Summer Castles In the Sky
With the main halls closed in July and August, music (and dance) is found in some unlikely places
Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet played at Schloss Kittsee with new choreography by Mário Radačovský | Photos: Alec Kinnear
This summer’s performances of Joseph Beer’s Die Polnische Hochzeit were the first Austrian showings | Photos: Rolf Bock
There’s always a hint of danger when going to an outdoor summer concert around Vienna. The chance it will rain lies at around 50 per cent. And indeed: This year was the Wiener Operettensommer’s fourth season, but I still haven’t had a picnic in the Theresianum park or seen its stage, reputedly in front of a beautiful Baroque “Grotto”.
No, once again, it was raining cats and dogs, and the whole production got moved to a community centre at the edge of the 10th District: stuffy, low ceiling, and acoustic tiles.
What a surprise! Within minutes of the opening strains of Joseph Beer’s Die Polnische Hochzeit, I had forgotten the room, the uncomfortable seat, and the stage that reminded me of a high-school gym. Bright and fun, with some great big band moments and a final, melancholic drinking song: “In the end, no one is faithful but your dog and your wine.” The humour was of the best Viennese variety: witty, lightly clowning, and on occasion, even genuinely intelligent. Patricia Nessy in the role of Suza was a particularly emancipated, clear-headed woman.
Open to operetta
As far as operettas go, writing one in 1937 was a bit anachronistic. The heyday in Vienna had been around the turn of the century. By the ‘30s, film music had become a great way for composers to make money, and the new genre of musical (a play with some songs) was gaining the upper hand on the stage. Nonetheless, 1937 is the year 29-year-old Joseph Beer wrote his operetta Hochzeit: a cheery operetta with some talking.
It was bad timing. After first performances in Zurich (and then on 40 stages around Europe), the planned Viennese performances never happened. The composer (and his librettists, Alfred Grünwald and Fritz Löhner-Beda) were not the kind of people the Nazis took kindly to, and the production was closed down in rehearsal. After the war, Beer withdrew permission for his early works to be performed in the German-speaking world. This summer’s performances were Austrian premieres, with permission given by his daughters. His widow travelled from Nice for opening night.
The work is altogether worthy of standing in the company of the best – Lehár, Strauss, and the rest. Many hope that the Volksoper will add this lost gem to the repertoire.
Another rain-threatened festival unfolded at Schloss Kittsee, an hour from Vienna in the three-country corner of Burgenland, where you can still sometimes hear Hungarian and Slovak being spoken. Luckily the rain stopped just in time and the performance could begin, an hour later than planned. It was worth the wait: Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet danced on the pond in front of the palace. No, they were not walking on water; the pond was covered by a stage, with simple wooden-chair seating on the lawn around the edges. So close that if there had been some water, we could have dipped in our toes. The new dance summer festival featured the Balet Bratislava, together with members of the Grand Rapids Ballet Michigan, with refreshing choreography by Mário Radačovský. The delay caused by the rain couldn’t have been better timed: At the moment Juliet died, the nearby church bells started ringing.
The Schloss is currently getting a new coat of paint inside and hosting a series of concerts in its small Festsaal, which reportedly has virtually perfect acoustics. Like the myriad of palaces, cloisters, and monasteries in the countryside, it is finding a new cultural function.
Another surprise this summer was at Altenburg Abbey near Horn, northwest of Vienna and again, not more than an hour away. The Festival Teatro Barocco didn’t take any chances with the weather. They put up their stage in the library.
The abbey’s huge walls of ancient, leather-bound books, the Baroque frescoed ceiling, and the candle-lit wooden stage set the scene for two short Baroque operas: Ariadne auf Naxos, by Georg Benda, and Der Bassgeiger zu Wörgl, by Johann Michael Haydn, brother of the more famous Joseph. Utterly delightful, with efforts at authenticity happily not reduced to fanatical purism. The discrete lighting did have a bit of electrical support and the musicians played with a nice, full tone. But the illusion was perfect and we were transported to another era.