Christmas G’Schenk

Otto Schenk!  Love him or hate him, his productions are a staple if you’re a regular at the Wiener Staatsoper or the Met.  The Viennese actor/director celebrated his 80th birthday in June and is still going strong, and many of his productions are… well, let’s just say they’re still going, though his Met Ring is on the way out.  Today, many of his monuments to comfortable naturalism bear his imprint in name only (and sometimes not even that, reduced to “after Otto Schenk” in Vienna), their sets faded and their original direction nowhere to be seen.  But we must see the Schenk that we are given (that we are geSchenkt?), not the Schenk we may wish we had.  His productions, often in their beat-up repertory forms, represent the aesthetic mainstream of late-20th century operatic conservatism.

Over the next few weeks, I will be conducting a survey which pits a row of Schenk productions against (drumroll)… THE WORLD.  When “the world” means “directors who are not very conservative.”  First I shall see the Viennese Schenk productions, and then after New Year’s I shall go to Germany for the anti-Schenk productions of the same operas.  This plan is actually pure happenstance, but due to the inclusion of an anniversary opera (Rosenkavalier, 100 years) and a holiday operetta (Fledermaus), it’s not much of a coincidence.

The program:
L’elisir d’amore: after Schenk (Wiener Staatsoper, reviewed here in October), then David Bösch (Bayerische Staatsoper)
Fidelio: Schenk (Wiener Staatsoper, DVD), then Calixto Bieito (Bayerische Staatsoper)
Der Rosenkavalier: Schenk (Wiener Staatsoper), then Stefan Herheim (Staatsoper Stuttgart)
Die Fledermaus: after Schenk (Wiener Staatsoper), then Philipp Stölzl (Staatsoper Stuttgart)

Unfortunately, Vienna isn’t seeing fit to haul out their Schenk Fidelio (yes, they have one) just for the sake of symmetry in my schedule, so I will try to take a look at that one on DVD.

The Vienna Rosenkavalier is notable because Schenk actually has been rehearsing it, as the Staatsoper is proud to announce.  So at least in this case, I will be able to consider what Schenk is about beyond his preferences in decor.  But Schenk himself seems OK with the usual under-rehearsed laxness, recently saying to the Salzburger Nachrichten, “There are almost 30 productions at the Staatsoper. It would be a job in itself, a major assistant director job, [to rehearse them all].”

In the Salzburg interview linked above, Schenk also says some things about directors more adventurous than himself: “I do not have the talent to find in a piece another piece.  I can’t say that doing so is always wrong, actually sometimes I greatly admire such things.  For example, the Don Giovanni in the forest in Salzburg [directed by Claus Guth -ed.] and the fatally ill, wounded Don Giovanni.  That was so thoroughly worked out and moving, as if it were a work by Mozart.”  The problem with this is that Schenk is imposing his own aesthetic and finding a new work within works as much as Guth or any other director is.  But this is still more open-mindedness than I expected of him.

Schenk can be seen persönlich acting in Klaus Pohl’s play Einmal noch, currently playing at the Theater in der Josefstadt.  I was going to go, but the only review I could find didn’t make it sound like a very good time, so I reconsidered.  Besides, I think I have enough Otto on my schedule as it is.

Also, non-Schenk related, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are playing Rameau in concert at the Theater an der Wien on Sunday, and I’m not about to miss that.

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  1. An intriguing project! I'm kind of jealous, being mostly limited to was ich von der Met geSchenkt bekomme. (Parenthetically, something seems to have gone wonky with the Fidelio DVD link.)

  2. Don't be jealous of a Schenk shortage! As they are normally done here in Wien, they are not an asset!

    Thanks for telling me about the link, they do get screwed up sometimes and I have no idea why. Fixed now.

  3. whoops, I mean, don't be jealous because we DON'T have a Schenk shortage. I'd be happy to schenken Ihnen some Schenk, because we've got far too much of it here.

    Let this serve as a warning: if your name means something in German, you will never be safe from my puns.

  4. It does sound like a fun project. (Hopefully you'll have a chance to complete it when you see the new Met Ring and compare with the old over the next couple of years. I wasn't yearning for a change but am somewhat excited about the new one – although am skeptical about Lapage and so far his RG confirmed my worst fears, but will see).

    I'm particularly eager to get your take on the Rosenkavalier. As I'm sure I've already commented at least a dozen times, with this opera in particular I've been invariably impressed by the almost violently casual, fastidiously underrehearsed and universally unsatisfying nature of Vienese Rosenkavaliers (this desptie the presence of creditable Marschalinin – Voigt, Merbeth, Isokoski – and am sovernsten, grossartige, wunderbare Octavians – Kirchischlager, Garanca). We'll see what Herr Schenk's personal input contributes to the proceedings.

    Have fun.

  5. @Lucy I liked the pun :).
    But you have got a good season at the Met this year at least. Much better than London for example this year.
    Actually, some of the Schenk ones are good and other aren't. I just saw the Boheme one last week in Munich with Harteros and Secco — that was a fantastic evening all in all! Can't ask for more.

  6. Anon: Maybe Munich takes better care of their sets than the Met or Vienna, where they usually look decrepit. And of course these things are only as good as the people in them. Anything with Harteros is good IMO.

    marcillac: I'm not sure if Schenk is putting a whole lot of effort into this restaging. In that Salzburg interview it makes it sound like he's watching an assistant do all the work. I think just the fact that they *are* rehearsing will make a difference, though. I'm seeing the last performance, the reviews I've seen so far have not been great.

  7. Yuck. What a mess. Scratch the "with this opera in particular above".

    And yeh, the reviews are lau at best. Houtzeel has a big silver costume to fill and she looks awfully thin (not that the ladies mentioned above have problems in this area but you know what I mean)*. Kinda mixed reception for AP.

    I do hope they haven't dropped the role. I know Garanca is a big PD now but its her best role and she's got at least a decades worth of great Quinquins in her.

    Anyway, enjoy. Interested in your eventual take.

  8. Ah, I've been less than clear: it's not that I'm pining for Schenk, but rather for a little of that variety which is the spice of life. Agree w/ all present that much depends on the presentation. I was starry-eyed over meticulous Ring, left cold by Rigoletto… planning on Don Pasquale in the spring.

    Also, I am totally jealous of Anon's Harteros Mimi!

  9. Yes, as an opera-lover you should be :). And yes, anything with Harteros is good :). And she is such a lovely person as well, it seems.

    I originally had just one ticket for that Boheme – however, since Secco also sang so well and they were so good together plus the whole Ensemble was excellent, I bought another 3 for the remaining 3 performances ;).

    Actually, I think they did refresh this production a bit, because it did look really nice and all the acting was very good, so the evening went so fast. There is a lot of snow in this production, which was funny given the enormous amount of snow outside as well.
    There was applause for the stage settings of acts 2 and 3 – they are atmospheric.

  10. P.S. If it is any consolation re jealousy, you do normally get my favourite bariton quite frequently at the Met, which would be Mr. Kwiecien, I am quite jealous of that. A whole season here without him – bad …

  11. Lucy, we'll have to talk about that Ring sometime. It left me totally cold on DVD, but I didn't see it live. I see what you mean about variety, but I am having to take quite a few trains to get it. 🙂

    Anon, I don't get why Anja Harteros isn't a LOT more famous than she is, I've seen her in three or four quite different things and every time I've thought she was fantastic. She hasn't gotten the best treatment from the Met, just some Donna Anna and the Countess and the one run of Violettas. I'm thinking about visiting Munich for her Marschallin in June but I've seen and am seeing a shit-ton of Rosenkavaliers recently so I'm not sure. And that's a Schenk production, too, right?

    I think I heard Secco a few years ago subbing for Villazón (I have quite a list of tenors I heard when I was supposed to hear Villazón–I only actually heard Rolando once), but I have no distinctive memories of him. Will have to check him out again in the future

  12. Yes, that is the thing, she is so good in so different things. And her acting is at the same time emotional and restrained.

    Re famous, well, my theory would be that some singers are happy with being not THAT famous (like Peter Mattei also for example), whereas for others it is very important to be a public figure? Surely it has its advantages not being that famous (you can eat your pizza in peace).

    Re Met my theory would be that not everybody likes to travel cross-Atlantic so much (voice-wise I mean, not, being fear of flying ;), some of my preferred female singers appear mostly in Europe (fortunately 🙂 (Denoke for example). I think this could also have to do with the wish to be very famous. If you want to be super-famous, you will do the Met more often because it is important fame-wise.

    Yes, I believe that is Schenk/Rose, that Rosenkavalier. May I suggest you try Cologne for her Leonora / Il Trovatore instead? I think that is konzertant or semi-konzertant. I will do that next.

    I had not heard Secco before and had no clue about his singing. But Boheme is so much a two-people piece that it is hugely beneficial to have a good tenor as well :). That way Anja is even more effective! They really told a story there, it was just beautiful.
    I had seen Cutler as the tenor in Traviata with her two months ago, he was not bad at all – however with Secco here there was much more.

  13. P.S. Re Secco: Not just my opinion, as you can read on Forum Festspiele/ Maestro:

    "… Ganz anders in diesem Jahr. Zwei wirklich sehr geglückte Aufführungen, wobei die Boheme sogar noch deutlich mehr ist, nämlich eine der gelungensten Aufführungen dieser Produktion seit langer, langer Zeit.
    Dies liegt vor allem an den wunderbar harmonierenden Duo Anja Harteros und Stefano Secco. Gerade Secco überzeugte mit einer wunderbaren Stimmführung, viel Legato und guter Höhe. Vielleicht insgesamt etwas altmodisch, aber das darf der Rodolfo in der Produktion gerne sein. Harteros befindet sich ja seit längerer Zeit in einer absoluten Topverfassung, nichts anderes galt gestern. Allerdings war auch der Rest des Ensembles, inklusive dem Rückkehrer Christian van Horn und John Chest als spielfreudigen Schaunard in einer glänzenden Verfassung, unterstützt von Marco Armiliato, der sich wieder einmal als umsichtiger Begleiter zeigte. Das war etwas zum Schmachten und Weinen, eine Boheme so richtig zum Genießen."

  14. "Absolute Topverfassung" ist toll, eine gute neue Phrase für mich. Ich kann sie nutzen (sofern ich schreibe über unseren Wiener Don Giovanni nicht… niemand da war in Topverfassung). "Etwas zum Schmachten und Weinen" ist auch schön.

    Excellent point about fame. I just wish she had more CDs and and DVDs, but it seems like to get that attention you usually need to buy into a lot of other fame-related crap artistically as well as personally. And you can't blame someone if they don't want to do that. The Vienna Alcina is going to a be a DVD, though, so there's that (I found the production disappointing, but I think I'm the only person of that opinion).

  15. (Sorry Zerbi, I see this comment has gone on at greater length than one of Tolstoy's historical diversions and possibly even more of topic – to the extent there is an appropriate place for it would be in a Rosenkvalier review – but here goes … )

    Miss Harteros in Rosenkavalier?!?!? When you're in Vienna and thats in Munich?!?!? Are you kiddingi?!?!?

    You certainly know more than enough about these things to realize that this singer* in this role** might become one of the great assumptions of the decade. I just took a look at your Rosenkavalier review from last year and you've written enough about your admiration for Harteros (predilections I enthusiastically share) to make me think you would not miss out on an opportunity to hear and see her Marschallin when it is so convenient to do so. One can never be certain when another such opportunity will present itself and even if it does it would be fascinating to see how her interpretation of the role develops.

    *I've seen 5 Bohemes in the last 5 years, FAR in excess of my quota, and I'd imagine its hardly Harteros best role but even so I'd make drag myself to see her in this if I were in Munich. In Rosenkavalier it would be at least 3 if I were in Munich because…

    **I think you'll agree – again based on your review – that the Marschallin is almost as remarkable a role as it is remarkably difficult to get right. Neither Fleming, in respect of whom I agree with you, nor any of the ladies I mention above sufficed (Isoskoski was probably the best vocally – indeed she is in remarkable vocal shape – I'd say for her age but really even for someone 10 years younger). On DVD, the less said about Schwanewilms the better and even the amazing Stemme disappoints somewhat. The combination of vocal beauty and taste, physical appearance, bearing and temperament is difficult enough to find in one woman and even then is no guarantee of a fully satisfying Marschallin. You said that Fleming is theoretically ideal but in the event underwhelming. Harteros however, does posses all the attributes for a potentially great Marschallin and it will be very interesting to see just how close she come to fulfilling this potential. Her voice at this point is, I think, more beautiful and technically assured than Fleming's and quite ideal for the repertoire.

    You question her ( relative) lack of fame and I think Anon makes good points in this respect. I had an opportunity to hear Fleming as early as her 30s and was and remain (with reservations) a big fan. Still, I don't see a single thing that should elevate her so far above Harteros. In general its not always clear what make some operatic careers flourish more than others. FWIW, the best Marschallin I've seen and heard was enjoying quite a busy schedule 7 to 10 years, appearing often at the Met and comparable venues. The last few years her career seems to have stalled a bit and but having heard her a few times in those years, most particularly her breathtaking Marschallin, its hard to fathom why that is and why singers who are at the very least not superior to her in any way get more opportunities. She is still young enough, vocally still very much in her prime, IMO, and I hope she gets more opportunities. Meanwhile, Harteros will have her hands full living up to her standard but I sure would like to see her try.

  16. Ok, maybe you should go after all ;). (I won't be in Munich then.)
    Yes, Maestro knows how to express himself!
    Talking of words, you could also use "suboptimal" for your Don Giovanni I suppose – I like that word, not quite new anymore, but still a nice.

  17. I know, I know, marcillac. Yet I see your 5 Bohemes in 5 years and raise you 5 Rosenkavaliers in 15 months (two at the Met, the Budapest one I saw this fall, and the two I have coming up). So far this has taught me that the police inspector needs to shut up, and he needs to shut up NOW. I would love to go but my supplies of money and time are not unlimited and I don't know what else I will be considering for that time period. But I should plan, so I'm going to get out the calendar soon.

    I probably wouldn't use "suboptimal," Anon, because it's in English too and I always avoid those words when speaking German. I don't know if this is because I usually pronounce them incorrectly (because I tend to say them like they're in English) or because I just want to prove I can speak German. Which I can. Sort of.

  18. But do you use it in English the way we do in German? I have never heard anyone say it in English (despite 1 year U.S., 2-3 years London exposure). In German suboptimal means something is really quite bad ;). Suboptimal definitely doesn't mean ok …