Eugen Onegin/ Hvorostovsky and Netrebko at Vienna State Opera

This had to be the operatic event of the year: Eugen Onegin sung by Dmitri Hvorostovsky, leading a largely Russian cast, with Anna Netrebko as Tatyana. And wunderkind Andris Nelsons, passionate about Tchaikovsky, conducted Vienna State Opera and Chorus. The minimalist sets are passable, unobtrusive, decorative, rather than provocative, like the constantly falling synthetic snow.
Opening scene, the widowed Larina and her childhood friend sing about disappointed hopes, how their habits and customs substitute for failed happiness. (Larina’s was an ‘arranged’ marriage -she felt alienated but accepted her fate). Larina has two daughters, the lively, outgoing Olga (Alisa Kolosova), and the reserved, bookish Tatyana (Anna Netrebko), Olga being engaged to the impassioned young poet Lenski (Dmitry Korchak). The peace of this sleepy, provincial landed estate -at harvest time- is exploded by the visit of Lenski’s friend, the sophisticated, city bred Onegin (Hvorostovsky), a free spirit, who defies their conventions; and with tragic consequences. He’s restless, subject to melancholy, always ‘bored’. Boredom –l’ennui, as in Baudelaire, a sickness of the soul- is the defining sentiment; and to which Tatanya is also prone. (This, the 1890s was the time of aestheticism- late ‘Victorian’ artists, and writers’ reaction against narrow-minded , bourgeois conventionalism- inhibiting freethought, spiritual enlightenment and happiness.) And Onegin defies social convention.
We first see Tatyana lying languidly on a bench, Netrebko exuding sensuality in a low-cut patterned dress. While Olga effuses, at least her man loves her. (Behind them, men in blue outfits do acrobatics- Cossack jumps: sensational, but is it necessary? ) Olga (Kolosova) in a bright red blouse, long, poppy-patterned skirt, sings she’s without a care; and -tying up her sister’s long hair- of when young love is happy. Tatyana, however, sings passionately, of how the poor suffer.
Lenski and Onegin bound in. The ‘foursome’ on Onegin’s first visit is well choreographed. Korchak’s Lenski is dark haired, good-looking; Hvorostovsky’s Onegin, with long silver hair, has an insolent, boyish swagger. Lenski loves Olga with ‘the mad soul of a poet’. Olga and Lenski sing, their love is ‘eternal’; Lenski, his soul will burn in love. Meanwhile the elegance and social superiority of Onegin deeply impresses Tatyana . Hvorostovsky’s baritone has tremendous depth and grace. In their duet he sings movingly of his father: asks Tatyana, ‘when you’re in the garden, what do you dream?’ He’s the hero of her romantic novels come alive. Netrebko’s Tatyana is exquisitely sung, but not quite convincing as the ‘innocent’.
Tatyana sits (in a white silk smock) on an illuminated futon: can’t sleep. She’s bored, will speak with her Amma. (What should we talk about? She’s already old. How did she get married? It was God’s will.) ‘You look unwell , my child.’ She’s not sick! She’s in love! Leave me! Give me pen and paper.
Tatyana (in the letter scene) tosses and turns, discards her fur bed cover. Netrebko has to kneel at an absurdly low table, her ‘desk’. (Formidable soprano, yes, but, sorry, she’s no great actress.) How to begin? She’s lost. She’s incapable of overcoming her emotions. Whatever happens will: she’ll confess to him. She’s found a ‘soul mate’- would give her heart to no one else. Her whole being has changed. His voice resonates in her soul. Between demonstrative gestures, Netrebko returns to that ridiculously low table of books.’Who are you really, an angel of mercy or a seducer? Cast away my doubts’. She’s alone, no one understands her. Netrebko hits all the right notes, but it didn’t move me. She throws up her hands- sweeps away her books. It’s rather contrived, juvenile, going through the motions. There’s a long pause for her applause , as if end of Act.
Hvorostovsky -against a background of girls throwing snowballs- asks why has she bared her soul. She has awakened feelings in him, but he loves her ‘like a brother’, wants only a respectful relationship. How agonising! He’d choose no other, but happiness is alien to him. Their marriage would be a torment- and all those years lost! He can’t change his ways. Oh! has he disappointed her youthful fantasies? Hvorostovsky suits Onegin’s dashing dandy: arrogant, conceited, and very well sung. ‘She’ll learn to get over it.’ Meeting Tatyana, Onegin’s reply deflates, disappoints, humiliates.
Act 2 (Tatyana’s house ball) it’s party time – a night club, as if around an ice rink, with suspended neon strips. Ridiculous somersaults; some are crawling; now they are waltzing (Tchaikovsky’s famous Polonaise). Netrebko is in a short, tight white dress- watch that figure, darling! Onegin, visiting at Lenski’s invitation- extravagantly mannered- repeatedly dances with Olga, flattering her coquettishness, and enraging Lenski’s jealousy before the guests. How cruel she (Olga) is to him. ‘They’ve only chatted’ insists Onegin’. Lenski, to Onegin, ‘You’re no longer my friend; I despise you’. Hvorostovsky’s Onegin, laughingly takes him in hand, his ‘We’ve done nothing wrong’ is nevertheless, patronising. But Lenski feels insulted, falls on his knees to Olga’s mother, remembering his family visits.
‘Life is no novel; friendship is empty. Men’s blood is hot,’ sings Lenski bitterly. He loves Olga, whom he compares to an angel. Lenski’s nostalgic aria, as if anticipating his cruel fate, is a highlight. ‘Where have they gone, the golden years of his youth? What will the next day bring?’ But everything is pre-determined by a higher order. He knows his fate: the world will forget this young poet. Ah, Olga, he, her husband, loved her. Then, to a mournful horn accompaniment, the refrain, where have the years disappeared. In this wonderful aria, comparable to Verdi, Korchak’s superb tenor won deservedly huge applause. Couldn’t they peacefully separate? But the fatal duel, though unwished, is irreversible.
In (Act 3) Fate determines Onegin will meet Tatyana, Onegin invited to his friend Gremin’s Ball. Hvorostovsky, in glamorous deejay, rather sexy laddish movements, sings of his boredom, of aimless years. Life was a joke. He’s returned. Is that really Tatyana? (Netrebko is wrapped in expensive furs.) Onegin is taken aback, by Gremin’s introduction to Tatyana: his wife, married for years.
Gremin (Sorin Coliban’s rich bass) sings lyrically of love experienced by every generation. He loves Tatyana immeasurably: she’s ‘like a ray of sunshine in the rain’.
Netrebko trails a gold brocaded gown, with a black fur collar. Her hair is now coiffed, short. Is that the same Tatyana? They’ve ‘already met once.’
Hvorostovsky proclaims, in his aria, ‘No doubt! He’s in love.’ Love was his downfall. Hvorostovsky, imp-like, almost laughs to the audience.
Writing his letter to Tatyana, Hvorostovsky is in bright red, the stage dark, blacked- out. At their arranged meeting, Onegin sings, ‘Oh, what misery’, Hvorostovsky, now in black, to arouse her passion once again, gets on is knees. ‘Enough! Get up!’ She must be open with him. Tatyana- Netrebko commanding, very impressive- was ‘younger then, and more beautiful’. For him, loving a woman was nothing new. ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ Her man (Gremin) was wounded in the war. The scandal..! She hands him his letter back.
Ironically, Onegin asks, if she knows what it’s like to be in love.’ He weeps. Does she? Then their duet,’Happiness was possible, then.’ She melts. They repeatedly sing the refrain ‘Happiness was possible…’ But Fate is already decided. ‘Leave now!’ Then she retracts, ‘don’t leave!’ Onegin thinks he’s heard the Tatyana of old. Their love is a gift from heaven, chosen by fate; she can’t reject him. She pushes herself away. Now for him, the shame of repudiation. Onegin bemoans, how pitiless, wretched.
Netrebko was -as my neighbour put it- ‘too cool’, best as the mature Tatyana. Hvrostovsky, ideal as the exrovert Onegin, but perhaps the melancholy was lacking. Kurchak was outstanding as Lenski. Nelsons’ conducting inspired Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus in Tchaikovsky’s impassioned, glorious score.
P.R.22.04.2013
Photos: Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin) and Anna Netrebko (Tatyana); Anna Netrebko (Tatyana); Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin); Anna Netrebko (Tatyana)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Poehn

Aida at Vienna State Opera

Nicolas Joel’s spectacular production of Verdi’s Aida has been wowing audiences at Vienna State Opera since 1984. The monumentally extravagant sets are probably no longer affordable at a time of cuts; and historically authentic reproductions, now unfashionable, replaced by minimalism. So this revival is a rare treat. But the opera isn’t just about spectacle, although commissioned and premiered in Cairo (1871). Verdi’s genius was to use the set of Aida to juxtapose intimate moments against vast crowd scenes : the protagonists’ loves are in conflict with their public duty.
So the opera begins (and ends) with pianissimo music, Act 1 beginning with Radames famous aria thus forgrounding the love interest. The army Captain Radames is at the centre of a love triangle: loved by both Amneris, King’s daughter, and the slave Aida. And like a Shakesperean tragic hero – Othello, Macbeth are also Verdi operas – a valiant man is dissipated, brought down by a fatal weakness. Radames cannot help loving Aida, who will be his downfall. Radames, in his opening aria, dreams of honour, and fame, and of Aida. Jorge de Leon, to a cello accompaniment, sings splendidly of the heavenly Aida, how he wishes to bring her to the blue skies of her native land. Ramades is a role demanding constant changes between the dramatic and lyrical (right up to the death scene): a tremendous vocal spectrum. De Leon hits thrilling high notes.
Amneris, (Olga Borodina, a very impressive mezzo), madly in love with Ramades, sings of rare joy: enviable the woman who can kindle such passion. She hears of his dream to be Commander: but was the dream not of something else ? She intuits, someone; her suspicions aroused when Ramades sees Aida. The trio (Aida, Amneris, Radames) immediately forefronts the love triangle. Amneris is seen with Aida (Kristin Lewis) , who’s always treated her as a sister rather than a slave.
Radames wants to know why Aida is crying: she’s ‘heard the cries of war’. But Aida’s tears give her away. She weeps for her beloved country. Now the spectacular entrance of the soldiers. The King (Janusz Monarcha) announces Egypt is invaded by the Ethiopians. The Chorus sing, ‘Let war and death be our battle cry!’; and celebrate Radames as Commander. Magnificent crowd scenes; Vienna State Opera chorus always excel in Verdi.
Aida, however, alone- in her key aria,’For whom do I weep’- sings of her dilemma. She is in the country of the foreigner. Her Radames is about to fight against her own people led by her father Amonasro. Kristin Lewis is short, dark- skinned , wearing a red and gold outfit, her ‘afro’ hair crowned by a gold head piece. Then, on her knees, she wishes Ramades death: yet loves him. What anguish; she cannot speak the words ‘father’ or ‘lover’. Kristin Lewis is truly moving -inspired casting. But then Lewis has sung the role of Aida internationally countless times: although her first time in Vienna, now her home. And, first night, she earned a tremendous ovation.
Act 2 ,featuring the confrontation between Amneris and Aida, opens to a sensational set – gold-headed maidens like swans, with Amneris being dressed to celebrate the Egyptians’ victory. Olga Borodina has considerable presence, and in her aria ‘My love come and intoxicate me; make me happy’ longingly anticipates Radames. But she’s tormented by uncertainty: must know if Aida is her rival. She will unlock her secret. In their duet, Amneris empathises with Aida’s grief: offers Aida, far from home, everything to make her happy. ‘Tell me your secret: is there a brave warrior amongst your defeated people?’ Then, the bombshell: ‘Radames was killed by your people’…’You love him. Look at me!’
Lewis’ Aida is now centre stage.’You keep lying! You love him ! The daughter of the Pharoahs is your rival’. Then Amneris (Borodina) retracts, has pity for Aida – wretched, let your heart break.’This love will be your death.’ Amneris will be celebrating on the victory march: she, Aida, will lie in the dust. Aida, alone, pleads, ‘Oh gods have pity on my sufferings’- Lewis outstanding.

But in the victory march (Act 2, scene 1), the Chorus (and such a chorus!) sing ‘Glory to Egypt and Isis, and to the King, all in gold, carried on high by bearers. The fabulous spectacle is truly breathtaking; but this is the public show. The heart of the opera is in the love-torn protagonists. A ballet is performed centre stage -the women made up in gold, virtually nude, the men, black-skinned, in gold and black outfits, gold headgear- the Egyptian Court side stage.
So ‘Come brave warrior!’ Radames, offered a wreath of victory, is saluted by the King as Egypt’s saviour. The King ‘will grant him any wish’. But which, ironically, Ramades cannot reveal: his secret, Aida, the slave girl. Ramades requests the prisoners be brought before them.
In a key scene – a characteristic Verdian moment – Aida sees her father , King Amonasro, (white-haired Markus Marquardt),who begs her not to betray him. Amonasro, concealing his identity, pleads the King’s clemency for the Ethiopian captives. ‘Today this is our fate : tomorrow it might be yours’- Verdi’s (often repeated) humane message. The Chorus of soldiers demands ‘destroy them’ -singing in counterpoint to the slaves, centre stage, pleading leniency. Radames asks for the freedom of the prisoners; only Aida and her father remain as hostages.
And now, to the jubilation of the crowds, the King offers Ramades his daughter in marriage. Both the crowd’s and Amneris raised hopes are bitterly ironic, given the private truth.
Fathers and daughters divided between patriarchal loyalty and opposing lovers. A Verdian theme. The King- prior to Amneris’ marriage to Radames- tells her Isis reads into the heart of mortals: their secret wishes. Amneris- wonderfully sung by Borodina- prays Radames will love her with all his heart. Meanwhile, Lewis’s Aida, shrouded in black, awaits Radames. Her aria, to an oboe introduction, laments ‘O fatherland, I shall never see you again’-a familiar motif in Verdi- the skies and breezes of the land of her youth. Lewis reaches powerful high notes. Her father, Amonasro will prise her from her lover- reminding her of her loyalty to him and her country. Father, have pity, she pleads.’You call yourself my daughter! The dead will curse you.’ What a price for her to pay.
When at last reunited with Radames Aida is ambivalent. She reminds him he’s bethrothed to another, of his vow. Is he not afraid of Amneris’ power? Then, let them flee. Aida asks him to go to a foreign land.- But how can he forget his fatherland, the country where he won fame?- Now she taunts him, he doesn’t love her, unless he’s prepared for exile. He accepts: they’ll be united in her fatherland.
Amonasro has been listening in. She’s betrayed Radames. Amonasro offers him a throne, but Radames realises he’s betrayed his country. The trio is powerfully rendered. Radames gives himself up to the guards, for revealing the Egyptians’ plans.
Thus the tragic hero has sunk to his nemesis.’Traitors must die!’. Yet Amneris, in her aria, still loves him ; if he loved her she would save him. But Radames would rather die than never see Aida again. ‘For her, I betrayed my fatherland and honour’– de Leon powerful, with terrific delivery on high notes- ‘May Aida know I died for her’. He has no fear of his people’s anger: he’s lost. Amneris, in her aria, blames herself, desperately pleads Radames’ innocence. In counterpoint the Choir chant, he betrayed his fatherland.
In the finale- Aida secreted into Radames’ tomb- Aida /Radames duet attests to the self-delusion of love. She’s too lovely to die. (The angel of death will open heaven..) They’re buried alive, but intoxicated in their passion. They’re defiant, staring out (of their stone bunker).The opera ends as it began with pianissimo strings; private happiness sacrificed to war. Vienna State Opera orchestra and choir, conducted authoratively by veteran Pinchas Steinberg, justified a fine cast. And those sets! PR 12.03.2013
Photos: Kristin Lewis (Aida); Jorge deLeon (Radames); Olga Borodina(Amneris); Janusch Monarcha (King); Kristin Lewis and Markus Marquardt (Amonasro)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Mozart’s Don Giovanni

At Vienna State Opera,Jean-Louis Martinoty’s production of Don Giovanni is controversial-a pastiche of 18th Century with the modern. But Mozart’s opera (Da Ponte’s libretto) is still so modern and relevant, why not use technical resources to communicate it? Don Giovanni is an anti-hero whose exploits entertain us. His victims give a running commentary, but Mozart withholds judgement- only implied in Giovanni’s unrepentant end. Machismo and its consequences are what the opera is about: still shockingly relevant to a 21st Century world where a medical student can be raped on Delhi public transport, and men daily abuse their social power over women. Mozart doesn’t glorify Giovanni,but rather problematises our sneaking admiration for his nerve and boldness.
Don Giovanni (Ildira Abdrazakov) first appears all in black, tight pants, t-shirt, black mask – like a house breaker- in a clinch with Donna Anna, in a lilac silk gown. His accomplice Leporello (Erwin Schrott), Giovanni’s servant, fashionably long hair, also in black, is waiting ‘outside’. But why has Donna Anna (Marina Rebeka) allowed her seducer into her room, (as implied in this production?) She panics, her calls for help answered by her father, the Commandant, who is killed by Giovanni in a sword fight. In this world of machismo chivalry, Don Ottavio (Toby Spence), her fiancee, swears vengeance. Giovanni’s misfired escapade and its consequences are a defining moment in the drama. Giovanni is stalked by his avengers. ‘My heart is full of love and revenge’, sing Donna Anna and Ottavio; but they’re ineffectual (until joined by Donna Elvira, Giovanni’s jilted fiancee.)
Giovanni and Leperello are like a couple of likely lads chalking up their sexual conquests. We now see Giovanni in black leather coat, high boots, long hair tied back: very sexy. They’re having fun. Leporello (Schrott) does more than assist his master; he shares in the spoils.
In Martinoty’s scheme, Giovanni chances on Donna Elvira, in a hotel reception, Veronique Gens, short black-haired, wearing a dark purple business suit, white shirt and tie- the ‘feminist’ professional. Soprano Gens, recently acclaimed here as Alceste, impresses in her aria, ‘where is the villain who betrayed my trust?’ Meanwhile, Giovanni is weighing up the chambermaids. What does he have to say after such behaviour? He violated the most sacred bond, leaving her, and her tears.(She talks like a story book, quips Giovanni.) Now can she have her revenge? Giovanni scornful, Abdrazakov has a devilishly contemptuous laugh. Leporello’s advice is,’ the square isn’t a circle’.
In a stunningly effective staging- with women in the background arranging a wedding reception- Leporello’s catalogues the ladies Don Giovanni has conquered. In Leporello’s famous aria, Giovanni ‘loves the blonde ones for their kindness, the dark ones for their faithfulness..the pale ones for their gentleness.’ Soon the ladies are flicking through annuals of Giovanni’s exploits, laid out on a table. One of them gets up on a chair as if to test her suitability. Irwin Schrott, bass-baritone, has a rich timbre, but maybe here a little ponderous.’As soon as he sees a skirt, you know what’s on his mind’, should be more animated. But Schrott, ended with a deep sexy purr, to great applause.
At Zerlina and Massetto’s wedding reception, Abdrazakov arrives like a rock superstar on an Italian tour. But Giovanni exercises, and abuses, his seugneural rights in a bid for Zerlina. ‘Go take them to my palace, offer them chocolates, wines, hams’, he orders. Zerlina (Sylvia Schwartz) and Masetto (Tae-Joon Yong) are both in brilliant white, Abdrazakov in sexy black leather. But Masetto knows his place-‘I understand , sir, and will do as bid’- but privately, curses ‘wretched Zerlina who’s always been his downfall.’ He knows ‘the gentleman will make a lady of you’. Giovanni, close up to Zerlina, is ‘finally rid of that idiot’.
Sylvia Schwartz, well-tanned, long flowing hair, has a fulsome, curvaceous figure. Abdrazakov, is a powerful bass, but lyrical in his seduction. She shakes her head, but her body tells otherwise. Schwartz is beguiling; he strokes her arm, moving to Mozart’s light, bouncing strings. The ‘morality police’ come just in time. Elvira, Veronique Gens now dressed in a brilliant heliotrope gown , pleads with Zerlina: learn from my sorrow, or you will suffer the same plight.
To ruin Giovanni’s day, they’re joined by Donna Anna and Ottavio. Elvira’s ‘You can see how black his soul is by just looking at his face!’ is countered by Giovanni’s, ‘Be more discreet’. The music is very civilised on the surface: phantoms overshadow the calm waters. ‘Ottavio!’ Donna Anna feels faint as she recognises Giovanni, he who killed her father. (As Anna and Ottavio, Rebeka and Spence are ideal together – the same height, blonde, innocents.) ‘He intended to rob me of my honour, but robbed me of my father!’ She begs Ottavio to avenge her: remember the blooded wounds.
Marina Rebeka, good as Anna, has an aura of innocence, but the power, the sense of outrage is lacking. As Don Ottavio, Toby Spence, front stage , is playing with his sword. But Ottavio is a case of failed machismo. He finds it hard to conceive of a nobleman committing such a crime. He’s meek: all rhetoric.’When he sighs , he sighs wih her, when she’s angered..'(Dalla sua pace…) It’s beautifully sung, but rather colourless. Spence is a handsome, but slight figure: no match for the scheming Machiavellian Don Giovanni. If he’s the alternative, no wonder women find excitement elsewhere.
Giovanni, still with designs on Zerlina, arranges a banquet to separate the married couple, the masqued entertainment brilliantly staged. A triangular peep-hole, reveals Leporello and Giovanni bewigged in 18th Century costumes. The stage opens up to a ‘film-set’ wardrobe- rails of costumes, behind which Giovanni secretes Zerlina. Masetto slaps Zerlina; sings, she accepts his blows like a lamb. He can scratch her eyes out, but she can see he doesn’t have the heart to do it.
Front of stage, appropriately filled with disguises, Giovanni, machismo self-publicist, delivers his signature tune (Finch’ han dal vino); boasts, it’s all a joke. He likes a good time. Abdrazakov is dressed in a white frock coat, richly gold-trimmed . The intrigues are cleverly suggested by a mirrored split- screen. Masetto observes Giovanni fondling Zerlina. The three avengers infiltrate, ‘strengthen their resolve’, kneeling, facing the audience, behind them the celebrations. But publicly, they acknowledge the Don’s hospitality. Abrazakov’s Giovanni, in dazzling white, in an outrageous feathered hat, arrogantly exudes power. The ultimate in extravagant spectacle, were there flashes in the audience?
In the darker Act 2, Giovanni, with callous cynicism, switches clothes with Leporello to woo Elvira’s maid. Leporello (Schrott)- after courting Elvira disguised in Giovanni’s frock-coat- reproaches Giovanni, ‘you must have a heart of steel’. But Abdrazakov is wonderfully tender, (accompanied by blind lutist), serenading the maid beneath her window. He’s a scoundrel, but such a charmer. Then, still dressed as Leporello, briefs Masetto how to ambush his master. Only to beat up Masetto , who’s after all, planning to depose his aristocratic seigneur. Schwartz, very good in Zerlina’s famous aria Vedrai, carino eases Masetto’s pain with love ‘a balm she always carries with her.’
Leporello unmasked- they’ve been duped again- Gens is outstanding in Elvira’s aria, confessing she still loves the Don, in spite of the murders he’s been involved in. What conflicting emotions! The ungrateful man has betrayed her. And yet she pities him, her heart filled with apprehension. Wearing a dark purple robe- holding up Giovanni’s frock coat- Gens is most affecting . Also when, finally in nun’s garb, Elvira tries to persuade Giovanni to change his life. His mockery earns her prescient’ May you rot in your decadence!’.
In another key scene, Donna Anna upbraids Ottavio, still promising revenge. Crudele She pleads: forget your tribulations -if you don’t want me to die of grief. Rebeka was enthousiastically applauded.
In the effectively staged come-uppance, Giovanni, who unwittingly invites the Commandant’s spectre to dinner, is at first unphased. He will not repent. His limbs are shaking, but he’s defiant.’Nobody has ever called me coward!’ It’s all about machismo, misplaced honour: ‘my heart knows no fear: so be it!’ ‘Repent, never!
Although Giovanni’s avengers stand in judgement, Giovanni, who’s blighted their lives, lives to haunt them. Ottavio pleads with Donna Anna to give in to his marriage entreaties, but she requests another year. They sing, ‘my long wait must yield’, but their fate is problematic. Elvira will end her life in a nunnery. And Leporello will find a better master. Yet the ensemble front stage sing ‘All wrongdoers will meet with such an end; the sinner’s wrong punished after his death.’ As if Mozart/Da Ponte are paying lip-service to the Catholic Church. Martinoty’s stage back-drop, however, shows an ‘Enlightenment’ sky, with a statue resembling Romantic hero Caspar-Friedrich. Mozart specialist Louis Langree ably conducted Vienna State Opera orchestra and choir.
PDR 10.O3.2013
Photos: Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna); Ildar Abdrazakov (Don Giovanni) and Erwin Schrott (Leporello); Ildar Abdrazakov and Sylvia Schwartz (Zerlina); Ildar Abdrazakov (Don Giovanni); Veronique Gens (Donna Elvira)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn

Der Rosenkavalier

You’d think audiences to Der Rosenkavalier would be shocked by the cross-dressing and gender deviancy. Richard Strauss’s opera opens in the Marschallin’s bedroom after her night of love with the young Count Octavian. They’re distracted by the unexpected arrival of Baron Ochs, so Octavian dresses as the Marchallin’s maid Mariandl; and Ochs finds her ‘bewitching’. But, traditionally, the young man Octavian is always sung by a woman soprano, here in Vienna State Opera’s production, Stephanie Houtzeel is physically slim, with sleeked black hair, boyish, even androgynous.
So when we first see Octavian sung by a woman, there is irresistibly a lesbian interpretation to the relationship with the the older woman. And unwittingly, the Marchallin suggests Octavian as the Rosenkavalier, the nobleman bearer of the silver rose to Och’s bride-to-be Sophie. Except that Sophie falls for Octavian, the go-between, and is totally put off by (her father’s suitor), the lecherous, uncouth Ochs. In the comedy of the Inn scene, Ochs is set up to seduce ‘Mirandl’-Octavian again cross-dressed -so Ochs is caught en-flagrante by the police, and forced to finish with Sophie. For Sophie and Octavian, however, it’s ‘love at first sight’ -but with Octavian sung by a woman, and dressed as a young man . And the older woman the Marshallin, (long-separated from her husband), loses her young lover, the androgynous Octavian, for another woman.
These intiguing (gender) implications don’t occur to audiences so overwhelmed by the pageant: usually enacted in ‘period’ costumes and sets recreating Vienna in 1740. And Otto Schenk’s now classic production for Vienna State Opera is truly splendid, elaborately crafted rococo sets, glorious costumes. This cast, not ideal, has the much sought-after German soprano Angela Denoke as the Marschallin, Houtzeel adequate as Octavian, an excellent Sophie in Sylvia Schwartz, and a refined Peter Rose, not quite suited as the vulgar Ochs. And there’s Strauss’s ravishing, but modernist music.
Of course, Strauss’s opera isn’t ultimately about cross-dressing. It concerns the love of the older woman for a younger man, or woman; and her awareness of her powerlessness to prevent the boy inevitably finding someone younger. Her intimations of her mortality, ultimately acceding to fate, are the source of Strauss’s immortally poignant music.
Stephanie Houtzeel , dark brown hair swept back , wearing a white top and brown culottes, appears truly androgynous. He’s the Bub, her treasure. Awakening in her sumptuously draped bed chamber, ornately brocaded, rouffed curtains, like a fading movie star, shy of daylight, the Marshallin doesn’t want the day. She dreamed of him. Is he laughing at her? Their idyll disturbed by Baron Ochs , Houtzeel dons a servant’s cap, enacts a parody of the shy -young- thing from the country; and randy Ochs plays straight into her hands. Rose, supposed to be a figure of fun, is rather too urbane, not crude enough. Even monotonous, relating the story of the (Faninal) rose, though it’s beautifully sung. His visit’s about his wedding contract, but Ochs even has ‘the chamber maid’ on his lap. Rose is a distinguished bass. Their duet was very good.
The Marshallin teases Ochs ‘My dear Hypolite, you’ve made an old woman of me’. Angela Denoke, beguiling, maybe looks too young! Her aria is meltingly poignant. She remembers the girl fresh out of the cloister: where is she now ? An old woman, how can that happen when I’m the same person? How can the dear Lord make it so? Why does he allow me see it all so clearly? A mystery why we have to bear it all. To Strauss’s moving harmony, accompanied by oboe, she repeats , why does he not hide it from me. Then, out of her reverie, turning to Octavian for reassurance. You know how I am, cheerful half the time. I really can’t control my thoughts. Tell me you belong to me! Then, unbearable melancholy, everything turns to dust: time changes nothing. But then you feel nothing else but time. Sometimes she gets up in the middle of the night and stops the clocks…
Are you determined to make youself sad, Octavian intejects, assuring her of his love. ‘ But, tomorrow you’ll leave me for another, one younger and more beautiful than I am!’ And- presciently- that day will come, Octavian. ‘Not today, not tomorrow, I love you’ (sings Octavian). Such a terrible day, she doesn’t want to think about it.
Denoke is contemplative, resigned, her soliloquy exquisitely sung. Then, she’s alert, remembers ‘I haven’t even kissed him!’ Denoke is poetic, has an almost spiritual power. She’s conducting a private conversation, perhaps too refined, too intimate for the stage. (And with Octavian played by a woman, the lesbian suggestion is irresistible.)

Act 2 ,the presentatation of the the silver Rose is a pageant to bewonder on Otto Schenk’s extravagant set, if spectacle is what opera is all about. ‘My God, how beautiful she is!’ The grandiosity is spiked by the the leering Ochs first encounter with his fiance. ‘No excuses, you belong to me now! ‘ She repulses his sexist onslaught, demands respect. Rose’s Ochs is stylishly sung, but it isn’t really funny: rather, long- winded. ‘Nothing excites him like stubborness’ isn’t vile or mischevious enough. The Act sagged, lacked bounce and vitality, but was well applauded.
The entree to Act 3 reminded me how modernist Strauss’s orchestration is. But the traditional restaurant Stube where Ochs is set-up , is like a gloomy castle dungeon, with Octavian again dressed as Mariandl. Ochs, too polished, albeit well sung, lacks menace. Houtzeel is genuinely comic, feigning to be tipsy, ridiculous in her servant’s cap. She leads him on; then has a crying fit. Ochs thinks the Inn’s haunted, but victim of a plot to expose him before Sophie’s father.’What a scandal!’ the ensemble taunt him, invoke Prince’s mercy.
The Marshallin arrives, Denoke imposing in a claret-wine velvet gown, with gold midriff, swashbuckling hat, refers to a ‘Viennese masquerade’, her servant Mariandl (Octavian) debauched.’You are, are you not, a gentleman?’ Ochs has no choice. ‘the engagement is over, from this minute on.’ Denoke, with tremendous grace and dignity, emphasises ‘QUITE DONE WITH’. Ironically, meaning also her own affair, to the background refrain of the Rosenkavalier waltz theme.
The Marschallin’s own gracious resignation is the heart of the opera- her sacrifice ironically misunderstood. She tells Sophie, ‘Go to him and tell him what your heart says ‘. He, Octavian, is the ideal Mannbild. (Did we not rid you of your fiancee? Love is yours once only.) But, confiding to audience, she sings ,’Did I not know it? Did I not vow to take it calmly?’
The Marshallin calls him ; he’s lost for words. How flattered the boy must be : ‘Have you grown to love him so quickly?’ Your pale face answers. She, Sophie’s, eternally indebted to her grace. ‘Don’t talk too much; you’re pretty enough!’ Your grace is goodness itself. But she, the Marschallin, ‘doesn’t know anything anymore’. Denoke sings in soliloquy, ‘I vowed to love him in the right way …even his love for another.’
In the marvelous trio, Octavian wants to know why he’s trembling. But Sophie intuitively knows, ‘for that lady gives me him , but keeps something of him’.The boy stands there, and he will be happy with that strange girl- as any man knows how to be happy. So be it.
In this menage-a- trois Sylvia Schwartz is superb. ‘It must be a dream that we are together. She faints, weak,’the weak thing that she is’: ecstatic, but maybe reacting to the the high drama. The Marschallin retreats:‘So hält es so , die junge Leute’ (that’s the way they are, young people.) The couple are left singing their love to each other, on the one side of the stage. The Marshallin alone ,‘Spur nur mich allein’.
The underlying tragedy of this scene, subtle shifts of emotion calibrated in Strauss’s score, makes this scene unbearably moving. Strauss’s surging music, Hofmannstall’s sophisticated libretto, elavates high drama , through opera, to another, sublime level. But, this time, I wasn’t reduced to tears. Denoke’s Marshallin is a rare experience, expressively sung, as if in camera; Houtzeel very competent, well-acted, but together they didn’t quite have that chemistry.
Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Choir -under the experienced Jeffrey Tate- confirmed they’re sans pareil in Richard Strauss.
9.01.2013
Photos: Angela Denoke (The Marshallin) and Stepanie Houtzeel (Octavian) ,Sylvia Schwartz (Sophie) and Stephanie Houtzeel (Octavian); Angela Denoke (Marshallin)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

Mozart’s The Magic Flute ( Die Zauberflöte)

At Vienna State Opera, the panto moment comes early: the paper-mache dragon with marble-like eyes- like a Chinese New Year creation- peers through the topsy-turvy stage, checked white panels side-stage angled, giving a cage-like effect. The ‘Three Ladies’ in billowing crinoline gowns – turquoise, purple, and emerald- could be panto dames.They’re gothic, with eye masks, painted faces, maybe bearded. Later, in Turkish pants, like Barbary pirates. Marco Arturo Marelli’s production cleverly points up their exotic orientalism: the dark Other.
But they sing exquisitely: how handsome he is. The panto’s ugly sisters have found their Prince Charming. Tamino, by contrast dressed all in white, collapsed on stage.
Papageno (Hans Peter Kammerer) a rich baritone, dressed like a green sprite (Ariel?), sings if all the young women were his; he doesn’t know where he was born, catches birds for the Queen and Ladies. Tamino (Benjamin Bruns) is dressed in a frock coat, with his hair tied back- as if out of the 18th Century, Age of Enlightenment. In his aria ‘Das Bildnis ist beschaubend schon’, in love with (Pamina’s) picture: if only he could find her, she would be his forever. Bruns, an elegant tenor, tall, refined, and blonde, is well cast.
Cracks of thunder and lightning presage the Queen of the Night, Iride Martinez, in a silver, star-spangled black gown, blue hair, black make-up , and wearing a spiked silver crown. ‘Her tears were in vain: her power wouldn’t suffice to prevent her daughter’s abduction’. (She affords silver bells and Zauberflöte for Tamino and Papageno’s protection.)
Pamina, the beautiful Anita Hartig, has dark brown hair, also dressed in white. Her duet with Papageno, who tells her of the plan to free her, is superbly sung. In Hartig’s first aria, Pamina sings of a woman’s duty to give men a loving heart: love sweetens every sorrow. And with soaring notes, ‘Mann und Weib..reichen an die Gottheit an’. Delightful soprano Hartig- who performed the role in 2010- is the highlight.
Escorted (by the three Knaben) to Sarastro’s Temple, Bruns’ Tamino also achieves tremendous top notes, singing of his duty to serve Pamina: he ‘will go where truth and love are found’. Tamino, who swears vengeance, is convinced, by Sarastro’s priest, that Sarastro rules in the ‘Temple of Wisdom’. Sarastro’s priests are dressed in white cassocks, a little like straight -jackets . Sarastro (Sorin Coliban) wears a gold cloak with white braiding, white-masked face, spooky slit- red eyes. (The projection of cage bars onto the side stage suggests Tamino’s spiritual bondage.) Sarastro will not force Pamina to love. She has her duty to her mother- ‘a very proud woman’. But ‘a man, being godlike, must guide their hearts’.
Act 2, of Tamino’s spiritual trials, has some of Mozart’s finest music, in arias and duets; but the high seriousness is lightened by the Papageno sub-plot, a comic mirroring of Tamino/Pamina’s. A pre-condition of marriage, they are to be taught of human duty and the power of the gods. Sarastro, deep bass Coliban, pleads, strengthen them with patience in danger. Impressively staged, Sarastro, the apex of the trio, Tamino and Pamina, his followers, either side, the choir in ranks back of the stage.
Papageno, however, is into wine and good food; fighting isn’t his thing: if only he could have a wife. Papageno, forbidden to speak, is ‘tested’ by a hag-like figure in a black shroud, cocooned as Papagena.
In the polarisation of good and evil, the ‘evil moor’ Monostatos (Herwig Pecoraro), is all in black, a Darth Varda figure; but he’s a light tenor. Like Caliban ravishing Miranda (in Shakespeare’s Tempest ), Monostatos sings, ‘Is he not flesh and blood’: to live without a woman! ‘White is beautiful; I have to kiss her’. Monostatus looms, ape-like, over the sleeping Pamina.
The Queen of the Night intervenes; but orders Pamina to kill Sarastro, so she can control the solar cycle (which her husband withheld from her, passing it on to the Priests.) In her famous aria, ‘I rode up the seven fields of the sun’, the Queen threatens Pamina will be an outcast forever, abandoned, destroyed by nature. Martinez looks formidable (blue hair, painted face shrouded); but, too light a soprano, not quite secure in her top notes, lacks fierceness. Martinez was well applauded- perhaps more for Mozart’s iconically popular tune. Sarastro, arriving to save Pamina from Monostatos, promises,’Vengeance is not our practice (in these sacred halls); and should a man go astray, love will guide him ‘ins bessere Land‘.
Pamina’s aria ‘Never will the hour of delight come to fill my heart again’ was the best singing all evening. To a flute accompaniment, ‘See Tamino, my weeping tears flow only for you.’ If he doesn’t feel her love’s longing, so wird Ruhe in Tode sein. The Chorus on high sing, soon this brave young man will find new life. Again Hartig is intensely moving in Pamina’s desperate aria, ‘See, Pamina will die because of you. Let this dagger kill me!’ The Chorus respond ‘if he could see you, because he loves, and would die for you’. The three Knaben– significantly now wearing 18th century Enlightenment wigs- persuade Pamina against suicide.
Tamino and Pamina reunited, Bruns and Hartig are outstanding in their duet, ‘Oh! welch ein Gluck’. She’ll always be at his side; her path is strewn with roses. Play the Zauberflöte! with the power of music, they’ll travel gladly through death’s nocturnal gloom, the sound of the flute their protection.
In the parallel, parodic, sub-plot, Papageno- imbibing wine, consumed by love- also threatens to end his life, if she (Papagena) doesn’t respond. Kammerer’s ‘So that’s it, goodnight false world’, is very well sung. The Choir comment ‘One life, and that’s enough’- is the other, earthly, side to Sarastro’s (unattainable) spiritual order. ‘Papa! Papa!‘ Papagena comes out of her jack-in -a- box container. Victoria Varga emerges a curly , spritely blonde in a bright green pixy outfit, matching Papageno’s.
The dark plotters, the Queen of the Night and Monostatos, are outside the Temple: they will destroy the (Temple’s) bigots forever. The Three Ladies vow allegiance to their Queen- all are blown away by thunder and lightning.
But Enlightenment prevails. Chorus sing ,’The Rays of the Sun drive out the night, destroy the power of the deceivers.’ So, in a brilliantly lit chamber, backed by rows of Sarastro’s priestly choir, Sarastro, front stage- like Prospero renouncing his magic- hands Tamino and Pamina the Queen’s crown and a silver casket, symbol of his power.
In the opening, fireworks set off a pantomine atmosphere-with various explosions throughout the stage. Sarastro’s camp is a magical world of nature in metamorphosis, human shapes have (pantomine) animal heads, which turned in unison to Tamino’s flute. But there’s a deeper agenda expressed in Mozart’s opera, in which revenge has no place, friendship leads. In Marelli’s intelligent Enlightenment scheme, the three Knaben sit observing, in white wigs and brightly coloured frock coats, to match the rainbow curtain ushering in a new age.
From the brilliant overture, Cornelius Meister conducted Vienna State Opera Orchestra with pointed, springy tempi, refreshing the score with a lighter ‘period instrument’ sound. Vienna State Opera Chorus also excelled. The cast was distinguished, the leads, Hartig, Bruns, Kammerer, enthousiastically received. P.R. 5.01.2013
Photos: Hans Peter Kammerer (Papageno), Benjamin Bruns (Tamino); Sorin Coliban (Sarastro), Anna Hartig (Pamina), Benjamin Bruns (Tamino); Anna Hartig (Pamina)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Die Fledermaus

Die Fledermaus is a New Year tradition in Vienna, performed at both Vienna State Opera and Volksoper. In Die Fledermaus, Johann Strauss created a masterpiece that surpasses operetta, as it’s unfairly labelled. The overture alone is operatic in its skilful assemby of a wealth of thematic material. And the characters, once you’ve fathomed the complicated plot, are more than stereotypes.The music is to be enjoyed in itself; but there’s more.
This Die Fledermaus at Vienna State Opera ia a classic. Directed by Otto Schenk, it’s already had 146 performances in this staging, and is anything but jaded. The sets for each Act are to bewonder, from the opening biedermeier 19th century drawing room all in gold tones. And Vienna State Opera have assembled a star cast, including in -house performers. Ileana Tonca (as the chambermaid Adele) pivoted over a balcony, warbles, bird-like- ‘If I were a dove (Taubchen)’, then she could fly from this cage. Nature has confined her a chambermaid. Rosalinde (Ildiko Raimondi), lies luxuriantly on a chaise-longue, sings of a scandal. Adele recites her ‘Kranke Tante’ (sick aunt) story to get the night off, but cut short by her mistress: ‘You know my husband is to go to prison for insulting a policeman’.
Rosalinde is surprised by Alfred,’the Tenor’, ex-suitor, madly in love with her. ‘What if my husband comes in?’ Here Alfred is played by Herwig Pecorara, but the role rotates. ‘He’ll return when she’s alone.’
Eisenstein (Austrian -born Marcus Welba, also Staatsoper), a very impressive tenor, sings of ‘Schuld’, only guilt: ‘they’re inhuman’. (English readers are irresistibly reminded of Mitchell’s ‘plebgate’ policeman fracas.) ‘Calm yourself’, interjects Rosalinde, ‘it’ll be all over in five days’. What can she say to console him. And, ironically, how will she suffer it, his absence. If he appeals, he’ll only make a fool of himself.
Enter Dr.Falke (Nicholay Borchev), slim, sleek dark-haired, moustachioed, dressed in a dark brown suit. He’s the villain of the piece, ‘the batman’s revenge’. Falke persuades his friend Eisenstein to accept his invitation to Count Orlofski’s ball, instead of serving his prison sentence. But it’s all a plan to avenge himself on Eisenstein, who publicly humiliated Falke, by getting him drunk at a masked ball: thrown out, dressed as a bat to find his own way home. Falke reminds him of his Fledermaus trick. Borchev has a rich baritone: the two young singers are well balanced.
Rosalinde gives Adele the night off: and has other plans without Eisenstein. But Adele will also go to the ball, to promote her ‘actress’s’ career’ . It’s these interweaving intrigues that spark the comedy. And the witty dialogue is the fizz in Strauss’s musical champagne.
So in their duet Rosalinde sings farewell to the hypocritical Eisenstein, ‘Eight days wihout him, how will she stand it!’ Then Alfred reappears to console her.‘Trinke Liebchen’ Lucky is the man…’ Theirs is a gorgeous duet, one of Die Fledermaus’s most famous. With ‘trink mit mir…’ Percora hits a virtuoso high note. Raimondi, singing to the audience in asides, is playing with her conscience. Meanwhile, Alfred is esconsed in Eisenstein’s favourite armchair ; so relaxed and bored, she rebukes him, he’s just like a husband. And mistaken for Eisenstein- to protect Rosalinde’s reputation- Alfred’s arrested by Frank (Prison Governor), as the music syncopates to Strauss’s galloping rhythms.
In the fabulous Ball scene Adele has borrowed her mistress’s most beautiful dress and sister Ida introduces her as an actress. Count Orlofki is in drag. Stepanie Houtzell’s Count is a tour-de-force, assumedly in on ‘the comedy, revenge of a bat’. Adele is introduced as a young ingenue; and Orlofki ‘loves actresses’. Houtzell- slim, tall, sleeked back hair, and thin moustache, gender remarkably plausible – breaks into ‘her’ aria: ‘If any one of his guests is bored, he will throw him out, it’s his Sitte (custom ). Houtzell has the vitality, the sense of knock-about fun for this comic role. ‘The whole thing is, the lovely maid has captured him completely’, sing Chorus ironically, (Vienna State Opera Chorus outstanding.)
Eisenstein arrives posing as Marquis Renard, eventually confronts his wife; but she’s disguised as a Hungarian countess, a masked fiery redhead. ‘So you aren’t married’, she teases him. Their duet is a musical and comic highlight. Eisenstein is constantly trying to remove her mask; she wants to get his watch, so she can blackmail him. Strauss’s rhythm is punctuated by clock-like ticking cymbals. ‘He’s no idea’, repeat the chorus. ‘The joke is rather costly’; he loses his watch.
The Countess’s ‘Hungarian’ identity is questioned; Rosalinde almost spits her contempt at her doubters. Ironically, Raimondi is, in fact, Hungarian. Raimondi’s aria, extolling her homeland, is the evening’s standout. ‘Wie Land wo ich so glücklich war!’ She attains terrific high notes. ‘And when I am far from you…’ Huge applause.
The stage revolves from the reception to the magnificent banquetting hall. After Orlofski sings ‘the story of champagne’, he raises a toast,‘Bruderlei und Schwesterlei’, brothers and sisters, let us be close forever. Houtzell and Chorus in the Du reprise are quite wonderful.
Now the spectacle of the ensemble and ballet troupe performing a fiery polka. The choreography was sensational (Gelinda Dill). They snake out; then collapse . And so whirl into the Fledermaus waltz.
The 3rd Act has long sections of dialogue in wienerisch (the local dialect), incomprehensible even to some Germans. But the libretto is witty. Frosch the jailor (Burghtheater’s Peter Simonischeck) is burping drunk, even drops his keys. Cell 12 (Alfred’s) keeps breaking into song.
Now Frank, the Prison Governor (Wolfgang Bankl) returns from the Ball (having arrested, he thinks, Eisenstein, in fact Alfred, the tenor). Bankl’s staggers around drunk, whistling the Fledermaus waltz. He collapses in Frosch’s armchair-with a newspaper over his head. But -no peace- eventually all the characters find their way here. Adele and her sister turn up. Tonca, a sweet, but powerful soprano auditions for the Governor in a virtuoso aria- her ‘CV’ performance. Bankl joins in. Of course he’ll get her trained!
Eisenstein (as the Marquis) arrives . Prisoners are getting classier (in-joke about ex-Minister Strasser). Eisenstein’s notary is rebuked: ‘An Austrian official is strictly prohibited to accept such small amounts!’ Then Alfred (Pecoraro)is unlocked. ‘Ich bin Opernsanger in der Staatsoper‘, insists Herwig Pecoraro; which he is! He’s fobbed off by the disbelieving Governor: ‘Here’s two euros, get youself something with it!’
The farce accelerates, with Eisenstein now dressed as his Notary, even affecting his stammer. ‘The situation demands discretion’, the whole thing was an accident, nothing happened, protests Rosalinde to her disguised husband- to strains of the waltz theme. ‘Her man is a monster, spends all night with young ladies. She’ll scratch his eyes out and divorce him!’ Eisenstein drops his disguise -to be trumped by his wife, unmasked, brandishing his watch.
In the wonderful comic resolution, ‘Oh Fledermaus, release your victim, he’s suffered enough!’ champagne was to blame. Orlofski adopts Adele, now his ‘Sitte’; sings the toast ‘Let’s praise the King of wine, Champagne!’
Vienna State Opera Orchestra was ably conducted by Stefan Soltesz (once musical assistant to Karajan).The Chorus were spendid and Vienna Staatsoper ensemble- especially Raimondi, Tonka- was ideal; the staging and costumes extravagant, but no way kitsch. Die Fledermaus has to be seen in Vienna! P.R. 1.1.2013
Photos: Alexandra Reinprecht (Rosalinde), Norbert Ernst (Alfred); Nikolay Borchev (Dr.Falke) and Marcus Werba (Eisenstein); Agnes Baltsa (special guest 31.12. 2012)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn

Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

The first performance at Vienna State Opera in four years, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg requires over 200 on stage, a huge orchestra, and monumental sets. It is this sheer spectacle-running at over 5 hours (only two intervals)- that makes it difficult to take in. You’re swept along by Wagner’s sublime music- its leitmotifs signposted in the overture- without really understanding the plot, climaxing in a song contest. The outsider Walther (of noble birth) arrives mysteriously, initiated by the Mastersingers, so he can take part with his own song. But Walther is blocked by the petty rules of a closed society-the trade guilds of the 16th century-represented by Beckmesser. Walther is assisted by the master cobbler Sachs, himself a poet and philosopher, but a pragmatist. Walther sings from the heart – pitting 19th century Romantic ardour against bourgeois narrow -mindedness holding back the ‘artist’ (like Wagner).
But The Mastersingers is also a love story. And set in the 16th century, Wagner’s most human, and humanist, opera is also a comedy.
In Otto Schenk’s famous staging, Act 1 opens to a huge hall, with – if you can see backstage- a recessed chapel, filled with worshippers. Walther (Johan Botha) looks bemused, anxious- waiting for Eva , daughter of the rich Pogner. Eva (Christina Carvin), tall and elegant, with short coiffed hair, in a simple navy dress, is a soprano of refinement. Accompanied by her maid Magdalena, she makes eye contact with Walther. There’s is an immediate symbiosis. Botha has a lyrical, expressive tenor; standing behind her, with his powerful arms around her, will do anything for her. And it transpires Eva’s father Pogner (Ain Anger), a benefactor, is putting up his house and daughter-if she agrees- as prize to the winner of the song contest.
And it is David who’s assigned to initiate Walther. David (Norbert Ernst), a light, virtuoso tenor, is over-confident and cock-sure. There’s a bouncy, orchestral counterpoint to underline the comic element, as David explains the guild’s regulations- singing non-stop for a marathon 15 minutes. While he’s singing, apprentice carpenters are erecting the chamber for the Mastersinger’s ceremonial meeting. The stage is bustling with young carpenters in tight breeches. David is ‘the cleverest of them all’, they mock him, while he’s still singing to Walther.
Pogner- (Ain Anger’s) bass the deepest of the twelve Mastersingers – announces his prize, offering his only child. Sachs (James Rutherford) interjects: women’s taste is at odds with their masters, more in tune with the people’s: let them decide.
Walther is allowed an opportunity to sing to introduce himself. The last of his ‘line’, he sings of spring meadows, freed from frost. Botha, with his soaring lyricism, could (happily) sing us the Nuremberg telephone directory.
Second verse, he sings about birds swooping and shrieking- while Beckmesser (Adrian Erod) constantly heckles him. As Botha begins to extoll his lover’s beauty, there’s mayhem. They warn him to learn from the rule book. Walther’s song lacks form, colaratura.
Conductor Simone Young (Austrian Radio interview) likened Wagner’s Die Meistersinger to Falstaff, Verdi’s only comedy. Certainly Act 2 is ‘Shakesperean’ in the rich characterisation, and also the situation comedy. The stage is now a spectacular recreation of a Nuremberg courtyard, with Pogner’s brown-cream thatched house on one side, facing Sachs’ cottage workplace, with village greenery centre-stage. The apprentices- very jolly for Wagner- are quietened by Sachs at work. Pogner and his daughter (sitting together on a bench): Tell me ‘dein Herzenshlag’, the man you want. ‘Must it be a master?’ she sings – meaning Walther. Sachs is at his workbench. He’s a poor ‘einfaltig‘-simple-minded man, can’t measure what he finds. Rutherford sings with expressive intensity. Eva appears; her tight shoes are ready. ‘ He’s too old for her, thinks he’s had a wife, and children enough.’
The scene between Walther and Eva is magical . Walther sings how he was despised by the Masters, begs her to come away with him: there’s no hope for him there, ridiculed by the guilds.
Now Beckmesser appears centre-stage to sing with his lute- playing Romeo serenading before Eva’s window. In the comedy- unexpected for Wagner- Beckmesser wants to listen to (and steal) Walther’s third verse. Magdalena dresses as Eva to deceive Beckmesser, while Walther and Eva , dressed as her maid are hidden (other side of stage).
So the comedy is that Beckmesser is carousing, he thinks, Eva sitting in Eva’s window, his lute accompanied by Sachs’ cobbling banging. But Beckmesser- who’s punched David in a misunderstanding- has woken up the entire neighbourhood. So the stage is filled with a cast in white nightshirts and caps. Then apprentices are fighting each other front of stage, and everyone joins in, as the noise and commotion reach such a climax. A wild-west brawl in Nuremberg, fantastically choreographed. As Walther and Eva reappear, they’re whisked away. The stage is cleared before the nightwatchman does his rounds. ‘The clock has struck eleven, beware of spooks!’
The prelude to Act 3 strikes a solemn note -characteristically Wagnerian- on unaccompanied strings: Sachs’ ‘resignation theme’. Sachs’ monologue ‘Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn’ (Folly, illusion everywhere! People are fighting one another, but it’s their own pain they hear’) is sung by James Rutherford with great feeling: but Rutherford lacks power for the great crowd scenes.
Walther appears, Rutherford and Botha very fine in their key scene. Have you a Mastersong, asks Sachs. Tell me your dream; all poetry is nothing but the true interpretation of dreams. Walther ‘sings’ his dream, but dictates the words; and Sachs is deeply moved. If Walther can sing by the rules, then he’s really a Master.
As Beckmesser, Adrian Eröd is a tour-de-force. Eröd staggers across the stage,(bruised by David), in black with orange beading, looks devilishly creepy with long side-burns. The poem, where is it? Walther’s poem – Sachs’s ink still fresh- is purloined by Beckmesser. Sachs calls him malicious; but, philosophically, everybody has their moment of weakness. Eva will make young and old desire her.
The entrance of Eva- Christina Carvin’s exquisite soprano-is like fresh spring water in this turgid man’s world. She complains her shoe hurts. She’s on a plinth, fitted by a kneeling Sachs, as Walther enters opposite stage looking perplexed. Walther is persuaded to sing the third verse of his ‘mastersong’. Eva is reduced to tears, while Sachs conceals his feelings by singing a cobbler’s song. Eva consoles ‘Sachs, my friend, you dear man’. He made her blossom, think nobly and freely. She would choose him, if she could. (But to the strains of Tristan und lsolde, Sachs ‘will be no King Mark’.)
The ensemble playing is excellent. David and Magdalena enter, David accepted as journeyman by an anxious Sachs. Eva begins ‘the quintet’- each character expressing his or her feelings within the ensemble.
The carnival pageant filling Vienna State Opera’s cavernous stage is a colourfest. The guild members march in, carrying their banners, each singing their song. Tremendous enthousiasm from crowds lining double-decker platforms side of stage. Apprentices dance front of stage until the entry of the masters; women in traditional floral costumes perform folk dances. Sachs in blue silk cloak nervously beholds the stage with rows and rows of singers; the contest is a demonstration of the high regard Nuremberg accords Art and its masters.
In Otto Schenk’s marvelous production, the comedy pricks the potential over-pomposity of the occasion. Eröd’s awkward Beckmesser -villainous all in black- can’t decipher his stolen poem. (The crowd ‘wouldn’t want him for their daughters’). The medieval X Factor begins. Beckmesser is laughed off. Was that Sachs’ poetry? Not his. Walther will sing it. Botha takes the platform: sings (sublimely) to Eva ‘in paradise’. Walther improvises the last stanza, singing by heart, from the heart.
Walther wins the crown , but at first scorns Pogner’s honorary membership of the Guild. Sachs entreats, Don’t despise the Masters, honour Art. Perhaps, at this point- with hundreds on stage- Rutherford’s fine voice doesn’t project enough?
I was priviliged with a full view of this spectacular stage: to observe redoubtable Simone Young conducting Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Above all to experience a near perfect cast bring to life very human characters, in comedy that shows an unexpected, even endearing, side to Wagner.
P.R. 23.11.2012
Photos: Ain Anger (Pogner); Johan Botha (Walther von Stolzing); Johan Botha and Christina Carvin (Eva); James Rutherford (Sachs) and Christina Carvin (Eva); Christian Carvin; Norbert Ernst (David); James Rutherford (Sachs) and Adrian Eroed (Beckmesser); Johan Botha; James Rutherford (Sachs)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Poehn

Tosca

In Vienna State Opera’s classic staging, with its vaulted ceiling and wrought iron, the chapel where Mario Cavaradossi (Neil Shicoff) is painting Mary Magdalene is spookily realistic.’You, mysterious beauty, are blond and have blue eyes; Tosca’s eyes are black’. (‘As I painted I thought only of you, Tosca.’) In his first aria Shicoff sounds strained, the vibrato a little insecure- although he’s well experienced in the role. With his greying hair, Angelotti appears at first unrecognisable, prison life has changed him deeply- a premonition of foreboding.
Tosca (Emily Magee), a dark brunette appears in a white gown with a red cloak carrying flowers. Magee is a wonderful, rich soprano, and she acts quite naturally. In her first aria, Non la sospiri, she hears the amoretti whispering in the woods; doesn’t he long for their secret love nest. Tosca is filled with an unbridled love. Their duet is enthralling .’How you tempt me siren’.Then Tosca notes the blonde Mary Magdalene is too beautiful; and snaps,’It is Attavanti! You are seeing her, she was here’. How she stares at me, mocking me!
‘Qual’ occhio al monde’, he rebuts, her black eyes are incomparable, gentle in love, wild in anger. Reassured, Tosca,’How well you make me love you again’. But ‘Make her eyes black!’ Shicoff’s high notes are a bit strained; but in fairness, he’s come on in spite of illness. Notwithstanding Shicoff and Magee have that chemistry. ‘I worship you Tosca, love everything about you, my jealous love’. ‘Say it once again’. He sings repeatedly, sempre t’amo until – in Puccini’s psychological realism- Tosca, abruptly breaks free, ‘There, you’ve undone my hair!’ Scenes like this have inspired countless 20th century musicals, but without Puccini’s inspiration.
Scarpia- ‘that hypocritical satyr, gratifying his lust’- appears, his entrance ironically preceded by the partisans’ celebrating victory. Falk Struckmann’s Scarpia is outstanding. Struckmann- white -haired, black cloak, and red waistcoat- is very impressive: a superb baritone, he chillingly enacts the part. In Puccini’s realistic detail, Scarpia observes Angelotti’s food basket is empty. And, seeing Tosca,’Your life in the theatre, and you come to church to pray?’. Scarpia’s like a very clever police interrogator. So he is; and he uses torture.
Scarpia plays on Tosca’s jealousy; ‘finds’ and misplaces Marquesa Attavanti’s fan. His poison starts to work. Their first scene seethes with passion and hatred. Scarpia would give his life to wipe her tears away. If only he could catch the ‘traitor’; Cavaradossi the ‘traitor’ has betrayed her. Mario’s villa for two love affairs? Magee falls to her knees, realising she’s giving him away. (Scarpia slyly orders her carriage be followed unobtrusively.)
In his aria, ‘Tosca! Now Scarpia settles down in your heart.’ Struckmann’s rendition is excellent. (In black and red) he’s the devil incarnate, the suppressed lecher.’Tosca, you make me forget God’,he admits.
Their fateful confrontation in Act 2, the drama unfolding, is as good as I’ve seen. We see- in Baron Scarpia’s luxuriously furnished apartment, red-brocaded wall coverings in carved oak panellings; the secretaire/writing desk right stage; and an ominous red couch. ‘I’d prefer a violent conquest to a gentle surrender’, Scarpia declares in his lustful aria (Ha piu forte sapore) He craves, feasts, tosses it away… God created so many beautiful creatures. (‘How was the chase, he asks his coachman. And Angelotti? His priority is Tosca.)
Shicoff, in a blue satin frock coat- short, slightly built , looks like the artist- denies knowing Angelotti’s hiding place. ‘Let’s try some whipping: Scarpia instructs ‘the usual formalities’. Wonderful orchestral playing; nothing routine about this performance!
‘And now let us talk like good friends’, Scarpia addresses Tosca. Magee is dressed-like a princess-in a sparkling gold chiffon, black cloak ensemble, and wearing a gold crown headpiece. ‘Your lover bears a cross of thorns’- we hear groans, increasingly disturbing. They fight. ‘Would you laugh at his torment?’she pleads. We hear stifled screams from the depths. Clinch. ‘Where is Angelotti?’ Tosca can’t take any more. Cavaradossi is dragged in, his shirt bloodied.
Ironically republican victory is announced as Cavaradossi realises Tosca has betrayed him (when Scarpia shouts the (garden-well) location of Angelotti.) Struckmann’s Scarpia reminds of a stereotypical Nazi general. ‘His meal was interrupted. Let’s talk about how we may save him.’ Struckmann’s lythe baritone is now beguiling and lyrical. But he’s lewd. (Gia …mi dicon venal)’They say I’m mercenary, but a beautiful woman will never pay me …’ He’s seen her in a new role, he’s never seen before (on stage). The sadist is aroused by her real-life suffering. She scorns him. ‘I shall possess you’, he leers. And Tosca, prophetically, ‘I’d sooner jump off the tower’. ‘Do you hear the drum?’, Scarpia points to the gallows being erected.
Emily Magee is very fine in Tosca’s heart-rending aria: ‘Vissi d’arte’ ‘I lived for art, and never did any harm,; secretly gave help to the poor. Why, good Lord do you desert me in my hour of pain?’ Now Magee is kneeling, on Scarpia’s rich oriental carpet. Is this the actress; or is this from the heart? There’s wild applause. She raises her head; she is vanquished: be merciful.
‘You ask a life of me, I a moment of you’. Scarpia will requite his lust, just once.
Now the horse – trading for Cavaradossi’s release. The prisoner will be shot, but a feigned execution. Scarpia’s stabbing- Tosca’s concealed knife as they embrace- is realistic; no histrionics. E morto! To think all Rome trembled before him!
The ramparts, huge stone blocks, steps ascending, overlooking a view of Rome: the Prologue to Act 3. Shicoff is much better; he has a favour to ask, to write a letter to a loved one. A wonderfully expressive cello solo, then clarinet, precede Cavaradossi’s lament, E lucevan le stelle ‘She came to me fragrantly scented (Oh,sweet kisses as I released her body from the veils)…and now dreams of love have vanished. He sings, in desperation, ‘I die and never have I loved life so much.’
Magee and Shicoff excel in their closing scene. Tosca appears, dressed in red -black, shot- satin cloak, with a ‘safe conduct’. She sings of how she had promised herself to Scarpia’s lust. Then saw a knife… Mario: ‘You killed him, sweet hands!’ You so devout’. She has ‘gold and jewels and a carriage waiting, but first of all he must be shot!’ It would be melodrama in less accomplished hands.
Shicoff’s tenor, still a little shaky, but their duet is powerfully enacted. ‘The love that saved your life shall guide us’. Magee was also most expressive, a powerful actress the role demands. They soared together
The famous closure is still great theatre. ‘Fall to the ground at the first shot’, she instructs, ‘it’s just a comedy’; but then increasingly anxious, ‘this waiting lasts forever’.
This production was anything but routine (as I’d cynically anticipated). All seats sold, Tosca is always a sell-out.
From the full-bloodied orchestral Prologue, veteran conductor Philippe Auguin (once Karajan and Solti’s assistant), coaxed Vienna State Opera orchestra to give their very best-with breathtaking solo playing. Scrupulous detail is key to Puccini’s descriptive musical realism. Puccini’s opera (and libretto) so full of subtleties, never boring, still needs a committed performance to reveal his genius.
19.11.2012

Alceste


Gluck’s opera Alceste is about the ultimate sacrifice of marital love: one partner’s life for another. Alceste is prepared to die to save her husband, King Admetes. Alceste, premiered 1767 in Italian in Vienna- this the French version 1774 in Paris- is a key example of Gluck’s ‘reform opera’: hugely influential in the development of ‘modern’ opera.
Musically, this production has a lot going for it. Vienna State Opera has chosen to use, in a co-production, the period instrument Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, conducted by early music specialist Ivor Bolton. Veroniqe Gens as Alceste and Joseph Kaiser are distinguished singers, especially Gens, a leading international baroque interpreter. But the production lets them down.
The minimalist stage in white panelled wood- window left, a door centre opening onto a bedroom alcove – is fine. It doesn’t matter that costumes are vaguely fin-de-siecle, early 20thcentury. But the stage direction is so confusing as to detract from Gluck’s serious plot. And this is ironic considering Gluck’s ‘reform opera’ was against the excesses of Italian opera- its pomp and show making even the finest players ridiculous. ‘Music should serve the plot, and not be a technically elaborate, beautiful accessory.’ So Gluck strove for simplicity: to remove abuses against taste and good sense.
In Christoph Loy’s barmy conception the grown-up chorus (Gustav Mahler Choir) are inexpicably dressed as children, distracting from the plot, and subverting the serious mood. There’s barely an instrumental passage that isn’t subverted by children playing -as if Loy were afraid to let Gluck’s expressive music ‘speak’ for itself. Perhaps we might be bored?
So, opening Act 1, Alceste’s recitative announces her husband’s mortal illness : What fate awaits us now, unhappy fatherland? Veronique Gens movingly sings the Chorus’s refrain ‘Never before have the heavens dealt so severely with mere mortals, whom they wish to punish’. But boisterous children are fighting one another. Boys are in short trousers, or culottes, one boy in a matelot outfit. Girls skipping, as if in a school playground, are variously dressed, some in pinafore dresses with bows, or plaited hair: late 19th century? But one boy has a model plane, another reappears with a modern scooter.
‘Rend the dark veil that surrounds it with a bolt of lightning’: then they’re all lying face down on the stage. And they attack Apollo’s priest (Clemens Unterreiner), who hits one of them. He bears the news from the Oracle: the King will die if another doesn’t take his place in Hades.
Gens, at first collapsed, prostrate with tears, is tremendous singing of her defiance. ‘So this is the help offered by the mighty gods!’ She’s left alone with her fate. Gens’s soprano is exquisite in Gluck’s most moving aria, ‘No, this is no sacrifice: I couldn’t live without him anyway’. She rails against the terrible gods judging human destiny. She will die for the sake of her husband: no longer will beg the gods’ cruel sympathy.
Act 2 opens with the King’s recovery celebrated by the people- represented, as if they were his family, by those children. Now one has a butterfly net; there are skipping games; a fight over a teddy bear; two boys with a bow and arrow: it’s affected, precious, choreographed. However, the chorus merriment is irritating, some of them jumping up and down like hyper-active schoolchildren. They’re brimming with fun; but inappropriate to the (melancholic) music coming from the pit, with Bolton inspiring fluent playing from Freiburg’s original instruments.
King Admetes (Joseph Kaiser) is dressed in a grey modern-cut suit, white shirt and cravatte. Kaiser, a pure, expressive baritone, is shocked to hear of the ‘noble friend who has sacrificed his life’ for ‘fame and glory’.
Gens, now wearing radiant white lace, pleads, in her aria,’Be steadfast, heart’. She can no longer conceal her terrible anguish. (She lived only so she could love him.)
Alceste’s scene with Admetes -when she reveals her sacrifice for him- is powerful. But shocking to modern audiences in Admetes’ ‘sexism’, his selfish dismissal of her suffering. She trembles as he asks her to tell who ‘sacrificed himself’. ‘Who would it be if Alceste was not prepared to die for you?’ She saved the life that is most dear. Admetes, ironically, is furious: ‘So this is what you call love? What gives you the right to sacrifice yourself?’ How pig -headed! But Kaiser is impressive in his angry, if contradictory, tirade. Her tenderness is more agonising than death: ‘Heartless woman! I cannot live without you, and you know it!’ And, ironically, ‘what ingratitude!’
Then Gens, plaintively, ‘Against my will I weep with you’. She needs courage at this terrible hour.
In the solemn opening of Act 3 , the Chorus sing ‘The beautiful young Alceste is to die in the Spring of her life’. Yet in spite of such sentiment, the people as Chorus are dressed as children, and self-consciously acting like children. But they are singing, ‘we cannot weep enough’.(‘Weep , oh fatherland. Alceste is about to die and her husband with her.’)
Then, a bolt out of the blue, Hercules, arrives, armed with suitcase, and hold-all, distributing gift parcels. Adam Plachetka- sleek black hair and moustachioed- is dressed as if out of the 1920s, in blazer, white trousers, and spats. He will ‘pluck her from the arms of death’. Hades loses its victim. Out come the toys; dolls and paraphenalia.
Yet Alceste is lying in an alcove on her deathbed. She sings of how she’s siezed by a sudden terror, her knees trembling with fear. Gens, singing with great dignity and pathos, rescues this shambolic production- retrieves (with Kaiser) some credibility. In her moving aria she yearns for death, not to cause offense, to hasten her demise- the self-effacing woman resigned to fate.
Admetes, visiting his wife, complains the cruel gods have rejected his prayers. She sings: live to the memory of a wife who was dear. Their duet, unbearably poignant, was one scene not marred by the distraction of those unruly children. Admetes pleads, take pity on your unhappy husband, don’t submit me to any more suffering. (Alceste is on the brink of death, yet Gens is standing centre stage?)
The finale, in Christoph Loy’s production, is a pantomine. Hercules intervenes to banish the underworld. The gods in full regalia (or fancy dress) – one wearing gold armour, white plumed headpiece, and cloak- are vanquished. But the chorus are still dressed as children. Confusing, rather?
For the ending ‘ Oh joyous moment…the heavens have saved the happy couple’, we see Hercules doing up his bow tie, and departing with his luggage. Gluck plays us out with his heavenly music, his (shortened) epilogue originally composed for ballet.
On stage, however, are the kids, including the boy in a matelot outfit, girls with hair plaits and gymslips .The music alone isn’t enough. We have to suffer this hyper activity- like a high school play in rehearsal.
But what’s the point of authenticating Gluck’s music with a period instrument orchestra- in such a radically modern stage production? Musical embellishment? If you wish to experience Gluck’s masterpiece, the opera is justified musically, but you’ll have to suffer ‘noises off’. Distractions Gluck would surely not have approved.
15.11.2012
Photos: Theme Veronique Gens (Alceste) and Joseph Kaiser (Admetes);
Veronique Gens (Alceste); Joseph Kaiser (Admetes) ; Adam Plachetka (Hercules)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pohn

Verdi’s The Sicilian Vespers

If any performance could reinstate Verdi’s The Sicilian Vespers-now rarely performed- as core repertory, this was it. Gianandrea Noseda conducted Vienna State Opera Orchestra with such passion, his body movements so expressive, that my Viennese neighbours thought he was in training for the Olympics. The orchestral sound had such depth and richness in the overture, it was like a concert performance. Rich and varied, full of marvelous tunes, long melodic lines against Verdian brisk military marches- why haven’t I heard this before? And there aren’t many choirs up to Vienna’s (State Opera Chorus) to justify Verdi’s choral sections, some reminiscent of his later Requiem.
Maybe the title I Vespri Siciliani is off-putting. The original French libretto, (scored by Verdi in 1854) is supposedly based on historical events in Sicily in 1282. But woven into a love story, it’s a cover, an allegory for Risorgimento– Sicilian/Italian independence: Verdi’s agenda. So, although premiered in Paris to huge success (1855), it was banned in Italy until 1861, because of its reference to events on Italian soil. For Verdi Sicilian Vespers marked a turning point: a new conception of drama in which music places his characters in an historical and moral framework.
The opera, as so often in Verdi, is about the conflicting loyalties of his characters, between their ideals, and loved ones. I Vespri Siciliani anticipates Simon Boccanegra , whose children, grown up are confronted by a lost parent in a powerful position: now ruler of an alien regime they and their bethrothed have sworn to defy. So Arrigo, the son of a woman Monforte (French Viceroy) had abducted, is in love with Elena, a Sicilian freedom fighter. The most powerful scenes are in the confrontation between older remorseful rulers, pleading for their lost children; and the consequences for Arrigo (and Maria) interceding for their fathers against their lovers. And in both operas the rulers are opposed by a relentless, unforgiving rebel. For 1 Siciliani’s Procida, the cause of Sicilian independence must override all personal relationships .
In the spectacular opening, French soldiers confronting Sicilians (in Palermo’s main square), Elena (Angela Meade) pledges to avenge her brother’s execution. Commanded to sing for the French, incensed, her song about a ship in stormy waters becomes an incitement to revolt. ‘Heaven helps those who help themselves’ ; and repeatedly, ‘your destiny is in your hands: cast off your chains! Be bold!’ -Verdi’s familiar call to uprising against oppression. The Sicilian’s respond in rousing chorus, ‘God will stand by us: Let us take up arms; start the revolution- Elena dressed in black, Sicilian leaders, daggers drawn, either side, this is some of Verdi’s finest choral writing. Meade is a tremendous surprise, a powerful soprano; but -forgive me- she’s a big woman. The Sicilians dispersed by Governor Montforte, she’s surprised to see her beloved Arrigo, who’s been absolved of treason. Montforte tries to persuade the daring Arrigo ( Burkhard Fritz), to join the French; but warning him to stop seeing Elena, who’ll be his downfall.
Procida’s arrival from exile is a highlight of the opera. Procida seeing his fatherland again , kisses the soil; and vows his dejected land will regain its former splendour. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s baritone is a voice to echo through the heavens. He had sought aid from foreign nations; but they said to him, ‘Where is your courage , Sicilians, fight for yourselves!’ The Verdian hero landed could be be Garibaldi. But Furlanetto, dressed in a black lightweight suit, open- necked grey shirt, could also be a modern exile, fighting for independence. (‘Tell Elena and Arrigo, at last the hour of vengeance has arrived; if our land is free, I will die gladly!’ Furlanetto was loudly cheered; and justified.
Arrigo and Elena’s first scene is also impressive. ‘One look from you will renew my courage’, sings Arrigo of Elena. Elena cannot restrain her feelings, appeals to her brother in heaven: ‘forgive me for I love’. Burkhard Fritz (Arrigo) has a wonderful tenor. ‘Avenge my brother and I shall be yours!’ He swears it; together their oaths are affirmed.
Arrigo is dragged off to the Duke; meanwhile French soldiers are attempting to abduct Sicilian women. Their bawdy chorus ‘Long live war! long live love! Your beauties shall be ours!’ is countered by the women, shamed but angry. Vienna’s must be the best Verdian chorus outside Italy.
Montforte sings, opening Act 3, of how Arrigo’s mother had despised him. In her posthumous note, she pleaded, ‘spare him, he is your son’. Montforte’s aria is reminiscent of Philip II’s in Verdi’s (later) Don Carlo. Poignantly he admits ‘despite wealth and honours, my heart was empty’. Montforte now imagines a happy fate if reunited with his son. Gabriele Viviani’s Montforte is well sung , but a little dull and automatic.
Better in the reunion between Montforte and Arrigo. Arrigo, hitherto conspired against him, is surprised to be set free. ‘When I rescued him, didn’t he feel anything? But, in their conflicting emotions, Montforte sheds tears. Montforte shows Arrigo the letter from his mother, proving Monforte his father. Arrigo rejects him, the spirit of his mother stands between them.’your name is cursed. If you love me, let me free!’
Arrigo’s conflict of conscience is between blood ties to his father, and loyalty to his friends and Elena. In a key scene, Montforte’s Ball (Act 3) Arrigo rejoins his friends. But Montforte sets Arrigo free, strips off Arrigo’s conspirators ribbon. ‘What a terrible blow! Shame on the traitor!’, the Chorus accuse him angrily. And Arrigo prevents Elena’s assassination attempt.
The staging, a dominant stairway, gives the action an epic quality- here used to divide protagonists. Soldiers are one side ; the Sicilians are clustered opposing them ; in the centre Montforte, and Arrigo problematised. Elena, shocked by Arrigo’s betrayal, will leave Sicily.’Sing out, beloved fatherland, in sorrow and shame…’
A victim of fate, Arrigo in his Act 4 aria, bemoans his friends in prison, while he is free. He’s lost everything; they scorn him; and Elena’s contempt means death to him. He imagines Elena’s come to curse him. But, when Arrigo reveals he’s Montforte’s son, she forgives him. Their duet is a highpoint of the evening.
Angela Meade is outstanding in her aria. He was innocent. Now she can forgive him ; she can die knowing she doesn’t have to hate him. He thanks her for her forgiveness -a heavenly gift-and they pledge their love, even in death.
But, with everything planned for the execution, Montforte promises to release them – provided Arrigo recognises him as father. Arrigo eventually submits, but only when Elena approaches the block, the monks singing De Profundis. Montforte releases the Sicilians ,and announces Elena and Arrigo’s marriage , ‘What sorrrow; what joy!’, the chorus, in counterpoint, again thrilling.
Procida , however, continues to plan the rebellion. He taunts Elena: ‘Does her love of the ‘Frenchman’ mean more to her than the cause of freedom?’ Her wedding bells will signal the start of the uprising. Elena, in a moving aria, appeals to God in her desperation: ‘pity my bewilderment’.
In Act 5’s classic Verdian trio- the three characters on separate stairs- Elena trembles before Arrigo- while Procido softly reminds her of her pledge to avenge her brother: ‘think of your country’ . Then Elena to Arrigo, invoking her brother’s spirit, calls it off: cruel fate. Arrigo accuses her of deceiving him : farewell, false beauty. His contempt unbearable: she admits, she loves him, but can never be his. Yet Procida still curses her for betraying her country and friends .
Verdi’s time- bomb, Montforte insists the marriage go ahead. Elena, in a tragic dilemma, tries to warn him. The bells rings out: Arrigo sings of joy, Procida of revenge. The Sicilians storm in, the Chorus proclaiming it is the bell of vengeance.
Meade and Furlanetto were the stars. But the chorus are a key element in this splendid opera, and Vienna’s was magnificent.
(12.09.12)
Photos: Ferrucio Furlanetto (Procida); Angela Meade (Elena)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper- Michael Pöhn