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.

Continue Reading

Dialogues des Carmélites, nun too easy

Vienna is currently awash in Easter-tangential operas. I’m going to Faust and Parsifal this weekend. But first: Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites is probably the most appropriate of the lot for the meaning of Easter as I understand it. The Theater an der Wien’s production is very worth seeing, though more for dramatic than musical reasons.

Sorry, I mean you can read my review of this production here at Bachtrack.

But I have a few more things to say here. Namely, how this is a great and moving opera, so I wrote about it as such. Most operas would kill to have one scene as theatrically effective as the Old Prioress’s death at the end of Act 1 and the final scene of the opera, and Dialogues has them both. And the characterization really is wonderful. I found this performance uninspiring musically, largely due to Bertrand de Billy’s functional conducting. But the Personenregie here is great. It’s also that rare Robert Carsen production that features neither a giant bed nor a herd of straight-backed chairs.

You can feel the but coming, and here it is. I have serious, irreconcilable problems with this piece. I don’t think dying for religious faith is at all a noble or admirable act. I’m not a religious person but I can even less see myself believing in any god who would demand that of adherents. Much of what makes Dialogues and made this performance of it in particular so good is the very human sense of self-doubt and uncertainty the nuns feel. They aren’t perfect saints. But ultimately they are heroines because they sign up for martyrdom, and that is the message of the piece. It’s a much stronger message than those of less serious or single-minded operas, and it feels correspondingly harder for me to ignore despite the work’s obvious strengths. It’s far too persuasive musically and dramatically for me to not be moved while I’m seeing it, but I feel deeply ambivalent about it in the end.

You know what I’m going to say next, which is that Regietheater has another answer. Yes, and I want to go there. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s fascinating-sounding Munich production of this opera has recently been released on DVD. You can read about this production on Opera Cake. I hope to watch it soon and will write about it if I have something to say.

Another (presumably) Regie Dialogues will be premiering this summer at the Komische Oper Berlin, directed by Calixto Bieito. This is an interesting prospect. If all goes as planned I will see it in July.

Here is the end of Act 1 in the Carsen production that I wrote about (in the La Scala video, different cast):

Here is the trailer for Tcherniakov’s production:

Continue Reading

Theater an der Wien, 2011/12

This morning the Theater an der Wien announced their 2011/12 season in a press conference in their lovely Theatercafé. Season subscriptions and individual tickets through December 2011 are already on sale on their website.

Highlights include a world premiere of a new opera by Lera Auerbach, the beginning of a Monteverdi “cycle” directed by Claus Guth, and a lot more. It’s an exciting and wide-ranging season that expands beyond their usual specialties of Baroque, Classical, and modern opera. Meaning: let’s conquer the nineteenth century.

The announcement highlighted the Theater an der Wien’s continuing success as a stagione house that mounts unusual, challenging works on a high level. Using a word that the Staatsoper has been throwing around a lot recently, intendant Roland Geyer proclaimed the theater “einzigartig” (unique). Well, aren’t we all special in some way. Their 2011/12 season’s new explorations include several Slavic works and steps into bel canto and 19th-century France. Staatsoper faves Puccini, Verdi, and Wagner seem to be the only area that remains off limits. It’s a little scattered, but it looks awesome. Here’s what we got:

  • The opening concert will be on 13 September with Michael Boder and the Klangforum Wien, the program is L’histoire du soldat and Pierrot Lunaire (the latter with Christine Schäfer).
  • Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, with the RSO Wien conducted by Cornelius Meister, cast includes Nikolai Schukoff and Sally Matthews, new production by Robert Carsen (September)
  • Handel, Serse, with Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducting his Ensemble Matheus, new production by Adrian Noble with this year’s Rodelinda cast members Bejun Mehta, Malena Ernman, and Danielle De Niese (October)
  • World premiere of Gogol, a new opera by Russian composer Lera Auerbach, the RSO Wien conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev with Bo Skovhus and Natalya Ushakova, production by Christine Mielitz (November)
  • Monteverdi, L’Orfeo, new production by Claus Guth (the first part of a so-called Monteverdi cycle*, to continue in following seasons, all three of which will be performed in a festival in 2015), the Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by Ivor Bolton with John Mark Ainsley in the title role (December)
  • Double bill of Chaikovsky, Iolanta and Rachmaninov, Francesca da Rimini, the RSO Wien conducted by Kirill Petrenko, new production by Stephen Lawless, cast includes Olga Mykytenko, David Pittsinger, and Saimir Pirgu (January)
  • Gluck, Telemaco, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin conducted by René Jacobs, new production by Torsten Fischer with Rainer Trost, Bejun Mehta, Alexandrina Pendatchanska (February)
  • Offenbach, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Riccardo Frizza, new production by William Friedkin, cast includes Kurt Streit as Hoffmann and two different casts: in March Aris Argiris sings the villains and in July Alex Esposito, when Marlis Petersen will sing all four ladies. The production will supposedly be centered on the villains instead of Hoffmann. ???
  • Thomas, Hamlet, Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Marc Minkowski, new production by Olivier Py with Stéphane Degout and Christine Schäfer (April)
  • Rossini, La donna del lago, RSO Wien conducted by Leo Hussain, Christof Loy’s production previously seen in Geneva, here with Malena Ernman and Gregory Kunde (August)

Operas in concert include Street Scene, Orlando Furioso, Jephtha, Giulio Cesare, Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica, Aperghis’s Les Boulingrin (a new work but not a premiere), Handel’s Deidamia, Vivaldi’s Il Giustino, The Fairy Queen, Ariodante, Theodora, Dvorak’s Svatební Kosile (!!!), with the usual HIP and new music suspects, and a few newcomers. Note that the Ariodante will star Joyce DiDonato.

Concerts include Beethoven’s rare Chirstus am Ölberge with the Philharmoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan and with Johan Botha as Jesus (no snickering, please, it’s in concert).

Check out the full listings here.

Intendant Roland Geyer was upbeat about the house’s position. He has right to be; the theater is definitely the most consistently progressive and adventurous of Vienna’s major music theater venues. When asked about his relationship with the Meyers (Staatsoper intendant Dominque and, no relation, Volksoper intendant Robert), he said that the relationship was good, because the three houses have clearly defined and different artistic missions (this is true, it’s nothing like Berlin). They do coordinate premiere dates and repertoire to some extent, though some repeats like Mozart are to be expected. He also proclaimed himself, in the face of the Meyers, “very proud of my G.” Ha.

In all likelihood, I’m not going to be around for any of these performances, but if you are you should go to them!

*EDITORIAL COMMENT: OK, this is B.S. Proclaiming L’Orfeo, Ulisse, and Poppea to be a cycle implies that they were conceived as some kind of group. This ignores that decades and major aesthetic changes that transpired between the first one and second two, as well as the fact Monteverdi wrote several other operas that are now lost. It is entirely arbitrary, it’s a cycle because they are the three full Monte operas that we’ve got. A more legitimate cycle would be comprised of the three operas he wrote for Venetian public theaters, Ulisse, Poppea, and Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia. It would be hard to produce, though, because the score for the latter has been lost. There’s a great book to read about this if you want to know more.

Continue Reading

Rodelinda: Another jailbreak

Nikolaus Harnoncourt brought in a crew he presumably could trust for his new Theater an der Wien Rodelinda. That would be his son Philipp, who did the directional honors with a slightly amateurish but mostly compelling modernized production of this dark opera. Harnoncourt the elder and his orchestra supplied most of the glamor of the evening, though with resident Baroque sex symbols Malena Ernman and Danielle De Niese in the cast there was plenty of undressing onstage as well, this being modern and all. It all turns out somewhat better than it may deserve to.

Handel, Rodelinda. Theater an der Wien, 3/22/2011. New production by Philipp Harnoncourt, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Concentus Musicus Wien and Danielle De Niese (Rodelinda), Bejun Mehta (Bertarido), Kurt Streit (Grimoaldo), Konstantin Wolff (Garibaldo), Malena Ernman (Eduige), Matthias Rexroth (Unulfo).

This post marks a new way of writing for me, which I hope y’all will like. For this performance I’ve gone official! If you go here, you can read my more-concise-than-usual review on the excellent classical music website Bachtrack. It says this, among other things:

Philipp Harnoncourt eschews the jokey post-modern antics of many Handel productions in favor of a realistic, deadly serious approach. The entire production takes place around a grim cement apartment block whose exact geographic location is never clear. The multi-level set revolves to reveal different locations and personalities, from the thugs’ hangout to teenagers and children, showing more than one group at once… But Harnoncourt’s creativity can get the best of him, and sometimes the multiple mini-dramas unfolding at once obscure the narrative thrust and emotional arc of the plot…Yet in a broad sense the production is successful, and the drama gripping.

Go read the rest! (And look around this interesting website!) But here I shall elaborate on a few points. I think this format may free me from my unfortunate compulsion to be comprehensive.

This production gave off a slightly unfinished air at times, in need of a good editor who would cut the extraneous bits. There’s so much going on that has only tangential relation to the plot. You suspect the director fears a vacuum and doesn’t trust himself or the material. And some of the staging itself wasn’t convincingly done, occasionally slipping into unintentional comedy, most notably when Grimoaldo ambushes Rodelinda and Bertarido by popping out of a wardrobe. You maybe could play Rodelinda as a black comedy, but that’s not what this production did. In fact, its unending bleakness was rather exhausting, visually monotonous and just kind of drab, though ultimately fitting for the opera. It’s a gloomy piece.

This was maybe the inverse of the Staatsoper’s Alcina from last November. There, I thought the big picture was severely lacking but the aria-level Personenregie was pretty good. Here, the big picture was right, but on the detailed level things were amiss. Some arias were good: I particularly liked the staging of Rodelinda’s “Se’l mio duol non è si forte,” in which she torturously walks up and down a staircase. The last act was definitely the strongest. This is the point when many productions go downhill, so that suggests that the basic concept is good. Both productions were, on the whole, more or less successful, but neither quite ideal.

I have to say I don’t quite get the immense buzz around Malena Ernman. I know it probably has to do with looks and her spectacularly Europop Eurovision song (DeNiese definitely has her looks to thank as well), but while she’s perfectly fine I just don’t hear her as anything particularly special. She can sing low notes, but the tone is dull and lacks resonance. De Niese, for her part, is really compelling in person and knows how to give a smart performance, but her coloratura was surprisingly sloppy and I found her pop-influenced phrasing just infuriating. The cut of most of one of her arias (“Morra, si”) was musically awkward, and while I don’t know why it was cut I have to wonder if her singing had something to do with it–it’s not an easy aria, with a lot of long exposed runs. And in “Spietati, io vi giurai,” she copied Dorothea Röschmann’s ornamentations–only an octave lower!

But the orchestra is really great and you should go see it for them. And Bejun Mehta, who is spectacular (as I say in the full review above).

I’ll still be blogging here in the regular manner as well, but am going to be working with this two-part format more as well, we’ll see how it all works out.

Photos copyright Werner Kmetitisch

Continue Reading

Berenice: Handel’s other Egyptian queen

Actually, make that Handel’s other other Egyptian queen, because while Cleo is definitely No. 1, I think sort-of queen Seleuce in Tolomeo is more popular than Berenice. Alan Curtis recorded this obscure lady in 2010 on Virgin Classics, and brought his Il complesso barocco and most of the same singers to the Theater an der Wien for a concert performance last night. It’s not quite top-drawer Handel, but there’s still plenty to enjoy, particularly with a performance this good.

My Week of Living 18th Century continues.

Handel, Berenice. Concert performance in the Theater an der Wien, 1/27/2011. Il complesso barocco conducted by Alan Curtis with Klara Ek (Berenice), Ingela Bohlin (Alessandro), Milena Storti (Selene), Franco Fabioli (Demetrio), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Arsace), Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Fabio), Johannes Weisser (Aristobolo)

I didn’t do my homework and picked up a last-minute ticket 15 minutes before the show, sliding into my seat with only a few minutes to spare. Meaning, no time to read the plot summary. I think this may be the first time I have not even attempted to follow the plot of an opera, but to be honest it seemed complicated and not that compelling, so I just decided it was going to be Aria Night. With concert Handel, that works. And while none of the singers quite reached the lofty heights of Karina Gauvin and Iestyn Davies in last October’s Curtis Tolomeo, also at the Theater an der Wien (didn’t blog about it, sorry), they were first-rate.

Berenice dates from 1737, prime time for Handel creatively speaking (though personally not such a great year for him, with financial and health problems), but it was a flop and only ran for four performances. It’s quality stuff, but has an unusual number of smaller arias (also an unusual number of very nice duets). There are some pleasant and unusual numbers, but not many show-stoppers, and the seven roles of close to equal importance mean that star opportunities are sparse. The title character is indeed the lead, but it’s not the most thankful of Handel diva roles. She seems to be a “Da tempeste” and an “Ah! mio cor” short. However, Swedish soprano Klara Ek made the most of what there was, singing with technical accomplishment and bright, brilliant, sometimes hard-edged tone. Her biggest aria, “Chi’ t’intende” is certainly unusual in form, with many tempo changes and a complex oboe obligato part (wonderfully played by Vinciane Baudhuin), but it’s still not “Scherza infida” in psychological depth. Ek also brought a vivid characterization of a proud queen, and her animated facial expressions and occasionally extravagant gestures show her potential to develop into a Cult Early Music Diva. Kermes of the Future?

Fellow Swedish soprano Ingela Bohlin was an excellent contrast as Alessandro. She has a very light and girly voice for a castrato role, but her warm, liquid, sweet singing was some of the prettiest of the evening. What is it with the preponderance of fantastic Swedish early music singers? (I am also including Ann Hallenberg from Sunday’s Ariosti extravaganza, and Anne Sofie von Otter from the Rameau of last week.) I already wanted to move to Sweden, but now I want to even more.

Countertenor Franco Fagioli doesn’t have a very even or rich voice, sometimes sounding thin, but makes up for it with extraordinary range and agility. His “Guerra e pace, Egizia terra” was the showpiece of the evening. As Fabio, magnificiently named tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani was accurate and pleasant, and the only snappy dresser in a somewhat disheveled cast. Mary-Ellen Nesi showed a powerful and beautiful low mezzo as Arsace, and Johannes Weisser, a holdover from last Sunday’s Ariosti, again sounded unfocused, though he acted well.

Mezzo Milena Storti was a very late replacement for the ill Romina Bassi in the role of Selene, and according to the preshow announcement received the score at three in the morning that day, learning it overnight. She has a round, dark voice and sang with impressive confidence, including great use of the text in recits and some playful moments in the arias, and was deservedly warmly received by the audience.

The baddest mustache in Baroque conducting, Alan Curtis, and his orchestra Il complesso barocco were the real highlight of the evening. They know this style inside and out, and play with easy, unexaggerated grace and energy, and perfect balance and textual transparency. I’ve never understood those who find Handel boring, but with playing with this kind of nuance and variety in character, well, I understand less.

Here’s this group’s CD of this opera again. If you’re in the market for any Handel opera recordings, I highly recommend Curtis’s recordings as a general policy for their excellent musicianship, stylistic accuracy, and animated drama.

Also, about that student Gluck performance of the other night, Il Parnaso confuso, at Schloss Schönbrunn: I went, I didn’t like, and I have no desire to beat up students, so that’s it. Except I wish to note that electronic composition and Gluck really don’t mix that well, in my opinion.

Continue Reading

Castor et Pollux: Brotherly love

Christophe Rousset and Mariame Clément’s Castor et Pollux is a breath of fresh air in the Theater an der Wien. After a string of disappointing shows, here’s one that fulfills the theater’s mission: a modern, polished production of an unusual work with a fabulous orchestra and chorus. The singing is uneven and it might be a little more gloomy than grand, but it all works together.

Rameau, Castor et Pollux (1754 version). Theater an der Wien, 1/20/2011. New production premiere by Mariame Clément, sets and costumes by Julia Hansen, lights by Bernd Purkrabek, projections by fettfilm. Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset with Maxim Miranov (Castor), Dietrich Henschel (Pollux), Christiane Karg (Télaïre), Anne Sofie von Otter (Phébée), Nicholas Testé (Jupiter), Arnold Schoenberg Chor, directed by Erwin Ortner.

Clément and Rousset have chosen Rameau’s second, 1754 version of the opera, which is more dramatically focused and austere than the 1737 version. I came that evening familiar only with 1737 (as heard on William Christie’s recording). This was a problem; they are very different. There are fewer ballets, the action is tidied up and considerably changed, and the allegorical prologue is cut. The music slips between aria and récit in a way more reminiscent of much earlier Cavalli than most French music, and shows Rameau’s harmonic crunchiness at many points. The orchestra is large and colorfully deployed. It’s not a style you hear every day, but it’s not a difficult one to adjust to, the action moves along quickly enough, and it’s beautiful stuff.

Clément’s production takes place on a unit set dominated by a large, maroon-carpeted staircase. While the staircase is surrounded by a positively farcical number of doors, the production is nothing if not serious. Between the carpet, army of servants, and 1940’s clothes, I wondered if designer Julia Hansen was working with sloppy seconds from Robert Carsen’s Semele.

Despite the specific 1940’s setting, Clément’s production is relatively abstract, with no reference to the world outside that of the characters. The theme is brotherly love, and the happenings domestic. The ballet interludes show episodes from the characters’ earlier days (using child actors), Castor and Pollux playing and always showing affection for each other, their budding rivalry for Télaïre, and the interfering, slightly older Phébée. They’re charmingly staged and dramatically helpful, clearing up and deepening the relationships, but it’s a shame they have so little to do with the music. And that there is no actual dance.

Magic and myth are minimized. There are a few coy references to Pollux’s immortality, but they are minimal. Jupiter is a stern father with an imposing office at the top of the staircase, and he cares only for Pollux. There are no spectacular Baroque settings or transformations. Castor’s underworld is the only major set change, a white box hanging from above, in which we see his visions of life in the household projected on the walls. Pollux’s departure from his immortal life, surrounded by the chorus dressed in costumes of various time periods, is nicely done. The ending is slightly confusing (if you don’t know the piece well), and suggests that Castor’s resurrection may have been only a dream.

It does a good job telling the story, with strong blocking (mostly naturalistic, sometimes stylized in the choruses) and good variety. My only complaint, other than missing dance, is that it is somewhat too somber, too muted. It’s very tasteful and skillful, but a little more boldness or invention could have made things more exciting. However, this is a somber opera, so it fits.

On the technical side, Bernd Perkrabek’s lighting contains some awkwardly timed and bumpy transitions (more a problem of execution than design). The evening also got off to a difficult start when the surtitles machine remained blank, though it was fixed around 10 minutes into the show (after audible panic in the space behind the third ring).

The most exciting things of the evening were the playing of Christoph Rousset’s orchestra, Les Talens Lyriques, and the singing of the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus. Rousset conducted at a slightly cooler temperature than some of the peppier HIP types, but the orchestra still has tremendous rhythmic definition, agility, and virtuosity. And the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, a reliable highlight of everything they appear in, sang again with impeccable homogeneity and detail.

The soloists were somewhat variable. Up-and-coming soprano Christiane Karg was the brightest spot as Telaïre, singing with honesty, spontaneity, and beautifully clear, bright tone (including a gorgeous piano). Sometimes a stronger low register would have helped, though. Anne Sofie von Otter made a formidable figure of Phébée and sang with passion and conviction, but the role seemed to demand more emphatic recitative and less lyricism than would be ideal for the current state of her voice.

From the men, cute tenor Maxim Miranov handled the murderous haute-contre tessiatura of Castor with aplomb and bright and pleasant sound, though his fluttery vibrato may not be to all tastes. Dietrich Henschel seemed miscast as Pollux (he replaced Luca Pisaroni a little while back for reasons I don’t know), his woolly baritone lacking the flexibility and clarity required for this style. Basses Nicholas Testé as Jupiter and Pavel Kudinov as the Grand Prêtre were both excellent.

It’s a lot more of a piece than what you usually get from the Staatsoper, and to hear such an usual score makes this worth a trip in itself.

Further performances are on 22, 24, 26, 28, and 30 January, more information here.

Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus/Theater an der Wien

Continue Reading

Il Postino: You’ve got mail

In Daniel Catán’s opera Il Postino, currently receiving its European premiere at the Theater an der Wien, the postman always rings… well, only once each time he visits, but you shall know him by the hazy seventh chords in the strings, lush and yet tastefully not too lush.  This is perhaps underscored with some understated, vaguely Spanish-sounding dance rhythms. (It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that this opera’s island setting is actually in Italy.  The text is in Spanish, I’ve never seen the movie, and I didn’t buy a program.)  Aribert Reimann, Catán ain’t.  And the libretto, also by Catán and based on the Italian film of the same title, isn’t Medea in terms of dramatic conflict.  It’s pleasant and lovely and easy to listen to.  Unfortunately, I also found it mind-numbingly dull.

But Plácido Domingo is in it, so, you know, there’s the main attraction.

Daniel Catán, Il Postino, Theater an der Wien, 12/14/2010. New production by Ron Daniels, sets and costumes by Riccardo Hernández, lights by Jennifer Tipton. Wiener Symphoniker and Arnold Schoenberg Chor conducted by Jesús López-Cobos with Plácido Domingo (Pablo Neruda), Israel Lozano (Mario), Amanda Squiltieri (Beatrice), Cristina Gallardo-Domas (Mathilde).

If you like your Puccini put through a Copland sieve, you’ll love Daniel Catán’s score.  At first, it sounds rather nice.  Actually, the whole thing sounds rather nice.  It is extremely consonant and gentle, the vocal lines are, sorry, Puccini-esque.  The lyricism is cut with a lightness, a slightly impressionistic, slightly Applachian Spring open fields/open stack of thirds quality that saves it from irredeemable sappiness.  It has rhythmic swing, and a few good moments of found music (diegetically provided by a cutely dinky little onstage military band, and an accordionist).  But after a little while, the lack of contrast becomes grating.  Almost the entire opera hangs in a warm, slightly animated torpor of niceness.  Puccini’s chiaroscuro is missing.  It’s like listening to “Che il bel sogno di Doretta” over and over and over.

The libretto seems like a good idea in its basic outlines:  young mailman Mario strikes up a friendship with avuncular local exiled Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda, who gives him relationship advice via poetry lessons.  He gets his girl, a lovely barmaid of no distinctive qualities, with minimal problems.  In the second half, political events take over the plot.  These developments had only been clumsily hinted at in the first half, and it feels tacked on.   And I’m not sure why the libretto needs to tell of its most dramatic event, Mario’s tragic last poem, through the intermediary of a narrator.  The music finally turns more dramatic, but not, to me, convincingly so (add an enigmatic sea incident with a healthy dose of Debussy, though).

The libretto is an effective mix of quasi-arias and larger ensembles.  I don’t speak Spanish and can’t comment on its literary qualities, though the several inserted Neruda poems are very good as sung texts even when I was reading them in the German titles.  However, I quickly tired of the libretto’s simplistic harping on the idea of a metaphor, particularly when illustrated by projections in a way that made me think of that classic of American pedagogical video, “Schoolhouse Rock.”  Also, I have grown instantly suspicious of any opera staging that puts its love duet in the midst of a starry firmament.  This is the second one I’ve seen this month to do so, and both times the effect was pure kitsch (I’m looking at you, Les Troyens).

For the most part, though, the production by Ron Daniels is relatively spare.  The stage is covered in bright blue tiles, and many scenes take place in front of projections or a blank screen, or on small rolling set pieces center stage (which probably make this co-production easy to adapt to stages of different sizes).  The very good lighting (by Jennifer Tipton) is a breath of fresh air after last weekend’s Don Giovanni fiasco.  The whole thing is straightforward and not bad, though not particularly memorable, either.  Sometimes the blocking turned static, but most of it is convincing, as these things go.

This opera exists more or less as a Plácido Domingo vehicle, and as that it works.  The role of Neruda was clearly tailored to his current vocal estate, which is still remarkably good.  The sound is still sizable, secure, and has a lot of tonal beauty, though smooth might not be the right word at this point.  The wise old man role is a good one for him at this point, he can project authority while still being endearing in the Ask Grandpa Pablo sections.  As the Postman, Israel Lozano sounded ardent but occasionally labored, yet was endearing.  However, the character is underwritten, and I found his political sacrifice in Act 3 wholly implausible.  Among the women, Amanda Squitieri has a warm, full soprano (which I initially identified as a high mezzo), occasionally tending flat, and was a charismatic presence in another underdefined role (she is a pretty barmaid who loves Mario and… that’s it).  Cristina Gallardo-Domas’s voice has taken some beating, but she did her best as Neruda’s wife Matilde.

Unfortunately, the Wiener Symphoniker, conducted by Jesús López-Cobos, didn’t seem to be having the best night, and sounded out of tune and uncoordinated all evening. 

It is a perfectly pleasant opera, and refreshingly lacking in grand pretensions, but its mushiness is beyond my tolerance, I’m afraid.  You can hear it for yourself on ORF’s oe1 on Saturday.

Also, I have discovered the purpose of Twitter! And it is to trade Parsifal jokes in imaginary pidgin catspeak with prominent Heldentenoren.  Just what I need, more ways to waste time.  Join in here.

Edited to add: I unconsciously ripped off this post title from Mr. Out West Arts.  He thought of it first, and I read his review of the opera’s LA incarnation and probably remembered it!  Credit where it is due!  It is such a very good title.

Photos copyright Armin Bardel/Theater an der Wien.
Video from the LA Opera premiere (same production, slightly different cast):

Continue Reading

Die schöne Müllerin: Serious business

“Ich bin ja auch kein Gärtner,” proclaims the lovesick neurotic of Die schöne Müllerin in “Der Neugierige.”  “I surely am no gardener.”  I almost had to laugh, because I was sitting one row and two seats over from where I was the previous night watching a bushel of lovesick neurotics in La finta giardiniera.  While the loud backdrops were decorously covered by an enormous folding screen, the extra-shiny stage was unmistakable.

But unlike Friday night’s poor stuck victims, Mark Padmore and Till Fellner took us on a journey, as any good song cycle should.  Despite a rather cool beginning and some vocal limitations, by the end this was a very compelling interpretation, particularly because of the fantastic piano playing.

Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin.  Mark Padmore, tenor; Till Fellner, piano.  Theater an der Wien, 13/11/10.

Vocally, tenor and lieder specialist Mark Padmore has a narrow, pale “English tenor” type of sound, with great clarity but without a broad palette of colors.  His high notes often sound falsetto-ish and disconnected, and sometimes drift sharp.  I know that lush singing isn’t the reason to go to a liederabend, but as a big opera fan I always pay a lot of attention to vocal sound.  His type of voice is not really to my taste and this bothered me more than it should have.   His diction is fantastic and as far as I could tell his German is great.

His miller lad is an exceptionally serious one, and the first half of the cycle was in deadly earnest.  “Das Wandern” was more determined than exuberant.  The fast songs seem less joyful than nervously frantic, particularly the harsh da capo of “Am Feierabend.”  The tragedy of the second half was foreshadowed in halting, unexpected emphases–the “Ei willkommen” of “Halt” doesn’t actually sound that welcoming, and the obvious point of “Als wär’ dir was geschehen” in the very slow “Morgengruß.”  The “deins” of “Dein ist mein Herz” in  “Ungeduld” do Padmore’s voice no favors, but their thinness seems appropriate.  Less appropriate was the excessive falsettoing in “Der Neugierige.”  Interesting, but I wasn’t swept away yet.

I found the second half of the cycle much better than the first.  Padmore’s nervy approach seemed to pay off much more in the violence “Der Jäger” and the sorrow of “Die liebe Farbe.”  Narrative engagement, in short supply in the reserved first half, suddenly appeared, and he seemed to loosen up vocally as well.  By the last few songs, I was hanging on every word.  Dramatically speaking, Padmore serves more as narrator than protagonist, but sort of expressively breaks into the protagonist’s persona at a few of the most extreme points, very effectively. 

Till Fellner was an assertive and absolutely marvelous partner.  While Padmore’s singing was sometimes monochromatic, Fellner’s brook constantly changed colors and mood, sometimes surprisingly heavy (“Die böse Farbe”) or dry (“Der Neugierige”), but always interesting and attuned to the text without ever overpowering it.  He articulated the shape of each song that made far more aware of the harmonic underpinnings than usual, which perhaps indicates that I am usually lazy, but this time the music seemed to have grown an extra dimension.  Too bad they couldn’t have added a Schubert sonata to this program, as Padmore has apparently done elsewhere.

I have heard a lot about Padmore’s recording of this cycle with Paul Lewis (pictured above), which I am eager to hear as a companion piece to this one.  If only CDs weren’t so expensive!

Mark Padmore has written an essay on performing Die schöne Müllerin, which you can read here.  I can only give myself a B- on being an engaged audience member, I just don’t know this piece thoroughly enough, but I was doing my best.

Next: I’m leaving to get in line for Alcina in a bit.  It’s an improbably warm and sunny day and I’m worried the crowd will be large.

Continue Reading

La finta giardiniera: Weeding needed

Mozart’s early opera La finta giardiniera is a problem work.  Whether its wild mixture of silly and serious is confusing or just confused is a matter for debate, but it’s surely a challenging piece to stage.  David Alden’s new Theater an der Wien production takes it very seriously indeed, probably far more seriously than Mozart ever did.  The result is grim, unfunny, and ugly to boot.  After three and a half hours watching his emotionally damaged zombies sing rage aria after rage aria, I wanted to sing one too.  I still think this opera can be a delight, and found this production hugely disappointing.

Luckily this was partly redeemed by high quality musicianship.  Despite variable voices, René Jacobs conducted a rhythmically incisive performance full of dramatic spontaneity, and the Freiburger Barockorchester is so good they almost made the evening worth it just by themselves.

Mozart, La finta giardiniera.  Theater an der Wien, 12/11/10.  New production premiere by David Alden, sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Doey Lüthi, lights by Wolfgang Goebbel, choreography by Beate Vollack.  Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by René Jacobs with Sophie Karthäuser (Sandrina/Violante), Topi Lehtipuu (Il Contino Belfiore), Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Arminda), Michael Nagy (Nardo/Roberto), Jeffrey Francis (Il Podestà), Sunhae Im (Serpetta), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Cavaliere Ramiro)

The central event in David Alden’s staging happens before the opera starts: Il Contino Belfiore’s attempted (he thinks successful) murder of his lover Violante.  Her disguise as the gardening girl Sandrina is explained by Alden as the result of extreme trauma, and, wandering around in a bloody wedding dress with a vacant stare and a large pair of gardening shears, she does look like she’s been through hell.  All the other characters, similarly unlucky in love, are going through the same anguish in varying degrees.

By putting all the characters in liminal emotional states, I think Alden wanted to try to explain their strange actions and the many coincidences of the convoluted plot. The problem is that this plot that we see onstage is basically a buffo farce.  The trauma Alden has put front and center doesn’t hang over the music or libretto in any perceptible way, and the gloom feels totally wrong.  And while he does differentiate slightly between the seria characters and the buffo ones (as Mozart’s music does), for example by putting the seria characters on a staircase to indicate their higher social status, for the most part they are strangely uniform wrecks, and all so wrapped up in their own psychoses they rarely interact with each other.  Love, flirtation, and seduction are shoved aside in favor of jealousy and rage.

The sets are minimal: various neon-colored backdrops, some sliding walls, a few chairs, and more ascending and descending light fixtures than seem necessary.  It is not an attractive production.  The setting is nominally Italy in the 1930’s, but this means nothing more than the general sense of the costumes.  Why?  According to the note, Alden sees the Podestà Don Anchise as a mini-Mussolini, wishing to control everyone and failing.  I did not see this in the staging, though, the Podestà is a comic old man supporting role and he didn’t seem any more complicated or important here than usual.  Also, he was not comic, and that was a problem.  Arminda seems to be an aviatrix (???).  That’s all I got.  (I also must refer you to James Jorden’s excellent essay on time-traveling productions, if you have not already read it.  This is a dire example of the Carmen type, only without the realism.  The Mussolini thing seems the be the sole reason for this setting, and if I hadn’t read about that in the program it would have totally gone over my head.)

The garden is never more than suggested, though Sandrina relives her attempted murder Edward Scissorhands-style (after Cardillac, I am convinced that this film is the only metatext you need for opera in Vienna this fall) by cutting a murderous topiary.  In the garden, things are kept more or less under control, in the forest of the Act 2 finale, the characters involuntarily lose their inhibitions, I think?  (For Arminda, this involves a superhero costume.  There aren’t any pictures.)  Nice nature metaphor, but the problem is that this doesn’t really work with the plot, which is pure running around in the dark and bumping into people silliness.

The most surprising thing was how Alden’s fantasy for absurd comedy seems to have deserted him.  He knows how to engagingly stage an aria, there’s always something to watch, but other than some obvious physical comedy the invention is minimal, and it seems like overlaid schtick.  By giving into stylized blocking in the Act 1 finale, he confuses the plot where he could have done a lot to clarify the character relationships, and the Act 2 finale turns strangely static.   In both, the plot developments fly by without dramatization.  Indeed, Alden’s concept of a dream landscape seems to preclude the advancement of events in most forms.

In short, I think Alden took this piece far too seriously.  It’s very long, more cuts might have helped, and by reading it so deeply he extinguished the farcical fun that is the libretto’s main asset, leaving us with a confusing, dour psychodrama. 

But while this score isn’t quite top-drawer, B-grade Mozart is better than A-grade almost anyone else.  The Freiburger Barockorchester is wonder.  They have a lovely reedy sound, perfect for the acrobatics of this music, and play a precision and refinement to rival any non-historical practice group.  To hear this music played with so much rhythmic life, transparency, and tonal color is worth any pumpkin-mangling going on onstage.  René Jacobs elaborated the wind parts a bit, as is his wont, and the arias in particular sounded busier than usual.  I don’t know this opera well enough to be specific, at times I found it fussy but mostly it was a wash.  I also don’t know the opera well enough to say whether Jacobs’s tempos were conventional or not, but with the exception of some plodding in the Act 2 finale they felt well-judged if on the fleet side, and he is a master of long-range dramatic pacing.

He also is a master of conducting singers.  The cast sang with a dramatic spontaneity and commitment that still felt perfectly musical, an amazing balance for Mozart.  In the title role Sophie Karthäuser has a lyric sound that is just the right size for the role and sang with style and confidence, though her tone can turn wiry and sharp at the top.  Topi Lehtipuu as Belfiore has a clear and really beautiful, though small, voice, but sounded strained at higher volumes.  His Contino was vaguely hipster-esque and subject to most of the production’s acrobatics, which didn’t bother his singing at all.

The unexpected highlight was Michael Nagy as Nardo, Sandrina’s servant, with a flexible, silky baritone voice and more comic élan than the production knew what to do with (granted, that isn’t a considerable quantity).  He will be Wolfram at Bayreuth next summer and definitely is one to watch.  Jeffrey Francis sounded thin and character-tenor-esque as the Podestà, and failed to be funny in this buffo part, but I wouldn’t blame him for this.  I’m not sure if Arminda is the best use of Alexandrina Pendatchanska’s skills, she has the right temperament but seems overqualified in most other departments with some showy interpolations.  Sunhae Im as the cigar-smoking soubrette Serpetta was a bright spot, and was amusing and sounded sweet, though her low range did not always project.  Marie-Claude Chappuis drifted in and out as Ramiro, excellent in lyric sections but lacking the power for the more emphatic seria music this character gets.

Massive booing for Alden and the production team at the end, cheers for everyone else.  I think this can be a great evening at the opera when produced right, though it’s always going to be a kind of weird one.  I came to know it through this absolutely adorable Salzburg Festival production, which takes place in a Home Depot-like garden store and is like a double dose of happy pills.  It does not take anything seriously at all.  I highly recommend it.

If you want to hear this performance, it is being broadcast on November 13 (AKA today) at 19:30 on Ö1.

Bows by Bad Photography is Us (production team in the first row, cast and conductor in the second):

Photos copyright Theater an der Wien/Wilfried Hösl.  Bows photo by me.

Continue Reading

Ich kann nicht sitzen: Standing Room at the Theater an der Wien

In honor of next week’s new production of La finta giardiniera, let’s talk about Vienna’s most consistently interesting opera house.

The Theater an der Wien has a rich and varied history.  It was built in 1801 by Emmanuel Schikaneder (of Zauberflöte fame, check out the statue of him as Papageno on the right side of the building) and at one time or another it has served as a venue for basically anything that can be put into a theater.  Back then it was on the bank of the Wien, but the river was diverted underground in the 1890s and the theater now faces the Naschmarkt. Today it calls itself “Das neue Opernhaus” (the new* opera house) and for the last few years has been hosting an outstanding schedule of operas mixed with concerts and other events. 

It is explicitly Staatsoper counter-programming: a selective rather than comprehensive group of carefully rehearsed modern opera and music-theater productions, usually focusing on repertoire the Staatsoper ignores (17th, 18th, and 20th centuries, mostly).  It’s the most highbrow music-theater program in town, and also the most consistently excellent in quality.

And oh yeah, they have standing room!

The Theater an der Wien is located on the Linke Wienzeile in the fourth district.  It seats around 1,000 and has good acoustics.  They do not have a house orchestra or chorus, though the excellent Arnold Schoenberg Choir is the usual choice.  The default modern orchestra is the ORF RSO Wien, and the Baroque and 18th-century events feature a first-rate assortment of local and imported historical performance groups (such as Les Arts Florissants, the Concentus Musicus Wien, and Les Talens Lyriques).  They do about one opera per month in around six or so performances plus a few concerts or other events.  This stagione system allows for productions with more technical polish than your average evening at the Staatsoper (nice if you’re a lighting cue snob like me).  Last year The New York Times published a nice article about the theater’s history and current life, if you’d like to find out more.

Until this season they were really the only game in town for major-league staged Baroque opera (Jacobs, Christie, and such), but the Staatsoper has programmed Alcina this season with Les Musiciens de Louvre, and the buzz at the Semele standing room line in September was that Dominique Meyer, the new Staatsoper intendant, is trying to compete with the Theater an der Wien’s niche.  Possibly, but let me know when the Staatsoper stages things like Rameau and Monteverdi and then we’ll talk.  (And in a city like this there can be more than one big venue for Baroque opera!)  Meyer has hinted at future collaboration between the two houses.

Unfortunately the theater’s relatively pricey and poorly-located standing room isn’t their best feature.  Standing room costs 7 Euros, almost twice the Staatsoper, and is located in the sides of the third ring.  If you manage to get one of the best spots it’s OK, but many of the spots closer to the stage are partial view.  Closer to the middle (further to the back) is best.  But at least it’s more comfortable than the Musikverein.

This picture was taken from the end of standing room closest to the stage; you can see the standing room on the other side on the upper left (decorated by a few scarves):

The cheapest seats can generally be had for under 20 Euros, for concerts as low as 11 Euros.   These tickets sell out well in advance, though, and most of them have restricted views of the stage, some of them worse than those of standing room (any of the dark purple seats on the seating chart are trouble).  You can buy these tickets on the theater’s website or at their box office in the theater, or in the Wien-Ticket office in the pavilion in front of the Staatsoper.  Do specify what you want, though, because they also sell tickets for musicals and God forbid a Deutsch als Fremdsprache accident should land you with a ticket for Tanz der Vampiren.

If you’re going to do standing room, it’s close to the same deal as the Staatsoper with a few differences.  The most important difference is that after claiming your spot you won’t have time to go anywhere between that and the performance, so bring something to eat if you need to (lots of food at the Naschmarkt across the street).  Tickets go on sale one hour before the performance, the line forms in the lobby of the theater but you enter through the box office just past the lobby. 

The Theater an der Wien’s standing room isn’t nearly as much of an institution/tourist attraction as the Staatsoper.  Despite having many fewer places, you don’t have to wait nearly as long.  Even for a total bonanza like Cecilia Bartoli’s extremely sold out turn in Semele I only arrived around 3.5 hours before the performance and was the fifth or sixth person there, the wait at the Staatsoper for something comparable would have been much longer.  (I waited for roughly the same amount of time for Juan Diego Florez’s Nemorino at the Staatsoper, and was around 50th in line.)

After buying your ticket, you get in line to go into the theater, in two lines (one left, one right).  Once they open the doors around 40 or so minutes before the performance, the ushers will let you up the stairs and eventually into the theater, where everyone rushes to claim a spot.  The places aren’t individually marked, they’re just rows.  Do mark your place with a scarf or something, though if you stay there it isn’t strictly necessary.

Now you have around half an hour, which might seem like enough for a bite in the theater’s nice but expensive café, but really it isn’t.  Just hang out and enjoy the show!

I surprisingly don’t have any pictures of the stage taken from standing room, but I will try to get one soon and add it to this post.

*New? Yes, they were playing musicals in the 1990s and you can say that Beethoven’s Fidelio, whose three different versions all premiered here, isn’t really an opera, but outside the little theater in Schönbrunn this is the oldest opera house in town.

Photos: top copyright Theater an der Wien, lower copyright Cosmopolis.ch.

Continue Reading