Opera Nights

Nights At The Opera: September 2008

Columns | Oliver Macdonald | September 2008

Opera is reborn in Vienna each September, as we look forward to the new season in the city’s four opera houses: The Vienna State Opera, the Volksoper Wien, Theater an der Wien and small, but lively Kammeroper. For some new to the city, opera may be a discovery, both in the quality and quantity that are to be found in Vienna. I will always regret when I arrived years ago waiting for more than six months before venturing through the portals of the Wiener Staatsoper.

September also marks an end to the Summer Festivals, on whom the weather was less than kind this year.  And as usual, Salzburg was the great, glamorous fest of music at its most extravagant.

Two personal highlights of this year’s Salzburg Festival: Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, performed by the Wiener Philharmoniker with soloists Genia Kühmeir and Peter Mattei and the Vienna State Opera Chorus, some 80 strong, all under a batonless Ricardo Muti and in memory of Herbert Von Karajan – stunningly good and leaving the audience of the Grosses Festspielhaus visibly moved.

Perhaps the funniest moment was one evening when, while many were thronging to spot the famous and glamorous, a mother with a young son explained that they were there because he loved to watch the big cars!!  Truly, Salzburg is the Festival with something for everyone. Of course the visit included time for fish soup in the Triangel.

In Vienna, the Staatsoper has scheduled a total of 228 performances of 47 operas, 55 ballet presentations – an output unmatched by any other opera house in the world.  The program includes The Magic Flute for children, as well as childrens’ operas in the rooftop tent theater, conducted by New Yorker David Aronson. The 47 operas include four new productions and two revivals, with the first premiere of Gounod’s Faust on Oct. 11.  Tickets go on sale Sept. 11.

Nine operas and one ballet, Onegin, are on in September, most to reappear later in the season with a different cast. In addition to the operas listed in Vienna Events [See p. 15], are Richard Strauss’s powerful Ariadne auf Naxos and Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra with a final performance Oct.1. This year, the great Italian baritone Leo Nucci will replace American superstar Thomas Hampton in the lead role. There will also be four performances (Sept. 6, 9, 12, and 15) of the new production of La Forza del Destino with most of last year’s original cast still in place.  Il Barbiere has the first of eight scheduled performances during the year on Sept. 8, a good opportunity to contrast it with the new production, in German, at the Volksoper. Sept. 30 is the first of four performances of Tchaikovski’s wonderful opera of Pushkin’s Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades).

At the Volksoper, after a major makeover this summer, there is another full program, with 291 performances including 84 operetta, 122 opera, 38 musicals, 30 ballets and a mixed bag of 17 special events.

The season opens on Sept. 4 with the Premiere of an operetta by Eduard Künneke, Der Vetter aus Dingsda, with five further performances Sept. 6, 9, 15, 24 and 29. If, like me, you have never heard it, there are some 30,000 entries on Google. For other offerings, see Vienna Events, p 15. Highlights include two performances of Die Zauberflöte on Sept. 14  and 20. Then Max and Moritz, the wonderfully funny children’s ballet for children premiers on the Sept. 21. Other perennials include Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) Sept. 7 and 11, Orpheus in der Unterwelt, (Sept. 10,13, 17 and 27) and Die Fledermaus on Sept. 28.

However one of the season’s crowns will be My Fair Lady. As the work relies considerably on the importance of speech in English society of yesteryear, where the right accent and "speaking proper" were indispensable tools for social success, it was fascinating to hear it played in German.  To the best of my all-too-limited knowledge of the subject, the Viennese equivalent of Covent Garden cockney was that of the prison warden ‘Frosch’ in Die Fledermaus.  Now I once had a secret ambition to be able to speak German like ‘Frosch.’ So imagine my delight to find that the Viennese Alfred Doolittle speaks German exactly like ‘Frosch.’

What I didn’t find out until later, was that the Viennese come by this honestly: George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady was based, premiered not in London, as I had always assumed, but at the Hofburg Theater in Vienna, the British benign too thin skinned to take kindly to Shaw’s satire.

The production is full of oomph and makes great use of the revolving stage and large backcloths. The opening scene is definitely London and probably a corner of Covent Garden, it was almost deserted, about as plausible as an empty Naschmarkt on a Saturday morning. Perhaps it was a victim of the economic downturn.  Still, the show is grand and will certainly sell out quickly.

And a propos of sell-outs, which are the Top Ten at the Staatsoper this year?  Answer comes next month along with an overview of the other houses. Comments welcome.

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    the vienna review September 2008