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.
Photos: Ferrucio Furlanetto (Procida); Angela Meade (Elena)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper- Michael Pöhn

Richard Strauss’s Arabella

Strauss and Hofmannsthall began work on Arabella in 1928; and at first, it all seems so decadent. Especially in this Vienna State Opera production, set in the 1930s, with magnificent art deco sets (Rolf Glittenberg), and costumes to make Hollywood wardrobe gasp. The spectacular view from the Waldner’s hotel suite shows the huge Metropole neon in reverse. Arabella’s mother (Zoreana Kushpler) wearing an exotic Japanese print gown, and reclining on a luxurious blue velour sofa, has her daughter’s tarrot cards read. One of Arabella’s three suitors, rich Count Elemer, arranges a photo shoot, with Arabella centre stage in royal blue silk, and shawl bejeweled in ornate jugendstil pattern. She’s enthroned like a movie godess, with palm trees behind her, served by page boys dressed all in red.
And the ballroom for the 2nd Act ball is straight out of a 1930’s film set, all lacquered black and gold. There’s an atmosphere of sexual ambiguity. Centre stage two women are waltzing, other women in men’s black suits, two gay men cruising at the long bar.
In the plot, Arabella’s sister Zdenka (Ileana Tonka) is dressed as a boy because the Waldners, near bankrupt, are too poor to give both their daughters a social debut in Vienna. Tonca is dressed in a cute grey tweed suit and cap. Zdenka will ‘forever be a groom’, says her mother.
Zdenka is secretly in love with young officer Matteo, who’s pursuing Arabella. Zdenka’s the go -between. Like cross- dressed Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night serving Orsino- as her master’s go-between with the disdainful Olivia. Similarly Zdenka procures for, and falls for, Matteo.
In the Fiacre Ball – carnival always an excuse for sexual license – Zdenka, still dressed as young man, slips the desperate Matteo the key to Arabella’s room, where Zdenka says Arabella will meet him. (Arabella, in fact, is dancing her last unmarried night away.) Later Arabella innocently confronts Matteo, who believes he’s made love to her, and can’t understand why she’s off-hand.
But decadence is not what Arabella is about. Strauss’s operas are so complex, you have to see them repeatedly to begin to understand their meaning. Arabella is about a young woman falling in love for the first time. In her wonderful opening aria, Arabella confides in her sister. Camilla Nylund enters, her coiffured blond hair over a shimmering silver raincoat. She’s greeted by red roses (from Matteo); she’s had perfume, and everything else to spoil her. But she remains a child: she will not be a woman, can’t help the way she is. Men come and go. But with the right man, der Richtige, she’ll be blissful, and obedient like a child.
And in her key aria ending Act 1 , Arabella fantasises about her ideal man. She points out a stranger to Zdenka, she’d previously noticed in the street, who’s deeply affected her. (In fact Mandryka has come to Vienna in response to her father’s letter.) Maybe he’s foreign? She imagines he’s married, and she’ll never see him again. But she’d like to meet her foreign man just once.
Then her mood changes remembering that evening is her Ball. She sings, turns and waltzes across the stage. Camilla Nylund (soprano) has charm, elegance – exquisite lightness- but occasionally seemed overwhelmed by Strauss’s heavy orchestration. I wanted (at first) more body and fullness. But Nyland developed momentum.
Baritone Thomasz Konieczny is impressive as Mandryka. He’d opened her father’s letter to his deceased uncle; and Arabella’s photo had fallen out. Konieczny, dressed in black suit and coat, sings of how she’d ruled his head for twelve weeks; and he will marry no one else.
Their meeting at the Ball is as enthralling as classic Hollywood romance. He had a wife for two years; but ‘taken away from him’. He gets carried away, excuses himself: he’d forgotten how different the world of society is to his a country estate, his woods and fields. ‘You want to marry me’, so her father had told her. In his farmer’s dialect, he compares her to a ‘Stammbaum’, a family tree.
He’s her ‘ Richtige‘, the right one: in an epiphany of recognition, everything’s light and open, sunblazing. He calls her allerschonste, most beautiful of all. She sings, he brings his Lebensluft (breath of life) with him. And he will be her Geliebter: his home will be her home, she buried in his grave. And she gives herself to him eternally. They sing together, holding each other, as if made for each other.
But, crucially she’s giving up her frantic Viennese social life to live out on a remote country estate…But she wants to dance out her last night of freedom. Of course, she’s the centre of everybody’s attention. And the target of her former suitors.
The Fiaker Ball is the pretext for disorder and uninhibited sexual encounters. Symbolically, the carnival girl in red bright sequined gown spreads herself over the bar. In the Opera, the surreal atmosphere is a time for testing their relationship. Thomas Konieczny gives a terrific performance as the country squire, straight man, a little out of his depth in the partying and social coquetry. Arabella will say farewell to her girlhood. She confronts her erstwhile suitors in turn: they are not richtige for her. (She says adieu to Elemer, but will not hold his hand; another suitor goes with her mother.) Zdenka, meanwhile gives Matteo an envelope; and holds her hands over his eyes.
Act 3, set outside the hotel-with fabulous Art Deco posters either side of the entrance- is the hangover when everyone is unmasked. Arabella returns from the ball, confronting Matteo who’s convinced he’s had her in his arms. You’re out of your mind, she reproaches him. Herbert Lippert (Matteo) looks very louche in an exotically patterned gold dressing gown. She has to fight him off. Lippert’s is a superb tenor. Mandryka appears, thinking he’s caught Arabella red-handed with the soldier. ‘That is your Countess, they will say, from the Kaiserstadt‘ (Vienna). The secrets of a girl’s heart, he scoffs. ‘Oh, Wien…city of intrigue!’
Touchingly Nyland reproaches Mandryka for not believing her. She has nothing to answer but the truth …The opera’s libretto breaks into dialogue. The music stops. There’s eery silence as Zdenka frantically approaches her parents -but now in a dress, with flowing black hair. Distressed, suicidal, she apologises. He, Matteo, is guiltless, knew nothing. Ileana Tonka, a superb soprano, impressed throughout. ‘Ich bin ein Madel’, a girl, nothing more. In the reconciliatory ending Tenka is finally seen wearing a white taffeta (weddding) gown.
Far from the ‘permissive’ decadent opening, the closure is puritanical.The glass of spring water Arabella orders- a sign of her forgiveness -is accepted by Mandryka. ‘This glass no one else can drink from’ is (for him) a symbol of her virginity and his posession of it. And so they are bethrothed, forever. Very old-fashioned. Although Arabella insists, take me as I am, and will remain.
Superlative orchestral playing from Vienna State Opera Orchestra, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, Music Director and Strauss exponent, reinforced Vienna’s reputation as the Strauss Opera House par excellence. The cast -also including Wolfgang Bankl (Waldner)- was exemplary. The sets alone were worth the visit.
Photos: Camilla Nylund (Arabella), Norbert Ernst (Elemer); Tomasz Konieczny (Mandryka); Camilla Nylund (Arabella); Ileana Tonca (Zdenka) ; Tomasz Konieczny (Mandryka) and Iride Martinez
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

L’Elisir d’Amore

Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore has irresistible appeal to opera audiences. A fairy tale romance between Nemorino, penniless peasant, and rich, beautiful, but unattainable Adina, who secretly loves him, yet plays him off against a sergeant (Belcore) proposing marriage. Ever gullible Nemorino buys a love potion from a visiting charlatan, but is conscripted (by his rival) to pay for it- unaware he’s inherited a fortune… And there’s Donizetti’s marvelous music, including Nemorino’s aria-one of the most memorable tunes in all opera: a vehicle for aspiring tenors.
So far I’d resisted the irresistible. Although, on my two previous visits, I was very impressed by Vienna State Opera’s traditional staging. Otto Schenk’s is a wonderful recreation of a farmhouse courtyard, a vibrant, colourful pageant: light-wooden gables either side, farmers seated in the top galleries; a panoramic view of the surrounding villages; and beautifully colour co-ordinated, with the ladies centre stage wearing cream pleated gowns.
American-trained soprano Chen Reiss is exquisite, relating the story of Tristan and Isolde to the country folk and a rapt Nemorino: how Tristan obtains a love potion to woo Isolde: her relief that such potions no longer exist.
Tenor Celso Albelo was, at first, not at all my idea of Nemorino. He’s fat, long-haired, the country bumpkin. But isn’t Nemorino meant to be gross and clumsy, the moral that love works in mysterious ways, regardless of class, convention and beauty?
Albelo’s Nemorino eats an apple side of stage to vent his disgust, as Adina falls for Sergeant Belcore, of the troops billetted on the village, glamorously dressed in green jackets with red trim, white pants, and black hats.
Marco Caria’s Belcore is young, moustachioed, sleeked black hair, and rather gorgeous, the epitome of the ‘cavalier’. And what a voice! A baritone of sheer articulacy. He’s all chivalrous charm , as he asks her for her love (‘Come Paride vezzoso’). And Chen is just breathtaking as the capricious, witty, free-spirited Adina playing him off.
Nemorino is remonstratative side -stage, pulls faces, moodily swivels his hips. But he’s likeable. He’s honest, and good fun, against the suave rhetoric of his rival.
In a stand out duet, Nemorino affirms how dearly he loves Adina. She rebuffs him, protesting she wants to stay free and untied. Reiss, with long flowing brown hair, is a natural beauty. She’s capable of the tricky coloratura passages, delivered with freshness and charm.
Albelo’s Nemorino, a bit of a buffoon, sits by her trying to cuddle up. Albelo’s tenor is unaffected- clear, elegant lines, with minimal vibrato. He even stands on the table to woo her. Yet, unexpectedly, they are a plausible romantic couple.
As Doctor Dulcamara , Alfred Sramek, in a black Victorian frock coat, yellow waistcoat, and steel- rimmed spectacles, is straight out of Dickens. Sramek’s Dulcamara is quite credible: rather the village doctor than the flash American peddlar. But though well sung – Sramek a distinguished favourite in house- his Dulcamara is maybe too genial, not mischevious and wicked enough. Dulcamara sells Nemorino the love potion – for all his gratitude,(Obbligato, ah! si! obligato)- nothing but bordeaux wine.
Bottle in hand, Nemorino practises his moves, as if in a dress rehearsal. He’s a little tipsy. On the appearance of Adina, he feigns indifference. Their scene is hilarious, and even has the audience laughing in their seats.
Adina, startled by Nemorino’s change of heart, needs to find out if he’s really cooled, and announces her immediate marriage to Belcore. Now Nemorino is horrified. Brandishing his bottle, he pleads on his knees, ‘Adina,credimi!‘ It’s a real comedy atmosphere; there’s is a genuine topsy- turvy relationship.
A fantastically staged banquet preparing for the wedding opens Act 2, with the orchestra’s trumpeters and brass occupying the upper galleries. Again Reiss sparkles. She’s a real tease as Dulcamara and Adina enact an improvised ‘Venetian’ love scene. Her light soprano enhanced by the syncopated orchestral playing, the infectious atmosphere even has the audience clapping along. (The notary, with the wedding contract, is adeptly stalled by Adina.)
Also good are Nemorino’s return to Dulcamara, for another potion he can’t afford. And the scene of Nemorino’s enlistment by Belcore, where Albelo attains terrific high notes. Nemorino first threatens Belcore with a chair; then, in the farce, after signing him up, Belcore shakes Nemorino’s hand, but twists it, forcing his rival prostrate to the ground.
Ironically, Nemorino imagines the potion has taken effect when the village girls hear the news of Nemorino’s inheritance. The girls are all over him. Albelo is like a bouncing ball passed around. And deluded, he ignores Adina.
Chen Reiss’s aria with Dulcamara- she learns from Dulcamara why Nemorino signed up- has purity and sincerity, against the bumbling salesman, who even offers her the love potion. Adina refuses: she will use her own eyes to win him. There’s a Rossini-like spring to the strings in the interplay between Chen and Sramek. It’s a truly comic scene that earned huge applause.
A secret tear in Adina’s eyes (‘Una furtiva lagrima’), the source of Nemorino’s aria. Does she love him after all? A horn solo introduces the mournful melody (of this famous aria), embellished by plucked strings, harp, and bassoon. It begins with a soft, innocent plea: a sincere appeal. Albelo stands in his boots and breeches, yellow shirt and waistcoat, holding his jacket on his arm. This is not at all the excuse for bravura, the tenor’s showing off. Albelo’s voice has a natural ring. There is absolute stillness in the audience. Finally, self-effacing, Albelo stands erect in his army jacket, as if appealing to us, the audience. Clarinet and bassoon especially underscore this most poignant, unforgettable of melodies. Albelo, defying the expected virtuoso display, is truly moving.
Reiss is equally affecting as she offers Nemorino his enlistment papers. She confesses her love for him. Nemorino, (standing to her side,) head turned away, furtively foots it towards her. The scene is both comic and touching, with superlative coloratura from Reiss. She has repaid Belcore the bounty, bought Nemorino free (‘Prendi, per me sei libero’)- in keeping with this well- educated, self-liberated woman.
There’s a lightness to the orchestral accompaniment as Adina kisses Nemorino, who lifts and whisks her across the stage. And Sramek’s Dulcimara is much better in the closing scene, boasting that it was through his magic potion that Nemorino found love, and also inherited a fortune.
The success of this production, underpinned by the sets, owes also to the orchestral playing (Vienna State Opera and Chorus) and Guillermo Calvo’s conducting. Calvo was animated, spritely, miming to the performers, enjoying every minute. Light textures, lively tempi refreshed Donizetti’s masterpiece and inspired an excellent cast. With a special magic betweeen Reiss and Albelo, this Love Potion had a genuine warmth and humour, its infectious comedy irresistible.
Photos: Celso Albelo (Nemorino) and Chen Reiss (Adina); Marco Caria (Belcore) and Chen Reiss (Adina); Celso Albelo (Nemorino) and Chen Reiss (Adina); Alfred Sramek (Dulcamara) and Celso Albelo
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pohn


Volksoper, Vienna’s home of operetta, also has an increasing international reputation as opera house- overhadowed by Vienna State Opera as English National is by Covent Garden. But Bizet’s Carmen sung in German? Yet, after the early 1876 Opera Comique version was initially withdrawn,´it was in Vienna where -in a ‘Grand Opera’ version-(dialogue replaced by recitatives)- that Carmen first enjoyed huge success. Brahms saw it twenty times, and even Wagner admired it (Gerald Larner).
Certainly the staging of this Vienna Volksoper Carmen (Johannes Leiacker, original production Guy Joosten) could hardly have been bettered. From the (opening) drab guardroom, the soldiers’ bright yellow shirts cleverly match the yellow screen highlighting Sevilia bullfighting posters. Micaela (Kristiane Kaiser), who has come looking for Don Jose, spurns the soldiers’ playful taunts. Kaiser has short auburn hair, plaited, and wears a sobre light blue skirt. Carrying a woven shopping bag, she is respectable, bourgeois, representing virtuous ‘family’ values: the very antithesis of the colourful, immoral Carmen, the ‘gypsy woman’ outsider.
Micaela’s arias, charmingly sung by Kaiser, are in the French operatic tradition, and influenced musically by Gounod. In the opera’s musical dichotomy- the stylistic division in the score- Bizet’s ‘Spanish’ music is allocated exclusively for Carmen and her gypsy friends. Its exotic rhythms and harmonies suggest dangerous sexual temptation and social subversion.
When the cigarette girls storm out of the factory, they’re in low-cut, silky, tobacco coloured dresses -colour coded to contrast with the soldiers. Carmen stands out. Annely Peebo is black-haired, gypsy like. She wears see-through back lace over a bright red skirt. In her provocative Habanera, she’s like a sex bomb. Carmen perches on a chair to show off her legs. She sits on soldiers’ laps (like in a bordello). Now the lights are dimmed as if Carmen is performing in a sleasy night club. She plucks a rose from the garlanded stage proscenium, and throws it at Don Jose, the only man she knows isn’t interested. The lights come on as Carmen is repulsed. Very clever, the twilight having suggested liminal sexual allure.
These two are so good looking. Mehrzad Montazeri as Don Jose, very handsome, with jet black Spanish/Moorish hair, has a richly timbred tenor, albeit a little insecure in the opening Act.
Act II’s Lillas Pastia’s tavern is seedy and atmospheric, absinthe pump in the background. Carmen and her gypsy friends, in riotously multi-coloured outfits, are entertaining the officers. Led by Carmen , they sing a robust Spanish gypsy song. Peebo, (mezzo-soprano) is slightly lacking in upper range, but the orchestra is on frenzied form.
In a dramatic entrance , Escamillo descends from a central iron staircase. The toreador, he’s meant to be the popular hero, and celebrity. So Sebastian Holecek, like a pop idol, wears a bright green suit, black shirt , and pink tie. Boasting of his success in the Ring, with women on each side- to his ecstatic fans’ delight- he delivers his signature tune, the Toreador Song. Holocek’s baritone has depth, ballast, but has a limited range (upper register).
But the staging is again very effective. Escamillo and admirers are on a table left stage. Carmen, in bright red blouse and tight black pants, right of stage, swigging on a bottle. That’s how they meet, (eye contact); but I didn’t get the sense of a relationship between them. And isn’t Holocek just a little too big to bullfight?
Momtazeri’s Jose and Peebo’s Carmen do have that charisma and chemistry. Jose returns- after two months’ prison for aiding Carmen’s escape. In her reunion with Jose, Carmen’s all over him. She dances for him wearing a skin tight black cat suit. Their foreplay is interrupted by army bugle calls. He has to go; they’re fighting; she taunts him. He swears his love, but he would desert and follow her, if he really loved her. The fate motif is heard on cor anglais .They were already at loggerheads before Zuniga’s (Sebastian Soules) call on Jose.(Jose refuses; they draw; Zuniga is disarmed by the smugglers.) The ending to Act II is highly effective, with Carmen and Jose standing obdurately centre stage, behind them the smugglers. The Volksoper Choir (and added choir) are in tremendous voice.
Act III, though again impressively staged, is gloomy and the low point for me, stage dominated by huge crates of contraband. They ‘re all in black cloaks, Carmen revealed by her protuding red slip. Kristiane Kaiser’s Micaela, pleading with Jose to return to his grieving mother, is in good voice :if a little boring. (Jose is about to kill Escamillo, who’s saved by Carmen’s arrival, and intercession.)
By contrast to Act 3 gloom , Act 4 opens, backed by a brilliant red safety curtain. Carmen is astride a chair, in bright red blouse and mulicoloured gypsy skirt. From what appears to be a haberdashery stall- rather a treasure chest- she’s assisted by her (exotically dressed) gypsy friends, Mercedes and Frasquita, into a fabulous full length silk gown, like a wedding outfit.
Meanwhile, right stage, Escamillo is being dressed into his toreador outfit- the full regalia, studded black top down to pink socks. It’s authentic: spectacular to watch, and stunningly choreographed, Escamillo facing, but unawares, his would-be bride, separated on the opposite side of stage.
The last scene between Carmen and Jose is all the more effective for the minimalist staging, with the red curtain, fronted by two chairs, adding to the claustrophobia. He pleads with her to start a new life with him. She refuses, vowing, she would rather die. Then the trumpets, indicating Escamillo’s victory off-stage. She taunts him , the ladies chorus background are superb. They are at the centre of a narrow stage; we see the glint of his dagger, brandished behind his back. The spotlight is on Carmen, fatally stabbed, yet still standing next to Jose. Now the red background has an added significance. There is no blood, but red everywhere. Finally, the curtain lifts on an empty bullring stadium, and deserted spectator grids. The body of Carmen in white lies at the front of the stage.
Peeblo and Montazeri both excelled in this highly dramatic last Act- which, imaginatively staged- still has the power to shock. Holocek’s Escamillo didn’t have the magnetism or voice for the extrovert popular hero figure of Escamillo. The cast as a whole were uniformly good- the supplemented Volksoper chorus excellent. And Vienna Volksoper Orchestra , conducted by Enrico Dovico impressed , especially woodwind solos, as in the entracte before Act 3. If not comparable with Vienna State Opera, certainly up to international standards.
Photos: (c) Dimo Dimov/ Volksoper Wien.
Ursula von den Sternen (Carmen), Mehrzad Montazeri (Don Jose); Sebastian Holocek (Escamillo). NB. Photos of Annely Peebo as Carmen are not yet available.

Don Carlo

Those expecting Don Carlo the 16th Century costume drama might be disappointed . But Verdi’s opera is well served by Vienna State Opera’s new production, in spite of the minimalist set. Don Carlo (Ramon Vargas) appears on a near empty stage lamenting ‘the great Emperor Charles is dust ; I have lost her’, (Elisabeth), married to his father, Philip II. Black- stained wood boards for the side stage, sloping ceiling and sliding side panels; but brilliantly lit as in the brightly coloured gowns for Princess Eboli’s Moorish dance scene. Costumes are nineteenth century. The men wear frock coats and high boots, the women long floor- length dresses. Thus the opera is de-historicised , but Verdi’s opera is not strict historical narrative. The Verdi imaginative treatment recasts the historical protagonists in his own dramatic scheme. Verdi identifies with the revolt for independence in Flanders -espoused by (Carlo’s friend) Rodrigo – as if it were an Italian state fighting off the foreign oppressor (Spanish/ Austrian Hapsburg).
And although titled Don Carlo(s) , the central figure is Philip II. His son Carlo is a rather characterless, undeveloped personality- would-be revolutionary, lover, and a man easily influenced. (Verdi was especially interested in the figure of Philip II- terrible and cruel , but also a tragic figure, defined by inconsolable loneliness, the destiny of the ruler.)
Don Carlo, lacking great arias, is most memorable in duets: with Elisabeth, Eboli, and Rodrigo. Significantly, when in 1867 the earlier French Don Carlos was shortened, the opening love scene in Fontainebleau between Carlos and Elisabeth was cut. So for the Italian Don Carlo the political -historical agenda was sharpened, the French Don Carlos more in the grand opera tradition.
Verdi, identifying with Schiller’s theme of political freedom, inherited the Marquese di Posa (Rodrigo) from Schiller’s play. Don Carlo’s boyhood friend, the torch bearer of hope, has taken up the cause of politically suppressed Flanders. So when Rodrigo finds Carlo in despair, confessing his love for Elisabeth, Rodrigo urges him to share his grief, and asks Carlo to request the King send him to Flanders; and thus Carlo devote himself to the cause of Flemish independence.
Their pledge of friendship and devotion is a highlight, its stirring theme – ‘We die to live, and die together’-recapitulated in their last meeting. Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo) was deeply impressive in his Vienna State Opera debut, his superb baritone well applauded. Vargas has star quality; a very appealing lyric tenor, technically brilliant, but lacking emotional clout; rather characterless, but perhaps determined by the role. Carlo seems to work as a foil.
Vargas is good in the Act 2 nocturnal garden scene. ‘It is you I love, scene of my torment’. Princess Eboli expresses her ‘supreme joy’ that he loves her. Until Carlo realises it in’t the Queen, Elisabeth. Luciana D’intino’s Eboli is outstanding as the passion-filled woman set on revenge. ‘Have pity!’, she pleads, ‘Oh, cruel man’. Eboli, wearing a crimson gown, revealing she’s the King’s confidante, threatens the deceiving woman: ‘Fear my revenge, deceitful sinner; fear the pain, God will punish you’.
When, in a clandestine meeting, finally alone with Elisabeth, Carlo is unable to conceal his passionate emotions. Vargos’s duet with Krassimara Stoyanova is very fine. Dressed in a white silk gown, reminding him of her position, she entreats Carlo not to hope for fulfilment of his love.
The opera’s pulse quickens when Rodrige pleads before the King (end Act 1) for Flanders. Verdi’s heart is with oppressed people. Keenlyside enthralls as Rodrigo describes Flanders as a desert, with children starving. Verdi’s music is impassioned, strings furious and agitated. He is rebuked by Philip (Rene Pape). His is the rule of the tomb. It works for the rest of his Empire: duty to their King and Spain, enforced by the Inquisition. Yet Philip, impressed by Rodrigo’s courage, retains him as personal advisor; but warns, beware the Inquisition.
The Auto-da -Fe, for the execution of heretics, is the opera’s most spectacular scene. Philip is confronted by the Flemish delegation. (Carlo’s request to be Regent is rejected). In the opening ceremony the chorus extol, repeatedly, ‘honour the great King: his name will live eternally’. In counterpoint, the Inquisition warns ‘The day of terror is here. They shall die!’ Vienna State Opera chorus are superb. Philip is entreated ‘Have pity and save our country’.
Now we see a gold panelled portal rear stage, hooded Inquisition guards either side. Philip stands tall – Pape dressed in military blazer and decorations, breeches and high boots. The bodies of the ‘heretics’ are piled up rear of stage, behind them the hell -fire of the Inquisition.
In ‘one of the greatest scenes in musical theatre’, Philip sings of heartfelt anguish, ‘She has never loved me’. Verdi conveys the suffering of the King, seeking human trust. Verdi humanises the ‘tyrant’, underlining his loneliness through solo cello. Against plaintive cello, Rene Pape makes the monologue the high point of the opera. ‘Her heart is closed to me’. Philip still remembers Elisabeth, arriving from France, looking sadly at his grey hair. ‘My days ebb slowly away, I find no peace. (Where am I? Morning brightens the sky.) If only the Crown could give him the power to see into the hearts of men, godly power! ‘She has never loved me’, the oboe underscores the refrain.
Yet Philip is under pressure from the Inquisition. Seeking the advice of the Grand Inquisitor (Eric Halfvarson), he complains, (Act 3) ‘Can a church sacrifice his son?’ Philip, who must lose Rodrigo, a true friend in troubled times, is himself accused of the sin of ‘innovation’.
Verdi’s opera is about the denial of love; for one to love, another must be denied. Elisabeth, victim of Princess Eboli’s conspiracy, complains she’s no longer treated well at court; her casket of jewels is missing. Philip, finding Carlo’s portrait, accuses her of adultery. Elisabeth defiantly proclaims, ‘I am Queen of Spain and pure’.
Princess Eboli’s confession of her betrayal shows D’intino on tremendous form, admitting she stole the casket. Banished to a convent, ‘Never again shall I see the Queen’. D’intino is enormously powerful in her aria, in soliloquy, cursing her beauty ; but praise the heavens, she will save Carlo.
Rodrigo’s farewell visit to the imprisoned Carlo is another highlight. Again Keenlyside is excellent. Rodrigo incriminates himself for Carlo’s treason, and is stabbed. His last hour has come; he can die knowing Spain lives through Carlo. But, urges Carlo, Save Flanders!
With Act 5’s foregrounding of the love story, Stoyanova is very strong, preparing to bid Carlo farewell. Carlo must leave: now he walks the path of fame, ‘My days are at an end’. She remembers her youth in Fontainebleau. In their final scene, Carlo, significantly, sings of ‘a fire before me, the suffering nation I shall save’. Such commitment makes a man a god, encourages Elisabeth. Their last duet- with strings ebbing like a tide- has some of Verdi’s opera’s finest music.
Initially I felt cheated by the lack of period finery and costumes. I retract. Daniele Abbado’s direction, (Graziano Gregori’s minimalist stage conception,) strips away the clutter to focus on Verdi’s characters, and their interaction. Verdi had enormous theatrical instincts, argues Welser -Möst, a Verdi enthousiast,whose conducting elicited impassioned playing from Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Vargas’s Don Carlo notwithstanding, hard to imagine a better cast, with State Opera Chorus giving it their everything.
Photos: Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo, Marquese di Posa) and Rene Pape (Philip II); Ramon Vargas (Don Carlo) and Krassimara Stoyanova (Elisabeth) ; Rene Pape (Philip)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn


Richard Strauss’ (1909) opera Elektra was his first collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Recreating the ancient Greek myth, the opera is modernist in its focus on Elektra and her mother Clytaemnestra , murderer of Agamemnon, Elektra’s father. To the exclusion of background narrative, all is subordinated to Elektra’s revenge. And the opera is expressionist in in its representation of brutal, violent horror.
Musically Elektra is complex and challenging for both singers and orchestra , the soprano role of Elektra , like Salome, one of opera’s most demanding. Elektra’s use of ‘dissonance, chromaticism, and fluid tonality’, similar to that in Salome (1905), moves beyond it to mark Strauss’s furthest excursion into modernism. As with Salome’s final dissonnant chord, the ‘bitonal’, extended ‘Elektra chord’ is infamous. Characters -as in Salome– are distinguished in music through leitmotives, or chords.
In Vienna State Opera’s production, dominating the stage is a giant statue of Agamemnon, huge legs like tree trunks, his head lying nearby decapitated. One leg bears down on a globe, crushing it like an eggshell. Agamemnon -like Caesar- bestrode the narrow world like a colossus; and his murder and its consequences overshadow and define the opera. Elektra performs her daily ritual of remembrance. She lays down at his feet, calls on him, swears to avenge him: blood will flow from his murderers like jugs knocked- over.
Linda Watson as Elektra is unfeminine- butch, lumpen- in oversized loden army coat, grungy military fatigues and beanie. Watson, who sang Brunnhilde in Thielemann’s Wagner Ring cycle at Vienna State Opera, has all the vocal power as well as sensitivity the tragic role needs. Elektra has become the outsider, whom we see goaded by the palace servants. Later she’s ashamed, before Orestes, in her self- perceived ugliness, all her youth and beauty sacrificed in her vengeful crusade.
By contrast, as Chrysothemis, Anne Schwanewilms appears shapely and elegant in a coutured outfit, trailing white scarf, and matching beret. Her warning to Elektra of her mother’s plan to lock her away is scorned. Chrysothemis’ plea is for compassion and compromise. Her mission- upset by Elektra’s revenge- lust- is reconciliation, to enable her to fulfil her life: to live to have children. Schwanewilms unbuttons to reveal a bright red top covering her bosom: ‘She will have children’. Schwanewilms is a softer, lighter soprano; she’s more human, and feminine . But she can hit the high notes, as when she’s describing herself as a mother figure.
Clytaemestra complains she has no good nights, (‘Ich habe keine gute Nachte’). Like a Lady Macbeth, she’s tormented by her endless dreams. Mezzo -soprano Agnes Baltsa appears on a platform erected by metal- helmeted soldiers, as if in a gothic sci-fi epic. Baltsa, a stunning ice-blonde, wears a long shimmering black evening gown with head piece. Baltsa has tremendous stage presence, lithe and glamorous in contrast to the dowdily dressed Watson. Elektra, protesting she too is a goddess, persuades Clytaemestra to come down from her plinth. Clytaemestra is hoping to engage Elektra by confiding her nightmares to her; she’s attempting to to appease the gods. But Elektra replies cryptically , ‘When the right victim falls beneath the axe, you’ll dream no longer’. Of Orestes, Clytaemestra dismisses news of Elektra’s brother’s return, ‘What have I to fear; he lives with the dogs’. In their bitchy cat and mouse exchange, Clytaemestra’s refusal to leave her partner Aegisthus finally provokes Elektra to reveal her true feelings: ‘What must bleed? Your own neck!’
‘Orestes is dead!’ The news, to Clytaemestra’s jubilation, determines Elektra to act alone, unable to enlist Chrysomesis in her plans.
But Orestes appears to Elektra disguised as ‘a friend of Orestes’, a messenger of his own death. Albert Dohmen (Orestes) was recently in Vienna as Wotan/Wanderer in Wagner’s Ring , also Flying Dutchman . Dohmen is a tremendous bass/ baritone, of international renown, ballast in a largely female cast.( Dohmen’s authority is undiminished, even in a patchwork hooded- parka, over a torn brown leather outfit.) His recognition of his sister- Elektra, ‘So sehe ich sie!’- is one of the opera’s many highlights. ‘No you musn’t embrace me’, Elektra protests, her hair is dirty, unkempt, ashamed of her lost femininity. They seem to stagger, disorientated, symbolically beneath the legs of Agamemnon. Their being together again is beyond any dream (Traumbild), ‘Stay by me’, their duet, is sung to an exquisitely moving cello accompaniment. Orestes, urged on by Elektra to perform the deed, ‘will do it, without delay’.
We see Aegisthus (Herbert Lippert) led away to his death. There is a horrible groan, or stifled scream. Chrysothemis, announcing their brother has done it, is ecstatic. Her clothes are blood- splattered from the massacre wreaked by Orestes’ followers.
In the confusing closing scene Elektra appears dancing ecstatically, trance-like. In the confusion, they’re pulling on ropes, scaling the enormous statue. (What if it falls, we nearby audience wonder.) Elektra is now binding ropes around the base of the giant Agamemnon, as if it were a captive Gulliver. Both daughters are dancing wildly. There’s a fearsome, dissonnant chord- dire, ominous, chilling- repeated on the trumpets. Orestes stands on the sculpted head of his father, Agamemnon. Elektra collapses beneath her father’s towering legs. Unable to move, ‘the burden of happiness’, her hopes of renewal, are illusory; the web of fate is inescapable.
With the principal cast predominately women, it was appropriate to have a woman conductor. Simone Young directed Vienna State Opera orchestra in the packed pit, orchestra augmented by two harps, with very unusual percussion including tamtam, tambourine, cymbals, castanets, glockenspiel, celesta, and 6-8 timpani. Young’s impassioned conducting rightly received enthousiastic applause. As did the leads of an exceptional cast, Baltsa, Schanenwilms, Dohmen, and especially Linda Watson. Directed by Harry Kupfer (61st production with this set), Hans Schavernoch’s stage design deserves mentioning, a rare achievment: minimalist, highly effective symbolism, timeless.
Photos: Linda Watson (Elektra); Agnes Baltsa (Clytaemnestra) ; Albert Dohmen (Orestes)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pohn

Lucia di Lammermoor

Consider the fate of Lucia di Lammermoor. Manipulated by her unscrupulous brother Enrico facing financial ruin, she must marry the rich and influential Arturo. But Lucia is still grieving for her murdered mother; and she’s in love with Edgardo, who saved her life. But Edgardo is her brother’s sworn enemy, Enrico having killed Edgardo’s father and aggrandised his lands.
Lucia is the victim of patriarchal conspiracies. Tricked into an arranged marriage she faces ‘a living death’. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor– based on Sir Walter Scott’s gothic novel-is more than a Scottish intrigue with an Italian twist. Significantly, Edgardo offers, before going abroad, to make peace with Enrico, out of love for Lucia. Edgardo is cast, in Donizetti’s opera, as a noble figure pitted against the ritual feuding, cult of machismo personified by Enrico, who ‘lives by the sword’. Edgardo is the new ‘romantic hero’ prepared to sacrifice his family’s (patriarchal) claims for love. In the tragedy love prevails, albeit posthumously.
Vienna State Opera’s Lucia, Diana Damrau, red-haired, in a green silk gown, reminded me of Rosetti’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings. In Scene 2 (Ravenswood Park) Lucia is awaiting Edgardo- where one of his jealous ancestors once stabbed his wife. Lucia sees her ghost -a presentiment. Regardless, Lucia affirms Edgardo ‘the light of my life… with glowing passion, he swears his eternal love for me’. It’s all very pleasing, but -at this point- Damrau seems as if holding back, top note a little unstable. She reproaches Edgardo ‘Tomorrow he leaves the country-and he’d leave me in tears’. Her duet with Edgardo is powerfully rendered. Their love must remain secret. Edgardo (Piotr Beczala), is consumed with rage:’He took my father, my inheritance: what more does he want, blood?’ They vow allegiance as man and wife in love.
Beczala, handsome, dark-haired, makes a dashing Edgardo, with sword hanging by his side. Beczala is a very impressive lyric tenor. A regular at Vienna State Opera, he received frequent ovations. With Edgardo standing over Lucia , seated on the park bench, they make a good-looking couple- for a change! Their duet, a highlight, was well applauded.
Baritone Marco Caria is also very impressive as Enrico. He’s a baritone of real calibre: convincing in his rhetoric, appealing to Lucia as a brother. Lucia accuses Enrico: only God can forgive his actions. And, rejecting marriage to Arturo, she protests she has sworn allegiance to another. ‘Enough!’ Enrico brandishes the forged letter proving Edgardo’s infedelity.
Lucia is crestfallen. In her aria, Damrau movingly suggests the beginning of the unravelling of Lucia’s mind. ‘My heart is broken… I have suffered…My hopes depended only on him. I feel as if I were dead. That fickle man now loves another’, she reproaches herself. ‘You were blinded’, Enrico twists the knife. ‘Save me!’, he pleads otherwise his fate is sealed. Enrico’s rhetoric insidiously reverses the argument. She, Lucia, is wielding the axe against him if she doesn’t marry Arturo. Yet she’s directing ‘the bloody axe’ against herself. ‘Oh, ill-fated love’, she pines.
Raimondo piles on the pressure: stressing Lucia’s resposibilities to family. ‘Your brother’s life and happiness depend on you alone. Be silent, you have no respite.’ Then, on a tremendous sustained note, ‘You are blessed; such a sacrifice will cause great joy in heaven’. Sorin Coliban’s superb baritone seems almost sympathetic. Lucia tries to rationalise: Edgar had betrayed her. She’s caught in a patriarchal trap.
The wedding ceremony in the Great Hall of Ravenswood is magnificently staged. There are authentic tapestries on walls either side, oak panels, suspended candelabra, dignitaries dressed in rich shades of red and gold, swords crossed for the entrance- it would do justice to a Hollywood film set. Edgardo gatecrashes the wedding. Lucia has to choose between ‘life and living death’. Raimondo separates Enrico and Edgardo:’He who lives by the sword dies by the sword’. Edgardo, handwriting is tested; Enrico’s forgery is exposed.
In the so-called ‘mad scene’, Lucia enters the Hall imagining she is going through her marriage with Edgardo. Damrau, dressed in a white night gown , flecked with blood spots, her hair disheveled. She almost staggers into the Hall, disorientated , with a wild look, as if possessed. Swaying, as if on a tightrope, she makes her way to the altar, where she imagines roses -for her wedding to Edgardo.
The extended aria (over three melodies) is an advance exercise in coloratura – a demonstration in belcanto for Damrau- culminating in a formidable dialogue with a flautist. Her runs are responded to and echoed by the flute. It’s meant to show how her mind is cracking up : technically dazzling, but disconcerting. Damrau enacts the scene sympathetically, without histrionics. Ultimately it’s very moving. Raimondo warns Enrico of the danger and seriousness of his sister’s condition. The scene ends with Lucia’s collapse on the edge of the stage. The applause for Damrau was such that you might have imagined the opera ended here.
Not so. In Donizetti’s (text by Cammaroni) dramatic scheme, resentful Edgardo sees the light in the castle. Beczala powerfuly conveys Edgardo’s morbid imagination of Lucia’s wedding celebrations- unaware she’s murdered her husband, driven mad out of love for him. And in the terrible irony of the crypt scene, Edgardo’s vigil, expecting the duel with Enrico, becomes a wake as Lucia’s body is carried in. Edgardo kneels before the altar; Beczala, backed by choir, is tremendous, in the scene’s developing drama.
But there could have been an alternative ending.The Tower Scene (6), (has Edgardo swearing vengeance by the spirit of hell. The two rivals, Enrico and Edgardo, will resolve their family vendetta in time-nonoured duel. Both singers, like football heroes arm- in- arm, acknowledge audience applause. But machismo isn’t what the opera is about.
Before the interval, house manager warned us Diana Damrau was performing in spite of a cold. Maybe this might account for a slight wavering in her opening scenes. Nevertheless the mad scene was not only a virtuoso demonstration , but also heart rending. Applause was also enthousiastic for Beczala, and Caria’s authorative Enrico. Together with bass Sorin Coliban’s Raimondo’s tremendous stage presence, this quartet could hardly be bettered. Damrau, acknowledging applause, beckoned to the solo flautist who had dueted with her. He exemplified the wonderfully sympathetic playing of Vienna State Opera orchestra under Guillermo Garcia Calvo. The well-used, albeit traditional, sets (designer Pantelis Dessylas, directed by Boleslaw Barlog) are another good reason to commend this production.
Photos: Marco Caria (Enrico) ; Diana Damrau (Lucia) and Piotr Beczala (Edgardo); Piotr Beczala (Edgardo); Diana Damrau (Lucia)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pohn

La Traviata

Opera needs to appeal to new and younger audiences. It is the job of director and stage designer to help us better understand a complex plot, and its characters. ‘Modern’ costumes and sets can make an opera more accessible . An opera need not be time and place specific.
We should not have to know that Verdi’s La Traviata (Vienna State Opera) is based on ‘The Lady of the Camelias’, Alexander Dumas’ son’s semi-autobiographical novel, (and the death of the courtesan Marie Duplessis at only 23). Or that, Verdi, against the opposition of his stepfather, defended his marriage to a ‘singer’: to his right to a life heedless of social convention.
We do need to know that consumption was rife in the 19th century; also that fainting fits were common amongst ladies, and considered a sign of their ‘weaker’ nature. And that sickness was a metaphor for moral malaise. The protagonists of Camelias and Traviata were ‘courtesans’, considered women of easy virtue.
In Vienna State Opera’s new production (Director Jean -Francois Sivadier), we lose all context of Verdi’s opera. Sivadier sets the opera as if auditioning and rehearsing for ‘La Traviata’. Violetta comes on in blue satin skirt , halter top, applauded by contestants in chairs either side of a run-down hall. (This is where , at one of her splendid parties , much sought-after Violetta meets Alfredo Germont.) Here she’s thrown a bunch of flowers by Alfredo) after her set.
But, on this barely furnished stage as rehearsal room, we’re supposed to imagine Verdi’s chorus’s rousing Libiamo, ‘Let’s drink from the cup of pleaasure’, singing as if they’re off to enjoy ‘wine and song through the night’. But where? Violetta collapses front of stage , dismissing her fainting as merely ‘a chill’.
So far Ermonela Jaho has charmed us as a convincing Violetta. But Francesco Demuro’s Alfredo is only routine , even when singing (Un di felice, eterea) of a love the heart beat of the universe . The chorus, however, are superb, thanking ‘the entertainers’: dawn is breaking, the city is full of parties.
In spite of the improbable set, Act 1 ends on a high note with Violetta’s arias. Jaho is very impressive revealing her true feelings, picking up Alfredo’s heartbeat refrain: her longing (Ah, fors e lui) for ‘love, mysterious, torment and rapture’, (how as a child she’d dreamt of the ideal man). Now, in a tight creamy silk skirt, she sings- with fantastic coloratura- of enjoying herself revelling in the whirlpool of desire: (Sempre libera degg’io) free to seek out new delights. The party girl, she’s back on stage with another dancing partner.
Act II, Scene 1 between Violetta and Georgio Germont is the most successful. (Retired to the country, Violetta’s given up her ‘life of luxury’; but she and Afredo are broke.) Alfredo’s father appears at Violetta’s appartment to persuade her to break with his son .The bourgeois ‘appartment’ we have to imagine is backed by two suspended ‘impressionist’ meadow scenes- another of blue sky with (symbolic) clouds. Zelijko Lucic is outstanding as Georgio, if anything too sympathetic, on a brutal mission he will later recant. He accuses Violetta of leading his son to ruin, although Violetta proves she’s had to sell off her own possessions. Violetta nevertheless vows to love Alfredo forever. Jaho is heartbreaking, powerful and unaffected, plaintively singing (Ah! dite alla giovene si bella e pura) he can tell his daughter, ‘a wretched woman is making this sacrifice before she dies’.
And there’s ambiguity to their meeting: even a sexual frisson. Georgio, complimenting Voletta’s generosity, asks what he can do for her -as if to pay her off.
Violetta sings Alfredo must know ‘I’m his until my last breath’, as she’s writing to Alfredo that she no longer loves him. Alfredo appears behind her as she sings her aria, ‘I’ll be there amonst the flowers’. Giorgio movingly relates his letter to his son to come home, an aria which won for Lucic deservedly loud cheers.
The pivotal Ball (scene 2), however, doesn’t quite work. Violetta is supposed to be out to a Ball with the Baron. But the cast (as Chorus) are acting out a scene for a play – with director side stage. It’s still a rehearsal, but we have to imagine matadors from Madrid come to enjoy themselves.
Really, it has to be a Ball , otherwise , where is the sense of social scandal (if this is all an act?) Imagining she’d left him for the Count, and her old life. Violetta is publicly humiliated by Alfredo, who’s been playing cards, and throws his winnings at her feet. Violetta collapses side of stage. The chorus again magnificent, affirm ‘we suffer for your pain’.
Sivadier’s production is least successful in the climactic Act 3. Violetta is left of stage, slumped like a fallen ballerina. The curtain rises to a near empty stage. Is this minimalism too far? Pendants in gold, as token chandeliers; rolled-up sheets , or bed linnen scattered randomly . Suffering alone, with Anina, Violetta reads George’s letter, sings (Addio del passato ) farewell to her dreams. She covers herself with a sheet. Her hair cropped , she looks emaciated For the final scene the ‘chandeliers’ have gone . Violetta’s standing side of stage , But there’s no sick bed? Alfredo returns, imploring forgiveness; in duet (Parigi, o cara!) forgetting Violetta’s hopeless condition. Georgio, a foolish old man , admits the harm he’s done. The ensemble, with father, son Anina, and doctor lamenting, whilst Alfredo begs Violetta not to die, is very good. Violetta is, ultimately, lying on stage, bare boards, with the bundled bed linnen , and token blue jacket.
Yet, in spite of Jaho’s affecing performance , it isn’t as moving as it should be. She is standing front of stage when she rallies, falls back and dies. Without the sick bed the audience cannot suspend disbelief, to enable catharsis. For the full dramatic impact, even the greatest singers (Netrebko premiered in this production) need basic props for this scene.
As my neighbour, a Viennese lady and regular operagoer here put it, audiences come to expect the ‘cliches’. But each new director has to be different.
In spite of a strong performance from Jaho (who will grow into the role), and Lucic who provided the balast, this new production did not move as I’d hoped. This was no fault of Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Bertrand de Billy, who researched and used Verdi’s original score, (cutting away 150 years of overscoring); nor of Vienna State Opera Chorus, who always excel in Verdi. 20.05.2012 .

Photos: Ermonela Jaho (Violetta), Francesco Demura (Alfredo); Ermonela Jaho and Zeljko Lucic (Giorgio Germont); Ermonela Jaho (Violettta), Donna Ellen (Anina)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Micheal Pohn


What Richard Strauss’s Salome is about is not ‘love’ which Salome professes for Jochanaan, but desire as lust unbounded ; the consequences of lust are grotesque and evil. Salome, like a child desiring what she cannot have, spitefully will have his head on a platter. And Herodes, married incestuously to Herodias, lusts after her daughter Salome. Herodes has offered- will offer- Salome ‘everything’ to see her dance: an erotic spectacle as sexual preview.
The enigma of the piece is Jochanaan (John the Baptist) , the man of God who has renounced the sins of the flesh. Salome is the lascivious temptress. Woman it was who, through Eve, brought evil into the world. So he will have none of it. Yet his very stubbornness spurs her on, the spoilt Princess. Salome’s dangerous, amoral game ensnares Narraboth (Captain of the Guard, who later commits suicide) to release Jochanaan; and this original Lolita plays a deadly poker with her step father.
Oscar Wilde, the aesthete , was inspired by paintings of the iconic Salome, the Christian biblical theme, a tale of oriental eroticism and barbarism. But Wilde, for all his brilliant wit, was the serious moralist. Jochanaan’s faith was not to be bought, nor his integrity compromised.
Richard Strauss saw Wilde’s play (in Lachmann’s German version). Strauss’s opera was premiered in December 1905 in Dresden. Salome provided not only a showcase for Strauss’s virtuoso orchestral descriptive powers. Strauss, even in 1905, was pushing the boundaries of late Romanticism- at times prefiguring Schoenberg’s opulent early works (Pelleas und Mellisand).
The harmony of Salome employs ‘extended tonality , chromaticism, a wide range of keys, unusual modulations, tonal ambiguity and polytonality’.In the opera’s final scene -after Salome kisses the severed head- the music climaxes in a highly dissonnant chord, This chord has provoked huge controversy: ‘sickening’,’epoch making’,’ecstasy falling in upon itself’. The chord jars dissonnantly against Strauss’s rich orchestration; but, arguably, is crucial in Strauss’s elaborate scheme, using keys and leitmotifs to represent the opera’s characters, and their doomed fate.
And Salome’s depraved scenes and lewd sensuality shocked audiences – years ahead of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1912) . Salome was initially banned in London, and Vienna (until 1918).
Even apart from the music, the triumph of Vienna State Opera’s production (Boleslaw Barlog) is in its ‘jugendstil’, fin-de-siecle inspired sets. Elaborately detailed, stone effect base coverings have intricate patterns embossed in gold reminiscent of exotic and floral backgrounds to Klimt’s paintings and murals. Given the context of Wilde’s aestheticism , Strauss’s opulent orchestral scoring, Jurgen Rose’s jugendstil design is especially appropriate, and enhances the (opera’s) mood of decadence. In addition , the gowns of Salome and Herodias, are ‘jugendstil’ -as in the premiere- with Herodias (Gwynneth Jones) wearing an outrageous multi-layered plumed hat. Salome, in the final scene wears a long black black gown with a white floral design . So that when she kneels, her patterned gown trails behind her, melting into the elaborate floral design of the set.
The highly demanding role of Salome requires ‘the volume, stamina and power of a true dramatic soprano’. Problemmatic is finding the ideal soprano who is also convincing as a young woman. Additionally, she needs a ballerina’s nimbleness and grace to perform the seminal ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, Strauss’s intention-in spite of the role’s complexity -was for the singer herself to dance.
Lise Lindstrom is slim ,tall, in a long white gown, her dark brown hair in long tresses. To modulating woodwind, Lindstrom achieves very high notes effortlessly, remarking how deep the well is, how terrible to have to live there . ‘Bring the prophet out, I want to see him’ , she insists. The stage slopes like an ampitheatre , the well in the centre. A long haired figure emerges clad all in black , like a heavy metal singer. Markus Marquardt is a tremendous baritone, (his brass accompaniment interpolated by playful woodwind for Salome.)
Lindstrom’s Salome has the lightness of a girl -playful and mischevious- unaware of the consequences of her game. ‘Who is this woman… I don’t like her eyes on me’; Jochanaan doesn’t want to know who she is, sends away the ‘daughter of Babylon’. Addressing Jochanaan, she’s in love with his Lieb, his body the white of ivory, roses…His long black hair like grapes. She wants to touch it .Back! He pushes her away, Daughter of Sodom (cacophony). She desires his mouth: nothing in the world is as red, let me kiss it. Never, daughter of Babylon, is Jochanaan’s refrain, to strident orchestral intervention, very low bass, clarinets soaring.
Herodes’ (Wolfgang Schmidt) high tenor seems rather unstable; perhaps he’s a bit mad. He senses the cold and murmuring wind as insidious omens. Herodes announces the time is nigh -( flutes shriek, clarinets comment obliquely) .’No one can tell how God works. His ways are mysterious. But the Messiah hasn’t come. Meanwhile Herodias (Gwynneth Jones) wearing that hat, waves her fan, shocked, outraged at her daughter.
The royal area is bedecked luxuriantly in exquisitely patterned cloth and spread with cushions: all very decadent. (Jochanaan, feared for his prophesies, was thrown into prison, the powerful enraged by his moral censure.) Herodes, in full oriental princely robes, will have his step-daughter dance for him . She declines, barters; will not, even for half his kingdom.
The Dance ! The music of seduction is sumptuous, mysterious, with woodwind, especially flutes, evoking the exotic. How does she do? She’s tantalising , taunting, against a dialogue between strings and woodwind , peppered by percussion ,and embelished by harp. Lindstrom isn’t a professional dancer, but naturalistic, more like a drunk dare at a party.
We are all leaning -leering-over our balcony seats , for a closer look, like voyeurs. She kneels . We see her bare thighs. He’s offered emeralds, his most prized possesions, his love. She lowers her voice, still demands, (again clarinets, shrill flutes, braying horns), ‘Give me the head of Jochanaan’. Terrible bassoons, dissonant strings, a tremendous drum roll. Salome finally appears in a black dress, the head on a silver platter. She sits on the edge of the stage, kneeling in front of it.
Why doesn’t he look at me, with those closed eyes? I’m alive, you are dead; now your head belongs to me! Salome’s soliloquy is remarkable, psychologically. Jochanaan has seen his God , but not her. Had he seen her, he would have loved her. She lusts for him. Obscenely, she kisses the head. In her self -deception, it tastes like love, ‘the secret of love is greater than the secret of death’.
Herodes curses his daughter-in-law, ein Ungeheuer monster, and orders her death, sensing evil omens.
Lindstrom was impressive, but developing in the role. The cast, Schmidt, Marquadt, Jones, was distinguished. Some audience (near stage boxes) felt the leads were rather overwhelmed by the over-loud orchestra. Nevertheless Vienna State Opera Orchestra, truly marvelous, under the experienced Ulf Schirmer, affirmed that in Strauss they are unsurpassed. Salome is not a comfortable experience.
Photos: Lise Lindstrom (Salome); Gwynneth Jones (Herodias) and Wolfgang Schmidt (Herodius); Lise Lindstrom (Salome) and Markus Marquardt (Jochanaan)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pohn

Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito

On the morning of the premiere of La Clemenza di Tito at Vienna State Opera, I happened to hear an interview on Austrian Radio with soprano Chen Reiss. Reiss is cast as Servilia, whom new Emperor Tito intends to marry (as a gesture of friendship to her brother Sesto).Servilia may seem a ‘small’ part, but Reiss contends, in opera roles are neither ‘short’ or ‘long’. Certainly Reiss, in a sparkling purple shift,had maximum impact in a relatively brief appearance in Act 1. Servilia refuses to accept Tito, though Annio is prepared to submit to the Emperor. In a tremendous aria she confirms her love for Annio: ‘Love is the only thing that truly matters in life’. Chen’s powerful rendition is convincing enough to persuade Tito renounce his intention, and encourage the lovers.
Reiss is one of a dazzling cast, inevitably eclipsed by the longer roles. Vitellia (Juliane Banse) is the daughter of the overthrown Emperor.Vitellia exploits Sesto’s love for her, offering her favours, should he join a conspiracy to kill Tito. Sesto (Sextus) is in fact played by mezzo Elina Garanca, and these two powerful singers vie for our applause, especially Garanca. As Tito, Michael Schade is refined, stylish, a rich, fulsome tenor. Tito is Mozart’s benevolent (‘Enlightened’) ruler , ‘the sole desire of the sovereign is to do good. The rest is torment’, he sings (to warm applause.)
Juliane Banse, red-haired, and a stunning presence in tight black lace dress (Versace inspired?), rages with passion, threatening the day Tito’s blood will run .’Is the Capital aflame yet’, she asks failed Sesto: ‘Get out of my sight!’ Sesto pleads, to a sublime clarinet accompaniment, let us part as friends. In a key aria, Garanca (cross-dressed) in a black waistcoat-trouser outfit, ballooning white shirt, insists ‘Look at me! I promise I will avenge you’. There was huge applause.
Banse’s Vitellia is also impressive (in a later aria) bemoaning her accursed rage, ill-fated fury. She feels great joy, but frozen with fright. The revolt begun, Vitellia tries to stop Sesto, who returns convinced he’s killed Tito. The Chorus come in, lamenting the death of the benevolent Emperor, lined up in black suits, with music stands and scores. ‘What a heinous crime. What a day of grief!’ (Sesto and Vitellia, meanwhile, sit disconsolately, side-by side on a chaise- longue.)
Act 2 opens to a messy stage with all sorts of props scattered about, like a trashed lounge, perhaps to symbolise Sesto’s chaotic state of mind? (Annio reports to the depressed Sesto, that the Emperor is unharmed). But Mozart’s music shines through the dry ice and Jurgen Flymm’s opaque direction (booed curtain-up.) To an oboe intro, Sesto sings of a gentle breeze caressing his face: this will be his last breath. In a magnificent group ensemble Sesto confesses. Vitellia urges him to flee , while the Chorus in the background (ironically) gives thanks for the saving of Tito. Annio ( mezzo Serena Malfi) advises Sesto to trust in Tito; though betrayed, and Sesto should die, the Emperor has a compassionate heart.
Tito is enraged: at first feels the villain must die, but relents, bemoaning the sad fate of the ruler torn between rage and friendship. In a dramatic scene, Sesto, prepared to die , will not reveal his secret. Nevertheless Tito, bemused, revokes the death sentence.
Mozart’s opera is about betrayal and loyalty. Schade, in black with a white cotton jacket- like a psychiatrist- appeals to Sesto to confide in his friend. Ultimately Sesto, remorseful, appeals to Tito’s frienship; Tito’s hostility is punishment enough to make him die an agonising death. Garanca’s performance won loud bravos.
Tito knows Sesto is guilty, but if he ‘can only rule with a heart of steel , then take away my realm, or give me another heart. Loyalty means nothing if it is founded on fear, not love’, (Schade heavily applauded).
The message is that of the ‘Enlightened’ ruler. Mozart’s Tito is echoing the (eighteenth Century) Age of Enlightenment model of benevolent ruler. Schade is seen picking up scattered sheets of paper: are they manifestos?
It’s time for Vitellia- Banse again stunning- to prove her strength of character. She will go to to Tito and confess everything. Farewell her hopes of marriage (‘Never will the godess of marriage descend…’) And finally Sesto is led in blindfolded. The chorus behind him affirm ‘This day shows Tito a favourite of the gods.’ Vitellia is at his feet, admitting she neglected by him, sought revenge.
The closure of Mozart’s opera, though ‘drama seria’ resonnates with the reconciliation of ‘comedy’. Tito , betrayed by all, will not be avenged, but lets the conspirators go free. Tito bemoans the faithlessness of his subjects; but ‘Rome must know that he is omniscient, yet forgiving’.
Mozart’s ending is ambivalent. Sesto appears penitent: (‘Historical penitence is worth more than blemished loyalty’). Tito reaffirms Rome’s happiness is his supreme aspiration. Yet Mozart is a master of human psycholology. In the apparently conciliatory ending, the Chorus intone, ‘Protect him , oh eternal gods’,
This Vienna State Opera Cast was so good it’s hard to choose any one soloist , except for Garanca, who won on applause. Schade and Banse were impressive; also Malfi as Annio, and baritone Adam Plachetka’s Publio (Plachetka recently Figaro in House). It’s a shame, however, about the sets – hanging walls with collage-effect, vaguely period pastiche. Notwithstanding, high musical values prevailed. Louis Langree conducting a smaller , ‘period’ sized Vienna State Opera Orchestra, justified Mozart’s sublime music, eliciting outstanding, and sympathetic solos , especially from the woodwind section,(clarinet,oboe). Why, asked Chen Reiss, considering La Clemenza was such a hit (premiered 1791) is the opera so relatively neglected?
Those listening live on Austrian Radio would have heard an exemplary performance. Subsequent, different casts may attain these heights. Sadly, Vienna State Opera are stuck with George Tsypin’s flimsy, ramshackle , sub-standard sets.
Photos: Elina Garanca (Sesto) and Juliane Banse (Vitellia); Juliane Banse (Vitellia) and Serena Malfi (Annio) ; Michael Schade (Tito) (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn