Wozzeck, Ruzowitzky and other strange tales of the opera stage

Half Tones: Jun. 2010

Every theater has its pitfalls. Just a cliché? But it’s just as common as the superstition in show business that you don’t whistle in the halls or on the stairs of a temple to the muses.

At the Theater an der Wien, a jewel of the most precious sort, misused for decades for that dying species, the musical, and where opera is now finally being played again, there are also acoustic pitfalls. Right there, where the sound of Mozart and Rossini is nearly ideal. Until the reopening of the Staatsoper in November 1955 one could hear the thundering of Otello and big Wagner works there, but now an orchestra playing Alban Berg’s Wozzeck has managed to demolish the sound we are used to: loud, coarse and lacking in any nuances. Was the orchestra seated in the wrong place or was the conductor too inexperienced? Maybe the sweet god of the theater knows the answer, but a professional director might have fixed it in advance.

It is certainly strange when the directors of the Vienna Festwochen suddenly feel like they have to do something for Alban Berg (125th birthday, 75th anniversary of his death). The Staatsoper has functioning productions of Wozzeck and Lulu – but they are not being played because they are planned for the Ioan Holender Festival to bid the director farewell – as unpretentious as his own familiar figure has ever been. The bitter punch line on this was delivered by the recently appointed Festwochen President Rudolf Scholten, who recommended there be fewer or even no opera productions at the Festwochen. This is the same Scholten who used to be considered the only hope on the horizon, since the days of Fred Sinowatz and Helmut Zilk, for being an innovative and daring Minister of Culture. That’s what happens if a music director with the stature of Stéphane Lissner (currently artistic director at the Teatro alla Scala Milano and the steward of plenty of side jobs) is nowhere in sight, either in person or in spirit.

But let’s get back to the Theater an der Wien: Director Roland Geyer, darling of the Austrian media (maybe because he and Ioan Holender don’t get along), has repeatedly stated that he hired Stefan Ruzowitzky long before Ruzowitzky received his Oscar coronation. In spite of that, both the artistic director and the film director have lent themselves to the illusion that staging opera is possibly not a very important handicraft – maybe you can do it without any special know-how. In any case, Weber’s Freischütz was a monstrosity. And musically it got a special accolade: Ioan Holender left the performance after 20 minutes…

Another fiasco, even worse, at the Akademietheater: the actors in Ödön von Horvath’s Tales from the Vienna Woods went on strike against the director (Stefan Bachmann), who then signed out during the final rehearsals – “due to illness” of course! The production had long been a mess.

Sorrow and true mourning, however, at the Department of Musicology at the University of Vienna: Prof. Manfred Angerer, successor to Prof. Gernot Gruber upon his retirement, was decidedly an authority in his field – as a thinker, lecturer, researcher and inquisitive mind. Students thronged to his classes. He died at the age of 56 in Vienna – apparently peacefully and without a struggle in the night: with a book in his hands….

And what else has happened lately?

It is an undeniable fact that the City of Vienna – in proportion to its size and population–has culturally the best offerings of any town in the world, and not only with regard to the number of theaters, opera houses, concert halls, etc. Nevertheless, that’s something hard for the typical Viennese, with their tendency towards gloom, to be really proud of. Just to illustrate, imagine the piano scene in the last weeks: Oleg Maisenberg with a mind-blowing Schumann recital, Radu Lupu as the introverted master of taut expansive lines, and the great Martha Argerich with Chopin’s E-minor concerto. If looks could kill, then the prospects for the accompanying orchestra and conductor wouldn’t be very good: at the end she fired livid glances and lightening at anyone who couldn’t stand up to her temperament, her fabulous technique and her absolute will to expression.

Then again, there have been some scandals in other places – not only in the tabloids – that really annoy us. Like all the lies and fraud at the Easter Festival in Salzburg. Even getting as low as the embarrassing affair of Eliette von Karajan paying for swimming suits and lingerie with an Easter Festival credit card.  Clearly indispensible for the image of the Festival’s patroness!

As Georg Büchner wrote, “He doesn’t have any morals, Wozzeck.” Do Gabi Burgstaller and Helga Rabl-Stadler have any morals?  They are proud of having uncovered various incidents of misconduct that have happened during their terms as Governor of the State of Salzburg and as President of the Salzburg Festival. What on earth still has to come to light so that these ladies will finally decide to resign…

This, as Hugo von Hofmannstahl understood in The Woman without a Shadow, is “in the hands of a higher power.”

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