Nights at the Opera: A Preview for July & August 08

The 2007-2008 season is over. Opera houses are dark until September.  What is to be done?

First, a moment’s reflection on some of the highlights of June: In the Staatsoper, the new, glittering production of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio was the most warmly received premiere of the Season. Didn’t see it? Four more performances with the same cast are scheduled for October. Not so with the back-to-back Italian and French versions of Verdi’s Don Carlo/Don Carlos, which were fascinating to see together not least because of  their totally different productions. Incidentally, the American tenor Franco Farina has now sung the title role in both versions in the one house.

The Volksoper closed wreathed in smiles, with seat occupancy in May more than 91 percent. And on tour in Tokyo, more than 23,000 people attended the company’s 11 performances and extra dates had to be set for shows as diverse as the ballet Max and Moritz and the musical My Fair Lady.

The good news is that Theater an der Wien remains open for the off season. The summer program includes five performances of Luisa Fernanda, a zarzuela (traditional genre of Spanish opera combining dialogue with song) with Maria Jose Montiel and Placido Domingo leading the cast in July. In August, there are five performances of a new production of Die Zauberflote.

The summer months, though, are the time to enjoy the festivals and outdoor performances in Vienna and further afield. [See the Events listings: “Opera” p.15].

The biggest and most famous festival is, of course, in Salzburg, where the streets and bridges are alive with the sounds of music from Jul. 26 to Aug. 31.  The program is huge and includes a range of events from glamorous and expensive opera first nights, through major orchestral concerts and solo performances to young artists’ events, workshops and music camps for kids.

The festival atmosphere in Salzburg is wonderful. I recommend a cup of coffee on the balcony of Tomaselli’s with a bird’s eye view of the square and the buzz of an impromptu performance and the traffic of happy people in festival form, or a late night supper at the Triangel, where the laughter at the next table may be from the cast of that evening’s opera relaxing after their performance.

On March 1, 2005 a young, energetic and dramatic tenor with big black bushy eyebrows and irrepressible good humour made his debut in Vienna as Romeo at the Staatsoper. At the end, the house stood in rapturous applause, knowing that in Rolando Villazon they had encountered greatness. A month later Villazon stepped in for an indisposed Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, and to thunderous applause, sang an encore ( a very rare event in the Staatsoper) of his aria “Una Furtiva Lagrima” and again the house rose to its feet when the curtains fell.  On that occasion ORF captured it all and we can relive it on the DVD that is available in the Staatsoper Arcade and in all classical recordings stores in Vienna. Rolando Villazon sings Romeo again in Salzburg in eight performances between Aug. 2 and 25, and I am still in search of a ticket. He is not singing in the performance on Aug. 19 when Romeo will be sung by John Osborn.

Two of the spectacular open air productions this summer are of great opera favourites. One is La Traviata at St. Margarethen (see Opera listings in the Events pages).  The other is at Bregenz where the festival stage is in the waters of the Bodensee (Lake Constance). Thanks to the Euro Football Cup  every football fan and couch potato will have seen the Bregenz stage, dominated by a giant eye, as it was the setting for the after-match commentary for all matches in the European Soccer Championships. The eye belongs to Puccini’s Tosca, which runs from  July 23 to Aug. 23.

Too far for a day trip from Vienna, it’s an adventure by train. Inspired by a teacher from Munich (who used to drive to the Wiener Staatsoper after work, stand in Stehplatz and then drive home again), I once went to Bregenz by rail, visited the Festival Center, took in an opera and returned by an early train to Vienna just as the sun began to cast its rays over the waters of the Bodensee – wonderful but admitedly exhausting. A more prudent idea might be a holiday trip taking the car on the train (yes, you can do this) with an opera in Bregenz as part of the program. When convenience is the priority, a fine Meridian hotel can be found about fifty meters away. The Festival at Bregenz is a lot more than the opera on the lake.

The Music Festival at Schloss Grafenegg (A22, then S5 towards Krems as far as Grafenworth exit) opens on Aug. 21 with a performance of  Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust with Iris Vermillion (Marguerite), Giuseppe Sabbatini (Faust), Sergei Leiferkus (Mephistoles) and Alfred Muff (Brander) in the singing roles.  Although occasionally staged, the work was written as a concert opera (opera de concert) and is presented as the opening concert of the Music Festival. As Gounod’s opera Faust will appear as a new production at the Staatsoper in October, this performance is a must for me. The beautiful white stone castle with its black roofs and Disney-like turrets has become home to a prize-winning open-air stage (Wolkenturm), a very modern and acoustically perfect Auditorium, along with a chamber music and lecture hall in the converted Riding School in the beautifully maintained parkland surrounding it.

Information and tickets for all the festival from Kartenburo Grafenegg, A-3485 Grafenegg 10. Tel. 02735 5500 or from MuseumsQuartier Wien A-1070. Tel 586 8383.  The concert begins at 1915. There is a bus from the Musikverein at 1645. (€10).

On a more intimate scale, but invariably an enjoyable evening’s excursion from Vienna is the opera at the Burgruine (castle ruins) at Gars am Kamp.  In a relaxed, friendly atmosphere, less than an hour from town, the operas at the Burgruine are always very appealing. I expect that this year’s Aida will be no exception. As parking at the Burg is very limited you need to be prepared for a 10 to 15-minute hike up the hill. Plenty of refreshments and interval sustenance are available.

A walk around the Burg dominating the Kamptal gives the imagination a sense of history and wonderment about who may have tread the battlements, and nightfall generally brings a bright, starry sky as a canopy for theatre. Sometimes resident birds add their song to the score as they flit in and out of secret nesting sites in the walls. This is definitely one of my favorite opera pilgrimage sites, along with a friend from New Zealand, who insists on coming “in July, if we can go to Gars….” Eleven performances of Aida between July18 and Aug. 10 starting at 20:00. Info/tickets at (01) 3102026.

Finally, a reminder to think of the weather and comfort when planning an outdoor event. Also, tickets for the Staatsoper and the Volksoper in September are now on sale.

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