevska with such fresh charm; her high notes are a quite natural progression of her joy. She sings she doesn’t know about poetry; seldom goes to church, but prays to God; lives alone in her little room. ‘But when the sun rises… the first kiss of Spring is mine’. Vargas is sitting in his armchair, staring benignly. She, Kovalevska, a stunning brunette, is wearing a simple long gown, with prim, white collar.
Act 2, a Paris Christmas market, bustling stalls front of stage, children everywhere: behind, and above, the silhouetted facades of a long shopping boulevard. The stalls are cleared away to reveal Cafe Momus, hanging lamps, oak panels, the lot. Rodolfo and Mimi are centre stage. Rodolfo has bought Mimi the bonnett she’s always wanted.
Musetta, determined to make Marcello jealous, appears with her rich, older man. Ildiko Raimondi, blonde, wearing a scarlet satin cloak, steals the show. Raimondi’s Musetta, wild and flamboyant, is the very opposite of Kovalevska’s delicate Mimi. And Musetta, constantly feuding with Marcello, their stormy relationship is a foil to Mimi/Rodolfo’s.
Musetta has a tantrum, throws a tray, topples the table. How can he be jealous of ‘this old woman'(Alcindor)? Casting aside her red cloak, Raimondi’s stunning black, red-trimmed extravaganza is out of the Follie Bergere; or Toulouse -Lautrec poster. Raimondi’s aria Quando me’n vo soletta per la via is a tour-de-force. ‘People turn to look at me: they all admire my beauty.’ Turning to Marcello who’s avoiding her,’You hide your pain , but it will torture you to death.’ Raimondi’s high notes are to bewonder. She emits a shrill scream- the pain in her foot! – showing off her white petticoats for the bumbling, helpless Alcindor (Pelz). ‘The bill so soon?’
A troop of soldiers, a brass band, led by a drum major, pull the crowds on the overhead stage. The gentleman will pay. They merge with the crowds of Zeffirelli’s spectacular, cinematic set.
By contrast, Act 3’s snow -covered stage: left, a customs barrier,and in Puccini’s realism, street sweepers-‘we’re freezing’ -demand they open up. Milk maids pass through with butter, cheese, eggs. But Mimi’s basket is empty. Kovelevska- now with a bonnett, but no gloves- asks for the tavern with the artist, seeks Marcello’s help. She sings, Rodolfo loved her, but -she thinks-he’s consumed by jealousy. (‘One step, one word, and he becomes suspicious.’) Kovalevska seemed a little underpowered. The applause was restrained. I found her endearing.
Baritone Adrian Eröd is very good as Marcello, here in duet with Rodolfo. Vargas sings powerfully, ‘I thought my heart was dead. She brought it to life.’ Marcello retorts, ‘Love without laughter is tedium,’ and – almost jostling Vargas- complains, ‘Musetta is a flirt, and makes eyes at everyone.’ And plaintively, ‘I try in vain to conceal my pain.’
Rodolfo knows Mimi is terribly ill, weakening every day. (His room is damp and cold.) Vargas, a golden tenor, sings with warmth and heart-rending honesty. Mimi is a flower faded by poverty; love alone cannot restore her health.
Mimi revealed by her coughing, has overheard her death sentence: she’s going back to her embroidery. In their duet Vargas and Kovalvska were blistering. Being alone in winter is intolerable; Rodolfo’s love will mitigate her suffering. By contrast, right of stage, Musetta and Marcello , the tempestuous lovers, ever-arguing. ‘You’re behaving like a husband,’ Musetta throwing her cloak at him. Meanwhile Mimi and Rodolfo pledge ‘I am yours forever. We’ll part when Spring comes. If only winter would never end…’
In Act 4, Puccini displays his mastery of dramatic timing. Rodolfo and Marcello are bemoaning their absent lovers. Schaunard, lucky again, enters with food. But their reverie is disturbed by a distraught Musetta -Raimondi now in sobre maroon- accompanied by a pale Mimi, who can barely stand. Mimi is terminally ill. Lying on Rodolfo’s bed, she sings, new life surges in her. ‘Do they have wine, coffee?’ Such poverty ! She’ll be dead in half an hour, one comments.
Their poverty is detailed, but never sentimentalised, endured in good humour. ‘I’m so cold. If only I had a muff. They’re all starring at me,’ as she gratefully recognises her friends. Musetta offers to sell her earings to bring a doctor. And the philosopher Colline (bass Jongmin Park) sings (impressively) an elegy to the old coat he must part with.
As their Act 1 love theme is recapitulated, she asks have they gone. She only pretended to sleep so she could be alone with him. ‘You are my love and my entire life, Vargas sings, she’s still as beautiful as the dawn. She corrects him, you mean the sunset. They reminisce, Vargas and Kovlavevska powerfully enacting their scene. She sings her refrain, They call me Mimi’. She knows he’d found the key ‘very quickly’; in the dark, she couldn’t see him blush.
She looks radiant, but lies back to cough. The muff now on, her hands will never be cold again . (Money squandered!) ‘Mimi!’ cries out Vargas, his grief inconsolable.
Those demanding vocal fireworks might find the two leads underpowered. For me, the experience was as moving as I’ve heard. Vienna State Opera orchestra (and Chorus) under Mikko Franck’s conducting, played Puccini’s popular but subtle masterpiece with fresh ardour. And Zeffirelli’s stages, like Hollywood film sets, are to marvel. P.R. 26.03.2014
Photos: Maija Kovalevska (Mimi); Featured image Jongmine Park (Colline), Adrian Eroed (Marcello), Alessio Arduini (Schaumard)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michel Poehn
Reference to Oliver Lang Puccini und die Boheme (Wiener Staatsoper programme notes)

Berg’s Wozzeck

Late March in a stormy, cold Vienna, Spring has been postponed. Doom and gloom also on the stage of Vienna State Opera’s Berg’s Wozzeck. Alban Berg’s opera is based on George Buchner’s stage pieces concerning the (1821) criminal case of a barber who stabbed his woman to death. Wozzeck, a low-ranking soldier is forced to work privately for his captain , and volunteers for his doctor’s experiments, so he can support Marie and her child by him.
But Berg’s modernist opera -the first complete ‘atonal’ opera- is a work for our time, not just early 20th century, but recognisable now. Berg was moved by this man, ‘maltreated, spurned by the world, plagued by visions, who murders his lover, and drowns himself’. Berg’s opera – modernist-like Schnittke’s plays – tells the story through episodes, over 3 Acts , each five scenes. Berg’s music heightens the emotional atmosphere in these individual scenes, incorporating old and new musical forms. And (for 1925) its social realism radically depicts scenes from everyday life. An indictment of social injustice, Wozzeck ‘widened the notion of opera still living off stylised costumes and standardised characters.'(Schoenberg)
The Captain (Herbert Percoraro), pampered in the barber’s chair, waffles away with patronising advice. Wozzeck- so the Captain smothered in lather- ‘always looks so frantic’. A decent man with a clear conscience does everything …with control. Herbert Percoraro, a lyrical, high -pitched tenor, emits a manic laugh- against Mathias Goerne’s deep bass. Ja wohl, herr Hauptmann, Wozzeck repeatedly nods. Mathias Goerne has played the role of Wozzeck so often he now embodies the character. Physically, Goerne looks demonic; his large, staring eyes have a haunted look.
The Captain taunts him, Wozzeck has a child , unblessed by the Church: Wozzeck is a good man but has no morals (ein guter Mennsch, aber er hat kein Moral.) Wozzeck rebuts him ‘suffer the little children to come unto me.’ The law of God, poor people don’t see it. Morals! We are poor people; try practising your morals with no money. Goerne, standing glowering over the Captain waves his razor menacingly. Pecora rejoins, he’s a good man, but he thinks too much – often repeated of Wozzeck (the lower classes’ thinking could lead to revolution.)
This brooding violence re-emerges in the following hunting scene. Wozzeck tells Andres the place is ‘haunted’: the story -almost comical – how one evening a head came rolling down, someone thinking it a hedgehog.
Marie (Scene 3) watching a military band from her window, sees the Drum Major. He glances after her: soldiers are handsome fellows. ‘Come boy, you’re just a whore’s son,’ she sings. She’s a pretty maid, but she has no husband. As Marie, Evelyn Herlitzius is a ravishingly expressive soprano.
Their home resembles a shack in a southern U.S. movie – Depression era. Wozzeck looks in through the window – a striking contrast to the Drum Major. Wozzeck sings of his visions, ‘There was shape in the sky, all glowing. It came after him!’ (She goes to look after her son.) Herlitzius, tremendously powerful, rails, ‘This man’s obsessed, he didn’t even look at his child.’ All this thinking is driving him mad. And, desperately, ‘God , what it is to be poor.’ She can’t bear it any more. She’s frightened.
Wozzeck’s other way of earning money: the Doctor (Wolfgang Bankl). Doesn’t he give him three groschens a day! Has he eaten his beans? See, you’re philosophising again. (‘You see in nature…) Wozzeck is on all fours, like a dog. Bankl’s white-jacketed doctor is a chilling forerunner to a Nazi War Camp doctor. Wozzeck mistakes the Doctor’s interest in his visions for human sympathy. But Bankl triumphantly declares,’You’ve got a perfect mania- a classic case. Just keep being good.’ With his hypothesis, he’ll be famous.
In the scene between the The Drum Major and Marie, the Major (Herbert Lippert) appears at Marie’s s door. She mocks his swagger. He forces himself on her. She fights him off- like a wild animal. Then, unable to resist him, they copulate.
Opening Act 2 , Marie is with her boy. Again the expressionistic painted stage set, grey with cloudy abtract shapes in black; or are they dirt-engrained walls? Marie tries to hide the earing ‘she found’. Wozzeck interrogates her- ‘it must be gold?’- but relents. Plaintively Goerne sings , ‘Nothing but drudgery under the sun. We even sweat as we sleep.’ But he offers his pay and money he’s earned on the side. She sings, I’m not a good person. What a world! She could kill herself. Herlitzius, overwrought, affecting, is sensational.
The Doctor and Captain’s meeting in the street is comical. The strutting Captain (Bankl) in a top hat looms over the Captain (Percoraro), who, breathless, is trying to catch him up. ‘Permit me to save one life! Here’s you, bloated, fat, subject to aploplexy…’
Wozzeck, what’s your hurry. You charge through life like an open razor!‘ They mock him over his wife’s affair with the Drum Major. (The Captain admits he was once in love too.) But Goerne pleads with harrowing pathos, she’s all in the world he’s got. ‘God in heaven, it almost makes you want to hang yourself.’ To the Doctor,’He’s a rare specimen, this Wozzeck.’
Wozzeck confronts Marie, hints at her affair: her red lips have no blisters. ‘You were with him!’ -‘What if I was?’-‘You bitch!’ He’s about to strike her, but Goerne, again philosophical, sings movingly on the human condition, ‘Man is an abyss. It makes you dizzy looking all the way down.’
Wozzeck is outside a cheap tavern, brandy-soaked. It’s effectively staged, soldiers dancing with local women, huddled together on a cramped raised platform. Berg’s music seems to subvert the waltzing rhythms. He walks in, as Marie and the Drum Major appear and openly flirt, kissing passionately. The dance ends, Wozzeck’s about to go over. Goerne sings he’s comfortable here; but death would be as comfortable. Earthly things are in vain…Everything rots away; then, hiccupping, ‘his soul stinks’ . A fool cavorts: why is the world sad.
In the soldiers’ barracks, there are lines of men’s bodies either side of the stage. Wozzeck can’t sleep, sees flashes, hears the refrain ‘Oh, God, lead us not into temptation.’ The Drum Major bursts in, picks a fight with Wozzeck and brutally strikes him. He’s left bleeding and brooding.
Opening Act 3 Marie is sitting in her room , desperately seeking consolation in her bible, identifying with Mary Magdalene seeking forgiveness. Then- the stage set excellent -an expanse of flint grey water and skies. Marie and Wozzeck are walking by the ‘pond’. Wozzeck sings enigmatically,’you won’t need it in the morning. ‘
There’s a horrid moment as Herlitzius jerks- like receiving an electric shock- and topples. Goerne sings of how red the moon is… He has cut her throat. No one else can have her. Tot! A tremendous wailing sound emanates from the orchestra; a long sustained note, hellish drums, an ominous knocking.
We see Wozzeck sitting at the entrance to a tavern, a hole cut out of the expressionistically painted wall. Wozzeck, drunk, clings to a woman, with his bloodied arm. (No shoes, she can go barefoot into hell.) They all come out, repelled by the blood on his hands.
Wozzeck returns to the pond. ‘Alles still..still und tot.’ Wading in, he sings incoherently, Marie, what is that red band around your neck? But the red moon will betray him. He can’t find the knife; imagines himself all bloody, as if washing himself with blood. (The Doctor and Captain, passing, think they can hear someone drown.)
The final scene shows children playing. Does the boy know about Marie:’Your mother is dead, out there by the pond.’ The boy is seen fading into the expanse of blue cloud: perhaps the outsider, philosophising.
Wozzeck is the victim of a modern, ‘capitalist’ society- poor, down-trodden, exploited; and psychotic, driven mad. If Wozzeck has to be experienced, this current production could hardly be bettered. Directed by Adolph Dresen, Herbert Kapplmueller’s staging, evocative, atmospheric, is not distracting. The cast distinguished, Berg’s orchestration is endlessly fascinating, and to hear it performed by Vienna State Opera orchestra (conducted by specialist Dennis Russell Davies), a privilige. P.R. 23.3.2014
Photos: Featured image Evelyn Herlitzius (Marie); Mathias Goerne (Wozzeck); Evelyn Herlitzius (Marie) and Monika Bohinec (Margret); Mathias Goerne (Wozzeck) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Marie)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pӧhn

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro

Le Nozze di Figaro , like any great work of art, defies any single interpretation. Mozart and librettist Da Ponte’s opera, premiered in 1786, was initially censored by Vienna’s Court as socially subversive: Count Almaviva, a womaniser, and serial seducer of his servants has his come-uppance plotted by his valet, his wife, and his household. Set around the 1780s in Almaviva’s castle, the Count, supposedly an advocate of ‘Enlightenment’, waives his seigneural right of primae noctis. Except for Susanna, the Countess’s maid, the intended bride of Figaro. The Count, with designs on Susanna, offers Susanna and Figaro a room in the seigneural wing, and contrives to postpone the wedding. The ensuing intrigues, the Count besieged in his own Castle, could be an allegory for the Revolution to sweep Europe.
But the opera is ‘never only one thing’. The intrigues and counterplotting are about love, the characters are in a war of the sexes; Mozart and Da Ponte’s concern is with fidelity, and the tragi-comic consequences of misplaced trust and adultery. So the Countess’s arias are heartrending, as Act 2, ‘what happened to the those moments of joy; where are all those promises that passed his dying lips.’ Whereas the men are, to us, mysoginists. Figaro, Act 4, seeing his Susanna (the Countess disguised) engaging with the Count, decries ‘open your eyes…see women as they are.’ The closure celebrates the convention of marriage, but is problematical. The Count begs the Countess’s forgiveness; she does so because ‘she is more understanding.’
I was over-critical of Jean-Lous Martinoty’s production, then ‘new’ in 2012. Those cardboard cut-outs and trompe l’oeuil screens -a collage of cultural references- are problematic; but not distracting. This production is outstanding, a near ideal cast. Luca Pisaroni’s Figaro is a stalwart baritone, but at first lacking flexibility, not quite a figure of fun. His Act 1 aria challenges his master, ‘If Almaviva wants to play tricks scheming for Susanna, then he’ll outsmart him.’ Maybe Pisaroni’s too straight, not mischevious enough? Figaro, in a mustard frock coat, wants to know everything from Susanna (Anna Hartig): ‘Do you think he gives us a dowry for nothing…The count abolished his seigneural right- now he revokes it.’
The surprise was Simon Keenlyside’s Almaviva, who first appears looking quite raunchy. His hair is swept back in a tail, his billowing white shirt open, his gold breeches tucked into knee-length boots. Not the stuffed -shirt you’d expect fot a Count. And after so many dramatic Verdian roles, baritone Keenlyside shows a natural flair for comedy. Almaviva is forever being outwitted by his servants, especially his page Cherubino. So in Act 1, Almaviva enters -Cherubino hidden behind an armchair – while the Count ardently woos Susanna. Almaviva hides, hearing music master Basilio; but emerges furious at the revelation of Cherubino’s passion for the Countess. Almaviva uncovers the elusive Cherubino under a blanket, Cherubino ‘at it again’. But Almaviva having expelled Cherubino, realises his page overheard his play for Susanna. Finally Figaro enters with a group of peasants to ask for the wedding date, singing ‘We scatter flowers before our noble lord for abandoning his seugeurial rights’. The Chorus are continually mocking their Seigneur.
Olga Bezsmertina sings the Countess. In her aria (opening Act 2) Porgi, amor, qualche ristore, ‘Oh, give me consolation, my beloved back or let me die’, sings to an interweaving clarinet solo. Dressed in a lilac gown, kneeling on silk cushions, her auburn hair coiffured, Bezsmertina’s glorious soprano is refined, cultivated, high range not strained.
In Figaro’s intrigue- Pisaroni better, more the schemer- Susanna will agree to meet the Count in the garden: but it’s actually Cherubino in Susanna’s gown, so the Countess can expose her husband. In Cherubino’s aria ‘You ladies who know what love is, tell me if I have it in my heart’, (Voi, che sapete che cosa e amor), the irony is that Cherubino is sung by a woman (Rachel Frenkel) cross-dressed . ‘I freeze, I burn, and then I freeze again.’ The sentiment is at the heart of the opera’s engagement with the pain and pleasure of love. ‘Without wishing I tremble, I find no peace.’ In this iconic aria, Frenkel is bland, passionless, routine, although it’s well sung. It’s superficially beautiful, so Susanna comments, ‘Bravo, che bella voce!’ I didn’t know he could sing so well.’ (More dramatic irony.) ‘What to do with his hair: fetch one of my bonnets’. Cherubino is now dressed as a cute-looking maid. Mozart’s is opera buffa after all.
Almaviva knocks furiously (the frightened page locked in a closet). Wow! Keenlyside’s Almaviva, sleeked- black hair, in a louche scarlet frock coat, rouched white lace, black boots- a touch of Dracula. Keenlyside is excellent at pointing up the comedy, his rage and petulance rather ridiculous. He’s a figure of lust, denied, defied!
Keenlyside and Bezsmertina are first class in their fiery duet. ‘I’d go through hell for her,’ sings the the Count ironically. (Susanna is hidden behind an easel.) Keenlyside stamps his feet with rage, ‘Come out you scoundrel.’ By which time Cherubino has escaped, now dressed as a young cavalier. With cruel irony, Almaviva, the philanderer, tells the Countess to get out of his sight,’You disgrace me.’
The closet empty -Susanna emerges sweet- and- innocent -Almaviva has to apologise. The Countess reproaches him ,’You’re lying. I’m the woman who deceives you- Rosina- cruel man !’ (She’s Rosina, once the ward of Doctor Bartolo, whom Figaro abducted for Almaviva.) Now Countess, she sings passionately ‘Who would believe in a woman’s fury!’ She counters, my heart will try to understand you. Mozart/Da Ponte- within the apparent farce- are offering a very modern psychological realism of a marriage on the rocks.
The quartet comprises the servants Figaro and Susanna in mustard and grey, the Royals in red and lilac. As in theatre, it will end happily with a wedding, sing the Chorus ironically.
In Almaviva’s (Act 3) assignation with Susanna, she entices him into the garden. ‘Forgive me if I lie, but such is the nature of love.’ Keenlyside’s Almaviva is a figure of fun; the Count powerless, his Castle out of control. In his powerful aria, he realises he’s caught in a trap. But is he supposed to suffer and see his servant happy after she’s rejected his advances? ‘I’ll leave you no place; you were not born to torment me.’ There were cheers for Keenlyside, deservedly applauded.
‘Why does the memory of happiness linger on’, an oboe laces the Countess’s plaintive aria. ‘Ah, if I could hope to change his ungrateful heart.’ Bezsmertina, in a pink white dress, trimmed in gold, was superlative.
‘Soft Zepphyr will await the evening..’ The Countess conspires to win back her husband. Susanna agrees to the Count’s rendezvous. But Susanna appears dressed as the Countess, while the Count seduces his own wife dressed as Susanna. It’s comedy, but cruel and cynical; and for the Countess, desperate. So the Chorus’ (end Act 3) refrain ‘Amanti constanti…Andante, amici’, Faithful lovers sing the Lord’s praises, has added resonnance.
Figaro, unaware of the switch, sees Almaviva apparently with Susanna . His bitterly mysoginistic aria, Tutti e disposto ‘Allow us to suffer sirens…’ sung feistily by Pisaroni, but not at all comic. It accords with the dark undercurrent to this opera buffa.
Reunited with Figaro, Anita Hartig in Susanna’s aria is a high point. ‘Deh, vieni, non tardar’ . At last the moment…Oh, wonderful joy. Hartig is powerful, moving, ‘Come my beloved to my hiding place; she will place a wreath of roses on his brow. (The rose-printed screen is very effective.)
Their aristocratic counterparts are more problematic. In the charade the Count gropes at the disguised- as- Susanna Countess- who plays along with her husband’s fantasies. Keenlyside and Beszmertina enact the scene with spontaneous naturalness. She will trap the villain; he thinks her a cunning vixen’s heart. (She’s absolutely furious.) He, ‘Let us not lose any time’, Almaviva aroused with adulterous passion. But with her disguise revealed, she sits astride him: he’s trapped . On his knees he craves her forgiveness. She, ‘more understanding’, will have him back, knowing perhaps he’ll relapse.
Only love can end this day of mad intrigue, sing the Chorus, Hasten the fesivities, corriera tutti a festeggia. The ensemble’s ‘Then let us all be happy’ is ambivalent. Rather the convention of marriage, as closure, patches up lovers’ jealousies, matrimonial discord: the feel -good factor.
Keenlyside, Bezsmertina and Hartig especially underpin an outstanding production, with sympathetic playing from Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus under Jeremie Rhorer. P.R. 9.1.2014
Photos: Rachel Frenkel (Cherubino) and Anita Hartig (Susanna); Simon Keenlyside (Almaviva); Olga Bezsmertina (Countess Almaviva)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Johann Strauss A Night in Venice (Eine Nacht in Venedig)

Johann Strauss’s music, was never more popular, with the New Years Day waltzes beamed worldwide. But are the Operettas rather outdated? Not this gleaming new Vienna Volksoper production of A Night in Venice (Eine Nacht in Venedig) . Strauss’s score is gloriously tuneful, its arias evergreen; and, libretto by Die Fledermaus’s F. Zell and Richard Genee, it still works as great theatre. (A packed house responded to the witty dialogue with spontaneous laughter.) And there’s nothing second rate about this cast, nor the very smooth sound of Vienna’s Volksoper orchestra.
The preposterous plot of lovers’ intrigues- further complicated in a Venice carnival- centers on the visit of the Duke of Urbino, a notorious womaniser- aided by his personal barber (Figaro?) Caramello, seeking Barbara, the frisky wife of elderly senator Delacqua. To thwart jealous Delaqua, Annina -actually Caramello’s lover- takes her mistress Barbara’s place. And the servants- Ciboletta, the Senator’s cook, in love with Pappacoda- manipulate their masters. But whereas in Die Fledermaus the champagne is to blame, in A Night in Venice, it’s the carnival. Alle maskiert, Alle maskiert, wo Spass, wo Tollheit und lust regiert.‘ The masks and disguises of carnival are opportunity and excuse for fun, wildness and desire.
It opens with a pageant around Pappacoda’s traditional (Venetian) macaroni stall- quaint outfits with pointed hats. Behind, backstage, there are cut-out floating waves on wires, and- in Hinrich Horstkotte’s clever design – there’s an ingenious network of canals across the stage. Annina (soprano Mara Mastalir), posing as her mistress Barbara, appears in a pink gown singing magically of frutti die mare (she’s a fisherman’s daughter.) Barbara, on a jaunt, Manuela Leonhartsberger, appears only briefly. Ciboletta the cook (Johanna Arrouas), nattering away, is a fine-voiced soprano (Volksoper ensemble). Caramello, the Duke’s assistant, tenor Jorg Schneider, is a big boy. The operetta’s comic lead sings the famous Komm in die Gondel (end Act 1) and the Laguna Waltz (Act 3). Caramello’s ‘quite a fellow’- bouffon hair, eccentric moustache, culottes, and orange boots- sings he’ll do anything to get Annina back in his arms. Her song of loyalty doesn’t ring true. The quartet of disguised pairs, Ciboletta/Papacoda and Annina/Caramello, introduce the Alle maskiert number: (fun, folly, and …sex!)
The Duke of Urbino introduces himself. ‘My greetings to the fine city of Venice. Nature made you a place for love.’ Vincent Schirrmacher’s entrance lifts the production to a higher level. His is a very impressive tenor, authorative, in the traditional (Viennese) operetta style. He’s got star quality. Schirrmacher’s dressed in a purple glitter outfit, Venetian headpiece, white cravatte. Good looking, perhaps oriental -it doesn’t matter, he’s got charisma, and such a voice. He’s never seen Barbara unmasked, so he’s taken in by the disguised Annina. ‘The moon has filed a suit before the Court’, he wafts. The costumes are ingeniously designed so we can see behind the masks.
The Chorus, Volksoper’s, crucial in the scheme, have some of the plum numbers. ‘For who knows what tomorrow will bring…’ extends into ‘Man is pre-occupied with three things: Love , wine and coffee.’ Si nette tutto in sacce. Bring it on.
The interior of the Duke’s palace looks surprisingly opulent -Volksoper is Vienna ‘s second opera house, after all. The Duke, Schirrmacher, is dressed in very glamorous gold orienatal robes. Annina, Mara Mastalir, the other star of the show, sings she will do what it takes to lure her man. Mastalir’s soprano is beguiling, with outstanding technique. The Duke, pursuing her- the disguised Annina – around the stage, is tantalised. But why so cruel, Barbara? She sings, don’t get so close : I spoke (only) of a rendez-vous…The music loosens all restraints, Schirrmacher croons.
The second Act staging -given Volksoper’s relatively modest resources – is remarkable. A screen descends. There is a sensational framing of the cast as if on a boat. It’s like a floating box, around them and behind, Venice waterways, projected onto the opening white screen. Very effective.
Who doesn’t know of the doves of Saint Marco, sing the Chorus. They set an example for any couple. In the ensemble, some cast are waving tall rods which appear like doves fluttering. Hilariously camp.
The highlight again is Schirrmacher’s aria, ‘Ah , how lovely to gaze at the lovely ladies…As rash as the ebbing tide, their flights of fancy; no one knows what they’re thinking.’ Lovely ladies, Schirmacher’s gorgeous tenor rises.
In Act 3 the ridiculous senator Delacqua is looking for his wife Barbara everywhere. There’s a lot of dialogue in operetta, interspersed between the musical numbers. And thus ‘operetta’, transported to America, was a forerunner to the musical, especially from the 1930s the Hollywood musical. But this dialogue is German -although there are English subtitles- and it’s very witty. Agricola, asks Delacqua is that a man? ‘No but she wears the trousers,’ explains Ciboletta, his cook . ‘Now I’m confused!’ The old senator (Hubsch) wanders in a daze, repeating ‘I’m looking for a woman, I’m looking for Barbara.’ He’s told, your wife will turn up on Ash Wednesday, when the disguises are discarded. So the show closes with the repeated refrain, ‘It’s carnival all around. Whatever bores us will be ridiculed.’ It’s an extravagant looking set, and the carnival costumes are respendently colourful, intricate, top drawer.
This new Vienna Volksoper revival of Strauss’s A Night in Venice must be recommended. The production is traditional, but so is carnival. The cast were polished, the leads Schirrmacher and Mastalir outstanding. Volksoper chorus were exemplary, and the Volksoper orchestra refined, but under Lorenz C. Aichner, not quite their best (as under Volksoper’s director Albert Eshwe.) P.R. 4.1.2014
Photos: Mara Mastalir (Annina) and Vincent Schirrmacher (Duke of Urbino) ;
Featured image Group shot ensemble
(c) Barbara Palffy / Volksoper Wien

Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola)

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is a brilliant reworking of the fairy tale; and much more. The plot is like untying a knot: the more you unravel it, the more it tightens. Baron Don Magnifico lives with his two daughters Clorinda and Tisbe, their half-sister Angelina in the Cinderella role of household slave (her inheritance squandered by the Baron.) The moral parable unfolds when a beggar, turned away by the sisters, is offered hospitality by Angelina. Soldiers bring an invitation for Prince Ramiro’s ball. The twist is that Don Ramiro (Dmitry Korchak) arrives disguised as his valet, Dandini. But Dandini (Nicholas Borchev) plays the part of the prince, to suss out the marriage candidates, and dupe the flirtatious sisters.
The genius of Vienna State Opera’s (Sven -Eric Bechtolf) production is the updating to a (northern) Italian setting, moving between a designer villa and a car showroom. Thus the twin pillars of Italian consumerism , design (the sisters are fashion addicts), and sports cars, represent the false values of status against the humanity of Angelina.
Don Magnifico’s is a state of the art (Milanese) villa . Elegant high ceilings, cream panels, Japanese paintings, blonde parquet floors, suspended lighting. It could also be a haute couture showroom . The ‘wicked’ sisters, Sylvia Schwartz and Juliette Mars, cavorting in white slips are not at all ugly. ‘Once there was a king who chose a kind-hearted bride’ (Una volta c’era un re), Angelina sings. The two nasties are pulling at Angelina, stuck in- between, timidly holding a coat hanger.
The male cast behind them are passing along the line endless designer dresses, while the spoilt sisters are deciding what to wear. It’s all hysterically funny- a send up of pret-a-porter. By contrast the deep voiced Don Magnifico (Paulo Rumetz) slouched in a chair – dreaming of a marriage dowry- wears a vest, khaki trousers and braces: very plebeian.
‘The great prince is coming to choose a bride.’ Dmitry Korchak, the Prince, is dressed as his valet Dandini, in a chic navy uniform , more airline pilot than chauffeur. ‘The wise Alidoro (the disguised beggar) assured him he’d find a bride here. What a voice! Korchak’s light, supple tenor, effortlessly floating colaratura, is a highlight. He sings ‘There’s a sweet look in her eyes he can’t figure out.’ Angelina (Vivica Genaux) is picking up and sorting her sisters’ dresses. ‘There’s a certain grace, a charm’ (Un soave non so che). In their duet, Angelina and disguised Prince Ramiro are separated by the open doors of a wardrobe. He’s looking for the Baron’s daughter. But who are you? ‘I don’t really know’ : can’t he see how confused she is? Genaux is a refined mezzo-soprano, a leading interpreter of baroque and belcanto. Her awkwardness is charming. She begs forgiveness for her manner. He’s leaving her heart to her. But he can’t understand why such a charming girl is dressed so humbly?
Meanwhile, Dandini, disguised as Prince Ramiro, is received by Magnifico. Nikolay Borchev a velvet deep baritone, is dressed in a brilliant white suit. The whole household lines up, in a musical serenade, to persuade Don Ramiro to make up his mind and choose his bride . Borchev the ‘Prince’ has a microphone in his hand, like a pop star. He has both daughters on either side. He sings, in the masquerade, he has to take a bride or he’ll be disinherited. Borchev, sitting on a rear- facing white chair- matching his white suit- relishes his power: he can see the turmoil written in their faces.
Angelina begs her stepfather to take her to the ball – just one dance!- but Magnifico dimisses her as a silly servant girl; and waving his cane, orders her back to dust her room . The ‘beggar’ Alidoro, Don Ramiro’s philosopher- is impressively sung by baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. ‘Everything is about to change’ (La del ciel). She, Angelina, shall have everyone at her feet, conquer every heart. A bolt of lightning will change her destiny.
Scene change, a sensation! It’s a car showroom, with a real, baby-blue, classic Italian car in view, right of stage. On the overhead balcony – beneath opaque glass panels- Borchev’s ‘Prince’ is smooching with, trying out, the two sisters in turn. (Balcony reverts to a sales office.) Then a brilliant white convertible is wheeled in centre stage! In the driving seat Baron Magnifico. So Rossini’s wine cellars have been updated to motor sales. Secretly confiding in his ‘valet’ (Romero), Borchev- disguised as Prince-
describes the sisters as vain and capricious. But they’ll continue with their comedy. Anyone who wants to marry them can! Meanwhile the two sisters in their snazzy dresses are fumbling around blind-folded in Dandini’s game.
The iconic moment. A mysterious lady arrives at the Ball, her face veiled; beautiful, but who can she be? Vivica Genaux is dressed in the ultimate party frock -a Prada special?- ultramarine taffeta, fluted skirt, pinched midriff; white headscarf, and wearing designer shades. Korchak, erstwhile ‘valet’, sings the sound of her voice is familiar to him. She kindles the flame of hope. Korchak, wow! She reveals herself for just a moment. To gasps! The close of Act 1 is a rousing crescendo, Vienna State Opera orchestra sounding authentically Italian (conductor Michael Guttler), Chorus and ensemble whipped up to a frenzy to die for!
Again, opening Act 2, the car ‘showroom’ – the blue car still in place- now has long white banquetting tables. The Baron, in his aria, bombarded with letters and petitions, has to bolt the door. He’s going bankrupt; and he’s worried by the competition for the Prince who looks uncannily like his (disinherited) step-daughter Angelina. She’s proposed to by the assumed Prince -but she’s in love with another: his valet. The actual Ramiro (Korchak) sings his heart is filled with a mysterious longing. ‘Dandini, tell these silly women to leave the Palace.’ Yes! He Romero will find her again. Oh, treasured pledge: identified by her bracelet, she’ll be his (si ritrovaria, io gioro). Astounding tenor, this Kurchak!
Meanwhile, in the comedy, Dandini reveals his secret to the Baron: he doesn’t give banquets, usually mixes with the servants. It’s as in a fairy tale. Now, he must return to his real job as Dandini. He makes the beds, brushes his clothes, shaves the Prince. (In effect, he’s a male Cinderella.) Borchev’s Dandini, appropriately in black, polka-dot shirt and white tie, his aria excellently sung.
Revert to the Baron’s State Room (rather designer villa) for Angelina’s aria, ‘There once was a king… in the end came innocence.’ Thunder and lightning ; snow seen throough the windows. The Prince’s carriage overturned- perhaps symbolising the subversion in the perceived social order. ‘Despicable people! You try in vain to insult the girl I adore,’ But thanks to her bracelet, Ramiro identifies Angelina, who’s still being kept as a maid (siete voi). ‘What a sudden transformation. Come let love guide us.’
Longer than average scene change, before the finale back in the car showroom . And what a finale! ‘Pride crumbles, good prevails’, Angelina sings, ‘my revenge will be to forgive them.’ She recognises a power greater than herself. Vivica Genaux is in a brilliant white gown, wearing a tiara and crown. He Romero, the actual prince, Korchak now in his own white suit. Both sport glamorous shades.
‘Born into sorrow, she bore it all. But her face is transformed by a gentle breeze, the flower of youth.’ Now Genaux, earlier subdued, astounds us with breathtaking coloratura. Korchak, in white, is sitting in that awesome vintage Italian convertible: ‘Little by little, everything changes. Her days of suffering are but a dream.’ (Beneath the pantomine frenzy , there’s a moving parable.) Oh, my goodness, the white car drives off! Angelina is standing on the front seat waving. Truly a fairy tale ending.
Rossini’s orchestration is crucial in sustaining the comic momentum, springy rhythms tautening for the comic climaxes. Vienna State Opera orchestra under Guttler achieved a light, crisp orchestral sound, articulated wind playing. The familiar, but glorious, Rossini cresendos gather pace like a well-oiled locomotive.P.R.30.12.13
Photos: Vivica Genaux (Angelina); Vivica Genaux (Angelina) and Dmitry Korchak (Don Ramiro); Juliette Mars (Tisbe) and Sylvia Schwartz (Clorinda); Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Alidoro)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn

Beethoven’s Fidelio

In the plot of Beethoven’s Fidelio, Don Pizzaro, governor of a state jail, holds Florestan secretly imprisoned on political grounds. Sounds familiar? Redolent of political oppression from time immemorial? Never more so than in the 21st century. So why must it be located historically, in the early 19th century? Otto Schenk’s traditional production for Vienna State Opera has bare mud-grey walls, is sparsely furnished for head jailor Rocco’s house. Florestan’s wife Leonore has disguised herself as a man named Fidelio, hoping as the jailor’s assistant to reach Florestan. But Rocco’s daughter Marzelline- rejecting Jaquino’s attempts to woo her in the first scene- has fallen in love with Fidelio. (The gender implications, one of ‘the strange history of transvestite heroines’, are another matter.) This over-complicated plot is testing -except for seasoned opera fans. The dull staging doesn’t help, but it’s Beethoven, his only opera, so there are musical compensations!
Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter, is beautifully sung by a blonde Ildiko Raimondi. Beaming with love, in her first aria, Kommt Fidelio im Haus alles verändert, she sings how Fidelio has changed everything. Matti Salminen, seasoned Finnish bass is impressive as the approving father. Fidelio (soprano Ricarda Merbeth, former member of Vienna State Opera ensemble) sings of her mission, ‘Wie gross die Gefahr, wie schwach die Hoffnung’ , however great the danger, however feint the hope . As Fidelio /Leonore Merbeth, with straight black hair, seems a little fulsome. (A frockcoat doesn’t disguise the bust.) The trio gloriously affirm the Power of Love.
Rocco tells of the prisoner whose meagre rations have been reduced. Florestan has no light, no straw , nothing.
The Minister Don Fernando has heard of Pizzaro’s abuse of power. Pizzaro’s solution is now to murder Florestan. But first jailor Rocco must dig a grave in Florestan’s cell. A trumpet call will warn Pizzaro of the arrival of Don Fernando. Pizzaro (Tomasz Konieczny) enters, delivers his aria , Der Sieg ist mein (the victory is mine.) Konieczny is slim, hirsute, blonde, cropped beard: with modish close-fitting coat, scarf, and boots, much too attractive for the villain of the piece! The voice, a dramatic bass-baritone, is formidably authorative, however.
Merbeth in Fidelio’s aria Komm Hoffnung. Die Liebe wird’s erreichen (Love will reach it!) is a high point. Observing Pizzaro’s rage, more determined to succeed, she will penetrate the hidden place where her enchained lover is hidden. Her faith in love and freedom drives her on; her inner compulsion will not falter.
An incredible moment when the prisoners emerge, from the sides of the stage into the light -as if blinded. ‘Oh what joy to breathe in the open air. Their life as prisoners is a tomb. Oh, heavenly rescue! But their happiness –Was ein Gluck!‘- is counterpointed by other voices, knowing they are being watched and listened to. ‘Wir sind belauscht.’ We see guards patrolling on the stage’s overhead bridge. (Another resonnance for 21st century audiences, surely.)
Florestan has so far not been seen: that man who Rocco has been ordered to give less and less to eat. In Act 2, Florestan’s cell, we see Florestan (Peter Seiffert) kept like an animal on a chain- at first lying flat on the ground. ‘Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!’, sings Peter Seiffert, a great Wagner helden tenor –Tanhauser, Tristan recently in Vienna- and an actor tremendous to watch. ‘What a test! But God’s will is just. The measure of suffering is up to him.’ And, poignantly, the springtime of life’s happiness has deserted him. He dared to speak the truth. Chains are his reward. But his consolation is his duty is done. (Meine Pflicht ist getan.)
But now he feels a gentle breeze…he senses his wife Leonore (Fidelio) will lead him to freedom. Seiffert seems to collapse. He lies again flat, prostrate. (No clapping. No time to applaud.)
Fidelio sings she will loosen his chains, bring him freedom, whoever you are. Florestan wakens. ‘Mercy, give me one drop of water’, Seiffert such a great actor. Fidelio offers him wine and bread – the bread she’s been saving for Florestan – although she can’t quite recognise his features. Florestan can’t repay ‘his’ good dead. He’s moved seeing the young man there, not realising who it is. ‘ It will be all over for him in a day or so.’ In Beethoven’s great trio -Florestan , Rocco, and Fidelio- each sing their separate lines in contrapunct. Florestan, repeats ‘O dass ich eux nicht lohnen kann ‘, if only I could repay you ; Fidelio and Rocco, ‘It’s more than I can bear’, ‘his life will soon be at an end.’
Pizzaro enters, gloats over his victim’s powerlessness. As Pizzaro is about to stab Florestan, Fidelio intervenes against his Mörderlust (bloodthirst)- steps between them. ‘First kill his wife!’ Fidelio draws a pistol, and reveals his identity. ‘What pluck! Shall he, Pizzaro, tremble before a woman?’
Now the trumpet call, signalling the arrival Minister Don Fernando, Beethoven’s trumpet surely one of the iconic moments in all music, sending a call to freedom, an end to tyranny. Du bist gerettet, saved by almighty God. ‘The hour of vengeance strikes. Love in league with courage will save you!’
O, namenlose Freude! After this suffering, this is beyond joy! (There are strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy movement.) Alone Leonore and Florestan thank God for their deliverance. The duet between Florestan and Leonore is marvelously sung and played, Seiffert and Merbeth reminding one of great theatrical reunions (King Lear and Cordelia?). ‘To hold her husband to her breast’, sings Merbeth poignantly.
There follows a long orchestral interlude, the most sublime of Beethoven’s orchestral overtures, Leonore (no. 3). But – blasphemy- isn’t this excessively long, so as to interrupt the dramatic momentum on stage? This is an opera. (The supremacy of libretto over music was argued by Gluck in his 1760s manifesto.) Or is Beethoven having the last word in the debate, proclaiming music over text? The audience applauded as if it were the end of the opera, a triumph for conductor and music director Franz-Welser Möst and his Vienna State Opera Orchestra.
Notwithstanding, the stage opened out- now brilliantly lit from the screen at the back- is flooded by the wives coupling with their male prisoners. Heil sei den Tag, the day long yearned for! Don Fernando (bass-baritone Boaz Daniel) sings, representing the best of Kings: their enlightened ruler, grants a general amnesty: ‘A brother seeks his brother and will help whom he hears.’ Fernando recognises the prisoner kneeling as his friend Florestan. (Fingers point at Pizzaro demanding his punishment.) It is only appropriate that Fidelio, now Leonore, should release his chains, set him free.
Oh Gott, welch ein Augenblick, what a moment. Inexplicably, you try us but never desert us. It says something of Beethoven’s optimism and faith in mankind that the opera should end on a positive note. Not tragically, or in dramatic ambiguity. The knife of Pizzaro was staived.
Retten des Gattanten; the married couple are saved. Seiffert, overcome with joy, bemused, blinking in the daylight, the glow of happiness. He shakes his head in astonishment.They, Seiffert and Merbeth , passionately embracing, look like young lovers experiencing love for the first time. Led by Florestan, the Chorus of released prisoners and the people join in a hymn of praise to the noble woman who saved her husband.
The Fidelio narrative is too relevant to be historicised . (‘Amnesty’ cheekily handed out flyers superimposing over the Fidelio program cover an appeal to free political prisoners.) Vienna State Opera’s classic (Schenk) stage design still appeals, but I’d like to see Fidelio updated, cutting-edge, to the 20th/21st century. P.R. 30.12.2013
Photos: Tomasz Konieczny (Don Pizzaro); Peter Seiffert (Florestan); Tomasz Konieczny (Don Pizzaro) ; Peter Seiffert (Florestan) ; Boaz Daniel (Don Fernando)
Featured Image: Ildiko Raimondi (Marzelline); Matti Salminen (Rocco); Ricarda Merbeth (Fidelio/Leonore)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper /Michael Poehn