She’s on a boat

On Tuesday I went back to my old stomping ground, the Wiener Staatsoper, a return not particularly highly anticipated by me nor, I assume, by anyone else. With the Staatsoper you roll your dice and you take your chances—even the most formidable casts can be undone here by a total lack of rehearsal. But sometimes you get lucky (and not always at the performances with all the famous people). And despite having only one shot, this time I did.  This dark, dreamy Pelléas, a “new” production by Marco Arturo Marelli, is surprisingly worth seeing.

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What a day for an auto-da-fé (Don Carlo in Vienna)

Don Carlo is a notoriously difficult opera to cast, but this new Wiener Staatsoper production looked promising on paper, including René Pape, Krassimira Stoyanova, and Simon Keenlyside. I’m rather baffled at how the result turned out to be so aggressively, mind-numblingly boring on nearly every level. Intendant Dominique Meyer’s Regieprobleme aren’t getting any better.

Verdi, Don Carlo. Wiener Staatsoper, 6/22/2012. New production directed by Daniele Abbado, “Bühnenkonzeption” by Graziano Gregori, sets by Angelo Linzalata, costumes by Carla Teti, lights by Alessandro Carletti. Conducted by Franz Welser-Most with René Pape (Philipp II), Ramón Vargas (Don Carlo), Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo), Krassimira Stoyanova) Elisabeth von Valois, Luciana D`Intino (Prinzessin Eboli), Eric Halfvarson (Il Grande Inquisitore), Valentina Nafornita (Stimme von oben)

The Staats is using the four-act Italian version, which
starts awkwardly with the Monk calling out to Carlo and then the duet with
Posa. Reminiscences appear without their antecedents, the Italian text is far
inferior to the French, and it’s a lot of development of something for which we
never had exposition.

Franz Welser-Möst
got the actual Philharmoniker to conduct (Rattle has been touring with the
second string), and you could tell from the showiness of the playing.
But while it was something, it wasn’t like any Verdi I’d ever heard before. Welser-Möst may have been proud of getting this
bunch at the Staatsoper, but he never seemed to notice the singers or the
drama. Crashing effects alternated with gratuitously picky dissection of
the orchestral fabric. The singers struggled against the volume and
inflexibility emanating from the pit, and ensembles showed a wide variety of tempo
choices simultaneously. (The choruses were generally better.) It really didn’t
“Why this awful lighting? WHY????”
None of the singers succeeded in developing any kind of
characters, which is rather remarkable considering their amount of talent. The
first problem was that Daniele Abbado’s production (yes he’s Claudio’s son) lights them almost entirely
from behind, and even then only sparsely. They could have been the best film-style actors in the world and I
wouldn’t have been able to tell, because their faces were almost never illuminated.
The rest of the production doesn’t do anything else either. A series of sliding walls (Bartlett Sher
writ large) slightly alter an empty, barn-like unit set. The setting is, for no
particular reason, the early nineteenth century, with simple costumes that for
the women resemble the ball dresses still so loved in these parts. While Abbado
has nothing to say about this piece and what it’s about, with good
Personenregie it still could have been effective drama of a sort. Alas,
everyone basically stands still. Even would-be exciting bits, like Carlo being
sucked up by the Monk at the end, were botched (moving far too slowly and well
before the gesture is indicated in the score and libretto). The gesture of
choice seemed to be, tellingly, a shrug. The only good things I’ve heard from anyone about this production is that it will be very easy to revive. Who knows, if they fix the lights maybe some later singer can bring something inspired to it. But it won’t ever be a complete drama. I would give more details but honestly most of it has flown out of my head already.
The most distinguished performance of the evening came from
René Pape as Filippo II, whose honeyed bass-baritone was at full force despite Welser-Möst’s unhelpful tempos. Still, he was much
better in the role back at the Met in 2006, which was a tired revival of an old
production but still gave him something to work with. Simon Keenlyside is a
singer I like a lot but he made very little impression here, adequate
and nothing more. He appeared to have drawn the hotness card among this cast
but I really think one should button up one’s shirt in the presence of the
King. Krassimira Stoyanova was announced as indisposed, which was a shame
because I think she could sing a fine Elisabetta. This one had some fine
moments but was short on volume at the top and only sometimes came into focus.
Her best quality onstage is a sweet simplicity, which for a queen is a little
“Flanders? Nah, I’m sending you back to the new Probebühne.”
Luciana D’Intino’s Eboli was a showcase for her fearsome
deployment of chest voice.While the lone representative of Italy among the
cast, she doesn’t do much with the language, and her presence is more queen
mother than king’s mistress (her costume was not doing her any favors). Somehow
I have left Carlo for last, which is not entirely unusual. This role is a
graveyard for lyric tenors (from what I heard Piotr Beczala was originally cast
in this production but wisely decided not to attempt it and is here singing in Lucia instead–maybe he chatted with Villazon or Filianoti). Ramón Vargas is too
smart to be done in by its demands but doesn’t exactly conquer it either. He
lacks the spinto heft at the top and his tone tends to turn pale and weak above
the passaggio. Some middle-range phrases had full tone and phrasing but like
Keenlyside he seemed to mostly struggling to be heard and stay with the
orchestra. Valentina Nafornita was a bright spot as the Voice from Above. She won Cardiff
a few years ago and certainly deserves better casting than this.
I love this opera and generally find something to enjoy
in it even in flawed performances, but this one was uniquely boring, possibly
one of the most confounding evenings I’ve had at the opera in a while. The argument seems to be we’re
the Wiener Staatsoper and hence we put on opera at a world class level. But drama needs some impetus, some reason why we’re here
seeing this thing, and most of the time last night I wished I were somewhere
else. It might be a bad way of putting it, but someone needed to provide a
photos copyright APA, because the Staatsoper site is less than forthcoming.
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A tourist’s guide to music in Vienna

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

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

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

About Tickets

Seeking a ticket…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kat’a Kabanová in the big city

The Wiener Staatsoper’s season closed last night, and I finally got to see the new production of Janáček’s Kat’a Kabanová, conducted by music director Franz Welser-Möst and directed by André Engel. First: There is a myth that the Wiener Philharmoniker is the pit orchestra at the Staatsoper under a different name, but this is almost never true. Usually at the Staatsoper you hear a mix of aspiring Philhamoniker members, dead-end would-be Philharmoniker members, and subs. How else could they play at the Staatsoper and Musikverein simultaneously? Last night, however, it actually was genuine Philharmoniker. And they had rehearsed, and hoo boy, could you tell the difference. I haven’t heard anything like this coming out of the pit all season.

The cast was a bit overshadowed, and the less said about the production, the better. But I’m going to say it. It’s not any good.

Janáček, Kat’a Kabanová (Kátja Kabanová). Wiener Staatopser, 6/30/2011. New production directed by André Engel with sets by Nicky Rieti and costumes by Chantal de La Coste [sic?]. Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Janice Watson (Kat’a), Deborah Polaski (Kabanicha), Klaus Florian Vogt (Boris), Marian Talaba (Tichon), Norbert Erst (Kudrjás), Stephanie Houtzeel (Varvara), Wolfgang Bankl (Dikoj).

Kat’a Kabanová is an adaptation of Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, and originally takes place in an isolated Russian village. Engel’s production is set in what he calls “Little Odessa” in NYC, among Russian immigrants in around 1950. You may know this neighborhood as Brighton Beach. Why is he calling it by a more obscure name? Unfortunately the whole production suggests that it is because he didn’t think this through very well. The libretto harps on the restrictions of Kat’a’s claustrophobic country life contrasted with the vague promise of the distant world of Moscow. This doesn’t mean a city setting couldn’t work; Christoph Marthaler’s Salzburg production, set in a grim Communist apartment block, is wonderful. But the immigrant experience is the exact opposite from Kat’a. Kat’a is about provinciality and isolation, while life as an immigrant is about being in the middle of a foreign world and confronting the unknown. Like her cousin Katherina Ismailova of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (also partially based on The Storm), Kat’a is suffocating, and shine of Manhattan’s skyline does not fit with that.

The set produces a large number of clean, eerily empty and dead city scenes. Seriously, if this is New York, where are the people? The score does not require the chorus to be onstage and no supernumeraries appear, resulting in desolation and an exceptionally underpopulated storm shelter in Act III. The visuals look oddly low-rent and incomplete, short on individual detail but not in a stylized way, and the whole thing lacks atmosphere and poetry. A major reason for this is the blocking, which is functional but poor, with no attention to the gestures of the music or the small details of characterization that make this kind of drama come alive. Some vaguely lesbian Varvara-Kat’a stuff seems inserted solely for The Male Gaze, and there is a spanking scene between Kabanicha and Dikoj that really should not have happened. I thought the production’s worst moment was its last, in which Kabanicha kicks Kat’a’s dead body. We know she’s evil, and to end the performance with such a cartoonish gesture, as the music practically cries for Kat’a, is just horrible. The opera is not about Kabanicha’s cruelty, and to end with her is all wrong.

However, the real stars of this performance were in the pit. It’s been a rough season for music director Franz Welser-Möst, getting off to a good start with Tannhäuser and Cardillac but satisfying no one with disastrous productions of Don Giovanni and Figaro and missing most of the Ring due to illness. But after repeatedly proclaiming his love for Janáček, he backed it up with a layered, lyrical performance that was still exciting. I’ve rarely heard such fine playing from the pit here, from every section. Despite my antipathy to the Philharmoniker on political grounds, when they put in some effort they can be super. This was a very orchestral performance that frequently overpowered the singers, but it sounded damn good.

In the title role, Janice Watson was OK but didn’t make a very strong impression. She seemed to know exactly what the music should sound like, but her voice wasn’t always backing her up. Her tone was sometimes threadbare, other times coming nicely into focus, but her top notes stayed squally throughout the “flying” scene. She was more on the dreamy and fragile than the hysteric side of things, but I lost the inner glow and yearning that Kat’a needs to transmit. Deborah Polaski was excellently cast as Kabanicha and has all the power you could wish for, but the production let her down in the acting department. Despite her ability to cast scornful looks, between the kvetching and the spanking and the corpse-kicking, it was not exactly coherent.

Klaus Florian Vogt is a really special singer, but didn’t have more than a few moments of real memorability as Boris. He’s not the type who can do a lot with a smallish role (Boris doesn’t get a big scene as such), he needs a moment where that weird and wonderful voice can shine. That voice–a light, transparent Mozart tenor gone Wagnerian in size–does seem to be a good fit for Czech repertoire, and he had more success against the orchestra than the rest of the cast. But he’s not a stage animal, and tended to be overshadowed, though I’m not entirely sure by what.

Norbert Ernst gets my vote for most reliably solid male Staatsoper ensemble member, and was a good Kudrjás, though what he was doing with that microscope and test tube at the opening escapes me. That’s another way of saying that fellow ensemble member Marian Talaba is not one of my favorites, and while he seems stylistically at home in this music his voice is always gargly and strained. At least his less-than-dashing stage figure was actually appropriate as hopeless husband Tichon. Stephanie Houzeel, who has also had an uneven season as an ensemble member, sounded OK this time around as Varvara, and knowing Vienna her legs will probably make the season retrospective picture book.

This seems like an ideal production for the Staatsoper to end on, because it demonstrated quite well what the house can do and what it can’t when it comes to new productions. The orchestra can pull out a truly remarkable performance once in a while. And the chorus is great, though they didn’t do much in this opera. But casting, while illustrious, can be not quite right (to be fair, they suffered from a late cancellation in the title role of this production), and is sometimes weighed down by iffy ensemble members who mysteriously stick around for years. And nearly every new production is a theatrical mess, no matter how traditional or untraditional you like your opera. Hopefully Dominique Meyer will be able to improve things in coming years.

That’s it for Wien, folks! On to the festivals!

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Yevgeny Onegin: Love in a cold climate

There’s a chance that this was my last rep performance at the Staatsoper this season, so it’s a shame I have to go out on a mediocre note. This revival of Falk Richter’s dire production is notable and perhaps worth seeing for Peter Mattei’s stellar assumption of the title role. But this isn’t really a star vehicle opera. I guess some people can overlook the incoherence in rest of it more easily than I can, but I didn’t find it a satisfying experience. Maija Kovalevska’s Tatiana isn’t that bad, though.

Chaikovsky, Eugen Onegin. Wiener Staatsoper, 6/11/2011. Production by Falk Richter (revival), conducted by Michael Güttler with Maija Kovalevska (Tatiana), Peter Mattei (Onegin), Marius Benciu (Lensky), Ain Anger (Gremin), Nadia Krasteva (Olga), Zoryana Kushpler (Larina), Aura Twarowska (Filipjewna).

Falk Richter’s production is a grab bag of clichés that come and go. The one constant is an awful lot of falling snow in nearly every scene. Dress is modern, set is minimal, and blocking is static. Color symbolism, imaginary characters and doublings, and really annoying acrobats are combined into a static, chilly mix that shows little interest in the story and characters, or any sensitivity to the music at all. At first, we see doubles of Tatiana with a mystery man as frozen couples in the background, and the happy peasants also seem to belong to her fantasy world, identifiably by its, um, romantic navy blue business suits. The more practical characters wear red. If anyone wants to make this red mean something obviously significant and Communist, I would first caution you that this production doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Russia at all. The blue plus red plus white snow does look like a Russian flag, though (after my Italian flag the other week). Also, he forgets about all this after Act 1.

Letter Scene

Act 2 features a truly dreadful party scene that includes awkwardly enthusiastic attempts at current dance styles by the chorus, further flips by said acrobats, and, because we’re in Austria, some people in puffy shiny dresses waltzing (Tatiana incongruously wearing diva-approved long sleeves). I kind of liked Monsieur Triquet as a faded rock star, but like everything else he doesn’t have a point. Act 3 involves lots of people in black walking up and down stairs quite slowly. I was hoping Tatiana or Onegin would rip off her bedazzled shower cap, but they didn’t. That would have made everything a little more exciting and less Norma Desmond-looking. I could go on, but I’ll try not to, because the main sin of this production is that it is not interesting. The lighting design is also far too dark at times, including a Letter Scene that while not too dark is lit entirely from the back (see above), the lack of front light means you can’t see Tatiana’s face clearly. OK, I’ll stop.

For two lead singers, both new to this production and in fact making their house debuts, the staging offered little help in terms of characterization, and while both showed good acting skills they ended up a little underdeveloped and generic. Maija Kovalevska cuts a pretty figure as Tatiana and is a good actress, within the unfortunate strictures of this production. I never warmed to her metallic, tense sound and fast vibrato, but her singing was musical and rock solid secure, and she can manage impressive power in her upper register. On the other hand, Peter Mattei is seemingly incapable of making a less than beautiful sound, with a chocolately baritone that he never forces (his voice is not large but it is well-projected). His Onegin went on a clear journey from arrogance (Act 1) to boredom (Act 2) to despondency (Act 3), but I think he was much better in this Salzburg production available on DVD.

Act 3

Michael Güttler conducted a rushed account of the prelude followed by an ensemble in which the sisters’ offstage singing had little to do with whatever the harp was playing in the pit. It got a little better. Being too tough on Güttler would be cruel since he probably didn’t get any rehearsal, but this was not good and the orchestra was not trying very hard. In the rest of the cast, Marius Brenciu was a thin-toned, underacted Lensky, though his pp account of the aria’s second strophe was nice. Ain Anger is the youngest and least crusty Gremin this side of René Pape and sang lyrically and not so giant Russian-ly but well. As Olga, Madame Larina, and Filipjewa, Nadia Krasteva, Zoryana Kushpler, and Aura Twarowska showed that the Staatsoper ensemble has a smashing group of Slavic mezzos and altos, all three of them outstanding. Somewhere there’s got to be an opera by Cui or Dargomyzhsky or somebody that has three lading mezzo/alto roles for these impressive ladies.

If you want to go hear them in Onegin, well, you can do that too. Performances remain on June 10 and 13.

Video: Peter Mattei in said Salzburg production

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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Manon: Don’t put your hand there

I probably should have known better than to go to this typical Staatsoper revival with Roberto Alagna and Norah Amsellem, but I did anyway. Allow me to advise you of its content before you let this happen to you. Andrei Serban’s production seems rather interesting, but what is onstage is more an impression of a production than a production. Musically things were plausibly French, but they were not plausibly very good.

Massenet, Manon. Wiener Staatsoper, 5/16/2011. Production by Andrei Serban (revival), conducted by Jesús López-Cobos with Norah Amsellem (Manon), Roberto Alagna (Des Grieux), Tae Joong Yang (Lescaut).

Andrei Serban’s production is set in the 1930’s Paris, with frequent references to film (hanging posters) and some surreal touches. In what could be unprecedented Staatsoper cost-cutting and time-saving, the chorus mostly sings from the pit and some of the supernumeraries are cardboard cutouts of various film celebrities, but they’re a part of Manon’s world of artifice and isolation (oh, the ever-popular “modernist alienation” card). Act 1 takes place in a train station, Act 4 takes place in a Moulin Rouge-type place with a claustrophobic mirror reflecting gambling tables, and Act 5, where the hopes of glitz promised by the movies has vanished we get a bare stage with some vaguely relevant projections of the simple truths of grass and water. (The projections during the set changes include one night scene with disconcertingly modern cars in it.)

With the right Personenregie and casting to go with this atmosphere, I could see it working pretty well, but it didn’t come together this evening. The Manon/Des Grieux scenes are intended to be intimate while the bigger ones are more stylized and choreographed, but both were messily executed. I got the impression that bits like the Act 2 guardsmen were actually originally witty, but only a few hints of this remained. (They had around four or five days of rehearsal for this, we have documented proof.) Also, it is except for the movie posters monochromatic, but apparently all Staatsoper productions are like this. Some atmospheric melodramatic old movie-style acting was still had from Roberto Alagna (who sang in the premiere of this production a few years ago), but for the most part it was generic.

The biggest problem was Norah Amsellem’s Manon. The production is designed for a Manon with a confident, modern sexuality (who could this have been? hint: she suffered a wardrobe malfunction in front of the German press earlier this week) but prim and thoroughly unglamorous Amsellem doesn’t seem the type to leave a half-full wine glass next to her bed, or to stumble around in Act 5 in a full-length beaded evening gown. She went through the motions, but something was missing; a more conventional romantic interpretation may have worked better for her. Manon is a problematic character who is pretty much going to annoy me no matter what, but this didn’t seem to be a way of solving the problem. Amsellem’s singing was stylistically strong but her thin, quavery tone is not easy on the ears, her coloratura is poor, and she held the high notes in the Cours la reine for a lot longer than I wanted her to.

Roberto Alagna gave a strongly acted performance as a convincingly youthful Des Grieux (Alagna is going to be working the “youthfully impetuous” thing straight up to retirement, I think). Sometimes he slipped into tenorial schtick, most grievously in “Ah, fuyez, douce image,” but mostly was the most engaging element of the performance. Vocally he was uneven as well, at best strong and passionate and confident. Unfortunately he lost the orchestra in several places in “Ah, fuyez,” and tried to float “En fermant les yeux” but it didn’t work very well, with a tenuous sound aspirating up to the G natural, and the final high A sung in falsetto. Both singers did best with the St.-Sulpice scene, calling for the most full-throated singing. (This is actually the first time I have seen this opera live. I’m not sure how I know the score as well as I do. Huh.)

After I gave them credit for being good just recently, the orchestra was at its worst and turned in a very sloppy and unbalanced performance. Jesús López-Cobos’s conducting lacked flexibility and rhythmic life, as well as those coordination issues. The supporting cast was OK but uninspired. Extra credit, however, for Caroline Wenborne as Javotte’s delightful little dance break at the very end of Act 3 Scene 1.

Several performances remain. Also, if you are interested in the production, much of it is on YouTube with Alagna and Netrebko (it was broadcast on TV, but is not available on DVD). Here’s a bit:

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper

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Jenůfa: Kindertotenlieder

The Bartered Bride taught us that Czech peasants are adorable. Janáček’s Jenůfa teaches us that they (or at least the Moravian variety if we want to be real precise) actually are evil. Neither of Jenůfa’s men seem like good catches, and her mother kills Jenůfa’s baby. This is not a happy opera. Like in some similar works, it is the angelic light emitted by the female protagonist and the glow of the music’s lyricism that makes it more than just an exercise in misery.

Some rough edges were still showing at Monday’s first performance at the Staatsoper this season, but the cast of Angela Denoke, Agnes Baltsa, and co. is good, the production simple and effective, and the conducting promising, so: worth seeing. Well, it’s Janáček, so of course it’s worth seeing. But that’s just my opinion.

Janáček, Jenůfa. Wiener Staatsoper, 5/9/2010. (In German.) Production by David Pountney (revival), conducted by Graeme Jenkins with Angela Denoke (Jenůfa), Agnes Baltsa (Kostelnička), Jorma Silvasti (Laca), Marian Talaba (Števa).

The biggest shock for me was when Jenůfa started singing and I could understand what she was saying. Somehow I missed that the Staatsoper performs this opera in a German translation. Janáček approved of it, but it’s still no good, in my opinion. The rhythm of the text feels entirely different from the original and much clunkier, no longer in tune with the musical line. Comprehensibility seems to come at too high a cost in this case. Luckily the new production of Kat’a Kabanová, coming in June, will be sung in Czech.

This Staatsoper run is going under the fancy name of a Wiederaufnahme, which means it got more rehearsal than a regular repertoire performance. The could be seen in the better-than-average direction of David Pountney’s straightforward production. It probably helped that three of the principals were back from the 2002 premiere as well. Musically, there were hiccups. I suspect some of the singers sounded better in 2002.

Graeme Jenkins’s conducting had some lovely poetic moments and a good general feel for the music’s pace, particularly in the start and end of the opera. This was more a lyrical reading than a folksy one. But a few sections sounded shaky or tentative, and the chorus and orchestra were separated a bit in Act 1. The end of Act 2, staged as a frozen tableau, needed more tension to convince. The orchestra, though, was on decent behavior and I suppose it will all get better later in the run.

Angela Denoke is an excellent Jenůfa. Her voice is well-controlled but not naturally beautiful (the white, straight-tone high notes in particular are an issue), but she is so wonderfully expressive that this does not seem to matter. She gives the impression of living in this music and role, her singing and acting always working as one. Her Jenůfa is never cloyingly naive, but pure goodness.

Agnes Baltsa is immensely popular here and her performance falls into the same general category as Denoke’s–more memorable as a whole theatrical experience than as a vocal one. Her Kostelnička is a formidable, and yet more sympathetic and less monstrous than many. But, and I’m in the minority here, I find her singing just too ugly. The lower half of her voice has a nasal tinge and the upper half is threadbare. I’m not sure why Denoke was so convincing to me and Baltsa ultimately was not, but that’s how it was.

The men were on the weaker side of things, with Jorma Silvasti as Laca sounding excellent and solid until he had to sing anything above the staff and then there was trouble. He is a fine actor, though. Marian Talaba, the only principal member of the cast not in the 2002 premiere, struggled through Števa with an effortful, forced tenor and self-conscious acting. In the smaller roles, Caroline Wenborne stood out as Karolka, producing what really were the most beautiful and healthy tones of the night.

David Pountney’s production is austere and generally effective. The unit set of dull gray walls is elaborated by a complex mill wheel in Act 1 (which turns with the woodblock’s ticking, whatever could that mean? better get the Subtle Symbolism Detectives on the case), lots of bags of grain in Act 2, and just a wedding feast in Act 3. It is very dreary and I missed the element of nature and the outdoors you associate with this sort of opera, but it works well enough. Personenregie was naturalistic, fairly detailed, and respectable. I am not sure, however, why the wedding guests started smashing dishes in Act 3, and it did seem to distract from Jenůfa. Costumes, like the sets, are monochromatic, except for Act 3, and show obvious but sensible characterization. The lighting design is nice, though sometimes the shifts were too quick.

Ultimately this didn’t have the cataclysmic payoff that Jenůfa can, but it’s still good. Look for it to improve over the course of the run. Standing room was deserted, so you wouldn’t even have to wait for long to get a good spot. Further performances on 12, 15, 19, 22 May.

Sorry for the crappiness of this review, I’ve been strung out on allergy medicine all week and can’t think straight. This was a singularly appropriate opera to see when part of my face was still a little puffy and weird, though.

Also, does anyone else want to see a Jenůfa set in the rural American South? Or maybe with Mormons? Creative American Opera House, make it happen.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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Parsifal unredeemed for the Viennese

Dontcha know what day it is? Perhaps Easter is a small step downwards in holiness from Good Friday, but I still didn’t expect the staid Staatsoper audience to make their Easter Parsifal into a circus of boos, incomprehensible yelling at inappropriate times, and no fewer than three cell phones in Act 1. Oh, throw in the usual clapping/aggressive shushing fiasco at the end of Act 1.

The actual performance was rather good. Ingo Metzmacher and Waltraud Meier are great news for Wagner, the orchestra was in solid form, and the cast had a few other standouts as well. Christine Mielitz’s production is a mess, but occasionally an interesting one. Too bad about the sideshow.

Wagner, Parsifal. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/24/2011. Production by Christine Mielitz (revival), conducted by Ingo Metzmacher with Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Waltraud Meier (Kundry), Franz-Josef Selig (Grunemanz), Falk Struckmann (Amfortas), Wolfgang Bankl (Klingsor), Ain Anger (Titurel).

This production was yet another of the Holender regime’s attempts at Regietheater, one of the less fortunate ones. Here, an underdeveloped dramatic idea meets iffy design and, now, poorly rehearsed revival performances. Like in her Fliegende Holländer, which was also designed by Stefan Mayer, the set contains a confusing network of moving parts that seem far more fussy than helpful.

Mielitz’s greatest interest is gender issues. Act 1 appears to take place in some kind of school or mental institution, with students in fencing uniforms doing drills and Parsifal intruding in modern street clothes. Kundry appears robed entirely in black and is harassed and threatened by the knights. Parsifal comes from outside the knight’s insulated masculine world. In the production’s smartest bit of staging, we see the climax of the Act 1 Grail ritual from his point of view. He stands outside the main proscenium, lights point out at us in the auditorium, and the circle of knights slowly rises into darkness, revealing a crowd of women and children robed like Kundry, a literal underclass in the cellar below the knights. We, like them and Parsifal, are not initiates and cannot see or understand the ritual. But the women and children still sing, forced to go along.

Klingsor is a scheming schemer whose sleek modern lair, gold lamé suit, and large video screen suggest nothing so much as a James Bond villain (or, for the less mature among us, Dr. Evil). He drugs Kundry in some way, and also has his herd of red-dressed flower maiden slaves. Mielitz seems to be poking cheap fun at the languid quality of their music when a giant disco ball descends and spins for a bit, casting light around the auditorium suggesting that we are also being seduced. Or something. The spear is a bright neon rod that looks like it’s straight out of an Achim Freyer production.

In Act 3, we see an empty stage with a few projections (did they run out of money?) and are again enlightened or implicated by the shining of blinding light into our eyes. Parsifal’s Mitleid seems to consist of bringing Kundry-acquired feminine wisdom to the knights. Kundry gets to hang out with Amfortas, and Parsifal exposes the artifice of the knight’s ceremony as the set collapses and lighting fixtures and set supports become visible. Finally, the knights are revealed weaponless, Kundry rises angelically upwards, either saved or just blowing the joint, and the golden box that was implied to be holding the Grail falls to the ground, no longer needed.

Unfortunately, despite some scattered interesting bits the production lacks an overarching narrative and dramatic focus. Where are the knights in Act 1 and what does it have to do with Klingsor’s place in Act 3? If women are wise, what is the deal with wound? This is an impossible opera, but too much is just left unexplored. It is badly cluttered with action that seems to have little to do with anything (I have left a lot out in the above summary that didn’t seem to fit in thematically), and I really wish it had just been better. Blocking and technical direction were not the most polished.

The musical performance, however, was the best Wagner I’ve heard in Vienna this season with the exception of the season-opening Tannhäuser. Ingo Metzmacher led with transparent textures, monumentality when needed, and little sense of urgency despite fairly brisk tempos (I timed: Act 1 in 1:42; Act 2 1:04, Act 3 in 1:15 for a total of 4:01, closer to Boulez’s 3:39 than Toscanini’s 4:48). Details, coordination, and pacing were excellent and balances solid, which is something considering that I heard Metzmacher got all of two rehearsals with the orchestra (more than some productions get). I could have used with a little more stillness in Act 3, but the clarity was excellent. Why he was loudly booed by about three people on his entrance at the beginnings of Act 2, 3 and at the end completely mystifies me. It was good and uncontroversial work. Is there something I’m missing here?*

The singing was a somewhat mixed lot, but on the strong side. Waltraud Meier’s intensity and dramatic precision are captivating. She is vocally still very impressive and her attention to the text never flags. Somehow her Kundry is the same driven, compulsive woman in all three acts, despite the enormous differences in the drama. No one groans at the opening of Act 3 like she does. However, I did not find this performance to be as astonishingly demented as the last time I saw her as Kundry (in New York in 2007). In Act Two she seemed to find Parsifal a relatively easy lay.

Taking musical honors was Franz-Josef Selig’s Gurnemanz, in a vocally warm and dramatically perceptive performance. Christopher Ventris was a stronger Parsifal than he was a Siegmund. If only the clear, shining power he mustered at some points had been more consistently deployed. He had an unfortunate knack for coming up short at the biggest dramatic moments (both “Nur eine Waffe taugt” and “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” started off underpowered), and didn’t quite, um, redeem himself by singing well elsewhere. Acting was OK but unremarkable. Falk Struckmann also lacks a certain amount of vocal smoothness, but Amfortas doesn’t really require that too much of that, and his anguish was suitably emphatic and vividly expressive. Wolfgang Bankl, however, sounded sung out as Klingsor.

The supporting players were an unusually uneven lot. The flower maidens were disappointingly shrill and harsh, and the nasal Mime voice of Herwig Peccoraro stuck out among the Knappen in a very bad way. The male chorus sounded fantastically good, but the children were unforgivably squeaky and the women a bit uneven.

For Noises Off! Staaatsoper rep, though, not bad. Not bad at all.

*After the applause and boos died down at the start of Act 3, there was also some indistinct yelling from the orchestra section, the only words of which I caught were “raus” (out) and “Staatsoper.” I suspect this had to do with the production, which is extraordinarily unpopular. But such hollering is both rude and unusual. There was something at the end of Act 1 as well. Really, it was a weird spectacle.

Update: Apparently the end of Act 1 it was something about the clapping rule, and at the start of Act 2 it was Nazis who are to be evicted from the Staaatsoper. I should have known that audiences are far more interested in their own reactions than seeing what was happening onstage. Congrats, Staatsoper Publikum, you just Godwined yourselves.

There were also a good number of tourists in the standing room. In Act 1, at least. Very few made it through to the end. They should put a warning label on the standing room for this one.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper

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Faust and the ukulele of Satan

Opera can be a rather silly art form, but I’m usually good at suspending disbelief. I wrote an earnest review of a Turandot about insects, you know. But I find Gounod’s sappy Faust to be difficult to take seriously in the best of circumstances. At some point a few minutes into last night’s revival of the Wiener Staatsoper’s so-called “production,” after Roberto Alagna had trundled around for a while wearing a bad Halloween old person mask, after Erwin Schrott un-Velcroed part of a curtain with a resounding pshhhhht to reveal himself in scowling demonic form, which apparently means looking like a shirtless member of Green Day circa 1993, while I was watching a distracted bass player in the orchestra dreamily sway along with the music, my companion nudged me to look at the translated titles:

[Roberto Alagna:] Give it to me now.
[Erwin Schrott:] So now you want it!

And I gave up. Musically it was fine and not too memorable, but dramatically this performance occasionally achieved a level of campiness that wasn’t the awkward and trying-too-hard kind you often get from opera, but rather rare, transcendent, La Puma ridiculousness. Excuse me, but I was unable to take any of it remotely seriously. I’m in the midst of my Easter marathon, between Dialogues des carmélites and Parsifal, cut me some slack here. I had a great time, but maybe not in the way that I was supposed to.

Gounod, Faust. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/23/2011. Production after an idea by Nicolas Joël and Stéphane Roche, conducted by Alain Altinoglu with Roberto Alagna (Faust), Erwin Schrott (Méphistophélès), Alexandra Reinprecht (Marguerite), Adrian Eröd (Valentin), Sophie Marilley (Siébel).

The Staatsoper’s Faust was in its 17th performance since its 2008 premiere. It is unquestionably a disaster. No director’s name appears on it, it is “after an idea by Nicolas Joël and Stéphane Roche.” What idea that would be escapes me. The deal was that partway through the production process original director Joël had a stroke, the set designer died, and what constituted the production went onstage anyway. This means crowds of dimly lit people dressed in gray period costumes standing still in front of a group of rotating translucent walls, a few trees, a bench and some barrels. Méphistophélès’s party is some red light. The hulking pipe organ in the church scene perhaps ate up a good deal of the budget, but to little effect. This is the kind of production where the lights compliantly brighten on the line “O nuit d’amour, ciel radieux.” If you think Gounod’s opera already has something of a problem with dramatic stature, this dinky, empty staging doesn’t help. The text is complete with the exception of no ballet.

I maintain an inexplicable affection for wobbly ham Roberto Alagna, and was happy to see his Faust. The voice is past its best, with a nasal, raw quality and a restricted dynamic range of mezzo forte and forte, not suited to the delicacy of this music. He does have a high C, though it is not that pretty nor is it piano. But he knows the style, is quite musical, and sometimes can get it together for some excellent phrases. Vocally this was good if not overpowering. He also offered a cartwheel at the end of Act I (!). Acting-wise his Faust was disappointingly generic and low-key. Alagna tends to play everything with boyish charm, which doesn’t help this production raise the stakes, particularly because he was oddly lacking in intensity. He premiered this production (with Angela!), but in this case I doubt that made a difference, rehearsal-wise. In a better production, he probably would have done more for me.

Single-handedly attempting to spice things up was Erwin Schrott’s Mephistophélès. Vocally he did nothing to disgrace himself, sounding solid, loud enough, and moderately dark but smooth of tone. I could not understand his French well. But mostly he offered theatrical entertainment as a very fey devil, prone to moonwalking and doing the Robot. The production inexplicably equips him with a bright red fan (maybe that was Joël’s idea?), which Schrott used for such highlights as feeling up Marthe’s boobs while fanning himself to the orchestra’s tremolos (though it must be added that there was a lot of one-sided Mephistophélès/Faust homoeroticism going on here as well). For serenading Margeurite, he swapped the fan out for a ukulele, strumming and cackling manically. It was a self-conscious performance, and more or less the same performance Schrott always gives, but I somehow don’t think he intended it to be quite as hilariously ridiculous as I found it. I may have set a record for suppressed inappropriate giggling during this evening.

Yes, that’s Angela in the prima, as a blonde.

I mean, anything to keep you interested in something like this, right? Alexandra Reinprecht’s Marguerite was a respectable effort with some nice piano singing, her tone wavering between shimmery and unfocussed and shrill. Adrian Eröd’s Valentin also lacked tonal allure and legato despite musical refinement. Sophie Marilley’s slightly grainy Siébel was pretty good. Alain Altinoglu’s conducting was also good, not too sweet or overly dramatic and well-paced. But honestly, despite a good amount of talent I found myself mostly there for the LOLs, of which there were an alarming quantity.

It can’t be Parsifal every night–though it is in fact Parsifal tonight for me. One performance of Faust remains, on Tuesday.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper

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Zurück vom Ring!

Valhalla will still fall in the finale of the Staatsoper’s Ring tonight (probably in a video projection), but without me. I was looking forward to some of the orchestral and vocal bits. Dramatically speaking I feel no regrets about jumping ship, or even much curiosity about how it turns out. But I am still a little curious. If you went, please share your thoughts below.

As for my absence, I am otherwise engaged. Some more on this later, though only such that can be fairly written of dress rehearsals. Did you know you can get to Salzburg, see an opera, and return to Vienna in roughly the same amount of time it takes to wait for and occupy a good standing room spot for Götterdämmerung? OK, you get home an hour or so later but you were in Salzburg (approx. 317 kilometers from Vienna).

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