A Long-Lost Cherubini in Klagenfurt

A revival of Koukourgi celebrating 100 years of the City Theater in Carinthia

A scene from Koukourgi, a play that premiered in Klagenfurt in September | Photo courtesy of City Theater

The new City Theater in Carinthia’s capital Klagenfurt was completed Sept. 22, 1910, a hundred years ago. As one of the jewels of this small city with a population of less than a hundred thousand, Klagenfurt and the theater held a grand celebration with the premiere of an opera never performed there before.

But what to choose?

The obvious answer would be to stage one of the most famous Italian operas from Verdi or perhaps more patriotic Don Giovanni or The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. Interestingly enough, Klagenfurt State Theater didn’t make the predictable choice. Instead they decided to revive a very obscure, never performed work from composer Luigi Cherubini, most famous for his Medea. Theater Intendant Josef E. Köpplinger asked leading Cherubini authority Heiko Cullmann who tidied up the manuscript for a premiere of Koukourgi.

Koukourgi had originally been scheduled for a premiere in the winter of 1792-1793 in Paris. But the librettist Honoré-Nicolas-Marie Duveyrier was forced to flee the Reign of Terror, and the manuscript was lost until a few years ago, when it turned up in Krakow.

With this choice, Köpplinger scored an exclusive coup for Klagenfurt’s State Theater: a world premiere of a two hundred-plus year old opera, as well as exclusive rights to the finished score and libretto. The premiere of garnered enough international interest for a live broadcast on Austria’s ORF and the Central European public channel, 3sat.

Unlike many similar projects resurrecting lesser-known operas, theater or dance, Koukourgi is a highly entertaining piece of theater, which fell into obscurity because it was lost rather than because it was unpopular. If anything, Koukourgi is almost too light and easily digested – almost like something out of Hollywood.

It is the tale of an anti-hero, Koukourgi, in the legendary days of the Chinese imperial dynasties, and his competitor in love Amazan. Together they struggle with the Tatars, and fight for the hand of warrior princess Zulma.

Koukourgi, the narrator, is a flawed man: He eats too much and prefers to avoid the fighting, scheming to have the real hero Amazan die at the hands of the Tatars. In the end, Amazan is victorious, winning the girl and military honors, while Koukourgi is left alone with his rich suppers.

The story is far too frothy, perhaps, to leave a deep impression on the soul, but then again, so are many of our favorite Hollywood films. There is enough action with the constant battles that you are left in constant suspense. Happily, the music is very well composed and was sturdily performed by the Carinthian Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps when audiences become better acquainted, a lasting affection that so many hold for, say, a Fledermaus or The Merry Widow, will grow here too.

The most striking part of the Klagenfurt Koukourgi is the stage design by Johannes Leiacker, who uses long light filled tubes, which look like a neon future. The main set is a six-meter-high mask of an angry face, the Chinese god of war who stares menacingly out at the audience for most of the evening with smoke and red light pouring out of his eyes and nose. Maria Luise Walek’s army of Chinese soldiers wear the same half-mask on the top of their faces, creating an identical and fearsome looking group.

The whole art direction seems a combination of Star Wars and Blade Runner, more set in the future than in the past. Leiacker creates a seemingly perfect look into the Chinese dynasties, with the appearance of greater knowledge about the subject than most Westerners could boast.

Performances were uniformly solid, if not spectacular, with Daniel Prohaska as Koukourgi showing a great deal of charm in both monologues and song. Johannes Chum, as warrior hero Amazan, seemed somewhat diffident. Love interest Cigdem Soyarsian Zulma had wonderful moments of near ethereal musical transport, but too often fell into pedestrian rendition. Her inconsistency frustrated. Leonardo Galeazzi as Koukourgi’s father and supreme general Zamti offered a resounding and imperial bass throughout his appearance at the end of the second act.

The question remains: how important is it to bring back the commercial art of another epoch? In the end, like an evening at the Hollywood film du jour, Koukourgi is an evening very enjoyably spent. And maybe that is enough.

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