The Year Ahead: 2009/10

Nights at the Opera: Oct. 2009

There are no less than three opera premieres in Vienna this month. In the Staatsoper, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, previously produced only in its other, later version, Katerina Ismailova, begins to unfold its tragic tale on Oct. 23.  At the Volksoper, there is an even more tragic tale in one of the best loved operas of all time, Verdi’s Rigoletto – the hunchback jester whose thirst for retribution results in the murder of the daughter whose seduction he is seeking to avenge. This new production, which opens on Oct. 17, transposes the opera to a modern setting and is in German. Two days earlier, Rossini’s relatively unknown Tancredi (1813), another tragedy, comes to the stage in Theater an der Wien. (see Events, p.25).

This is by way of introducing one of the dilemmas facing opera goers in Vienna.  In most other places the decision about going to the opera is infrequent and simply one of deciding whether to go or not. In Vienna, with the exception of Christmas Eve (Weihnachtsabend) and Good Friday (Karfreitag) one can go to the opera every day of the year and have, nearly always, a choice of opera and house as well. One solution is to take out a subscription (Abonnement) – for a particular cycle or for a series of five performances. Subscriptions are so precious that they may remain in families for generations. The drawback is that the programme for each subscription is fixed by the house so you may not get to see your favourites.

Leaving aside new productions, which are always a draw, and the recently completed production of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen, which will be presented in November and again in March, the top ten in the Staatsoper might well be the following:

In October, I would rush out to see the last Don Carlo on October 1, simply on the basis of how well the cast integrated in a gripping performance a week earlier. In November, Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos is always attractive and all the more so when the cast includes Edita Gruberova. The new interpretation of Richard Wagner’s wonderful Tristan and Isolde under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle is an absolute must in December. I will never forget the advice I got in the Stehplätze (the standing room section) at my first Tristan: “just close your eyes and go with the music,” which turned out to be very sound advice for some of the visual aspects of recent “modern” productions. The second half of January traditionally features Mozart in commemoration of his birthday on the 27th. The choice is between Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro. For now that remains open.

In February the second half of the season begins. The Opera Ball is on February 11. For the past few years, the matinee performance of The Magic Flute for Children on the day following the Ball has been one of the happiest and most delightful of the year.

Incidentally, it is also one for which it is very difficult to get tickets. It is a very special occasion and the cast includes a magic tree who enjoys the show at least as much as the young audience whose shrieks of joy are the equivalent of a standing ovation.

If Mozart has been the January choice, then the final performance of Bellini’s I Puritani with Edita Gruberova on Feb. 3 should be marked into the calendar. If you want something away from the mainstream, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron returns in March. It is certainly challenging, but is worth the effort when we want to expand our operatic horizons. Verdi’s political masterpiece, Simon Boccanegra with Leo Nucci and Ain Anger as the twin towers of conflict and Olga Guryakova as Maria/Amelia in this very striking 2002 production is the alternative of choice. It is also scheduled in December.

Once again, April is the most difficult with at least five first choices to be made.

First is the Easter must, Wagner’s Parsifal. We can escape from this by waiting until the last night of the season when both the season and the reign of Director Ion Holender (The Magic Tree) are brought to a close by a special performance of the same work. More about that on another occasion.

Now we have to make a pick between La Bohème with Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala; The Barber of Seville with Daniela Fally, Javier Camarena and Alfred Sramek;  Rigoletto with Patricia Ciofi, newcomer Giuseppe Gipali, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Marco Armiliato in the pit; La Sonnambula with Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Florez, Michele Pertusi and Armiliato again in charge; I Puritani again, but this time with Anna Netrebko, and we still haven’t mentioned Der Rosenkavalier with Ricarda Merbeth, Angelica Kirchschlager, Ileana Tonca and Wolfgang Bankl or Werther with Vesselina Kasarova, Ramon Vargas and Adrian Erod.

The only solution then for April is to take two week’s vacation and see them all! But if you really can do only one, then perhaps the experience of La Fille du Regiment is pointing towards La Sonnambula as choice of the month, and perhaps of the year.

An immediate challenge looms in May with Mariss Jansons conducting Carmen with Elina Garanca, Anna Netrebko and Marcello Giordani as Don Jose. For June it’s either the final night’s Parsifal or the final appearance as Musical Director of Seiji Ozawa when he conducts Eugen Onegin.

The moral of the story is that you may need the fingers of more than two hands to count the ten best at the Staatsoper in a given year. And then there are three more opera houses…

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