Highlights in February 2009

Verdi’s Stiffelio

José Cura as Stiffelio in Verdi’s Stiffelio | Photo: Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Zeininger

Spring is in the air! The weather in February is not always so reassuring, but new growth and purpose is all around us. Sights are set, goals are planned, kilos are shed (at least in intent) and training has begun so that the best can be achieved later in the year.

Opera is not immune to the phenomenon of early Spring. In the Wiener Staatsoper, the gallop at the end of the quadrille at the Opernball on Feb. 17 will reveal many promising young sprinters and some not so young, whose hearts may be startled by the exertion.

Marathon performers prepare slowly and build to peak readiness in time for the event. The operatic marathon this season is Wagner’s Ring Cycle, run over about 16 hours in four parts.  The new production of all four operas of the Ring of the Nibelungs will be completed shortly and the full cycle will be performed twice, once in May, between the 16th and 21st, and again in June, between the 6th and 11th. Those planning to attend should consider booking tickets early, and to ensure maximum enjoyment a gentle training programme is recommended.

Alert opera-goers could have begun getting in shape at the Musikverein in January, when the Vienna Philharmonic played the Ring ohne Worte (Ring Without Words), a truly masterly compilation of the music of Wagner’s Ring by conductor Lorin Maazel, condensed into about 90 minutes.

But for those who missed it, a CD with good notes may be a perfect starting point. Then, an understanding of the drama and interweavings of the many characters, gods, humans, giants, dwarfs, river maidens, a dragon and a woodland bird, are important. To this the symbolism of some key dramatic elements must be added: Gold, a spear and a sword, for example.

To this mix, add emotions such as love, greed, envy, courage and the seven deadly sins (Wagner covers a lot of ground). Each of these has a musical counterpart or motif. The ‘burn will be in remembering what is what. For the non-marathoners, watching and listening may be quite enough.

I remember being dragged, reluctantly, to my first Ring opera, Das Rheingold on Feb. 27, 2001. The instructions were “You must come, you don’t have to understand it, just go wherever the music takes you.” That was six complete Rings and many Ring operas ago.

To begin spring on a lighter note, you may wish to trip over to the Volksoper Wien where the choice of 10 different offerings begins with My Fair Lady (Feb. 1 and 7) and almost ends with a preview of Guys and Dolls (Feb. 27). As with most productions at the Volksoper, both are sung in German. This is very interesting for Anglophones, particularly in the case of My Fair Lady, where accent is so important a part of social definition.

However, as George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based, premiered in German at the Hofburg Theater in 1913 – because of delays in London suspected to reflect the discomfort of upper-class British patrons – Vienna and German can be said to have a special claim to the show.

If Guys and Dolls enjoys anything like the success of My Fair Lady, the Volksoper has another big hit in its hands: The musicals are balanced with two of the most popular operettas Die Fledermaus (Feb. 20 and 24) and Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) on Feb. 18 and 26. If you still don’t feel ready for Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen then Oscar Straus’s operetta from 1904: Die lustigen Nibelungen (Feb. 6 and 22) might be just the thing. Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has five performances (Feb. 3, 8, 14, 21 and 28).

Three of the eight operas being staged in the Staatsoper are by Verdi. Two of them, Un Ballo in Maschera (Feb. 3, 6, and 9) and the rarely performed Stiffelio (Feb. 7, 10 and 13) have a couple of common features: They are the only two Verdian operas in which the married heroines are prepared to cheat, and both have alternative versions.

In Un Ballo, the affair doesn’t actually take place, whereas in Stiffelio it is openly admitted and forgiven. The title, character names and setting of Un Ballo in Maschera were changed for political reasons at the behest of the censor, as the assassination of a King was not an acceptable subject at the time. Stiffelio wasn’t popular but Verdi recognized that his music was very good, so he reworked it into a new shape and called it Aroldo.

As fate would have it, Aroldo is even more rarely performed than its parent opera.  Stiffelio was last performed here in November 2004 with José Cura and Hui He in the main leads, which they sing again this time.

The third opera is Nabucco (Feb. 23 and 26), of which the Chorus ‘Va pensiero’ is one of the ten most popular pieces of operatic music ever written. In a poignant scene, walls of Hebrew writing on the back-cloth appear and tumble away, symbolizing the attack on the ancient Jews in a contemporary form.

Manon Lescaut (Feb. 1 and 5), Salome and three favorites, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, (Feb. 12 and 15), La Boheme, (Feb. 24 and 27) and Carmen (Feb. 25 and 28) complete the bill with wonderful casts and music, which will be more than enough to put a Spring in your step!!

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