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Why an opera about the French Revolution, Dantons Tod, premiered in post-war 1947 Salzburg? Gottfried von Einem’s opera is based on the play by George Büchner, about, the gullibility of the people, how power corrupts, and “what it is in people that lies, murders, and steals.” (Thus it’s an epitaph to national socialism.)
The ‘French Revolution’ was the mother of revolutions, at least in modern times. The opera deals with the phase around 1794. Danton and his friends were defeated by Robespierre’s party, submitted to a show trial and executed: the victims of a new Reign of Terror (La Grande Terreur.)
But this is no mere text-book history. Perhaps only opera can bring to life, on stage, the epic nature of events. Not just the colourful spectacle, the dangerous masses, but through music (von Einem’s) and text (Boris Blacher)- describe the human drama in the the power struggles between the main characters, Danton (Tomasz Konieczny), and Robespierre (Thomas Ebenstein.) More than speech, or soliloquies, operatic arias, and ensembles- especially emphasising the chorus- elevate the drama to a higher, sublime level.
The opera runs for barely 1 hour 45 minutes, without interval, but there’s as much going on as in 3 hours, 4 Acts. Von Einem’s music isn’t ‘serial’, but accessible, richly descriptive, using a fascinatingly varied instrumental palette, ‘diverse rhythms and forms’. (Vienna State Opera Orchestras and Chorus exemplary under Michael Boder.)
The stage set (Josef Köpplinger) is monumental, “a unit set like as cube”. More like a film set, and if you’re sitting in a side box, you only get a limited perspective.
The opening scene is one of desolation, a war zone, with a still-burning raft. The action is on multiple levels: the beautiful lady dealing cards (Ildikó Raimondi); Danton, Konieczny, swashbuckling white shirt, breeches, black boots, lustfully pursuing his woman across the stage; and there’s a couple apparently copulating. (These are revolutionary times, also for sexual morality.)
On the lower stage, Robespierre (Ebenstein), black-suit, ruffed white shirt, slicked hair, ‘ the lean and hungry look.’ Like Cassius in (Shakespeare’s) Julius Caesar, a power broker. The revolution is at the stage of reorganisation, he sings: the form of government is like a gown to fit the people. We want melodic songs, to sing the praises of our ideal society, our virtuous republic.
Danton is Robespierre’s opposite, physically and temperamentally. Konieczny, rugged, well-built, corpulent, is known as a bon vivant. His baritone earthy- the pragmatist, a little cynical – to Robespierre (Ebenstein’s refined tenor), rarefied, effete, the pure idealist. “Who’s going to make all these wonderful things happen? ” The road is a long one, so why, Danton asks, did he start the struggle? Danton’s is a realistic, if cynical view of the people: the Statue of Liberty is not yet cast, he sings.
As if to make the point, the next tableau, is a raucous crowd scene. A gross, fat man is bullying a mother (Lydia Rathkolb), her daughter presumed accused of prostitution. He knocks her to the ground; in the disorder, brutality prevails. An elegantly dressed gentleman pleads with the crowd; ‘there are no gentlemen here.’
Ebenstein arrives in his smart black suit. What’s happening, citizens? They heckle him; we don’t want any law. He retorts, You murder yourselves in your wrath. People do your duty! Come over with me to the Jacobins, he tries to muster support.
Danton ridicules Robespierre for his affected virtue. Robespierre you are outrageously self-righteous! Are you heaven’s policeman? – Danton, do you deny both virtue and vice? How dare you disparage me in such a manner!

How much longer will he hesitate? Robespierre is goaded into following the extremist Saint-Just (Peter Kellner) who urges him to arrest Danton and his allies. Camille Desmoulins (Benjamin Bruns) has his hand on Robespierre’s shoulder, and strokes his hair. Robespierre, without his friends, is left desolate and alone.
We see Desmoulins, then Danton, decadently slouched on a chaise-longue. They comment on Saint-Just’s crude, lack of spirituality, like the painter David’s victims of the revolution. They joke that if Camille dies, (Bruns has long blonde hair), they’d cut off his hair and make wigs.
Lucile has so far kept silent. Olga Bezsmertna sings introspectively in a beautiful aria, as if powerless: they are evil, these times, how can we escape them? Daring, what do they know of daring; they can’t stop.
Act 2, Danton and his friends are imprisoned. The crowd are lined up front of stage; but they can’t rely on help from their supporters. (Official opinion is turning against them.) There’s an air of melancholy and resignation. The people question Danton’s luxurious lifestyle, his taste for expensive wines. ‘He was as you or I: how did he get rich? Down with Danton! some of them sing.
Konieczny plays Danton with a rough-edged bluntness, but now there’s a note of cynical despair. Konieczny’s magnificent bass/baritone registers every emotional shift. Dying is a miserable business, he sings, while Camille desperately ‘wants to steal a glance of life.’ Danton, in his aria, asks ‘when will the clocks stop.’ He would have liked to die like a star falling. Danton comforts the slumbering Camille, curled up under the table, between sleeping and waking.
We see the crowds peering through the wooden salts each side of the stage: key players in the revolutionary game. Other prisoners are crying out, they want to murder us. Who will free us? – Once heroes to the crowd, they’re now on the wrong side of the barricades.

An elegant table with Bourbon period chairs in the foreground. Behind a scaffold Danton addresses the revolutionary tribunal. At first, Danton, renowned for his rhetoric, is able to skilfully fend off his opponents. You know my name? My name is the Danton of history. And, he retorts, your State will answer to posterity for this slander. It was he who declared war on the monarchy. (Long live Danton!) The Jacobins are wearing claret-coloured velvet hats. Danton accuses Robespierre, Saint-Just, and the Committee of Public Safety, of high treason. They, however, accuse Danton’s and Camille’s wives of trying to bribe the Tribunal. And this Court, backed by military force, is meting out justice? Then, to the crowds, ‘ you are thirsty for the blood of the guillotine.’ The stage is bathed in blood-red light, matching the red carpet bordering the tribunal’s table. The crowd are working themselves into hysteria. The prisoners are hustled before the people, ( the dangerous masses Büchner referred to.) His head will buy us all bread; (Hérault) de Séchelles, your pretty hair will make nice wigs. It’s great that executions are being made so public!
Two executioners emerge from the guillotine, their faces blood-smeared. Their days’s work is done, singing ‘When I go home the moon shines so beautifully.’ It sounds like a Viennese lieder, “perhaps the most beautiful melody in the opera.” But enigmatic. Einem intended to show executioners- even in a concentration camp?- were capable of human affection. (Yet they were ‘henchmen of death’; a thin line between crime and humanity.)
As an epilogue, Desmoulin’s wife Lucile sings of the Grim Reaper. Bezsmertna comes in, as if losing her mind. In the old German song, ‘There is a reaper, his name is death…’ And proclaims fatefully, condemning herself to death, Long live the King!
Unforgettable, exhausting, as powerful an experience as you can imagine in opera, all over too quickly. Vienna’s appreciative audience- some who’d seen the revival in 2018, Von Einem’s 100th- had come back for more. The House was full, the ovations tumultuous. © P.R. 22.05.2019
Photos: Tomasz Konieczny (Georg Danton); Michael Laurenz (Hérault de Séchelles) Ildikó Raimondi (Lady); Thomas Ebenstein (Robespierre); Benjamin Bruns (Camille Desmoulins), Thomasz Konieczny (Danton), Michael Laurenz
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

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Not only is this the 1000th Der Rosenkavalier at Vienna State Opera, but it’s the 381st using Otto Schenk’s classic staging. The sets are so lavish that no opera house could now afford them. They recreate that timeless, long-gone world of fading aristocracy – fin-de-siecle – before WW1, (the opera premiered 1911). It’s Richard Strauss’s most viennese (wienerisch) opera – his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstal was effectively Viennese – because it’s largely set in Vienna, hence the Faninal’s ‘town house’, a veritable palace. You see ‘marble’ walls with rococo ornamentation in gold-effect; crystal chandeliers; authentic-looking 18th period furniture; much more if you’re facing the stage. The ceiling in Titian blue resembles a renaissance painting.
In the opening scene, the Marschallin’s bedroom is more like a state room; left-stage tortoise-shell lacquered walls, lavish drapes; and the four-poster bed hung with chintzy curtains; out of which the Marschallin’s (Adrianne Pieczonka) head peers. Octavian is standing, Stephanie Houtzeel’s short, platinum hair, remarkably masculine. Houtseel an experienced Octavian here, regularly cast ‘trouser’ roles. It’s the same coupling as in 2013, when I was intrigued by the cross-dressing implications – speculating on whether the relationship could be lesbian. (I still wonder.)
‘But when your looks fade where will you be then?’, he asks. At first, like a wilting screen goddess- I always think of Geraldine Page in Tennessee William’s ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’- she’s dazzled by the daylight. What day is it: I don’t want the day! The theme is time, finite beauty: she’s getting old and he is very young.
Jede Dinge hat seine Zeit. Everything has its time, and hers is running out. Symbolically, she notices his sword: ‘he left his sword in a lady’s bedroom! ‘Pieczonca, who’s made this role her own, truly inhabits the part: her luscious, rich, dark-chocolate tone, sensual and powerful; the ideal Straussian soprano. But also poignantly moving -unbearably so. ‘I feel the fragility deep in myself’, she sings.
Their morning-after sex is interrupted by the unexpected visit of the Baron Ochs. So Octavian has to hide in the closet- echoes of the Marriage of Figaro, the I8th century Age of Enlightenment, Strauss may have had in mind- and reappears as the servant ‘Mariandel’ This brightens the melancholy, but also ‘Mariandel’ reappears in the denouement to trap the philandering Ochs in a Viennese inn.
Ochs is a bon vivant, but also a serial womaniser and abuser, as we would say now. In Hofmannsthal’s plot he’s come to announce his engagement to ‘sweet’ Sophie (von Faninal), a titled family he schemes to marry into. Ochs is a figure of fun, but the villain of the piece.
Peter Rose has sung Ochs internationally and reenacts the role as his own. I’d previously thought his impressive bass too smooth for this crude character. But Rose appears fatter (the garish costumes maybe), and his manner more leering, his lust and rapacious appetites barely contained beneath the smooth social manners. So these central episodes – intentionally comic, that I’d once found a little dull- really come to life. He can’t keep his hands off ‘Mirandel’, and pinches her bottom. ‘Once I see something I like I must have it,‘ is his motto.
In the complex plot, Ochs wants Octavian, Sophie’s cousin, to give her away: present her with the ceremonial rose. What I’d not noticed was the ‘horse-trading’ between Ochs and Lord Faninal over Sophie’s dowry, which Ochs is trying to get out of paying. Flavinal (Marcus Eiche) is quite furious, aware who has the upper hand.
Act 2 and the Rosenkavalier presentation. Sophie (sweet-voiced, lyrical soprano Chen Reiss)- elegant, slim- is perfect for this youthful role. Sophie, poor wench, is all excited: not knowing what a brute she’s to expect. She’s being bartered ; she’s high-born, he’s buying into title.
Prince Octavian presents the silver rose: its scent like ‘heavenly roses’. She’s under a spell, cast by her Prince Charming. They make eye contact, she’s captivated, confused; love struck. (‘Quinquin’, she calls him, how friends and ‘beautiful ladies’ use to address him.) They are cousins; but she confides, she needs a husband to look after her. She sings to him, never has a young man delighted her so much. (I have to admit the ceremony was something I’d previously found difficult to understand, off-putting; but, beneath the surface glitter, the pageant is dramatically crucial.)

The (Act 2) meeting between Sophie and Ochs is inevitably a disaster. The lecherous Ochs eyes her up like a piece of meat. She’s ‘shoulders like a chicken.’ He’s moving too fast and she’s not going there; she’s never been spoken to before like this. Rose’s Ochs is creepier, more menacing – his tight flashy waistcoat accentuating his belly, toad-like.
We hear that the Lerchenau mob (Ochs’ retinue) are drunk and going at the servants ‘ten times worse than the Turks and Croatians’. (No offence, this was composed in 1911). Anyway, Sophie in real danger, is rescued just in time by her Prince, who challenges Ochs , and pricks him with his sword. Ochs overreacts, in the farce, Rose as his if life were threatened. (Servants in the upper gallery are having a good laugh.) So that Faninal- Such a scandal in his town house! – bans Octavian. Faninal, confirming the patriarchal contract, insists his daughter will marry Ochs anyway. Meanwhile Rose exploits the situation: spread out on a chaise-longue, ‘Here I lie: incredible what can happen to a man in Vienna!‘
But Sophie commits herself to be her own woman, and determines with Octavian on revenge. Ochs receives a letter from the servant ‘MariendaL’, and Ochs arranges a rendezvous. ‘Nothing makes him feel young like overcoming stubbornness’; (or rape by another name.)
The Act 3 scam is set in a traditional Viennese inn- authentically gothic, with waiters and ‘dieners’- but the hospitality rooms have been rigged. The farce to expose Ochs is brilliantly paced. Ogling his prey, Houtzeel’s countrified innocent- Ochs makes his intentions clear: a Gentleman (Cavalier) leaves his manners at the door. Maybe Houtzeel’s gullibility is just a little too exaggerated. Broken promises, and you a bridegroom! The upshot is that Ochs is ambushed by ‘ex-mistresses’, and the stage filled with allegedly illegitimate children. In the pandemonium, the police are called.
The Marchallin arrives, Pieczonka magisterial in a burgundy cloak and matching hat. Ochs must do the honourable thing and leave. Her ‘Do you not understand when an affair is finished? Quite done with’ has a ring of irony. To the Baron’s favourite waltz- Der Rosenkavalier– the massed crowd see the lecher out.
Es war nicht mehr als ein Farce, she sings to Oktavian, who is still dependent, a false loyalty, on the older woman. Go to her and do what your heart tells you! The Marschallin sings (to us), ‘Did I not vow to bear it all calmly.’ In this painfully moving, magnificent scene- the high point of the opera- the three protagonists in this love triangle are all singing, expressing their innermost thoughts.
You have come to love him so quickly, she addresses Sophie. Sophie- Reiss self-effacing, unnerved- ‘Mind me, weak thing, that I may fall.’
The Marschallin, to herself, Ich weiss gar nicht, I understand nothing at all. She’s in shock: ‘I vowed to love him in the right way, so that I would love even his love for another.’ Pieczonca has moved to another part of the stage, her powerful soprano soaring above Strauss’s waves of orchestral emotion. ‘The boy stands there, and I stand here, and he would be happy with that strange girl’. And, quizzically, that’s how young people are.
Adam Fischer conducted this 1000th performance, as he has regularly conducted Der Rosenkavalier at Vienna State Opera. Masterfully, in command of Strauss’s highly complex orchestral score -high romanticism, seductively melodic, still surprisingly ‘modern’ after the radical Salome and Elektra. © P.R. 21.03.2019
Photos: Adrianne Pieczonka (Feldmarchallin); Peter Rose (Baron Ochs of Lerchenau); Stephanie Houtzeel (Oktavian), Chen Reiss (Sophie); Adrianne Pieczonca (Marchallin)
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

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At Theater an der Wien, the Overture (Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Oksana Lyniv) introduces us to Joan (Lena Belkina)- hooded- in a high tech, steel kitchen, all mod-cons. Her father, the distinguished bass Willard White, is having sex with, assumedly, her mother, over a kitchen table. Belkina’s Joan looks on in disgust- in her hoodie, a long, grey, boucle-knitted cardigan. There’s a row and a fight. She’s the moody teenager; you half expect her to bring out her phone. (That would stream her angst off.) But Belkina’s mezzo is powerful, that of a mature woman, her moving performance a tour-de force. Willard, in a check shirt-jacket, black polo,is reading a paper, (Le Monde), disturbed by the world situation (war with England, France’s defeats, their weak King, and his successor?) He wants Joan married off to Raimond (Raymond Very) for her protection. The meeting doesn’t work out, Joan has another agenda. Very, as the straight, besuited, businessman – to her, middle-aged – isn’t her type. (He does, however, have a gorgeous tenor.)
In a choreographed ballet sequence, young girls in pretty white dresses are being groomed by handsome young men in black suits, like young executives. The implications are gross- historically (15th century), girls were married off from twelve years old.
In one of many controversial scenes- a dream sequence- she is lying on her bed, her room like a Tracy Ermin installation, decked out with posters of female icons: a Warhol poster of Marilyn Monroe, one of Patti Smith, Women’s Rights slogans everywhere. It’s as if Director Lotte De Beer is determined to cast Joan as a feminist emblem, even if it confuses the historical narrative.
Joan, cut loose, escaping with her ruckscack, is seen observing a religious order wearing ‘medieval’ smocks, like in an historical tableau. She stands apart- alien- as if from another world. But then her psychic disorder -or religious calling – positions her as the outsider. Belkina sits around moping.
Then Belkina, now in white – a night gown, or oversized man’s shirt- visits the court of French King Charles (Dmitry Golovnin). Though under existential pressure, he’s entertaining his beloved mistress Agnes (Simone Mihai). Neglecting his state duties, he’s unmoved by the mortally wounded soldier dragged in; or by the resignation of his chief Dunois (Daniel Schmutzgard’s impressive tenor.)
Then the Archbishop (Martin Winkler) tells him about the defeat of the English, the French victory, and the glorious maiden who inspired the soldiers. Belkina as Joan stands off stage, observing all from a distance, as if she’s dropped in from a time machine. Nevertheless, the set for Charles’ court is elegantly designed, albeit minimalist, and the costumes in burgundy splendid: even the oak tree is bathed in pink.
In the plot, Joan enters, telling the holy Patriarch about her visions that inspired her to lead the fight. On the King’s orders, she is put in charge of the army. Where are your parents, and where do you come from, they sing. Her father enters, White sceptical of his daughter’s powers, while the people’s chorus – Arnold Schoenberg Choir on marvelous form – sing inspired by her calling.
Act 3 (after the interval) opens with a sensation: an aerial battle. Joan and an ‘English’ soldier (the outstanding Icelandic baritone Kristjan Johannesson.) Swords raised, they’re in fierce combat, floating on wires suspended over the stage. Then they fight it out down to earth, Joan against the knight. She strikes him down, knocks his helmet off. Very realistic swordplay. Her sword raised, she’s poised to kill him, but cannot. He, Lionel, isn’t English, (he explains), but a Burgundian soldier who’s lost his land. They eye each other up. She sings, shocked by the passion aroused in her. No one is safe, why should she save him? Belkina seems to stagger, her faith is broken, (a condition of her calling that she sacrifice earthly pleasures and remain chaste.)
She’s made herself a bed on top of a stack of furniture (rather like her room.) He, (Johannesson), clambers up; t-shirt (burgundy), no armour, but amor. With you, oh God! Why has she given up the fight, got involved. Belkina and Johanesson are ideally cast, their duets outstanding, probably the high point. He fondles her thighs. (We think of Tchaikovsky’s own forbidden love: his homosexuality suppressed by his religious faith.)
Then we notice the white shirt soiled, the red mark. Alarm! Lost virginity; chastity, a commodity traded in patriarchy, tarnished . Blood-splattered sheets are pulled in all directions like banners, director de Beer making a big issue about this. And Joan is also compromising her inviolability as a saintly religious figure. Her father and his chosen suitor Raimond appear. White reads her diaries: Raimond however is understanding and prepared to release her from her engagement. There follows a problemmatic scene, in which the religious followers are seen fondling and fetishising the blood-red soiled sheets, as if they’re imbued with a religious power, (menstrual blood rumoured to have mystical properties.)
She cries out , oh God, my father! He, sneering, mocks her, you were heaven-saved? While the French celebrate Joan the victor, her father suspects her acts to be the devil’s work. White sings, vowing to clear her mind of Satan, even to her death. He forces her to publicly declare herself holy, and pure. Joan stays silent, conscience-stricken, aware of her guilt. The people’s chorus sing, Enlighten us, divided whether to stand by her, or renounce her.
Like a Lady Macbeth, she scratches herself, in self-disgust. She discards her sheets, pulls out her old clothes. Her soul is doomed, she sings…And gets back into her jeans and hoodie, and retreats back to her bedroom. A man has brought her down, but, she sings, there’s no doubt of the flame burning in her heart. Johanneson appears at the window and jumps through. There’s a wonderful duet, reaffirming their love.
From the sublime to the ridiculous. ‘Crusaders’, English soldiers in chain mail brandishing swords, burst into this 21st century household? Lionel is killed, and Joan is captured…
Oh, dear! The stage is taken over by a demonstration of female power through the ages: sufragettes, ‘Votes for Women’ placards, ‘Pussie Riot’, women protesting in hoods, England’s Elizabeth 1 (she’s 16th century, of course.) Belkina is pushed around, jostled from one to the other. The people are undecided whether she’s witch or saint. She’s tied to a tree. It appears, at first, as if she’s being stoned to death, but finally she’s burned at the stake, (reportedly, holding a cross, crying out to God, prepared to die.) Tchaikovsky historically correct, whereas Schiller has her die in battle.
It must be said that, musically, this production was peerless. Oksana Lyniv conducted Vienna Symhony Orchestra passionately, eliciting wonderful playing. The cast was top rank. And the staging? (Clement & Sanou) Sumptuous, beautifully colour-cordinated in the mainly ‘period’ second half. But the agit-prop Feminist agenda? At times, Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score felt like the wrong soundtrack. PR.20.3.2019
Photos:Joan (Lena Belkina);Lena Belkina and Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Lena Belkina and Kristjan Johannesson (Lionel); Featured image: Doubles for Joan and Lionel (Helena Sturm, Sebastijan Gec)
(c) Werner Kmemitsch / Theater an der Wien

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A new production at Vienna Volksoper of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, Volksoper the home of Operetta, and Vienna’s second opera house. But from the Overture, even as a regular, I hadn’t expected such thrilling playing: top-notch woodwind, fiery brass, seductive strings; swept away on a glorious wave of orchestral swagger, Volksoper orchestra under Marc Piollet.
I’d expected ‘modern’ staging: Daland (Andreas Mitschke’s) Norwegian captain- his ship blown off-course – is at his desk; the ‘chorus’ of sailors, behind shipping crates. Mitschke’s Daland, grey-haired, in a long seaman’s coat, his bass resonates authority. Also impressive is his helmsman, Steuermann, his ‘boy’, who nervously pours his captain’s liquor. Brinkman, with a soft, beautiful tenor, sings of the storm keeping him away from his woman. Oh, dear south wind blow– absolutely exquisite, Brinkman a real find- and we hear it blow!
The stage set turns to reveal- out of the blue, or purple haze- the Dutchman (Der Holländer.) Marcus Marquardt’s grisly, bearded figure -as if blown from hell- looks every inch the Holländer, the captain of the Flying Dutchman, cursed by the devil to sail the high seas forever. Die Frist ist um; once every seven years, allowed to go ashore, to find the woman who’s true love will redeem him. Marquardt’s seasoned bass/baritone pleads with the fates. Nirgend ein Grab. No grave; no death. What unholy grave? But he has one forlorn hope: the Day of Judgement. When all the dead are raised. Nichts vergehen, eternal destruction. He raises his hands: DOOM.
The sets (Franz Phillip Schlossmann)- minimalist, functional -are panels of grey marble effect. Daland rebukes his Steuermann. Was he asleep? He saw nothing of the ghostly ship (blown by the storm into harbour.)
In the confrontation of the two captains – high drama- the Dutchman reveals he’s come from afar. How long? He doesn’t count the years anymore. Has no homeland; neither wife or child. But seeks ‘shelter for one night’, offering his ship with costly treasures as security: all his wealth for a new homeland here. These treasures- what price? -asks Daland. Have you a daughter? – His daughter Senta, the most valuable of his possessions, in this patriarchal marriage contract. South wind blow!. Thunder and storms are nothing to these sailors, Volksoper Chorus sing with terrific gusto.
By contrast (Act 2), what appears a ladies’ choir in high-school uniforms, (supposed to be in Daland’s house waiting for the seamen to return.) Senta, Kristiane Kaiser’s blonde, wears a blazer and blue skirt. The women’s choir is in impressive voice, led by Mary, Martina Mikelik’s stunning contralto. Senta, alone, self-absorbed, sings the ballad of the Flying Dutchman and his terrible fate. She fantasises it could be her destiny to be the woman to release him from his curse. She sings of herself as God’s Angel, as if in a state of ecstasy, Kaiser attaining a surprisingly high top note.
More down to earth is her scene with Erik, the farmer/huntsman she’s betrothed to, sung by Vincent Schirrmacher- looking very dashing in riding boots – who reminds her of her pledge and her duty. His heart is true to her, Schirrmacher sings with an Italianate passion, while she clutches a painting of a ship which- symbolically- he tries to pull away from her. Why is she frightened, it was only a dream, he reassures her. Schirrmacher, always beautiful to hear, but is he perhaps too light a tenor for the role?
Senta’s a pawn in the patriarchal pact. Her father suddenly appears. Kaiser stands as if star-struck. No greeting for him?- Who is the stranger? The Dutchman der Holländer, stands in a doorway, irradiated in a brilliant white light. Tremendously effective staging (Aron Stiehl’s direction.) Daland asks if it would put her out if the seaman lives with them. Would she be tied to him as his bride? – Still no word!- Kaiser is under a spell. Daland, leaving them, takes away a gold attache case.
Kaiser, in profile, reminds of a film noir movie star. She has an icy beauty. Her scene encountering the Holländer is remarkable. She sings of how, out of a remote, distant past, she had been drawn to him. He sings of feeling himself released from his hell. He stands before her in a gust of passion: how she always imagined him. He sings of her as his salvation. This is a tremendous scene. Kaiser surpasses herself, with searing high notes, against Marquardt’s, gruff, yet smooth, gravelly bass. Then, referring to her father’s pledge, will he find life-long peace with her?
They are both standing impassioned- their hands raised out- but not yet touching. He imputes her ‘virginity’. She, abruptly, her heart is true: pure until death! He sings, he has been reprieved from his hell. It’s as if their relationship is not quite earthbound. What a revelation! Kaiser, usually in less vocally demanding operetta roles, rises to the challenge of a Wagner heroine. And with Marquardt, distinguished in Wagnerian roles (Amfortas in Parsifal,2018, Wotan for Thielemann 2017.) Daland enters; he asks whether they are to be wed, his question superfluous.
That marvellous, swaggering, seafarers’ tune, opening Act 3, Helmsman leave your watch. (Brinkman appears asleep front of stage). Kipp und Sturm lassen wir aus. Steuermann komm und trink mit uns!. The stage is divided between sailors carousing behind their barricades (pictures of the sea), and the women on the shore, as if celebrating in a hen party, like sailors’ wives, beer bottles in hand. (Modern dress? Timeless, free from fashion.)
In the plot, the sailors invite the crew of the Dutchman to drink with them. But there’s no answer. They’re pale, white-faced, ghostly – not red-blooded, and rugged. The women, in disbelief, pass their bottles around. Kipp und Sturm. The stage is now immersed under an eerie red light. Daland’s sailors approach – standing at the edge of stage- as if looking out to sea: they appear to see the spectre of the fliegender Holländer. In a state of awe and terror. Terrific staging and choreography.
In an extended, but dreary scene- the only low, for me – Erik complains of her deception. She’s breaking her vow to be faithful. Oh, Senta, leugnest du. Good, but Schirrmacher, I repeat, isn’t really ideal for this role. Too effusive, declamatory, the wrong romanticism? Kaiser stands, looking away, in another world. Verloren, heil. Lost, in a state of suspended salvation.
Marquardt’s Holländer approaches, overhearing them. He thinks he’s being betrayed, his hopes disillusioned. Anchors away! He announces the contract is annulled. He releases her from her vows, hoping to save her from death. He’s accursed; his salvation is in eternity, Mein Heil in Ewigkeit .
But Senta insists she is true to him, faithful until death treu bist Tod.. Unbelievable, soaring high notes from Kaiser. She, in a trance, Kaiser as if sleepwalking towards the Dutchman’s ship: images of the sea – rear of stage – lit up under a cool, eerie moonlight.
You won’t see a better Dutchman in Vienna, Vienna State Opera’s (Mielitz) staging more elaborate, Volksoper’s more intimate. But it depends, of course, on the cast and conductor. Tonight’s cast and chorus were heroic, the orchestral playing inspired by Wagner’s muse. My love and fascination for this earlier Wagner- yet a masterpiece – increases with each viewing. PR. 03.2019
Photos: Markus Marquardt (Der Holländer) © Johannes Ifkovits
Markus Marquardt as the Holländer; Meagan Miller(Senta), Chorus of Vienna Volksoper © Barbara Palffy/ Volksoper Wien

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Umberto Giordano’s opera is the story of the great French Revolutionary poet Andre Chénier: told in four Acts (tableaux), it is also a history of the French Revolution itself. From the pre-revolutionary Coigny palace, where Chénier meets the aristocrat Madeleine (Maddalena) curious to meet the poet; and where the life-long servant Gérard , inspired by Chénier’s advocacy of ‘revolutionary’ ideals, resigns in protest, to join the fight for liberty. Yet the opera, through these opposing idealists, Chénier and Gérard, shows how, from the ideals of 1889, the French Revolution degenerated into a Reign of Terror.
Yet, above all the history, Andrea Chénier is a great Romantic opera in the 19th century Italian tradition. It is a love story between Chénier and Maddalena, enduring through the Revolutionary terror, Maddalena, disguised in Paris, Chénier betrayed by his political enemies. And the unrequited love of Gérard, from the infatuated servant, to jealous revolutionary leader.
The success of the opera’s performance pivots on these three. In this Vienna State Opera love triangle, a weaker Chénier (Gregory Kunde), is supported by the powerful, passionate soprano Tatiana Serjan, and a strong baritone in Luca Salsi’s Gérard.
But this is historical spectacle, with a plethora of supporting roles: including Virginie Verrez, Bersi, Maddalena’s servant, who has to prostitute herself, Boaz Daniel (Roucher), Chénier’s friend who advises him to escape. And Zoryana Kushpler’s heart-rending Madelon, the old lady (who offers her grandson for conscription.) Librettist Illica’s well-drawn characters have a theatrical depth.
Vienna State Opera Orchestra, under a French conductor, Frederic Chaslin, justified Giordano’s realist masterpiece, probably on a par with Puccini, in its complex orchestral orchestral detail, and Verdi in its soliloquy-like arias.
The performance was the 113th using Otto Schenk’s now classic production. Vienna is right to maintain these wonderfully detailed historical sets and costumes: from the lavish finery of Coigny’s soiree, the elegantly furnished palace in the final throes of the ancien regime; the square in front of the Cafe Hotte (where a police informer is trying to trap Bersi); and, Act 3, the Committee of Public Safety’s court room with its blood-thirsty spectators.

The opening scene is the Comtesse Coigny’s palace- Schenk’s exquisitely painted sets- preparing for a rococo entertainment. But beneath the refinement, revolution is fermenting. We hear, almost immediately, an angry outburst form Gérard, (head butler, his father, a gardener, serf for fifty years.) Luca Salsi is impassioned in his aria, expressing his hatred of this gilded, artificial world. Your fate is sealed!
Meanwhile, the Comtesse (Lydia Rathkob) tells off her daughter, not yet dressed. Maddalena (Serjan) complains to her maid Bersi, how she hates her hideous petticoats; as if these artificial clothes, symbolising this way of life, are stifling her. Then we overhear the Abbé in conversation, talking about the revolution- supposed to be imminent – but nobody takes it seriously. The Comptesse asks the young poet Chénier (Kunde) to recite his poetry. He refuses; but Maddalana, who’s bet she’ll change his mind, annoys Chénier, expecting him to sing about love.
Kunde’s Chénier, a dour figure in black coat, is roaming in the background. Forgive my speaking up; I am a woman! She sings, Poetry is as capricious as love. He takes offence. His love is for his country. ‘I love you, divine beautiful fatherland,’ Then, in a tirade against the ancien regime (old order), a priest is happy to accept gifts, but deaf to an old woman begging for bread. And what does a nobleman do in the face of such pain and suffering? Beautiful woman, do not scorn a poet’s words: you know nothing of love, don’t deride it. (Beautifully sung by Kunde’s lyrical tenor, but the applause seemed inappropriate.) She asks his forgiveness. Chénier has caused a scandal. But Gérard listens in awe. He leads a crowd of peasants into the salon. The voice of suffering is calling him! He rips off his uniformed jacket- symbol of humiliation- and accuses the Comptesse of holding the celebration at the expense of the poor. He’s dismissed, and storms out. But, in the pastoral entertainment, the ladies sing in celestial harmony: ‘By tomorrow, they shall be far away.’ They resume dancing the gavotte the intruders interrupted.
The next tableau, Schenk’s atmospheric recreation of a Paris public square. The Revolution has degenerated into (Robespierre’s) reign of terror. Gérard has been promoted to the Chamber of Deputies. Yet, Chénier who had extolled the revolution, is now suspected as a counter-revolutionary, and under surveillance. Chénier meets his friend Roucher (Boaz Daniel) who tries to persuade him to leave Paris. Kunde sings in a moving aria of a mysterious power that guides him through life: a power that says to him, You shall be a poet. The name of my destiny is love! Believe in love, Chénier! Kunde’s tenor, powerful, but not incandescent.
He tells Roucher, he’s been receiving letters from an anonymous woman- elegant notepaper, rose-scented. Take the passport and forget the merveilleuse.
Bersi begs him to wait ‘for a woman in great danger’ They’re overheard by an informer (incroyable) hired by Gérard.
As Maddalena – alone, afraid disguised, before the altar- Serjan is in tremendous voice. Then, Chénier, Was it she who wrote the letter; recognises her, she he’d once rebuked, ‘You know nothing of love’? Serjan, her heart told her he would protect her, even the man she had affronted. You are my last hope. Their duet is ‘a marvelous moment of bliss.’ She’s washed away his last vestige of cowardice. We shall stay together even until death,they sing. Magnificent.
The Committee of Public Safety – long table, elegant chairs- the people surrounding the court sectioned off. Gérard, in a fiery speech calls on the people to make sacrifices: France is besieged. The old,blind Madelon, led on by her grandson, sings of her family’s tragedies. But she offers the young boy. Take him: he’ll fight and die. Kushpler’s aria is powerfully rendered in this most poignant vignette.
Chénier has been arrested; Gérard is expected to sign the charge. Which brings Gérard to a crisis of conscience. In Nemico della Patria Why does he hesitate: Chénier’s already listed, an enemy of the State. An old tale. A poet? He corrupts people’s minds. But Salsi, in Gérard’s aria, reflects how once he was immune to hate. Now he is still a servant. Gérard’s aria shifts to Maddalena. He sings of his life’s passion: his obsession from childhood, he uniformed and silent. She had driven him mad. He wanted to bury his hands in her blonde hair.
Maddalena turns up to plead for Chénier.( Maddalena’s aria is compared with Tosca’s Vissi d’arte. But, 1894, when Chénier originated, Tosca hadn’t been composed.) In Maddalena’s aria La mama morte Serjan sings with blistering intensity. They murdered her mother outside her room, who died to save her; saw her childhood home in flames. But love spoke to her: ‘Go on living: I am life!’ Serjan is overawed with feeling. Enormous applause. My body is that of a dying witch, Go take it! She’s no more than a corpse. Gérard, confounded, deeply impressed, will fight for Chénier.

In the trial, before the tribunal- ‘traitors’ taunted, derided as aristocrats- Chénier defends himself: as a poet, he used his pen in praise of his country. (His life is passing by, he will die soon, he muses.) Gerard admits his charge was a lie: Chénier deserves a laurel, not death. Kunde very good, somehow lacks that heroic stature.
In the prison of St.Lazarre, Chénier composes his last poem. He sings it to Roucher: a hymn to poetry, ‘kissed by a verse.’ So be it, sublime goddess! His last breath will finish in rhyme.
Maddalena will take Legray’s place to die by Chénier’s side. She welcomes destiny. O Maddalena, you make death seem noble, he sings. His soul is calm in her presence. In Chénier’s romance Come un bel di di maggio, before his execution, (reminiscent of Cavaradossi’s Tosca aria E lucivan ), Kunde doesn’t quite have that exceptional power. But Serjan, come to join him, has it. Hold me! Love me! Eternity! The orchestral playing, Vienna State Opera’s forces under Chaslin, was sublime. © PR. 2019
Photos: Gregory Kunde (Andrea Chénier); Luca Salsi (Gérard); Tatiana Serjan (Maddalena di Coigny)
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

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Vienna Volksoper can boast the European premier of Wonderful Town: in November 1956 Leonard Bernstein’s second musical staged here only three years after its world premier. Yet, until 1955, Vienna was occupied by the Allies and Soviet Russia: Austria newly independent, neutral between the West and the Soviet block (its neighbours Hungary and Czechoslovakia only liberated in 1989/90.) Post-war Vienna was grim and austere, the world of Harry Lime and The Third Man. So imagine the shock: Bernstein’s jazz-influenced score, the views of New York, and of its beat generation – transported to this dystopian world, by the super-cool, hipster, ‘Lennie’ Bernstein, in white polo neck, notorious for disdaining collar and tie. Bernstein took to – and was adopted by – Vienna. (In the 1970s he regularly conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, famously persuading them to play Mahler; even founded Vienna’s Jewish Museum.) So, to commemorate his 100th, it’s fitting that Volksoper should revive Wonderful Town – celebrating not Vienna, but his own New York.
Against a New York skyline, Volksoper orchestra (under James Holmes) conducted the overture sounding like a jazz big band with pizzazz: oh, those silky saxophones,and muted trumpets, Woody Allen (Manhattan) would have loved it. A group of tourists file through the stalls led by their guide (Oliver Liebl)- cleverly, they’re German-speaking. The place is Greenwich Village, the beat quarter, from the 1940s, home to poets, painters and jazz clubs. And Christopher Street- if Bernstein had known (in 1953)- a gay quarter, fifteen years later, the centre of Gay Liberation.
The choreography (Melissa King’s) for the opening number is stunning. They’re all in brilliantly coloured 1950’s gear. Come along, follow me… There’s a REAL jazz musician, a black guy in a pink candy-striped suit, Speedy Valenti (Cedric Lee Bradley), who runs the Village Vortex.
Ruth Sherwood (Sarah Shütz), red-haired, in a tailored suit, the serious one of the sisters, is carrying a heavy typewriter. As Eileen, the would-be actress, Olivia Delauré’s vivacious platinum, blonde, in a frilly, patterned frock, is like a starlet popped off a Hollywood film set.
The multiple screens of New York views (Mathias Fischer-Dieskau) open onto a grotty basement flat- below the sidewalk- with pink brick walls, faded settee, peoples’ legs seen walking through the skylight overhead. The room costs 100 dollars upfront; the long-haired Greek painter and landlord (Christian Dolezal) disappears as the room shudders like an earthquake: the overhead subway. With no curtains, the streetlight keeps them awake, the sisters sharing the bed, ogled by men above, (the apartment’s last occupant a sex-worker.)
They sing of their home in Ohio- one of Bernstein’s stand-out numbers- ‘Much too far away from you, Ohio’, home sick already. But, ever-hopeful, up early, they’re out job hunting.
To funky jazz piano, and percussion, we see commuters crushed together on the subway, a human phalanx. One of Bernstein’s sensational up-beat, jazz syncopated numbers, the crowd scene prefiguring the street-life of West Side Story. It bursts into a dance sequence, jaw-dropping, with Vienna State Ballet dancers joining the Volksoper Chorus. Fabulous jazz trumpet! What a beat! … “The excitement! Political awareness . Wonderful fashions. And the songs! What a beat”, they wrote. This is what hit Broadway in 1953.
In Matthias Davids’ direction, a fast-moving montage with the sisters each trying for job interviews, Eileen fights off the (Me-Too) director on the casting couch, while Ruth, the aspiring writer, is forever fobbed-off with her script. Finally, she sees Editor Robert Baker (Drew Sarich, a star in his own right.) He quickly dismisses her text- Go back home! Ruth’s cue for ‘A hundred ways to love a man.’ It’s wry and witty (even in German), and Sarah Schütz, a gutsy mezzo -soprano, has loads of charisma , an actress and chanteuse: musical performer, cabaret artiste, dancer. The story she’s written is a lead-in for a safari dance sketch, with lions roaring around the theatre through the theatre’s sound system.
Of a motley crew of Greenwich village eccentrics, ‘the wreck’, Loomis, is a would-be football player: Marcus Günzel, lanky, forever in shorts, and tailed by his fiancee, the diminutive, exquisitely sung Juliette Khalil. Günzel’s Loomis sings the show-stopping refrain, ‘I was good at football, (not a schoolwork.)’ Eileen invites her male suitors, including Chick Clark (Christian Graff) for supper, and phones Bob for Ruth. They’re all cramped together awkwardly on that couch.
‘You have talent, Miss Sherwood, but write about what you know’ (not safari parks.) He wants to help her, but she thinks she’s being brushed off. Why does he always go for that type, he sings, the quiet girl. Where is my quiet girl, the special girl. Drew Sarich holds the stage, exuding a masterful authority, the audience spellbound.
Then, by contrast, a sensational conga number. Ruth is commissioned to report on Brazilian sea cadets! Any excuse for young sailors in tight white uniforms and the show’s wildest dance routine. They follow Ruth out on the streets, she, eventually leading them to the apartment. Schütz- teasing, vibrant, a match for these professional Latin dancers, is finally tossed up and carried shoulder high.
Eileen, now hooked-up with Graff’s policeman, has an entire police station in love with her. Darling Eileen, they toast her in chorus. Meanwhile, Ruth, we see, street-selling for the Village Vortex (a play on the jazz club Village Vanguard.) Schütz excels in the star number SWING IT! Finger-clicking good, scat, jazz-inspired dancing, cool like in the 1940s and 50s when the word was coined. Great, up-tempo ensemble dancing, perhaps a forerunner for the Jets’ anthem in West Side Story. This is the musical soundtrack for the beat age.
Bob, it seems, has left ‘Manhattan Magazine.’ He sings a soliloquy In Love (Verliebt). He’s in love, can hardly think: he feels like another man. In love! This made my evening, the star number, the tune that stays in your head long after you leave: as in all the best musicals.
Then, the finale, VILLAGE VORTEX, a louche, erotic dance sequence. It begins with young men’s bodies laid out on stage. The opening, to a wailing clarinet, igniting into a ballet in a dance club, the Village Vortex come alive. The two sisters take the stage in a spectacular dance routine, while Lee Bradley, the black owner, reigns supreme, jiving on the roof of his Vortex. Finally, Bob cuddles up to Ruth, rather to her surprise. It’s a wonderful town, they sing.
This is a five star production of a relatively neglected Bernstein musical. But I can’t give it full marks. Not because it’s in German – that’s Volksoper’s policy – but because there were no English subtitles. (Frankly, there’s a lot of dialogue, and it would need more than voice coaches to translate New York humour.) This wonderful production is too good not to share with an international audience! © P.R. 7.1.2019
Photos: Olivia Delauré (Eileen) and Sarah Schütz (Ruth) © Stephan Floss
Drew Sarich (Robert Baker), Sarah Schütz (Eileen); Sarah Schütz (Eileen) with Vienna State Ballet dancers; Featured image Olivia Delauré, Sarah Schütz, Cedric Lee Bradley © Barbara Pállfy/ Volksoper Wien

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Volksoper’s Hänsel und Gretel wasn’t the ‘pantomime’ I’d expected – the kitsch sets, garish colours- to appeal to families with children. Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera is a masterpiece of 19th century romanticism, as the Overture – a stand-alone in concert repertoire- attests (competently played by Volksoper Orchestra under Christof Perick.)
After the surrealist, Post-modern framing of Adrian Noble’s concept for Vienna State Opera, Volksoper’s set is an authentic 19th century woodman’s cottage. In the cottage, on two levels, the mother – no it’s Gretel ( Anita Götz)- is weaving in the living room. Over her, Hänsel (mezzo Manuela Leonhartsberger), sitting legs hanging out from the bedroom above, playfully throws down missiles . Actually, though shorter, Leonhartsberger is sturdily built, with long brown hair, her mezzo, rather androgynous, and quite convincing. They are not at all children, physically, yet, especially Hänsel, they’re choreographed to move and act like children. In play and in their gestures they are astonishingly natural.
Hansel, in the living room, handles the jug of milk (given to them by neighbours) for Reisbrau (rice pudding.) He dips his finger in to savour the taste. (Imagine today’s allergen-phobic children drinking milk!) A reminder of the poverty behind the romanticised industrial age. Their mother stout, comely, enters carrying a back-breaking basket, furious they’ve been playing and not done the weaving and knitting, ‘child labour’ being a reality of life. Not a single broom done? In the mother’s aria, a moving tirade of despair, there’s not a drop of milk left in the jug. (She’d knocked it over, as she’s about to give them a beating.) They’ve nothing to eat. Tired of living, she falls asleep on her hands.
Peter (Martin Winkler) balding, jovial, Winkler a formidable bass, bursts in singing. Agh, we poor people, hunger is the best appetiser. His song could be a precursor for Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof. Ah, reich… kann leben , RAL-LA-LA-LA. He wakes her up: the larder is empty ( but Hunger ist das tolle Tier.) He’s sold all his brooms and got the best price. Now shocked that she’s turned their children out into the woods, strawberry picking, warning -he makes a sign with his broom- of the witch of Ilsenstein.
Act 2 opens in the forest, the set (Toni Businger) a wondrous green vision, a vividly realistic recreation of a forest glade. Im Walde auf einem Bein… They sing the iconic folk tune – one of many Humperdinck classics. What has he done! Eaten all the strawberries. They’re both bouncing, gambolling, frolicking -constantly at play. But they have to fill their baskets before it gets dark. Something they hear is getting closer: when was the wood so gespenstig (ghostly), sings Hänsel, who spars with his fists. But it’s only the Sandman, actually quite charming: Gar nicht Arge-die klein Sandmann bin ich. Utterly enchanting, this scene of childlike innocence- not like some brats in the audience!- as the mist rises. Gretel gives him a kiss! They fall asleep after evening prayers. The veiled stage curtain reveals angels on a magical staircase, as if from heaven. They descend like a human form of exotic moths. Now they stand over the sleeping children- two of them join them. A vision out of this world. A rarity, the perfect synchronisation of Humperdinck’s sublime music (Traumpantomime), enacted as ballet (Vienna State Ballet dancers.)
Is it a dream? Liebe Vöglein. Gretel awakes, at one with nature, rather like Siegfried understanding bird song (Wagner was Humperdinck’s idol.) The pines move away to reveal a cottage- looming closer. Quaint, surreal, as if on a biscuit tin, a glazed brown, like freshly baked. Some gingerbread gnomes stand either side. Wir knuspern: they pick off bits of the cottage. What’s it like ? Köstlich: wie suss, wie lecher. Delicious, sweet. How children are enticed…
A little window opens. They’re observed from the upper window by a witch. Ulrike Steinsky’s witch, hooked nose, in a peaked hat, in billowing layers of black petticoats, is frightening. She grips them by the hand – what a grip!- Hänsel and Gretel each side of her. Hänsel pulls away, rebounds, catapults to the other end of the stage. She’s scary. Come little mice into my little home! Chocolate, marzipan, raisins, figs, almonds…Steinsky’s witch has a surprisingly high-pitched and lyrical soprano. They’re not getting away any time soon. Hänsel’s hand is pulled by the witch on one side, with Gretel, pulling the other, looking askance, disbelieving. – Come Gretel beloved… Hocus Pocus. She waves her wand, its illuminated tip lights up red. they’re hypnotised! Hocus pocus, bonus jocus! She wants to mix Hansel in with almonds and raisins. The oven is now bellowing smoke, red flames from under. She actually stokes the fire with, her back to it, with her petticoats. She pokes Gretel with a long stick: Götz’s Gretel is looking stoned.
The witches’ song, the aria, is sung under a spotlight. Then she ascends, rising up at the back of the stage. We hear her voice as if in the audience; then she…can it be…swings across the seats in the stalls on a wire from the opera boxes – frightful! Now she’s back on stage, still singing, to an extended high note. Wizard pyrotechnics.
Hänsel is in a wooden cage (at the side of the cottage). Madel Gretel, looking down from a window, bringing almonds, feeds Hänsel. He breaks free, and warns Gretel; plays dumb and asks the witch to let her look in the oven. Somehow they push her into the oven. Breaking into the house, they retrieve bags of goodies. Screams from the oven. Children appear at the window, front of stage, everywhere. Erlösst, befreit, fur alle Zeit! Freed for all time. Gretel remarks how their eyelids are closed . So she repeats the witch’s chant to break the spell.
Their mother and father Peter approach from the side of the stage. The children, as if caught out, uncomfortable, play on a little guiltily: their innocence intruded on. All come together, front of stage, life-size, a gingerbread effigy of the witch. Gott der Hand uns reicht: When our need is at its greatest, the Lord holds out his hand.
This production was a joy start to finish, more so unexpected. The authentic staging has to be experienced; the synchronisation between Hänsel and Gretel, in Karl Doench’s direction, was astonishing. Or was it just this cast? Volksoper Orchestra were very adequate: only here not quite comparable to Vienna State Opera’s. This is a production not to miss. © P.R. 29.12.2018
Photos: Ulrike Steinsky (the witch), Manuela Leonhartsberger( Hansel), Anita Goetz (Gretel); Anita Goetz and Manuela Leonhartberger ; Ulrike Steinsky (witch)
Featured image: Manuela Leonhartsberger, Ulrike Steinsky, Anita Goetz
© Barbara Pállfy /Volksoper Wien

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Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera at Vienna State Opera. Still Gianfranco de Boiso’s ‘historic’ production with the trompe d’oeuil painted sets, mustier than when I saw them in 2016. But they’re in the spirit of the 18th century Swedish court.
Actually those sets I reviled are more interesting than I’d thought. The stage (Emanuele Luzzato) is done like a baroque theatre: a stage-within-a stage, with draped curtains either side. Within, screens and walls are skillfully painted to give the illusion of galleries, with actual pillars, and, back of stage, huge vistas. This illusionist, mannerist art is appropriate for the court of Gustav III and for a masked ball where everything is not as it appears.
But the costumes (Santuzza Cali) are for real, extravagant and authentic: the courtiers lavishly dressed in cream silks, detailed in lace, in Act 1, when the chorus sing awaiting the King (Pose in pace). Ramon Vargas’s Gustav III is granting petitions (in this 18th century of Enlightenment, he’s a benevolent monarch.) ‘Power is good when it strives for joy and dries tears,’ he sings. He is ‘a good man’, but in the tragedy, a victim of his own weakness. He covets the wife of his friend and loyal secretary, Count Ankarström (sung by Roberto Frontali.)
In his aria – his private thoughts behind the public mask – Vargas’s lyrical tenor sings with great feeling. He thinks of nothing but Amelia: when will she beguile his heart to see her again. In the dramatic irony, he’s approached by Ankarström, his most loyal servant. Robert Frontali’s baritone is authoritative, plumbing splendidly rich depths, warning his life is in danger. The love of the people protects him, God is on his side, sings Gustav. Ankaström replies, in the aria Alla vita che t’arride, on your life so many depend, but will the love of the people always protect you from danger?
The King is supposed to banish the soothsayer Ulrica, but he’s intrigued after his page – the petite, exquisite soprano Maria Nazarova – sings a moving ballad. He will visit Ulrica, disguised as a fisherman, to have his fortune told.
The gypsy Ulrica, described as black, is actually sung by a black singer. Hurrah! Bongiwe Nakani made a strong impression, swathed in a burgundy and gold robe. Verdi’s gypsy figures – Azecuna in Il trovatore– are sympathetic, social outcasts. Ulrica sings possessed by the devil Re dell’abisso: I feel his embrace. Nakano’s mezzo is mesmerising. For the sailor, Christian – the immensely tall, impressive baritone Igor Onishchenko – she predicts promotion and gold.
She’s also petitioned in private by Amelia, who seeks a secret potion to counter her uncontrollable feelings of love for Gustav; and the guilt she feels. Elena Pankratova, brunette, an immense stage presence, with an angel’s voice, is a soprano with with breathtaking power. Lord give me strength to placate my heart and find peace. But when she hears him sigh, she must follow him into the abyss! Magnificent!
The King, disguised- Vargas sings a sea shanty – wants her to prophesy his future: ‘it will not harm us’, (he sings, ironically.) Ulrica, thunders, he who challenges his fate will pay the price! Oh! ill-fated man. Ask me no more. But he boasts, he’d be happy to die on a field of honour. – No, you will die by the hand of a friend . – Is this prophesy, a joke or madness? E’ scherzo od è follia? Then, recognising the King, who saved her from banishment, (and now tips her), ‘You are kind-hearted , but surrounded by traitors, she prophesies.
Act 3 opens in a graveyard, where Amelia has been sent to look for a herb ‘beneath the gallows’. (This may seem hocus pocus, but Verdi’s 19th century was rife with superstition.) Anyway, cause for a terrific aria, Amelia sings of this terrible place: her heart freezes. Though she may die here, she must do it. What is left to me ? Misere de Jesu. Then the King arrives (having eavesdropped on her meeting Ulrica).
Their duet is a high point. At least save my name! She belongs to another, who would give her heart to you. – (Vargas) If he stays away his heart will cease to beat. He sings of many sleepless nights: Heaven help me! He’s give his life for a word: I love you. – Yes, I love you, protect me from my heart! – Vargas and Pankratova are splendid together, a duo made in operatic heaven. Again in the irony, Ankarström approaches to warn of plotters; the King escapes in Ankarström’s cloak; and they, Ankarström and Amelia, are threatened at knife point. Amelia is now unveiled. Ankarström had an assignation with his wife! they scorn him, in one of Verdi’s great choruses, like mocking laughter.
Ankarström, shattered- deceived by both wife and friend- Frontali is outstanding in his aria. Seguitemi- Mio Dio!: This is how the traitor rewards the loyalty of friend. He sings of the memory of Amelia in his arms. All is past, nothing in his heart but hate. Love lost, lost hopes! Now he wants to be in on the conspirators’ plot. Revenge wins, sung to plucked strings, Ve’,se’ di notte, with chorus, a rousing summons to battle.
Your tears won’t suffice : be silent adulteress! Amelia’s aria pleading for a last chance to see her son is a high-point of the opera, one of Verdi’s greatest. Opening with a cello solo, Kill me, but grant me one last request, let me see my son. Pankratova crosses her arms as if to cradle him. If you don’t grant this for a wife, grant this for a mother, Pankratova, harrowing, her piercing high notes reaching to the heavens. If she must die, then let her son close the eyes of his mother, (who will never see him again.) Chilling. The audience were wildly enthusiastic, but isn’t there something crass about applauding such tenderness?
Amelia witnesses the plotters: feels something terrible will happen. She has to draw the name of the King’s assassin. Ankaström. Fate is just! They both go to the masked ball. As so often in Verdi, the private drama is hidden beneath the public celebration.
‘Let us live and dance’ – echoes of the revelers ball in La Traviata preceding Violetta’s tragic death. The irony is that, prior to the Ball, The King in his study resolves to give up Amelia and send her and Ankarström home safely. In his aria, ‘Let the sea separate us’.
But the King, still ‘kindled by her beauty, will see her once again. Vargas’ King is suitably wearing black, with a red patch, like a heart: Pankratova’s Amelia in white, Frontali and the conspirators in green. Undercover of the masque, fancy dress blurring reality and illusion, the stabbing is swift and sudden.
Vargas, not the most powerful tenor, but one of the most sincere and poignant. Mortally wounded, the King forgives Ankaström: he insists Amelia is ‘untarnished’, but will never forget her. Still the minuet plays on insistently, reverting finally to Verdi’s melancholy opening theme. The opera has some of Verdi’s greatest music. This cast was exemplary, Giampaole Bisanti elicited wonderful playing from Vienna State Opera Orchestra, whose chorus are invariably excellent in Verdi.
And Vienna’s stage sets notwithstanding, the costumes are spectacular, splendid, brilliantly colourful, lavishly designed. Each one worth a fortune in fabrics and skill. No wonder they’re not changing the production! © PR. 1.11.2018
Photos: Ramon Vargas (Gustaf 111); Boningwe Nakani (Ulrica); Elena Pankratova (Amelia); Maria Nazarova (Oscar), Ramon Vargas (Gustaf III), Elena Pankratova (Amelia)
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

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Overwhelming! Berlioz’s five-Act opera, lasting five hours, is rarely performed; only the largest opera houses can afford to put it on. This complete Vienna State Opera production (directed by David McVicar) is the first since 1976. Les Troyens premiered in Paris 1863, but only the second part, the love scenes in Queen Dido’s Carthage, where Aeneas’s fighters find refuge. It seems an opera of two halves, but the first two Acts – the destruction of Troy- are dramatically essential. Berlioz was obsessed with Virgil’s Aeneid and it is Aeneas (Enée) whose fate unites Les Troyens.
This McVicar production (stage Es Devlin) is visually stunning, especially the set for Troy. This is meant as spectacle, the Troy legend – the founding of Italy, even the line of French monarchy- equal to the Ring of the Nibelung. The stage is on four levels, concentric galleries of social classes – soldiers, civic dignitaries, women – overlooking the crowd below. There’s a pile of scrap metal left-of-stage, the war booty; and, importantly, center, a platform showing the Trojan gods in miniature, lit by an eternal flame, the gods playing a crucial role in human lives.
So Casandra plays a central role, her prophesies of foreboding powerfully sung and enacted by soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci. She sings of Priam as ‘ill-fated King’, and she foresees the danger of the Iron Horse, left by the Greeks as a gift to placate the Trojan’s gods. To a wailing clarinet solo, Save your bitter tears: you will need them for the impending disaster. She sings of the soldiers disappeared; the Trojan Priest killed by serpents from the ruins; le peuple condamné, the people are condemned. Gloire ma Patrie . She laments for her country. Meanwhile children are playing, people dancing in circles, celebrating the peace.
Yet the Horse – dominating the stage – is fearsome, consisting of wheels and cogs, an amalgam of scrap metals welded together. It is something out of a horror movie: it turns on its side, is self-propelled, and apparently empty. It’s moved to the back of the stage, with the people guarding it with torches of fire.
A bloodied figure, the spectre of Hector (Anthony Schneider) staggers on, opening Act 2, singing a lament to the Glory of Troy O Gloire des Troyens. He accosts, hugs, the grey-suited Aeneas, Brandon Jovanovich. Jovanovich’s refined tenor is ‘heroic’ for these first two Acts, declamatory, urging his fellow Trojans into battle; then lyrical and smoother in the Carthage love duets. Hector reminds him of his pedigree, the son of Venus (the god of love, that should explain it); warning him of the enemy within, exhorting him VA CHERCHE ITALIE! (to find Italy.) Enée is now kneeling, white shirt blood-covered. We will defend our land! Jovanovich, addresses the Trojans, bearded in his grey coat, like a revolutionary leader.
Cassandre calls on Cybèle, mother of the wretched, the stage now filled with women in black, some war-widows in mourning. Help your Trojan men at this terrible time! Soon they’ll be on their way to Italy, the home of the new Troy. She urges these wives and virgins not to submit to the enemy. They, these women in black shrouds, will share her fate. The Greeks, in burgundy and gold uniforms, demand the Trojan treasure. Women, armed with knives, commit suicide, huddled together, surrounding Cassandre, dying as if in a religious sect. This is the nightmare that Aeneas and his Trojan followers will carry with them on their sea voyage.

The opening of Act 3 in Carthage couldn’t be more different, the brilliantly lit stage celebrating Carthage’s festival. Very exotic staging with terracotta castle walls, oriental princes peering out. This is the back-story to Aeneas’s arrival in Carthage, but also a psychological key to Aeneas’s conflicted motives, torn between love and duty.
Gloire a Didon, they sing. There’s a model of a miniature Carthage centre-stage. Joyce DiDonato’s Didon wears a glamorous beige silk gown, her long brown hair shoulder-length. In her aria Sept ans she sings Girls- blonde-haired- carry wheat-sheaves, celebrating fertility, in honour of Ceres, goddess of self-sufficiency. Hitherto Didon projects a figure of calm authority; with Les chants joyeux -the joyful chorus- she’s found peace and serenity again. But she sings of a strange feeling, an oppressive worry. Her sister Anna, the beautiful Margarita Gritskova, mezzo exquisitely sung, thinks Didon too young and beautiful to renounce love. Yet Didon, recently widowed, struggles between confused hope and an inexplicable fear.
With the arrival of the Trojans, it is Hector’s son who requests a few days’ shelter. Aeneas is celebrated as a hero: all Carthage are talking about him. Her gates are open: Permettez aux Troyens! Dido sings of wandering the seas. Has she not also been a fugitive, so she can feel compassion. DiDonato sees the contemporary relevance: ‘It’s about a people who have to flee their home and seek asylum -it’s about refugees.'(program interview.) Aeneas sings, others will teach you to be happy. (The Trojans pledge to march against the invaders attacking Carthage )

The castle walls and a huge African-mosaic construct are the background (Act 4) for near-naked young dancers approaching from the beach- Vienna State Ballet’s Academy – erotic and sensuousness. Then men carrying torches sing out ITALIE, ITALIE! The dancers are a foreplay for the seduction of Didon; the torchbearers a reminder of Aeneas’s duty.
The duet Nuits d’ivresse -intoxicating night of pleasure – is, of course, a highlight. DiDonato, still the guilty widow, will give her heart, but holds back. The passion builds up inexorably. Repeatedly singing- on such a night – of fabled examples of seduction: including Troilus’s wooing Cressida. (But Troilus -Berlioz knew- leaves Cressida.) D’exstase infin…nuits d’ivresse.
DiDonatio puts on the breaks, when she hears of the fate of Andromaque, (Hector’s widow) who’s married Pyrrus. Such a shame, Andromaque marrying her father’s killer. But everything contrives to ease her conscience, and her seduction. Night draws its veil(La nuit étend son voile.)
Act 5 is the high point, the tragic climax of the opera. It begins with a wonderful aria O valon sonore , the bosun Hilas’s (Benjamin Bruns) lament for home, his mother’s humble cottage: the message is set sail. The crew sing, Fear and duty must unbind his fetters: the Trojans’ chorus sing of terrifying omens.
Aeneas’s aria tries to justify himself. He sings of Hades deathly spectre, his sacred undertaking and the triumphant death promised him. But really preparing himself for the terrible farewell. Yet he would rather die in a shipwreck than not see her for a last time. Again he’s haunted by the ghost of Priam demanding his departure.
Didon pursues him; she can’t believe it. Not a tear of compassion. Nothing can keep you? Not death, or shame? If she he had a show of tenderness, of his faithfulness, she’d feel less abandoned.
DiDonato is in a dull grey , hair seemingly shorter, looks harrowed, gaunt. Didon losing her mind, DiDonato’s intensity is shocking. Go to my sister and beg him She’s lost her pride, his departure killing her. He loves me, she sings, but his heart is made of ice. Je connais l’amour. How can he forget all she’s done for him. DiDonato is crumpled up, sitting front-of-stage. She kneels, subjugated.
Now mad with rage, she sings she’s seen their treachery, and will set their ships on fire. She summons the gods of vengeance to prepare a funeral pyre for his and her gifts. She will die in terrible pain. Adieu fière cité. Farewell beautiful shores of Africa. Ma carière est fin. She exits.
The high priest (Jongmin Park) curses Aeneas to a terrible fate. Hannibal will avenge her. Didonato is accompanied to the funeral pyre, her voice thin, as from the grave. Carthage will perish, sing multiple choirs- Vienna State Opera’s, Slovak Philharmonic- unleashing enormous power. Conducted by Alain Altinoglu, Vienna State Opera Orchestra, revealed every note of Berlioz’s masterfully subtle score. Overlong at five hours? Then so are Wagner’s epics, Berlioz’s Trojans equally a masterpiece of 19th century opera. © PR 26.10.2018
Photos: Brandon Jovanovich (Enée); Joyce DiDonato (Didon); Brandon Jovanovich (Enée) and Joyce DiDonato (Didon); Joyce DiDonato and Brandon Jovanovich
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

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Rossini’s William Tell (Guillaume Tell), 1829, his last opera, broke new ground, a drama based on Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, written (1804) and inspired by the French Revolution, a study in political repression and heroism. Rossini used his genius for melody and rhythm, but in the French Grand Opera tradition. So the role of the Hapsburg princess Mathilde is built into a key character, in her identification with the freedom fighters, and through her love affair with Swiss Arnold Melcthal. And although the opera is named after the revolutionary leader, arguably, the people as chorus are in the centre of the drama.
As Rossini’s opera and Schiller’s play are about ‘revolutionary ideals’, human rights against political tyranny, does it have to be set in the 19th century? -the William Tell story about Swiss freedom fighters, based on late 13th century history, but legendary and timeless.
So here we are at Theater an der Wien (Vienna’s oldest opera house,) Vienna once the capital of Tell’s Hapsburg oppressors. And director Torsten Fischer sets Rossini’s opera in the here and now…
On a snow-covered stage, men in white t-shirts are fighting, one, William Tell (Christopher Pohl) kills the other with an arrow. There’s a white-on-red cross (representing the Swiss) front of stage. Stylised, dramatic, the background to the famous overture, played incisively by a pared-down, period-instrument sized Wiener Symphoniker under Diego Matheuz. The rebels emerge from under the snow as if resurrected. Tell (Christopher Pohl) embraces his son Jemmy (Anita Rosati), remarkably enacted and beautifully sung. Overhead, projected onto the rear video screen, snow planes. To the rousing William Tell March (the Overture’s Finale) snow-sweepers advance forward with their brooms and shovels. All hands on deck! Very young looking and very hardworking, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.

For the wedding celebration, the girls in white lace are pushed on their high-roped swings by the men in top hats and tails. Tell is dressed by his wife (Marie-Claude Chappins), Pohl in a waistcoat and hat: very wild-west. While Arnold (John Osborn’s) splendid tenor appeals to the women, Tell, Pohl’s expressive baritone, sings of his fears. What a burden is life: they have no country, their life is beset with danger.
The Austrian Princess Mathilde (Jane Archibald) in an elegant blue gown- blue the colour of the Hapsburg oppressors – descends the staircase into the people below. The man in the sharp blue suit is Gesler the Austrian Commander, bass Ante Jerkunica, every inch a tyrant.
The pastor Melcthal (Jérôme Varnier) blesses the newly weds, urging them, and the community, to continue the battle for their endangered liberty. Tell passionately exhorts the people to break their chains of slavery. The enemy tyrants from the upper gallery escort Mathilde back, but -oh dear!- they’re wearing fatigues like a modern army corps.
Must he, Arnold, give her up? They appeal to his comradeship, loyalty to friends, the cause: La patrie his country. (A rehearsal of the moral dilemma Tell will have to face.) He, Arnold, must do the right thing but, Osborn sings passionately, heaven knows how much he loves her!
A shepherd rushes in, blood-covered, having killed one of Gesler’s soldiers attempting rape. The pastor Melcthal is arrested and killed as a reprisal. But the Pastor is Arnold’s brother, which heightens the dramatic conflict. He’s having an affair with the enemy.

Mathilde- Archibald’s soprano powerfully sung, sensitively enacted – sings of the dense woods where her heart finds peace. In modern black-nylon coat, she confronts rifle-carrying Arnold in fatigues, wearing a bullet-proof vest, apparently an (Austrian) guard on border patrol. How relentless is his suffering. And hers. Their illicit affair, merciless. In their duet, Oui, vous l’arrachez á mon âme, Osborn’s lyrical tenor is supple and melodious, Archibald is beautifully sung. >But physically, she blonde, lithe,curvaceous, looms over him, he a slight, stocky, if muscular, figure. She tries to persuade him to continue fighting (with the Hapsburgs.) Do you know what it’s like to love your country, la patrie, he retorts.
Tell appears with Fürst, another partisan ,Edwin Crossley-Mercer- sleek, white-haired, quietly authoritative- who’s deemed eventually to be leader. They confront Arnold about his affair with Mathilde. Using the trump card: that Gesler has had his brother killed. Arnold swears revenge. We see the body shrouded beneath a wreath of white and yellow flowers.
Pohl’s Tell is a wholly credible, heroic figure – blonde, ruggedly good-looking, his baritone exuding passionate authority. Bonheur! Freedom fighters appear from the back of the stage – their hands bloodied- and take position front-stage. They sing, only this god-forsaken, lonely place will know their pain. Avenge the death of his brother! Arnold sings appealing to their patriotism. Reflected on the screen behind them are fighter planes – a video recording- which may seem curious; but meant to universalise these partisans’ struggle. But are the planes the oppressors, or their allies?
Act III opens with a stage in shining aluminium, Arnold in black , Mathilde still in blue. Osborn sings of how his brother was killed: from now on he’ll fight for his country. Archibald attains thrilling coloratura in her aria Mon âme , pleading with him to escape with her: live for life.
Then, back of stage, the occupying army in blue surge forward onto the stage. (But what about the aircraft on the video screen?) Storm troopers terrorise groups of civilians; a commando unit burst into a school. In a horrid exhibition of military abuse, one woman is grabbed, manhandled, and tossed between the soldiers. Gesler, resplendent in military uniform, demands, they must be suppressed. The country wants a sign of loyalty. They have to bow to his hat to prove their obedience. Tell of course refuses. And charged, must shoot an arrow on his son’s head.
Terrible fate; my son, my only hope! Gesler has no mercy. Jemmy, however, will die in his father’s arms. My place is by him, he sings.
Gesler, in his armchair, louche, fingers an apple – big, red – and sniffs it. People sit, men and women divided into two groups. Tell is known as an expert shot, Gesler sings, his face alight with sadistic glee.
There is a God, Tell sings, reflecting on his duty. He pleads to Gesler on his knees. But his son takes the apple, and promises to stand absolutely still. Tell, fears allayed, is inspired by his son’s steadfastness . He will die free, Jemmy sings, (his father’s hand still trembling). Mon fils, accompanied by a plaintive cello, (wonderfully played), Pray to God, only he can save him. Jemmy, think of your mother. The shot- at the back of the stage, over so quickly- the boy unharmed. But Tell had a second arrow -meant for Gesler. He and Jemmy are arrested. But Mathilde intercedes; she will protect him.
The crowd held back by a line of soldiers. Storm troopers threaten, their guns loaded. Gesler will throw him to the reptiles in Lake Lucerne .
The Swiss in uproar revolt, Tell now a popular hero. In Fischer’s expurgated version, Tell confronts Gesler, drives him out, swearing to kill anyone who supports him.
Tell and Gesler wrestle on the revolving stage; in a replay of the opening, Tell kills him with an arrow. Their land is free. Yet, symbolically, Fürst, Crossley-Mercer, puts on Gesler’s military jacket: as if the mastermind, the ruler apparent. The back of the stage has slogans, exhorting Peace and Goodwill. The Chorus of Swiss fighters sing Liberté redescends again from the heavens.
The whole experience has been overwhelming. Performances of Guillaume Tell are relatively rare, the staging challenging. Yet Theater an der Wien succeeded with tight resources. That’s if you’re not phased by this modern take with its cuts; not obtrusive, intelligently thought out. The cast were rightly enthusiastically applauded. © P.R.21.10.2018
Photos: Christoph Pohl (Guillaume Tell), Anita Rosati (Jemmy); Marie-Claude Chappuis (Hedwige), Christoph Pohl, Edwin Crossley-Mercer(Furst); Jérôme Varnier (Melcthal), John Osborn (Arnold); Jane Archibald (Mathilde), John Osborn (Arnold); Gesler (Ante Jerkunika)
Photas © Moritz Schell

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