Jazz Nights: Opera Season Highlights

Saturday, Nov. 22.  Reveille at 5.00 a.m. in order to be there by 6.00 a.m.  Venturing out, it was still pitch black, but the year’s first snow had blanketed the cars parked in the street. There was very little traffic: some tired taxis and bustling early morning Bims. Got there before 6.00 a.m., armed with a week’s supply of Sudoku and took up station on the Ring. It was cold and the wind was merciless, swirling into every sheltering corner with a determination that was cruel. It was still dark, so no Sudoku.  Musing, I recalled that my hero was killed on November 22. That was in 1963. Now, in 2008, perhaps a new hero is emerging. Two others arrived. An energetic young man swept up to the colonnade on his bicycle and a well muffled lady, a night nurse at the AKH, had got there as quickly as possible after her shift had ended.  The man was well versed in the immediacy of the situation.

“Only about 250 altogether.” The trio understood the implication.

“And with 12 points going that means……” we understood what it meant.

Others arrived, but in daylight so they weren’t really part of the vigil.  The wind became stronger and colder.

“How long more till 8?”

“ – But it is Saturday!”

“ -Und?”

“-It begins at nine on Saturday!”

And the icy wind ripped into us again.  By now, we three were close friends.  After all, we had shared the same interest for many years.  There were so many memories of the great and the not so great, of the thrilling shared experiences. Suddenly it was 9.00am. The throng was bigger.  We looked knowingly.  All but a few were going to be disappointed.   The doors opened.  Two minutes later the vigil was all over. We had got our tickets for La Bohème with Rolando Villazon on Dec. 22. Three minutes later, the house was sold out.  The cold, the wind, and the Sudoko were forgotten and we went our separate ways – mission accomplished.

La Bohème is a perfect Christmas opera as the plot develops from  the four bohemian characters setting out to celebrate Christmas at the Café Momus in Montmartre. At the Wiener Staatsoper, the Zeffirelli staging of the second act is magnificent and regularly draws gasps of admiration and applause from appreciative audiences. Puccini was born on December 22, 1858, so this is a special occasion.

The Volksoper Wien celebrates Puccini’s birthday with a performance of its new Tosca with Ann-Marie Backlund in the title role.  This is the production in which Tosca does not launch herself from the parapets of Castello San Angelo onto waiting mattresses or trampolines but dies onstage all of a sudden.

The festive season of Christmas and New Year is well reflected in the opera houses (see the opera listings on page 15).  The Nussknacker (Staatsoper) and Hänsel und Gretel (Volksoper) are both ideal family shows. Die Fledermaus runs in both houses on New Year’s Eve.  It is the last remaining Gala night in the Staatsoper’s annual calendar.

Gotterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) is the final part of Wagner’s Ring der Niebelungen (Ring of the Niebelungs) and the premiere of the new production on Dec. 8 (a holiday) is eagerly awaited. The premiere of  Rheingold is yet to come (May 2009), but Ring fans may wish to remember that there will be three cycles of the new Ring performed in May and June.

Some Wagnerian productions have been  full of  straining heldentenors and lots of instrumental banging and bashing, but a notable feature of this new production is the focus the conductor, Franz Welser- Möst, places on the beautiful lyricism of the music and the singing with remarkably pleasing results.

Richard Strauss gets quite an airing at the Staatsoper this season with no less than five operas on the program: Arabella, Ariadne auf Naxos, Capriccio, Der Rosenkavalier and Salome. The most recent was Salome in which Gerhard Siegel made his house debut as Herod with great dramatic force as a truly disgusting beast.  Salome is renowned for two reasons. One, she demands and gets the severed head of  John on a silver salver and two, she dances for Herod (the seven veils). Deborah Voigt sang passionately, but certainly didn’t dance. Whoever did deserves a credit line in the programme.

The next is Der Rosenkavalier, which takes a Molieresque tilt at the foibles of society and social ambition with very comic results.  For beautiful music, the presentation of the rose and the final trio and duet are hard to beat in Strauss.  It will be particularly delightful with this cast.  See opera listings on page 15.

Last season, the back to back performances of Verdi’s Don Carlo (in Italian) and Don Carlos (in French) were very well supported.  There is a new experiment with the back to back theme with two operas of the same story; namely, that of the tragic Manon Lescaut. Unlike the Don Carlos experience where you have two versions of the same music, here we have two very different operas: Manon Lescaut by Puccini and Manon by Massenet.  It should be interesting. (Staatsoper, Jan. 24 and 25).

Giuseppe Verdi is not neglected either:  La Forza del Destino returns for three further performances at the Staatsoper ( Jan. 23, 26 & 30).  The first performance of Un Ballo in Maschera is on Jan. 31 when Indra Thomas makes her house debut as Amelia and Marco Berti sings the unfortunate Gustav III. Carlos Alvarez performs Ankarstrom, so perhaps another vigil is looming.

Happy Christmas and an Operatic New Year!

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