Donau Festwochen

Grein is a Perfect Setting for Music, as Disarming and Seductive as the Opera Itself

If you take the Erlebniszug Wachau from the Südbahnhof, to St. Valentin, the picturesque town of Grein is located about a three-hour ride west from Vienna in Oberösterreich. The train takes the route across some of the beautiful Austrian landscapes, passing the monastery of Melk to the renowned wine area of Wachau.

Every summer, Grein is the center of the DonauFestwochen, this year from Jul. 27 to Aug. 15  in the Grainer Schloss. Perched on a hill close to the center, the Schloss overlooks the serpentine Strudengau section of the Danube, renowned for navigational perils for passing ships in the years before the river was regulated. Today, the stunning landscape looks innocent enough, and is a favorite of hikers and cyclists who disappear into the countryside each summer.

The closing scene of Benda’s Romeo und Julie with Maximillian Kiener, Dieter Kschwendt-Michel, and Barbara Kraus | Photo: A. M. Brandstaetter

It’s also a perfect setting for music, as disarming and seductive as the opera itself.

“Music touches you, moves you, irritates you, carries you away, or calms you down – because music reveals our inner truths,” said Michi Gaigg,  founder of the Linz-based L’Orfeo Baroque Orchestra and Intendant of the festival. For this year, Gaigg had prepared the first operatic setting in three acts of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a German singspiel by Mozart contemporary Anton Benda (1722 – 1795).

It was 18:00 on the evening of the premier on Aug. 5 as we took our seats in the main courtyard of the castle, where a spare stage of scaffolding indicated the Capulet’s house, with an upper level suggesting Juliet’s room and balcony. The frame was softened with curtains and canvases, skilfully designed and created by the students of the Polytechnischer Lehrgang in Grein as part of an opera workshop. It was a clever and versatile set that rotated to reveal below Juliet’s grave among the dark tombstones.

“It’s one way our festival engages young people,” Gaigg said. “The workshop confronts the teenagers with opera, for at least once in their lives.” In addition, children and adolescents up to the age of 16 are given free admission to all performances.

Benda’s opera takes a new look at the traditional story and starts at the point of the drama when Juliet receives the news that Romeo had killed her brother Tybalt. But unlike Shakespeare’s play, it also ends happily, as Juliet awakes in time to prevent Romeo taking his own life and concludes with Juliet’s father agreeing to their marriage.

In Romeo und Julie (1776), the composer followed the tradition of the opera seria with recitatives, arias and extensive scenes for the soloists, connected by spoken text, the first indications for the developing genre of the German singspiel. The opera has no chorus and requires only a small ensemble.

“Despite our financial limitations, the promotion of excellent young singers is essential in our concept,” Gaigg said. And indeed, the performance was well cast, with German soprano Barbara Kraus as Julie, timid at first but growing in stature as the performance progressed. She was paired with the excellent tenor Maximilian Kiener in his first role, whose acrobatics included agilely scrambling up the scaffolding on the outside and, with an elegant jump, appearing in Julie’s room.

The Bosnian mezzo-soprano Maika Karisik was charming as the maid, Laura, with a lovely lower range, but slightly struggling at the top. Capulet, Julie’s father, sung by the Viennese baritone Dieter Kschwendt-Michel, presented a father moved by his daughter’s apparent death, and overcoming the vendetta, able to forgive and unite the lovers.

The L’Orfeo Braoque Orchestra conducted by Gaigg, supported the drama very effectively on period instruments that give quite a different feel to the early classical sound.  Although the height of the operatic development was still to come with Mozart, the charm of Benda’s music is undeniable and the whole ensemble offered a moving, at moments nearly heartbreaking, performance.

The packed audience clearly appreciated the performance, greeting it with generous applause, although some seemed clearly puzzled by the happy ending. Perhaps It was simply too cheerful for an opera classic.

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