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

The Volksoper and Hans Neuenfels’s big Zemlinsky fish

“A ring of invisibility found in a giant fish. A voyeuristic king. A fisherman’s burning house and unfaithful wife. Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der König Kandaules is an exceptionally strange opera. Based on André Gide’s 1899 play of the same title, it is a heady mix of sex, violence, and remarkably beautiful music. In the Volksoper’s remarkable revival, its allusiveness alternately fascinates and alienates, drawing the viewer in only to reward them with yet more mysteries.”

Read my review of Der König Kandaules at Bachtrack.

Note how most people writing about this opera conspicuously avoid trying to say what it’s about. I don’t like evasion and just admitted that I have no real idea. Maybe I like certainty too much, but the libretto of this opera had a higher ratio of the cryptic to the significant than I can find that satisfying. There are glimmerings of significance–and Neuenfels’s production does a good job in replicating and extending the text’s ambiguity–but the whole thing just slips from your grasp in a way that I ultimately found a little unfulfilling. It’s not that I need things to be spelled out, but it’s blatantly allegorical without a referant in sight. But the score is beautiful and the performance is quite good, and maybe you’ll be less desperate for a moral than I am. And who knows when you’ll get the chance to see it again. So go!

(I do admit I was longing for Kent Nagano and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester through the whole thing, after hearing their Zwerg in March.)

Regie fans may be interested to know that the design, in which an allegorical figure of Zemlinsky appears and Gyges and Kandaules appear as doubles, is by Christian Schmidt, who has previously used both of these devices in his design work with Claus Guth.

Remaining performances are May 8, 12, 17, 23, and 26.

Continue Reading

Turandot: Love bug

So, you have an opera with a frankly barbaric score and libretto. Say, Turandot. What is a violent, dangerous setting for this that doesn’t imply that Chinese society is prone to these kinds of things? I know, insects! They’re vicious, right?

This is the most spectacular production I’ve seen at the Volksoper, and orchestrally one of the best as well. And the basic idea of setting Turandot with bugs is kind of nifty. Unfortunately, it’s the only idea director Renaud Doucet and designer André Barbe (the team responsible for last fall’s Rusalka) seem to have had. Sure looks cool, though!

Puccini, Turandot. Volksoper Wien, 3/28/2011. Production (revival) directed by Renaud Doucet, sets by André Barbe. Conducted by Enrico Dovico with Anda-Louise Bogza (Turandot), Mario Zhang (Caláf), Melba Ramos (Liú).


The production starts off rather well. We’re in some community consisting entirely of insects of various types and statuses. Some are workers, some guards, some officials, and some leaders. The costumes are colorful and spectacular, and the dark backdrop and dim lighting gives it a scary air. A tall black figure with enormous talons appears early in Act 1 and it seems implied that she is Turandot, but it turns out that Turandot is actually a much less interesting fuzzy white figure. The talon lady is Death or something (having some role in Prince of Persia’s execution, and later Liù’s method of suicide), but like most things in this production she exists more as a visual gesture than a dramatic one.

It’s all quite intimidating and inhuman and ceremonial, and while it feels perfect for the music’s violence, the inhumanity also proves to be the production’s biggest stumbling block. Despite the visual impact of the big moments, the staging doesn’t do a very good job of telling the story and exploring the characters. I don’t think this was inevitable consequence of the buggy-ness of it all, but it’s how it turned out. The overwhelming visuals, monumental costumes, and static blocking don’t enable the singers to emerge from the atmosphere as personalities, and the concept is too static to pick up the slack. Barbe’s choreography (I assume, there is no other choreographer credited) was a weak point, as in Rusalka, and even when performed by bugs resembles Jazzercise. So despite a promising start, the production proved disappointing as it failed to develop over the course of the subsequent acts. There are many nice visual touches, though.

Liù and Calaf

The Volksoper orchestra, conducted by Enrico Dovico, tackled the score with enthusiasm and significant decibel count, sounding bigger and more polished than they usually do. None of the singers had the power to compete. Anda-Louise Bogza has a large though not enormous Italianate soprano with a broad vibrato and warm if sometimes spread tone. She had some exciting moments and to her credit mostly sang and did not scream, but lacks the cutting high C’s to be a truly memorable Turandot. Mario Zhang’s dark and muscular sound and stiff phrasing did little to bring life to Calaf, who I’m pretty sure now is the actual villain of the piece. Melba Ramos had a shaky start as Liu but mustered the best overall singing of the cast with a slightly covered, smoky lyric soprano and good dynamic control. Supporting roles were adequately sung, though the Emperor headed south over the course of each phrase, ending each painfully flat.

With some more focused Personenregie (to be fair, it is a revival) and more Konzept for Acts 2 and 3 (sorry, there are some things you really need German for), this could have been a lot better. Pittsburgh residents should note that Barbe and Doucet are currently in your town with a second, much more traditional Turandot. They recently compared the two productions in an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The US gets a more traditional version, because opera with bugs apparently falls under the category of Shit We Americans Really Can’t Handle. (The Neuenfels Nabucco with bees would probably go over badly as well. And isn’t there a Claus Guth Barbiere with bugs in Leipzig?)

At the Volksoper, two performances remain, on April 7 and 10. You can also see a short video on their website.

Photos copyright Volksoper Wien.

Continue Reading

La Cenerentola: Una volta c’è un pagliaccio

Last time I checked in with Achim Freyer, I was seeing his wild Ring in Los Angeles. My enthusiastic and prolific blogging on this topic earned me a high place in English-language Achim Freyer Google rankings (a competitive field, to be sure), so when I saw his Cenerentola was approaching at the Volksoper, I knew I had to defend my beat.

Luckily, the feel of this Cenerentola, first staged at the Volksoper in 1997, is quite different from his Ring.  But I liked this one a lot too! It’s colorful and fun, and the cast has a few real winners.

Rossini, La Cenerentola. Volksoper Wien, 2/1/2011. Production by Achim Freyer (revival). Conducted by Andreas Schüller with Adrineh Simonian (Angelina), Jörg Schneider (Don Ramiro), Noé Colin (Don Magnifico), Dominik Königer (Dandini), Yasushi Hirano (Alidoro), Mara Mastalir (Clorinda), Tina Hörhold (Tisbe)

Freyer’s style is stiff and surreal, Robert Wilson meets Brecht. Odd, long-held poses, mechanical movements, clown makeup, and giant costumes are de rigueur.

(You think Rolando Villazón came up with the idea of clowns in Werther completely by himself? He and Freyer go back to a Berlin production of Onegin.)

But while this is visibly the same style as the Ring, here it’s all in simple fun. The sets are plain solid backdrops with doors while the costumes are giant, colorful, and surreal (the wicked sisters sport conical cotton-candy hair). There are a few spectacular effects, most amusingly the Prince’s many-legged, chorus-powered horse, but mostly the focus is on the characters.

Freyer’s blocking is closely attentive to the rhythm and structure of the score. The comic sisters, Don Magnifico (the opera’s version of the wicked step-mother, a wicked step-bass), Dandini (instead of a fairy godmother, Cenerentola gets a fairy god-baritone), and Alidoro bear the brunt of the choreography while Cenerentola and the Prince are allowed to emerge as more naturalistic characters. Ensembles are the most stylized, and sometimes it can be jarring to hear such energetic music performed for such long stretches of visual stillness. But at other points this is used to exceedingly good effect, such as in the opening ensemble, in which Cenerentola is forced to run rapidly between the members of her frozen, demanding family.

The execution is generally well-coordinated and thorough (this is a Wiederaufnahme, a revival that promises it rehearsed, honest), though at some points the frozen was not quite as frozen, nor the movements quite as controlled as they could have been. Ah well, pretty good. Blessedly, the Volksoper performs this work in Italian (most of their operas are in German, other exceptions include Tosca and La Traviata). All that patter in German would have been awkward.

Andreas Schüller conducted with good ensemble and an excellent performance from the orchestra, but sometimes lacking in an indefinable sparkle. The cast was one of the best I have seen at the Volksoper (I have been there more often than my blogging implies; I don’t like writing negative reviews). The Volksoper has a great find in Adrineh Simonian’s Angelina (pictured). She got off to a slightly shaky start, but warmed up to a light, well-supported sound with absolutely super coloratura and a great deal of charm and flair, and brought down the house with her rondo. As Don Ramiro, Jörg Schneider (not pictured) was fighting a cold, and while his thin Germanic Mozart tenor has the notes for the role, he seems a bit too austerely detached. Also, and I know this is going to sound mean, he struggles as a tenor with the body of a basso buffo. His illness was a major issue in the second act, and it’s too bad the Volksoper couldn’t have found him a replacement; it must be terrifying to have to go onstage when you’re so out of sorts.

The highlight of the supporting roles was Yasushi Hirano’s wonderfully-sung Alidoro, with a warm and even bass-baritone and pinpoint coloratura. Mara Mastalir and Tina Hörhold were an excellent pair as the sisters with clearly-projected voices and some of the most controlled and consistent Freyer moves of the cast.  On the other hand, Dominik Königer’s Dandini sounded good in slower music but fudged many of the quicker notes, nor did his high notes always project. Noé Colin sounded somewhat muffled as Don Magnifico, though sounded much better once I escaped the overhang for a better seat in the second half of the opera.

This is what the Volksoper should be good at, a fun and fantastical performance of a modest opera. It’s not world-class, but it’s a perfectly delightful evening out.

Five performances remain, on 7 14, 17, 20, and 22 February, some with an alternate cast.

Photos copyright Volksoper Wien.

Continue Reading

Rusalka at the Volksoper: Green party

Comparing the Volksoper to the Bayerische Staatsoper is unfair to both, but when you see the same opera at both within three days, it’s unavoidable.  André Barbe and Renaud Doucet’s new Volksoper Rusalka is an environmentally conscious meditation with a much softer touch than Martin Kušej’s brutal Munich staging.  When two of the three Viennese nymphs missed their first entrance, I inwardly groaned, and when the Water Goblin started handing out lollypops, I wanted to scream “DON’T TAKE CANDY FROM THE NICE MAN, KIDS!!!!”  But this is a production fit for the whole family, and a nice evening out all told.

There is a point at which a wood nymph douses herself with gasoline, though.  Good to know that I’m still in Europe!

Now updated with more photos.

Dvořák, Rusalka.  Volksoper Wien, 28/10/10.  New production in German by André Barbe and Renaud Doucet with sets and costumes by the same, lights by Guy Simard, choreography by Doucet.  Conducted by Henrik Nánási with Kristiane Kaiser (Rusalka), Aleš Briscein (The Prince), Mischa Schelomianski (Water Goblin), Victoria Safronova (The Foreign Princess), Dubravka Musovic (Jezibaba).

This entry comes to you from the very crowded standing room line for Juan Diego’s Nemorino. I will add more pictures when I have a better internet connection.

The press has described this production as Alice in Wonderland, and indeed it opens with Rusalka climbing up from a little girl’s bedroom into a magical forest.  But if there’s a real metatext here it’s Wall-E: the story-book forest is beautiful, but it’s also clogged with trash, destroyed by the humans Rusalka foolishly wants to join.  The wood nymphs cavort merrily anyways, though the overall effect of their choreography is reminiscent of a children’s musical, meaning that it is sweet but it is trying very hard to be sweet and I could do with fewer cartwheels. 

Rusalka is an ethereal, blond woman in white who wanders aimlessly.  Fuzzy orange Snuffleupagus-like Jezibaba can make the scattered trash bags dance (their choreography resembles that of the nymphs), which, well, I’m not sure what it symbolizes.  After transforming Rusalka by way of feeding her some somewhat moony LED lights, she transforms herself into the Foreign Princess (though the roles are sung by two different singers).  So Jezibaba tests the Prince in Act 2, and he fails.

The Prince lives among a bevy of grotesquely rotund humans who waddle around, gorge themselves on the wedding reception food, wear designer-logo clothes, leave their trash lying around, etc.  It seems that the Prince, the only vaguely attractive figure of the lot, is trying to get back to the land, hence Rusalka’s appeal.  But he sails his shiny boat over the water instead of jumping into it. 

It’s not a bad concept, but it’s more setup than narrative and the generic and minimal Personenregie doesn’t do much to dramatize the story or give the characters depth.  I tried to come up with something to say about Act 3 above, but the production doesn’t really seem to, and the ending lacks emotional impact.  The design has a few issues, some probably a matter of budget (Rusalka’s dreadful wig) but others just unfortunate (send those wood nymphs back to Stefan Herheim’s Lohengrin).

But there are some nice visual touches.  The Falstaffian Gamekeeper (complete with antlers), the bicycle-riding Man in the Moon, the Kitchen Boy wearing a pot on his head, and the first appearance of the fat hunters are all delights (though I couldn’t locate any of them except the fat hunters in the production photos). In the production’s darkest moment, one of the wood nymphs seemingly unknowingly picks up a stray can of gasoline and douses herself, not that we see her go up in flames. Unfortunately the much-vaunted dancing trash bags are over-used.  And both of these things contribute more to the general concept than they do to telling the story.

Musically things were solid.  Kristiane Kaiser is a really lovely Rusalka with a creamy, remarkably even soprano fit for both the dramatic and gentle parts of the role.  Sometimes she was overly studious in articulating the clumsy German translation, which came across with admirable clarity but interfered with the musical line. (You try singing “Zwar pflegst du Nixen des Nachts zu erschrecken, doch heilst du Menschenkummer schon mit Blicken” smoothly.)  She was all delicate sensitivity and lightness onstage, not much of a journey in acting terms but sympathetic.

Aleš Briscein was a stiff Prince with a pleasant tenor voice without particular lyric beauty or power, and an unfortunate tendency towards cliché tenor hand gestures.  Dubravka Musovic was an excellent Jezibaba (redundantly credited in the program as “Die Hexe Jezibaba”…. guys, “Jezibaba” just means “Die Hexe” [Witch] in Czech) with the kind of Slavic mezzo that can peel paint but you like it anyways.  Victoria Safronova was a very loud Foreign Princess with far too much vibrato to settle on any pitch, and incomprehensible German.  Mischa Schelomianski was a woolly but amiable Water Goblin.  One of the nymphs was out of service and being sung offstage by someone else, which made their trios somewhat rocky, and was probably the cause of that exceptionally bumpy start.  Henrik Nánási conducted with flowing tempos and excellent details, and the Volksoper orchestra sounded good despite some wayward brass entrances.

Kušej is the equivalent of operatic absinthe: probably inadvisable in large quantities.  Barbe and Doucet’s production is accessible, enjoyable, and reasonably creative.  This might not sound like a ringing endorsement–truth is, Kušej is also lots more interesting to write about–but sometimes you just want your operas without dissection, right?

There are many remaining performances, some with an alternate cast.

Photos copyright Dimo Dimov/Volksoper.

Continue Reading