Opera Impressions

Nights at the Opera: May 2012

A scene from Hans Henze's Das Wundertheater, playing in June at the Volksoper. | Photo: Barbara Pálffy, Volksoper Wien

The recent presentation in the Volksoper of two one-act operas in very cleverly similar settings focussed attention on the subject of theatre and reality. From there, it is a short leap to musing about the role of opera as theatre. The time is particularly relevant as all three houses have now published their programmes for the next season which begins in September. The programme books are first class and are as important to even the most occasional opera visitor as is a driving licence, even if you drive only once a year. A good look at these comprehensive handbooks will give a sound idea of where the houses think opera is and where it is going.

I haven’t forgotten the fourth house, the Kammeroper off the Fleischmarkt, but all I can say now is that it will be very closely connected with Theater an der Wien. Given the exciting recent history of that house, I am sure that we are going to have something to look forward to with eager anticipation.

So back to the two operas. One was the very popular I Pagliacci (Der Bajazzo) by Leoncavallo, which is 101 years old and full of memorable tunes and lyrical music. It runs for about 70 minutes. The other, Das Wundertheater, which came first, is by the German composer Hans Henze. It was making its first-ever appearance at the Volksoper. It lasts some 35 minutes; the music is modern with brass and percussion going off like firecrackers on Bonfire Night. Yet it was fascinating. The producer, Thomas Schulte-Michels, set both operas with a stage audience facing out, thereby enclosing the actor/singers in a full circle including the Auditorium. This had the effect of bringing the house audience into a closer participation in what was, or was not being played out within the circle.

In Pagliacci, the stage set was a continuation of the tiers of boxes in the auditorium.  The capacity audience was the Chorus and Silvio. All were dressed in the same shade of grey, but in clothing representing all walks of life. As the story unfolds, we see double action: The players are overcome by their real life passions in the middle of the performance. A double murder results, and the play is ended immediately by the famous line “La comedia e finita.” In contrast, in Das Wundertheater nothing visible happens on stage other than a commentary by the Magician and some supporters. However, good Christians could see all the action, so there is no protest from the stage audience. This may have something to do with being in 16th-century Spain and the efficiency of the Inquisition.

The circle effect reminded me of a performance of Nabucco in Rome last year. Conductor Ricardo Muti yielded to audience demands for an encore of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves Va, pensiero. Then he turned and conducted the whole audience, which was standing and singing with the chorus. Talk about total surround sound. What Gänsehaut (goose-bump) material that was!

Anna Netrebko as Anna Bolena | Photo: Michael Poehn, Wiener Staatsoper

I am reacting to the rather silly current pseudo-arty tenet that opera is “museum art”. In Vienna there are clear signals of a thriving, developing and sometimes very challenging culture of artistic excellence on stage, in the pit, and behind the scenes.

The subtitle Operatic Impressions has been borrowed from another area of artistic excellence connected with opera in Vienna. Since his appointment in September 2010, Michael Poehn’s Staatsoper photography has been gaining a growing and appreciative following. Some 35 of his photographs were exhibited in Galerie Edition Photo in the middle of April. The limited number offered for sale at the vernissage made several thousand euros for the charity Volkshilfe Oesterreich. His outstanding portrait of Anna Netrebko as Anna Bolena was keenly contested and earned a generous four-figure sum.

For now, there is so much great opera to be seen this month…

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