Der Freischütz, Eugen Onegin and Janufa

On The Town | Oliver Macdonald | March 2009

Despite the forebodings of financial doom and gloom, March could be described as a "boom" month with three ballets or other dance productions, fourteen operas, one oratorio, and four operettas or musicals on offer in Vienna’s three main opera houses.

To add festivity to the fare, the program includes a premiere, Eugen Onegin at the Staatsoper, which, if the production remains faithful to Pushkin’s original novel in verse, will contain a ball scene to rival the grandeur of the Opernball at its best.

At the Volksoper, the month begins with the premiere of one of the most popular of all the great American musicals, Guys and Dolls, now aged 59 and performed here in German. Handel’s Messiah, probably the best known of all his oratorios, is usually performed at Christmas, but now we can hear it in its full majesty at the Theater an der Wien in time for Easter. (see opera listings in Events pages).

This is a good month at the Volksoper for anyone who is interested in the more formal genre mix of music, song, and dance and their evolution through time and space. As in all the arts, there are movements and influences whose well-intended labels can be as confusing as they are helpful. All ballet is dance, but not all dance is ballet.

At the Volksoper this month, we have opera, singspiel, operetta, and musicals, all of which are music with song and sometimes dance. During a recent visit to the ancient Heimat, I asked a Dublin friend if he had ever heard of "Singspiel." The reply was instant: "Of course, early 1990s, Singspiel, [sired] by In the Wings out of Glorious Song, a Maktoum thoroughbred, who made about six million at stud." So much for Mozart and The Magic Flute.

The line I was trying to open up was from Mozart through various Straus and Strausses, Offenbach and von Weber to the 20th century musicals. This is all readily established in the Volksoper’s March program with much else included. Der Freischütz (The Marksman) by Carl Maria von Weber is an absolute must for those of us for whom the Germanic development of opera is less familiar than say the Italian or French experiences.

Simplistically, I see opera as mainly all singing without dialogue, although recitative is a form of hurry-up singing bridging the main pieces, while musicals are plays with the highpoints presented as musical numbers and everything else lies in between.

Der Freischütz is somewhere in that middle: It is a folksy love story that mixes dialogue with song and in which supernatural forces are at work for good and evil. One of the best recordings was made in the early 1970s by Carlos Kleiber with the Dresden Staatskapelle.

Der Freischütz comes in the tradition of Singspiel as represented by The Magic Flute and was an important influence on the young Richard Wagner. As such it is a suspension bridge from one musical genius to another, from a magic flute through magic bullets to a magic ring.

Die Fledermaus (The Bat) by Johann Strauss is described variously as opera or operetta. Which is it? An answer I enjoy is that it is operetta in the Volksoper and opera in the Staatsoper – except, as this season, when it is a ballet. It will be interesting to attend both.

Apart from the new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin, there are nine operas to be seen at the Staatsoper. Four firm favorites in the first week: Nabucco, La Bohème, Carmen, and Tosca followed by the wonderfully colorful and comic Falstaff.

Following performances at home in St. Petersburg and at the New York Met, the world’s favorite soprano comes back to Vienna as Lucia di Lammermoor. Anna Netrebko is eagerly awaited, not only for the technical perfection of her voice but also for the dramatic sensitivity she imparts with ever increasing effect to her roles.

In an interview in New York, she referred admiringly to another great Lucia, also much loved in Vienna, the wonderful Edita Gruberova. The beauty lies in the difference of styles and interpretations. My friend, the penguin, who has attended most of Anna’s performances in Vienna, since the first Violetta all those few years ago, tells me that he is going to all four performances.

I tend to fulminate, often loudly, against super-modern productions that I feel betray the composer’s original setting. However, I am equally quick to acknowledge and admire the ones that work. Two of these follow and, while not the easiest of operas either lyrically or dramatically, are very rewarding.

The first is the revival of Jenufa, maybe Leos Janacek’s best-known opera in which the mill house setting is so good we can smell the flour being ground from the bags of corn.

This shocking story of social pressures and failed relationships that lead to the murder of a baby succeeds so well in this production, capturing the tensions and agonies in an atmosphere of every day life. Agnes Baltsa is hauntingly strong as the Kuesterin, herself a tragically haunted woman. Ricarda Merbeth will sing the unfortunate Jenufa.

The second is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, first performed in 1920 when Korngold was only 23, another sort of tragic psycho drama in which Paul, who lives in Bruges, the Dead City, is frozen into a fantasy world in a single room following the death of his wife.

Her memory becomes confused with that of an actress, and the two are fused as Marie/Marietta, unforgettably played by Angela Denoke, who sang (and danced) an amazing Salome last month and who, incidentally, was also the original Jenufa.

If something more romantic is what you need, perhaps a visit to the ballet, Romeo and Julia is what is needed. The biggest challenge in March is to bridge the gap between what you might like to see and what can be seen. Both Falstaff and Lucia Di Lammermoor have Marco Armilliato on the rostrum. That in itself is a great attraction.

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