Jonas Kaufmann crashes Anna Netrebko’s Bohemian party in Salzburg

I went to a
Very Special Performance of La Bohème
at the Salzburg Festival and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:

When Salzburg Festival intendant Alexander Pereira stepped onto the stage of the Großes Festspielhaus last night to announce that one of the cast members of La bohème was sick and unable to sing, he faced a chorus of hisses from the audience… Piotr Beczala had decided a mere ten minutes earlier that his vocal cords would not be up to singing Rodolfo that night. We would have to wait forty minutes for a replacement. Further hisses. Fortunately Pereira had an ace up his sleeve: the replacement would be another star, Jonas Kaufmann.

You can read the rest here. This review
has everything: Anna Netrebko. Special surprise Rodolfo Jonas Kaufmann. Me
saying nice things about the Wiener Philharmoniker. You’re not going to believe

A few more thoughts and photos below.

If you go to
as many performances as I do eventually you’ll see something crazy like this. As
I said in July when I wrote about a very different Bohème, this opera has never been one of my particular favorites.
That performance didn’t change my mind. But this one may have. The set design isn’t
great and doesn’t do much for the drama, but the Personenregie is remarkably nuanced. The characters were less idealized than usual, but for me that made them much more sympathetic, because they seemed real. As for the big cast change,
the singer/actor split is never a good thing but this staging is never static
and there would have been no way in hell to work anyone new into it on short
notice without severe damage. And I’m glad that they didn’t do that.

The scene at
this performance was incredibly glitzy. It’s a Salzburg irony: the festival
glories in the red carpets and paparazzi, yet many of the productions that draw
this crowd (before we even consider the smaller or more niche events) are far from
a Zeffirellian celebration of opulence for its own sake. (Think of the Decker Traviata. Or Frau ohne Schatten.) This was a case in point: the audience looked
far more glamorous than anyone onstage, except maybe Musetta.* (Including, however, Kaufmann, who really did
look like they had pulled him off the street, though not the same street these
Bohemians were occupying.)

And this
ridiculously last-minute slapped together substitution added a further human
touch and charm to something almost too fancy to bear.  There was widespread hissing when Pereira
announced the delay, because these are people who don’t like to wait, and then not
long after we’re all happily watching Jonas Kaufmann emerge stage left with his
shirt untucked, look slightly confused, disappear again, and return dragging a
very large chair. Getting a big-name replacement is a Salzburg sort of luxury, and the
singing was certainly of that class, but I loved how the trappings were pure
(Though if
Beczala was feeling ill all day, as Pereira said, shouldn’t they have started
scouting for a replacement Rodolfo a little earlier? Or at least given Kaufmann
a chance to be warned that with Gatti “Che gelida manina” was going to be a special preview of the Parsifal they’re doing together at the Met next year? Seriously, doing
this without rehearsal must have required nerves of steel in the first place
but when one of the weirdest conductors in the business is involved it’s even
worse. On an absolute scale there were coordination issues but under the circumstances I’m going to say it was damn good.)
This was far
from the Bohème that I expected but
it was certainly a Bohème to
remember. That’s all for me in Europe this summer, but this was an excellent finale.
*Except for
me. It had been raining buckets and while it everyone else had seemingly arrived
by helicopter, their outfits perfectly intact (not really, but as press
I got a nice seat), I had walked from the Neustadt and despite having an
umbrella resembled a drowned rat.

Curtain call:

Spot the non-Bohemian

Production photos, copyright Silvia Lelli

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Ariadne auf Naxos: Ur-iadne auf Salzburg

I went to see Ariadne auf Naxos at the Salzburg Festival and wrote about it for Bachtrack:

Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos was first performed in 1912, in a production directed by Max Reinhardt. Unlike the version usually seen today, this first Ariadne was a long-winded play-opera-ballet hybrid, incorporating a full production of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme with dances to incidental music by Strauss followed by the short opera. Less than a decade later these three men would found the Salzburg Festival, so it seems only appropriate that the festival is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Ariadne. While this convoluted production doesn’t make a good case for the piece, strong performances by Emily Magee and Elena Mosuc in the opera’s main roles and a fantastic deus ex machina by Jonas Kaufmann as Bacchus make it worthwhile.

You can read the whole thing here. You can also watch this production live on the internet tonight (August 5) at 20:15 Austrian time from Medici.

While this production was disappointing in a number of ways I’m still very glad I saw it. As you’d guess from my blog name I’ve been obsessed with this opera for ages.

Some more thoughts and photos below.
This was advertised as the 1912 version and in the opera half that is the case (the differences from the standard 1916 version are relatively minor: Zerbinetta’s aria is even more complicated, the commedia characters get some more ensemble material, and Zerbinetta returns to sing more at the end). But the play is radically changed, as I describe in the review. I was disappointed in this first and foremost because Bechtolf is no playwright and the text for the new sections is leaden and directionless, but because it is disingenuous to advertise one thing and then provide something very different.

Ariadne is an intellectual, abstract piece, and staging such a work against its grain (as Bechtolf does) requires squarely confronting the aesthetic argument that is already there (as Bechtolf does not). Ariadne is the rare opera that presents a creation myth for itself (Capriccio and Lulu being two others). That myth, that Ariadne and Unfaithful Zerbinetta have been smashed together only by happenstance, is an important factor. To supersede this myth with another one, that Ariadne is Hofmannsthal’s way of getting under Countess Ottonie’s skirt, creates less a mise-en-abyme than a mise-en-confuse.  I thought it might make more sense if Bacchus appeared as a double for Hofmannsthal, but that’s not quite right either, being ungodly. That’s the problem with these historical interpretations: taking something abstract and making it so historically specific runs the risk of reducing and constraining it.

The commedia players, given an extended role in this version, seem pointless. The drama of the opera seria Ariadne story is alienated by the interruptions by Zerbinetta as well as M. Jourdain, but the autobiographical angle on Hofmannsthal presents Ariadne as a work of Romantic-style artistic inspiration. The result is tangled. Arguably the actual 1912 Ariadne is also a diffuse work, but I see it operating in the manner of the opéra-ballets of Lully and Molière’s time, presenting a succession of delights loosely tied together. Unfortunately Bechtolf’s version is not so delightful.

One scene I left out: in the long dressing-room scene, we are presented with a succession of characters from various Hofmannsthal works–Octavian, the Marschallin, Elektra, the Kaiserin, and several characters from Jedermann (Salzburg!). Why? I’m not sure. It’s Herheim without the dramatic purpose.*

Finally, about that last scene. As a true Zerbinetta, I must admit I’ve never really understood what happens at the end of Ariadne. I mean, I know what they say happens, but how does one become a god, anyway? Is there a flash of lightning? Staging a metaphysical transformation is difficult; usually it’s park and bark wearing togas. This was, well, I don’t know what it really was, with Bacchus creeping around** and Ariadne running away and the awful shiny leopard (panther? I don’t even know) suit and the chandeliers and the wreckage of the pianos and it is tacky and bizarre in the extreme but then again so is the music and the key word here is “extreme” and it actually seemed kind of electric and convincing in a weird way? That might just because Jonas Kaufmann is awesome in this, though. I’m not sure.

Speaking of, I saw Boheme last night and Beczala was ailing and guess who sang Rodolfo from the side of the stage? More on that soon. It was fun.

Thanks to the Zwölftöner for the Kofferwort “Ur-iadne.”

*Herheim is reportedly directing Meistersinger here next year.
**Scene will have to be reblocked for any tenor who is not, um, flexible.

Photos copyright Ruth Walz.


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Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Salzburg Festival

I went to Die Frau ohne Schatten in Salzburg, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

This year’s festival brings a third complete Frau
to Salzburg, conducted by Christian Thielemann and directed by Christof
Loy. The Wiener Philharmoniker, the orchestra of the premiere, is in
the pit, and they and Thielemann were unquestionably the highlight of
this performance.

You can read the rest here. A few more comments and more pictures right ahead.

First of all, the PR made out like Christof Loy based his production off a historical event–a recording in the legendary Sofiensaal–but that recording took place in the Musikverein. Details, details.

I was excited to see a big new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, because of the music but also because it’s both a very difficult work to stage and one that presents a lot of opportunities for cool stuff. As the woman sitting behind me said, in English, “they have this fantastic production in LA, when the Empress talks about fish, there are the fish!” Well, maybe that’s not quite what I was thinking of. Actually this opera has a lot of problems, like how women’s sole purpose in life is baby-making and if they do not devote their full attentions to baby-making they are BAD.  Director Loy even points out that this should not fly today in his program book interview. I agree! But I don’t think his solution of simply declining to stage most of the opera in favor of yet another theater-in-theater setting is any kind of solution at all. He doesn’t even seem interested in the piece, and there’s nothing really to make us interested in it. I found this vaguely offensive, like he had just refused to do the job which he had been assigned.

But the music was, indeed, fantastic.

When is Herheim going to get around to directing this one? Just a suggestion, opera houses of the world.

More pictures:

Theater-in-theater business (Empress)
Don’t ask. I can’t explain. (Dyer’s Wife)
The score DID sound vaguely Elektra-like upon the axe’s first appearance.
Michaela Schuster makes the awesomest facial expressions.
There is perhaps something interesting being said in this stage image, but what it is beats me.

 Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus/Salzburg Festival

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Wiener Philharmoniker buries Mahler again

Mahler died 100 years ago yesterday. This we know, thanks to a great deal of recent hullabaloo. While alive, Mahler was fond of thinking about death, which for his fans has endowed his passing with an outsized symbolic importance. This has led to a rash of morbidity and dubious biographical interpretation of his music (did you know the Symphony No. 6 was prophetic?*). I’m not a guest at this party. Death comes to us all, Mahler the Übermensch included. It’s something tragic and personal, not a piece of performance art. Memorialize the richness of the life, don’t fetishize its end. I do enjoy hearing Mahler’s music, though, and I went to the Wiener Philharmoniker’s memorial concert at the Staatsoper (Mahler’s old haunt) last night.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been boycotting the Philharmoniker for the past few months due to their sexism and general distastefulness, but the proceeds of this concert went to earthquake relief in Japan, so I made an exception.

Based on this performance, in which Daniele Gatti conducted the Symphony No. 9, the Philharmoniker didn’t care much about this event either. If they rehearsed for this concert, it didn’t do much good. This was disastrously sloppy playing with terrible ensemble, lots of intonation problems, and more wrong notes than you could shake a Wunderhorn at. (I’m looking at you, hornist in the second movement. BLAH bum bum bum Bum Bum. And you, flutist who got lost in the development in the first movement.) The brass and woodwinds (and out of tune chimes) were the primary culprits, but even the usually invincible strings sounded scrappy.

Gatti is an eccentric conductor, and the oddness of his stretched-out climaxes, dramatic pauses, lack of contrast, and strange balances only made things worse, losing any sense of shape in the first movement. The attempt at a thrilling accelerando at the end of the third movement fell apart in missed notes and poor ensemble. The strings came into better focus in the last movement, where Gatti alternated loud and full playing with intimate sections, but the ending was rather shaky. Total running time was around 90 minutes, on the slower side but not extreme. I assure you that this was not Gatti-is-weird interpretive peculiarity but objectively poor playing. I know this is an orchestra incapable of feeling shame, but I was actually shocked that they couldn’t do a little better for the Mahler memorial concert.** Silly me.

If this concert gets good notices in the press, I may scream. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer recently, I really want to write positive reviews, but that requires good performances.

If you want to watch Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s less geographically apt but probably infinitely less embarrassing memorial concert instead (with the Adagio from the Symphony No. 10 and Das Lied von der Erde), you can do so here.

*We were told all about this at an inane pre-concert lecture by dilettante Gilbert Kaplan, along with every other of the Top 20 Mahler Clichés. “Every emotion possible appears in Mahler’s music,” you know that?

**Conspiracy theories: a) since they weren’t being paid, were they stingy with rehearsals? b) Two women in woodwinds suggest presence of some ringers (yes this is pathetic but there are no women in the wind section on the roster). c) This symphony was originally scheduled for last fall but canceled due to a conductor change, and was not given a planned rehearsal workout then.

Gustav-Mahler-Gedenkkonzert (Symphony No. 9). Wiener Philharmoniker at the Wiener Staatsoper, 5/18/2011. Daniele Gatti, conductor.

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The Philharmoniker’s Mahler 6: More cowbell

The Philharmoniker is on tour this month with Semyon Bychkov, but before they departed, the sexist bastards are allowing us in Vienna a preview of their three programs in four concerts. This represents the sum total of their performances in the city this month. This is rather typical (unles you count the Staatsoper, which you shouldn’t). Three different programs is actually generous, comparatively speaking.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, the “Tragic,” is just about as imposing as No. 9, which I heard Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic give a few weeks ago. Unfortunately I felt that this performance was also lacking something, though I can’t quite put my finger on what. Maybe these are more my usual problems navigating Mahler’s unwieldy forms than the orchestra’s. It was extraordinarily accomplished on a technical level, with faultlessly clear textures and ensemble, opulent tone, and, with the exception of some overloud brass, barely a note out of place or balance. For those of you who collect critical editions, the scherzo preceded the andante but there were only two hammer blows.

I liked the restrained opening, and Bychkov and the orchestra never resorted to excess. However, I wonder if they perhaps should have–this is Mahler, after all.  Some odd tempos and an oddly episodic feeling made the entire performance never really pay off.  There were lovely moments: beautiful chamber playing in the winds in the first movement, that otherworldly strings/percussion passage, and particularly the opening of the third movement, which had a gorgeous gentleness. But the second movement lacked a certain element of caricature, and the lengthy last movement, until the exciting coda, again felt disconnected. In 90 minutes, you’d think it would add up to something.

Also, I couldn’t see the hammer due to a column. This was very disappointing. Is the Philharmoniker still using the Ur-Mahler Hammer? I think there is a good chance they are.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov, conductor. Musikverein, 2/2011. Program: Mahler, Symphony No. 6, “Tragic.”

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Philharmoniker/Thielemann: Stuff dead white guys like

Christian Thielemann and the Wiener Philharmoniker will be playing the complete Beethoven symphonies in Paris and Berlin in the next few weeks.  Before leaving, they deigned to bring two of them (Nos. 4 and 5) to the Musikverein on Saturday (they played the lot together here last season).  It’s the orchestra’s only concert in the city this month.  It was pretty much fantastic, I can’t really complain about anything.  Oh wait, I can!  Imma gonna tell you about how perfect the Beethoven was and then try to work out some issues I have with this orchestra.

Wiener Philharmoniker; Christian Thielemann, conductor.  Musikverein, 20/11/10.  Beethoven, Symphonies No. 4 and 5.

Yesterday morning I realized I didn’t know shit about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4.  No library at hand, I looked for some program notes on the internet.  I found out that it isn’t very popular (I had maybe already figured that out) and that it was called “maidenly” by Schumann but was exonerated of these charges by a British musicologist to whom it resembled the calisthenics of a manly manly giant.  The Philharmoniker has a well-known aversion to feminine weakness, so nothing to worry about there.

As usual, the orchestra sounded magnificent, if anything even better than usual.  This program was extraordinarily polished and finely tuned.  Thielemann’s Fourth sounded to me closer to late period Beethoven than early.  A constant tension rippled just under the surface, a nervous energy and power that reminded me more of the first movement of the Ninth than anything else.  It remains a classical form, though, and the eruptions happened where you would expect them to, all perfectly paced.  The second movement, though, was marvelously delicate and seamless.  The obsessive motivic fragmentation of the scherzo again recalled the Ninth.  The last movement is the most straightforwardly Classical, and sounded such here, with a vigorous but dazzlingly bright energy.

The Fifth is a piece we all think we know, and while I’ve played it a few times I actually haven’t heard it in concert very often.  Thielemann started it so suddenly the audience hadn’t even settled down yet from his entrance.  I can understand wanting to surprise us and try to reestablish the weirdness of that incredibly familiar opening gesture, but I wish he had waited for it to be quiet, I couldn’t even hear the opening clearly.  This was a propulsive, almost light account of the score, never ponderous or heavy or even as imposing as you would expect.  Thielemann has a way of tweaking the phrasing just a little bit so something sounds entirely new, but in a way that also is natural. 

The last movement was nearly presto from the very start, and rather thrilling even if some of the fast notes in the strings got lost (volume issues, not coordination ones!).  The ending was a real shock: an exaggerated ritardando speeding up to what you think is going to be an enormous triumphant close, only to pull back at the last second to a beautifully clearly voiced chord on nothing more than mezzo-forte.  It worked stunningly well, but also stunning in the fact that it was tremendously surprising.  I’m not sure if I would always want to hear it like that, but I’m glad I did once.  It did not touch off the wild cheering a less subtle ending would have, and the applause took a little while to build.

Beethoven ends here, now for my ISSUES (you know I have issues!).  While Philharmoniker concerts are always musically special, I find the organization kind of reprehensible to an extent that I sometimes feel uncomfortable listening to them, no matter how sublime the playing. There’s the sexism,* and there’s the arch-conservative, none-too-creative programming (they programmed Mahler Nine twice this season, five months apart with two different conductors).  But that’s only part of it.

The Philharmoniker is an orchestra devoted to the preservation of its own legacy above all other things.  This leads to a conservatism full of contradictions.  Their image today is less like than the Wiener Philharmoniker of Mahler’s day than of a bunch of white men devoted to perpetuating the canon of dead white men.  (Oh yeah, odds are they’re racist too.)  They market themselves as a luxury product: scarce, old-fashioned, and exquisitely independent from the realities of everyday life.  Appropriately, they are sponsored by Rolex.

To be fair, this is from the ushering
in of the Euro in 2002.

The orchestra is one of Vienna’s foremost ambassadors to the outside world, partly because the seem to be on tour more than they are at home.  Their prestige allows them to claim themselves as representative of both the city and of classical music as a whole.  Their Vienna is the one of Schönbrunn, not of today’s city, and their classical music is patriarchal and elitist in a way that doesn’t speak to the general public under the age of 70 (except tourists).  On a practical level, most tickets are inaccessible to anyone who can’t handle standing room or the prices of scalpers (14-year wait for a subscription, anyone?).  While the orchestra is making an admirable effort in the education realm, will those children ever be able to get into their concerts when they’ve grown up?  Their website doesn’t even clearly explain how to get standing room tickets, the only kind that are easily available (I explained how here).  It is only on New Year’s–the one day that Old Vienna throws a party when everyone’s invited–that the orchestra engages with the broader public.

The orchestra argues that its greatness (they’re good, but they’re not modest) is the result of this very same conservatism.  But I think it’s a shame that an orchestra that has so much to offer so often sees itself as above sharing.

If you want to see the Beethoven symphonies with Thielemann, their performances from last season are being issued on DVD and broadcast the next few weeks on Sunday mornings on ORF2.  It’s almost audience outreach, but I think it takes a wrong turn and ends up in self-promotion, an area where this orchestra has much more experience.

Next: I am busy!  There is much work, and there are many Troyens and Adriana Lecouvreurs to listen to, in preparation (oh hi, London and Berlin!).  I might not get out next until Juliane Banse’s liederabend on Friday.

*I counted five women in the orchestra (of course all except one were sitting at the last stand of their respective sections).  That’s got to be some kind of record, and I have to cynically wonder if it also has something to do with this being a tour program.

Orchestra photos copyright Wiener Philharmoniker/Foto Terry.

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Andris Nelsons and the Philharmoniker: Old orchestra in a New World

Watching Andris Nelsons conduct is great fun.  His hands flutter wildly, he crouches, he stands on his toes.  He looks like he is having a much better time than anyone in the Wiener Philharmoniker ever seems to be.  But it’s a measure of the musical success of his Philharmoniker debut that I did not regret having gotten up early on a Sunday morning for a trombone concerto.  Much less for his absolutely spectacular Dvořák 9.

Wiener Philharmoniker 3. Soirée, Andris Nelsons, conductor; Dietmar Küblböck, trombone.  Musikverein, 24/10/10.  Mozart, Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major, K. 319; Tomasi, Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra; Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 in e minor, “From the New World.”

These 11:00 Sunday morning concerts are a common thing in Austria.  It’s a Catholic country, but I suspect there’s a lot of Kunstreligion in these parts.  Usually around this time I’m having a second cup of coffee and thinking about doing laundry, but I’m glad I dragged myself out of the house for this one. 

Andris Nelsons had already had his second cup of coffee, if not his third and his fourth as well.  The Latvian wunderkind is a disciple of the Faster is Better School of Conducting Prodigies (see also Nézet-Séguin, Yannick; Harding, Daniel), but there was a lot else going on here too.  The program began with Mozart’s Symphony K. 319.  Mozart with the Philharmoniker is inevitably a plush experience.  This is not my personal preference, but Nelsons’s light and fluid approach made it an enjoyably frothy and brilliant performance in the fast movements and a clear, delicate one in the canonic entries of the slow movement.  He seemed to want a more rustic character in the minuet than the orchestra was giving him, but in the last movement gathered speed like a 16-year old given a sportscar. 

Henri Tomasi (1901-1971) was a new name to me, he was a mid-century French composer of exceptionally tonal music.  His 1956 trombone concerto sounds like the bastard child of Gershwin and Prokofiev as raised by Poulenc.  It opens with a series of recitative-like confrontations between the trombone and orchestra, but then settles into a more relaxed and melodic groove, which it more or less stays in for the rest of the three-movement piece.  There’s a lot of jazzy stuff, there’s some twinkly and mechanical-sounding wind writing, there are passages that sound like trombone outtakes from An American in Paris.  Nelsons conducted it with as much rhythmic verve as he could locate.  It’s an enjoyable piece and Dietmar Küblböck played it with mellow command, but I don’t feel inspired to locate the rest of the Tomasi oeuvre.

The highlight of the program was the ever-popular Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” of Antonin Dvořák.  Nelsons conducted it with Brahmsian attention to rhythmic detail and texture, bringing out unexpected inner voices and harmonies that are usually lost behind the big tunes.  Except for the trio of the Scherzo, nothing sounded folksy at all.  As an orchestral musician I have been around the Dvořák 9 block and heard things I have never heard before: the first movement development emerged as a developing variation between strings and brass, a trilling string accompaniment figure in the second movement foreshadowed the birds near the end of the movement.  The last movement was, yes, very fast, but also Nelsons finally seemed to get a sharp-edged violence from the orchestra that never turned heavy.  Great all around.

Nelsons and the Philharmoniker repeat this program in the Musikverein on Tuesday and on tour in Japan next week.  I, on the other hand, will be in Bavaria on Tuesday to see Rusalka and can only hope that soprano Kristine Opolais proves as adept a Dvořák interpreter as her boyfriend is.

Photos: Royal Academy of Music/Telegraph.  As you probably guessed from the empty seats and lady violinist in the first row, that photo is not of the Philharmoniker.

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Things that are golden: The Philharmoniker, and more Cardillac

This week I’m the hostess with the Möstest.  I’m just back from Franz Welser-Möst’s Philharmoniker Wagner and Bruckner Philharmoniker short-notice job (standing in for an ill Esa-Pekka Salonen) at the Musikverein.  Full program information here.  Technically superlative, of course, but this lightweight and sometimes fussy Prelude and Liebestod had nothing on Haitink last week, though this was only the bread of the Tristan sandwich.  I strongly dislike Bruckner, and if I hadn’t already bought a ticket to this gig back when it was a Salonen/Mahler concert, I would never have gone to hear his Symphony No. 9, which sounds to me like an endless chain of foursquare antecedent-consequent phrases connected by melodic sequences.*  With some loud patches.  Albeit exquisitely played!  I could write bitchy Bruckner quips all night (all the symphonic ingredients are there, but the chef’s on break), but I’d rather provide a public service.

I’m not talking about sneaking into the Musikverein organ loft and unfurling a giant banner reading “AREN’T THESE SEXIST BASTARDS GREAT?” over the orchestra at the end of the next Philharmoniker concert.  Though I would dearly love to do that as well.

No, I mean here is a roundup of the reviews from Maestro Welser-Möst’s other gig this week, the Cardillac prima at the Wiener Staatsoper.  There are a lot of them.  Most of them are more enthusiastic than my generally positive take (apparently it’s Welser-Möst Conducts Music I Don’t Like Week), but I also get the feeling that everyone really wanted this to be a success, especially the locals.  Voila.  All except the last one are in German.

I’m glad that my remaining events of the week–that would be the Jonasabend at the Konzerthaus, Tolomeo at the Theater an der Wien, and possibly Elisir d’amore with the JDF–all involve music I actually like.

*I know this could describe a lot of music, but you’re not supposed to notice it.

Photo: Die Welt Online

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Ariadne auf Naxos at the Theater an der Wien: Art isn’t easy

The bar has been raised for the richest man in Vienna: one must now have a space shuttle.  The rich (though not unseen) patron of Harry Kupfer’s new Theater an der Wien production of Ariadne auf Naxos holds his party in his private hangar.  He is not a man of taste or of restraint, and none of his guests have much interest in anything Ariadne is selling.  And Kupfer doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith in the transcendent power of art in modern times, either. This production had cool visuals, an amazingly sung Bacchus from Johan Botha, and an excellently staged Prologue, but for me it never really took off.  Maybe I’m just not cynical enough.

Strauss-Hofmannsthal, Ariadne auf Naxos.  Theater an der Wien, 14/10/10.  New production by Harry Kupfer, sets by Hans Schavernoch, costumes by Yan Tax lights by Hans Toelstede.  ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien conducted by Bertrand de Billy with Anne Schwanewilms (Ariadne), Mari Eriksmoen (Zerbinetta), Heidi Brunner (Komponist), Johan Botha (Bacchus), Nikolay Borchev (Harlekin), Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Musiklehrer)

This production sure is colorful.  Literally.  The female party guests get bright red and the commedia dell’arte characters look like they’ve been assaulted by someone wielding a confetti gun.  And the Glitter Fairy threw up on them, too.  The set isn’t large but its industrial look isn’t quite minimal or monochromatic either, and sometimes we have video projections too.  It looks awesome, but it’s very, very busy.  The tasteless desert island set is a small roped-off square in the middle of the hangar space, filled with broken-off statue bits of wings, I assume representing Ariadne’s condition but also the opera seria’s antiquated, museum-like place in a world of space shuttles and clutter.

The Prologue is really excellent.  It’s bustling without being too crowded or unfocused, it moves quickly all over the stage and establishes all the characters very quickly, including a Tenor with an affection for Zerbinetta.  Everything is modern, more or less, though the party guests do sport tall Baroque wigs.  The Composer’s black and white suit stands out among all the color, in the opera Ariadne and Bacchus will also wear black and white.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what this symbolizes.

The Opera features a lot of milling-about by the supernumerary party guests, who are considerably more interested in Zerbinetta than Ariadne.  Occasionally TVs showing stock reports appear.  Ariadne languishes on her broken wings almost unnoticed, her isolation becoming the abandoned state of high art in modern culture.  Bacchus, wearing a tux and waving a hanky, is the commodified form of culture for the masses, giving us effortless tenorial thrills and similarly uninterested in Ariadne–he ends up with Zerbinetta.  Ariadne, confusingly, ends up with Harlekin, joining the modern world at last.  I guess?

You can’t deny that Kupfer has a point of view, but I’m too much of an idealist, and I like Strauss’s music too much, to go along with it.  In this production, high culture doesn’t seem to be something worth saving.  While I can understand putting Ariadne in the background as an interpretive decision, it and the confusing finale undermine too much of the music without making a good point in return.  The party guests don’t give Ariadne a chance, but Kupfer doesn’t give her one either.  It’s easy to show superficial rich people ignoring culture, but what’s the point?  The guests appreciate Zerbinetta and company, of course, but the troupe’s antics are too sweet and harmless to have any kind of satiric bite in this context.

Musically, this was yet another production to show that the Theater an der Wien can for the most part stand up to the Staatsoper in quality–often by hiring many of the same people.  The ORF orchestra conducted by Bertrand de Billy got off to an uneven start but filled the theater in the Opera without ever being too loud (this theater is perfect for this opera in size, I believe Strauss actually pointed this out himself at one point).  Ensembles were excellent.  Anne Schwanewilms brought understated simplicity and sensitive lyric singing to Ariadne, but she, perhaps due to this production, lacked presence and her tone often turned harsh and metallic (though her volume was fine). 

Mari Eriksmoen was plucked out of obscurity to replace post-partum Diana Damrau as Zerbinetta.  She gave a competent account of the role with confidence, stamina, good diction, and good intonation, but the voice itself is small and colorless, and she didn’t even try the trill on the high D.  She does have great stage presence, though, and her modern, no-nonsense Zerbinetta never lapsed into cutesy.  I suspect the enormous applause at the end had something to do with the general Viennese fondness for women who are young and skinny, though.

Johan Botha was unquestionably the musical highlight of the evening with an effortlessly sung Bacchus with his usual clear, light but incredibly powerful tone.  He sounds like he could sing this in his sleep, and I can’t imagine anyone sounding better  in this role today.  He was a good sport embodying the multitude of tenor clichés handed to him by Kupfer–yes, including that hanky–but still, the guy can’t really act.  Interesting work-around, I suppose.

Heidi Brunner had a few excellent moments as the Komponist, singing some lovely rich high notes, but also some rough patches between registers and sloppy phrasing.  Jochem Schmeckenbecher was again (I saw him at the Met in February) a good if blustery Musiklehrer and Nikolay Borchev made a positive if fleeting impression as Harlekin.  The Nymphs et al. were all perfectly adequate.

I do like Zerbinetta’s yellow and green striped tights, though.  If you tell me where I can get some of those I would wear the heck out of them in all sorts of inappropriate contexts.  Proof that I really did choose the right blog name here, I guess.

I think I’m alone in not liking this one too much.  If you would like to read a more ecstatic review you can start with the two major Viennese newspapers, Der Standard and Die Presse.  There are three more performances, on October 17, 20, and 22.  It is not sold out and the standing room line was remarkably low key.

Photos copyright Werner Kmetitsch/Theater an der Wien
Next: Mass in B minor at the Musikverein with Harnoncourt tonight.

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Ich kann nicht sitzen: Standing Room at the Musikverein and Philharmoniker

Vienna’s Musikverein is famous for its golden-ness, its acoustics, and one of its home orchestras, the sexist bastards known as the Wiener Philharmoniker.  Indeed, the place sure is shiny and sounds pretty.  The Wiener Symphoniker, ORF RSO Wien, Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, and lots of touring orchestras play there too, as well as many recitalists and chamber music groups.

The Musikverein, located just south of the Ring off Karlsplatz, is an unmissable stop on the tourist trail, but is hardly a model of institutional innovation.  Individual programs can be good, but tend towards the conservative.  The season as a whole lacks variety (something we will look at more shortly in my Duplicate Programming Watch), there are few reduced-price ticket programs, and their website is a bit on the primitive side (though it nicely identifies the encores performed at past concerts).  However, if you’re in Vienna and haven’t seen and heard it, you really have to go.

Their standing room isn’t the best and sometimes resembles a contact sport, but it gets the job done, after a fashion.  Also, if you were thinking of going to the New Year’s Concert, you should probably forget about it.  I can’t help you with that, anyways.

1. Basics
The Musikverein has two main spaces: the Großer Saal (big hall) and Brahms-Saal (a recital hall).  The Brahms-Saal doesn’t have standing room, but you can get restricted-view seats for around 5 Euros.  The Großer Saal is where you will hear orchestras and a few bigger-deal recitals and chamber groups.  Both are rectangular “shoebox” theaters with one balcony; the standing room in the Großer Saal is located in the back of the ground level, under the balcony.

Tickets are bought in advance on the Musikverein website or at the ticket office, located on the north side of the building (look for signs for the Konzertkassa).  They go on sale at the same time seats do (two months minus one week before the concert) and cost 6 Euros.  You can buy as many as you want.  They are usually easy to get even the day of the concert with the exception of Wiener Philharmoniker concerts, which often sell out.

2. Wiener Philharmoniker standing room tickets
Standing tickets for many Philharmoniker concerts at the Musikverein are sold by the Philharmoniker directly.  You can see the orchestra’s schedule here.  The tickets for concerts in the first two categories, “Abonnementkonzerte” and “Soiréen”, are sold at the Philharmoniker’s ticket office according to their (totally different) policies.  The Philharmoniker’s office is a five-minute walk north from the Musikverein on the Ring (Kärtnerring, just counter-clockwise from the Oper, the “outer” side).  They sell the standing tickets for each Abonnementkonzert and Soirée starting the Monday morning before the concert, in person only.  You can try later in the week too but don’t count on anything.

The Musikverein’s printed program says “ausverkauft” for all the Abonnementkonzerte and Soiréen, but that doesn’t mean the standing room is sold out, just that the seats are.  Which they always are.  (What’s the difference between an Abonnementkonzert and a Soirée?  Unless you are a subscriber or aspire to become one [good luck with that], the only difference is Soiréen are always on weekdays, Abonnementkonzerte on weekends.)

Tickets for the Philharmoniker concerts listed under “Zusätzliche Konzerte” are available at the box office of whatever venue or organization is producing the concert following that presenter’s policies–the Musikverein, the Konzerthaus, etc.  For example, the October 19 Philharmoniker concert with Mahler 6 is already on sale at the Musikverein box office, but standing tickets for the previous weekend’s Bruckner Abonnementkonzert won’t be on sale until Monday, October 11 at the Philharmoniker box office.

Don’t ask me why it’s like this, I’m guessing it has something to do with a contract signed in approximately 1893.  Things don’t change very fast here–just look at these groups’ websites.

3. The evening of the concert
Once you have your ticket, no matter where you bought it, show up an hour or so before the concert and get in line for the hall to open.  If it’s a big concert and you want to be able to see anything at all, show up earlier.  If you don’t care if you can see, show up whenever.  Check your coat and large bags downstairs beforehand, you can’t bring them into the hall.  There are two lines, one for house left and one right.  When it’s time to claim spots the ushers let everyone in and there is a rapid free-for-all into the big open space that constitutes standing room.  The first row of spots disappear in the blink of an eye, go as fast as you possibly can.  The people in the front can lean on the bar marking off the space and see stuff, as long as they aren’t behind a pillar (which always happens to me).  Everyone else is just standing in the big open area, craning their necks.  The big disadvantage is that you don’t have anything to lean on unless you are in the front.  It’s pretty uncomfortable.

If an usher appears in standing room 10-15 minutes before the performance, run towards him or her as fast as you can, because he or she might have free extra tickets and will give you a seat.  It only happens occasionally, though.

Not the best way to experience a concert, if you ask me, but seats at the Musikverein can be pricey and hard to get.  The Staatsoper standing room is an excruciating process for a big reward, this is an easy process for a less awesome prize.  But it works.

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