A tourist’s guide to music in Vienna

You’re visiting Vienna and want to hear some music. But there are so many choices, and the guys dressed as Mozart carrying binders offering tickets are so tempting. Don’t do it! Read this guide instead and find some real music. (Warning: difficult during July and August. Yeah, maybe this wan’t the best time to write this. But there are some options!)

Please, please don’t make a deal with the Mozart men. They are the dudes (and a few ladies) who you see in olde tyme garb outside all music venues and various tourist attractions aggressively suggesting you buy tickets to their concerts. They represent a variety of shady organizations, but most will send you to a short concert of light music catered exclusively to tourists, possibly in a historic setting. The tickets are very expensive and I have heard from accounts that they are falsely represented (particularly that they do not take place in the quite the same lovely setting that is advertised, but also that they play Strauss waltzes while wearing 18th century outfits, which is just wrong). But even if they’re honestly described, you should go to a real concert, not to this kitsch.

(Kitsch has a venerable place in Austrian history and culture. But these concerts are not artistic efforts, they’re solely aimed at your wallet. Even if you don’t normally go to classical concerts, Vienna’s a great place to give a real one a chance.)

About Tickets

Seeking a ticket…

If you don’t need to be told this and know what you like in terms of concerts and opera, you should plan ahead. This is absolutely vital for the seats at the Staatsoper (last-minute tickets are sometimes available but they are usually only very expensive ones) and also for any Konzerthaus or Musikverein concert featuring someone famous. You can order tickets on the venues’ websites, all of which are available in English versions. If you aren’t picky, between September and the end of June there is almost always something going on. July and August are sparse.

Standing for concerts and opera is an institution in Vienna. It rarely requires advance planning and is very cheap, and a great option for tourists. Sometimes it can require waiting in line, though. Read my guides here to the standing rooms of Vienna, including the Staatsoper, Theater an der Wien, and Musikverein. For the Volksoper, see below.

Be aware that there’s a thriving industry of scalpers in Vienna. You will see their ticket offerings in store windows, or see them in front of the doors before something starts, unloading unsold seats. If you want to see something sold out and have the cash to pay significantly over face value, they can help. Otherwise, stay away. If you see a sign advertising tickets for a major event that isn’t a) at the performance venue itself, b) the Vienna-Ticket booth across from the Staatsoper or c) the Bundestheaterkasse office across from the other side of the Staatsoper, you’ve found a scalper. This particularly goes for the EMI Store on Kärtnerstrasse, which sells Musikverein standing room tickets for double their face value (including events that are not nearly sold out). I can’t believe this is legal.

Where to Go
The major venues are in business from sometime in September and the end of June. The 800-pound gorilla of musical attractions is the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera). They have a giant repertoire, lots of famous singers, lots of non-famous singers, a mixture of conservative old productions and half-assed Regietheater, and a tendency towards scrappiness. Their performances vary in quality from world-class to utterly provincial from night to night. It’s a crap shoot, but worth trying. The standing room is giant and its rituals form a cult, a wonderful activity for tourists. You can read my guide to it here. If you simply must sit, either order ahead, bring lots of money, or hope you get lucky. All operas include the option of English titles.

The Volksoper (People’s Opera) doesn’t attract as many tourists as the Staatsoper, and is located a little bit out of the city center on the Gürtel. But I recommend you consider it, particularly if you don’t care about name-value casts and/or don’t want to deal with the expense or standing of the Staatsoper. Performances rarely sell out and seats are very reasonably priced (you can get a perfectly good seat for 15-20 Euros). Their repertoire consists of opera, operetta, and musicals, are often family-friendly and sometimes are performed with English surtitles. For their accessibility, their consistent level of quality and creativity is very good. Tickets are available at the Bundestheaterkasse on Goethegasse (across from the Staatsoper), online, and at the house itself. They do have standing room; you can order those tickets in any of those ways as well. You might even catch an up-and-coming singer–the phenomenal Walther I saw there in 2006 was none other than currently reigning Heldentenor Johan Botha.

The Theater an der Wien is the most highbrow of Vienna’s opera houses, and my personal favorite. They only perform one opera a month, plus a few concerts, and their repertoire is dedicated to rarities, new works, Baroque opera, and other things that benefit from their small space (1,000 seats). Productions tend to be on the modern, Regie side of things. Performances with famous singers such as Cecilia Bartoli or Placido Domingo sell out very quickly, but those are the minority. They also have standing room, here is my guide. You can get tickets from the Vienna Ticket booth across from the Staatsoper near Kärtnerstrasse, online, or at the theater itself (located across from the Naschmarkt). No English titles here, brush up on the plot of Admeto before you go or check the back of your program for a short English synopsis. Their café is also excellent.

The Musikverein is the most famous of Vienna’s concert halls, you may have seen it on TV on New Year’s with the Philharmoniker sawing out waltzes. They host the Philharmoniker, the Ton-Künstler Orchester Niederösterreich, the Wiener Symphoniker, the ORF RSO Wien, and many visiting orchestras, plus solo recitals and chamber music. The Großer Saal is the big famous one, recitals happen in the smaller Brahms-Saal. Their standing room is kind of miserable, but very accessible, my guide is here.

TIckets for the Philharmoniker’s subscription concerts at the Musikverein are sold by the orchestra themselves rather than by the Musikverein’s box office. The rules on these are special for seats and standing, see the guide to the Musikverein for the details.

The other big concert hall is the Konzerthaus, located near the Stadtpark. Their guests are in aggregate not quite so famous as those of the Musikverein, but their programming tends to be more interesting. The Symphoniker and RSO Wien are regulars, and many visiting orchestras show up. Their recital hall is called the Mozart-Saal. Alone among major Viennese venues, they don’t have standing room, so plan ahead if you can. Students under 27 can get any available tickets right before the start for 15 Euros. Be aware the the last few rows of the Galerie in the Großer Saal have bad sight lines, which can make conductors and soloists disconcertingly invisible.

I can’t help you with the Vienna Boys’ Choir, having never seen them myself. Recently I heard a report that a concert featured them singing “We are the World,” so I have not yet rectified this. Sorry, I’m a snob.

Summer (July and August)
The Theater an der Wien is usually in business, but this year (2011) they are renovating and are not. There is usually a short opera season at the gorgeous Baroque theater in the Schloss Schönbrunn, but they sadly have lost their funding and had to cancel their season. Pickings, in other words, are slim. You can head out to Grafenegg for Rudolf Buchbinder’s growing festival (book the bus back to Vienna because you WILL miss the train) or take the legendary Baden Bahn train to Baden for operetta at the Bühne Baden (Baden Baden Baden Baden! there’s one near Vienna too) or go further south to Graz for Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Styriarte. You can also watch various operas and concerts outside for free almost every night in July and August at the Rathaus Film Festival (City Hall), with lots of local cuisine. Or just get on the train and go to the Salzburg Festival, for God’s sake (note: not recommended for beginners).

And, most importantly, don’t forget to look up your local orchestra and opera company once you get home.

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Ariosti’s La fede ne’ tradimenti at the Konzerthaus

Attilio Ariosti’s 1701 opera La fede ne’ tradimenti has lots of charming arias, even more pretty good recitative, and the plot’s bumbling Python-esque medieval antics seem to be a barrel of laughs. I say “seem” because despite excellent singing and playing Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante’s concert performance did not show this small-scale satire to its best advantage.  It may have been an evening more for operatic Kenner than Liebhaber, but it was still a welcome and intriguing introduction to a forgotten work. Forgotten composer. Forgotten style, even.

Attilio Ariosti, La fede ne’ tradimenti. Wiener Konzerthaus, 1/23/2011. Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante with Ann Hallenberg (Fernando), Robert Ivernizzi (Anagilda), Lucia Cirillo (Elvira), Johannes Weisser (Garzia).

Over the last few years, the Baroque crowd has been proving that there’s far more to early Italian opera than Monteverdi and Handel. While Cavalli and Vivaldi make occasional inroads into opera houses, many of these efforts seem to be taking place more in concert and on CDs than in staged productions. This includes not only the ever-expanding Vivaldi edition but also recital CDs such as Philippe Jaroussky’s Caldara, Vivica Genaux’s Hasse, Karina Gauvin’s Porpora, and Simone Kermes’s anything. Works by earlier composers such as Cavalli don’t have much to offer for virtuosic soloists, but their smoother-flowing plots seem to find greater success in theaters. Ariosti is somewhere in between chronologically and musically, and his operas haven’t found much modern success onstage nor on CD… yet.

This opera is from 1701 and was written for court, not a public theater. There are arias, a lot of them, and some of them feature the kind of coloratura fireworks and cantilena you get from Handel. But many don’t, and nearly all are smaller in scale. Some are AA’ structures, some just As, some even ABA’ da-capo-types. There are some longer solo scenes, but they consist of multiple arias connected by bits of recitative. There are a few beautiful duets, but the only other ensemble is the short choral finale (chorus consisting of the soloists). There’s a lot of recitative relative to aria, and while it’s good recitative, its volume means you’re going to be spending a fair amount of the time thinking about the dramatic action. So while there’s some very rewarding music here, I’m not sure a concert (in which the audience is following a libretto in the program) shows it to its best advantage. Considering Ariosti’s low name recognition, though, it’s probably the only option.

The venue wasn’t ideal either; the Großer Saal of the Konzerthaus is simply far too big for this work. The Theater an der Wien or even the Mozart-Saal would have been far preferable. The singers were appropriately cast for this style, the orchestra was the right size, but I’m really glad I was sitting in the third row, because I’m not sure how it would have registered much further back. (Acoustics can be funny, though.)

La fede ne’ tradimenti’s 1689 libretto, by Girolamo Gigli, is a gleeful affair that was set by a number of other composers before Ariosti. It can’t be taken seriously, nor is it meant to be. Expanding fantastically on a minor subplot in the fight between King Fernando of Castille and King Sancio of Navarre, it, in the words of Sabine Rademacher’s ace program notes, “trivializes the medieval figures and events, as well as their heroic ideals.” Briefly, the plot involves Fernando, engaged to Anagilda, though he killed her father. Anagilda’s brother is not happy about this and interferes. Anagilda, proving that ladies of Spain are just made for liberating their wrongfully imprisoned husbands, rescues Fernando. Elvira, Fernando’s sister, is also involved, and improbably ends up falling for Garzia. Of course, improbability is the point. My favorite twist is when Elvira gets into Fernando’s palace by dressing up as the servant of an African magician and telling him there’s a treasure buried in his backyard and she has to come in and wait for a particular time for the sun to make a tree cast a shadow, which will show her where to dig for it.

There is satire here! The music is heartfelt, but a violent aria from Garcia about not trusting women’s tears (“Di femmina al pianto, mai più crederò”) is immediately followed by an apparently sincere one from Elvira entitled “Pianto mio, che sangue sei.” This tone is another big thing that makes this opera tricky to appreciate in concert. Send this score to David Alden pronto and see what he can do with it! With staging, I have no doubt it would be suited for a wide audience.

Fabio Biondi’s Europa Galante, 16 members strong, plays with a silkier tone and slightly gentler attack than some of the more rattly HIP outfits, or maybe that was just the space. Ensemble and phrasing were excellent, and the continuo section was super, with great creativity in the art of bass line deployment. Solos, particularly Biondi’s own on the violin, were outstanding. Biondi, however, is one of those early music conductors whose vague gestures (with his bow) make absolutely no sense to non-HIP musician me. Looks like the ensemble gets it, though.

Mezzo Ann Hallenberg as Fernando (castrato role? I think? possibly just pants) was the star of the singers, with a large, vibrant voice, spotless coloratura and phrasing, and lively stage presence. She got most of the best arias, and her “Queste ceppi” was the highlight of the show. Fellow mezzo Lucia Cirilla’s slimmer, darker voice also excelled as Elvira. Roberta Invernizzi showed charm and agility as Anagilda, and her almost vibrato-free tone is attractive, but her sound did not project well. Johannes Weisser sounded unfocussed as Garzia.

This long evening bled some audience members during the intermissions (BTW, performers, I was the awake girl sitting next to the sleeping lady in the third row), but I’m glad I got to experience this piece, even in less than ideal conditions. It was broadcast live on the radio, and I hope will eventually be released as a CD. Maybe next time I’ll see it with staging.

Speaking of eighteenth-century obscurities, I’m off to the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst’s production of Gluck’s Il parnaso confuso on Wednesday night, in the distinguished and appropriate location of the Schloss Schönbrunn’s 18th-century theater. Opera titles with words like confuso, pazza, and finta are guarantees to get me into an audience in any case.

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Liederabend Juliane Banse: Freudvoll und leidvoll

HI EVERYONE. I finally went to a concert again!  The material of Juliane Banse and Helmut Deutsch’s Konzerthaus Liederabend–songs by Loewe, Liszt, Britten and Marx–could not, with a few exceptions, be called lighthearted.  But after my last few Liederabends I was relieved that nobody died.  And besides, this was a beautiful program beautifully performed, and what more do you need than that?

Juliane Banse, soprano; Helmut Deutsch, piano.  Konzerthaus Mozart-Saal, 26/11/10.
Program: Carl Loewe: Ich denke dein, Sehnsucht, Meine Ruh ist hin, Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh, Der du von dem Himmel bist, Szene aus Faust (all op. 9)
Franz Liszt: Vergiftet sind meine Lieder S 289, Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam S 309/1, Es rauschen die Winde S 294/2, Es war ein König in Thule S 278/1, Der du von dem Himmel bist S 2791/1, Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh S 306/2, Mignons Lied S 275/1
Benjamin Britten: On This Island, op. 11
Joseph Marx: Septembermorgen, Windräder, An einen Herbstwald, Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht, Hat dich die Liebe berührt, Nocturne, Waldseligkeit, Pierrot Dandy
Encores: Liszt, Es muß ein Wunderbares sein; Robert Franz, Selige Nacht; Liszt, Freudvoll und Leidvoll

Much of this music was new to me (I already knew a few of the Liszt songs and listened to the Marx in advance).  But most of the texts were not.  The Loewe songs in particular present German Lit’s Greatest Hits, and even if your experience with German poetry is limited and your lieder knowledge is confined to the most popular stuff, you probably know many of them too.  We even had double settings of a few poems between the Liszt and Loewe sets.  And you might remember two of those Marx texts from Pierrot Lunaire.  Knowing the texts but not the music made for an interesting experience.

Banse gave an amazing physical performance in the Staatsoper’s Cardillac earlier this season, and here she was more expressive in face and sometimes gesture than many lieder singers.  Her voice is hard to describe.  It’s not exactly luscious, can sound dry, and sometimes a little hollow around the middle region and tense at the top.  But it has a unique face, and a sort of innate pathos that makes her a lot more interesting than a more generic singer.  And she really knows how to use it musically and expressively.  She is both direct and naturally dramatic in her use of texts and unerringly musical and in tune–and coordinated with the ever-present Helmut Deutsch.  Many of these texts have more famous settings, but Banse’s interpretations were so sincere and right that it felt like hearing them again for the first time.

This was a nicely structured program, building in chromaticism through the evening (with a break in the Britten).  Carl Loewe (1796-1869) is a composer known mostly to Lieder enthusiasts.  His Op. 9 songs are very Schubertian in style, simple on the surface but given expressive weight and depth as well as fine phrasing by Banse and Deutsch.  In “Meine Ruh ist hin,” Loewe’s Gretchen doesn’t have Schubert’s obsessive ostinatos and repetition, but rather an unsteady, disturbed jumping up to high notes. But the color of Banse’s voice felt better suited to the more generalized intensity of the following Liszt set, emphatic in the outburst of “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder” and rising to operatic heights in “Der du von Himmel bist.”  She showed fine restraint and pacing in “Es war ein König von Thule,” though Liszt is less a dramatic lieder composer than an atmospheric one.

Benjamin Britten’s first set of published songs, “On This Island,” was completely new to me, and the elusive and allusive Auden poems (from Look, Stranger!, BTW leaving out that comma is a hilarious typo), while in English, are a great deal to take in on a first hearing.  It’s  a set but the songs are independent from each other.  The musical language is strikingly simple and consonant, particularly in the peaceful, repetitive Nocturne.  Each has a distinctly drawn musical language: ornate coloratura and Baroque-isms in “Let the florid music praise!”, rhythmic ostinatos in “Now the leaves are falling fast,” and jazzy pop music touches in “As it is, plenty.”  Very enjoyable listening, but I would have to sit down with the texts to appreciate them on more than a coloristic level.  (I looked for the poems ahead of time, but Auden isn’t in the public domain and they aren’t on the interwebs.)

Joseph Marx’s songs have the lyric vocal lines of Richard Strauss combined with the more delicate and impressionistic piano parts of Ravel and Debussy.  It’s a good combination, and I particularly appreciated Deutsch’s contribution in these striking piano parts.  Like the Liszt, these songs were more generally expressive than word-specific.   The excited woman in love in “Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht” is particularly charming, and the set ended the concert, for once, in happy post-Romantic languor.  I will definitely be looking for more Marx.

The house was not quite full but the reception very warm, and there were three encores: two Liszt, one Robert Franz.  I did not take any pictures, when no one else is I always feel embarrassed and don’t.   Beautiful dress, though.

Also, Juliane Banse has a new CD of Walter Braunfels’s Jeanne d’Arc that I really really want to hear!  Props for very interesting repertoire choices.

Sorry to FURTHER epilogue-ize, but by the way I should mention that I actually DID go to something between this and my last review but I did not write about it because I should not write about something I only saw half of.  It really was that bad, honest.  It shall remain nameless.

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Emma di Resburgo: Meyerbeer with kilts

I’m always excited to hear new things, which is how I found myself at a concert performance of Meyerbeer’s 1819 opera Emma di Resburgo at the Konzerthaus last night.  Only in concert, so, sadly, no kilts, actually.  But if you had played me any bit of this opera without identification–hell, any scene–I probably would have been perfectly secure in calling it Rossini (good luck finding a recording of this opera, though, there isn’t one in print).  This resemblance isn’t a bad thing, though, and while dramatically speaking I’m not sure if this sucker would hold up to staging very well, it’s got its musical moments.

It helped that Vivica Genaux was on hand with polished and exciting singing.  And also Simone Kermes, who provides a kind of entertainment that is all her own.

Meyerbeer, Emma di Resburgo.  Konzerthaus, 7/11/10.  In concert, conducted by Andreas Stoehr with moderntimes_1800 (orchestra), Wiener Singakademie, Simone Kermes (Emma), Vivica Genaux (Edemondo), Thomas Walker (Norcesto), Manfred Hemm (Olfredo), Lena Belkina (Etelia), Martin Vanberg (Donaldo)

If you liked I puritanti, La donna del Lago, or Lucia di Lammermoor, you’ll love Emma di Resburgo!  It’s another Scottish opera with feuding clans, honor, and betrayal.  I didn’t get my head around the plot terribly well, and can’t find a synopsis on the internet in any language.  But basically the leading characters are Edmund (Edemondo, mezzo pants role), who is falsely believed to have killed his own father; Emma, Edmund’s wife (soprano), who is also in hiding and together they try to redeem his reputation; their son Elwin (Etelia, mezzo pants role); Norcester, Edemondo’s nephew, who got the title after his father actually killed Edemondo’s father (Norcesto, tenor); and the wise avuncular bass who helps everyone out, Olfred (Olfredo, don’t call him Al).  The truth wins in the end, but only after several twists.  Maybe I shouldn’t knock the plot, because I don’t really understand it, but it seems like a lot of exposition for a relatively meager dramatic payoff, and none of the characters are memorable.   A staging would probably help clarify the events, but I’m not convinced it would make them interesting.

The surplus of setup doesn’t prevent Meyerbeer from composing some really exciting and atmospheric music, though.  This is not a period of music where I have a lot of expertise, but to me it sounded like pure Rossini opera seria: big set piece arias full of coloratura, lots of dramatic choruses (the choruses in this opera are really good), recitative taking care of the plot, and some big finale blocks (and some other big scenic blocks too, most memorably the judgement scene in Act 2, though I never quite figured out how Edemondo ended up on trial).  Some highlights are Emma’s harp-accompanied entrance aria, an impressive canon in the Act 1 finale, and Edemondo’s epic bravura Act 2 aria. 

Historically, this opera was a major early-career success for Meyerbeer, immensely popular at its premiere and subsequently performed all over Europe (it’s from 1819, Il crociato in Egitto is from 1824 and Robert le diable 1831), and it did wonders for his fame and fortune.  But it doesn’t seem to prefigure Meyerbeer’s later career very well.  It’s more interesting for its own virtues than it is as an early work by a historically important composer.  And has any composer’s star fallen further than Meyerbeer’s?  Considering his current popularity, maybe this lack of resemblance is actually an asset.

Andreas Stoehr led a performance with a historically informed orchestra and a cast experienced in 18th-century music.  In one way this is an argument for the opera as an antique opera seria, on the other it’s just common sense given its musical language and demands.  I doubt anyone involved had performed the score before, but you couldn’t tell from Stoehr’s confident and well-paced conducting or most particularly from Vivica Genaux’s authoritative, virtuosic Edemondo–who really seems more the central character than Emma.  The role seems to sit a little low for her, but she gave a dramatically heated, musically precise performance with absolutely dazzling coloratura that barely seemed “in concert.”  She has some funny-looking vocal technique that involves her jaw in unusual ways, but whatever it is it seems to be producing good results.

Simone Kermes is artist who is exceedingly difficult to take seriously, but equally difficult to dismiss.  She sailed on in a gigantic tulle confection of a dress that resembled a wedding cake in mourning, her head dwarfed by an enormous pile of curly red hair.  Unlike everyone else, who used a music stand, she held her music, which seemed to constrain her usual dance moves a bit, but only sometimes.  I have to describe this because it was quite a sight.  Vocally she bills herself as a dramatic coloratura, which seems like an overstatement–her voice can’t be larger than Damrau’s–but she can let it rip when she needs to (though it ain’t always pretty).  Her tone is rather thin, and her phrasing tends too often to breathy mannerisms.  But she can work the coloratura, and has a certain charisma and panache that makes her hard to ignore.  She has nothing like Genaux’s dramatic specificity, but she’s intense.  However, she also seems deeply crazy.

Thomas Walker as Norcestro was an actual Scot in this Scottish opera, and with a careful lyric tenor sounded accurate and tasteful but a bit bloodless.  Manfred Hemm in the bass role of Olfredo has a somewhat Germanic edge to his sound, but did well by the music.  Lena Belkina charmed in the small role of Etelia, reduced to recitative exposition for most of the opera, but sang a lovely short aria towards the end.

While hearing this opera with historically informed orchestra is a cool experience, the typographically odd moderntimes_1800 sounded scrappy.  The usual HIP issues of wind intonation and squawks were joined by a lot of iffy ensemble in the strings, especially compared to my luxe alarm clock, the Royal Concertgebouw, that morning.  But they produced a merry, vibrato-free racket, and hearing music of this period with natural horns and all that is more or less worth it.  The Wiener Singerakademie sounded excellent, though I would have appreciated a more antiphonal effect out of the divided choruses.

If you are interested in hearing this performance for yourself, it will be broadcast on December 4 at 7:30 Central European Time on Ö1, which can be heard online here.

I got a rush ticket in the fourth row so here are some decent if still blurry bows photos for a change…

Hi, concertmaster!
Standing from left: Manfred Hemm (partly out of frame), Martin Vanberg,
Thomas Walker, Lena Belkina, Simone Kermes, Vivica Genaux
She’s looking away, but this is for the dress.
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