Handel & Britten Restaged

The Biblical Susanna and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice begin the new season at Vienna’s youngest opera-house

On The Town | Cynthia Peck | October 2009

The Theater an der Wien has opened its 2009/10 season with something old and something new – Handel’s oratorio Susanna, composed in 1748, and Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice, composed just a generation ago, in 1973. Although hardly a traditional bride, the youngest opera house in Vienna, has no need for lucky tokens – also not something borrowed, something blue or even a sixpence in the shoe. The house was full to the brim for both productions, and the Theater an der Wien has once again shown that its concept of presenting fine lesser-known works has a receptive audience in Vienna.

Handel’s Susanna

It is just such marital harmony that begins Susanna, the biblical tale of feminine virtue, male lust, and excellent defense in the face of injustice. Susanna, pious and beautiful, is happily married to Joachim. During her husband’s short absence, she is spied upon while bathing by two of the elders, a scene that has inspired artists for centuries (after all, in no other biblical story is sensual female nudity such a key element). When she repels their advances, they publicly accuse her of adultery and she is condemned to death. The young prophet Daniel confronts the two and is able to reveal their deceit when their stories conflict. In Handel’s libretto, "truth… came to virtue’s aid," the elders are themselves sentenced to death, and harmony is restored.

Handel’s rendition of this story is one of three late oratorios dealing with resilient women (including Theodora, heard this summer in Salzburg, and Solomon in the figure of Bathsheba). The opening concert on Sept. 10 cast the young Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser as Susanna. She has a surprising voice, somewhat breathy with a velvet touch, suggesting jazz. Her Susanna was nevertheless luminous and had a lovely lyricism. The role of her husband, Joachim, showcased the virtuosic flexibility of countertenor Max Emanuel Cencič who clearly delighted in mastering pirouettes of the voice (I am looking forward to his role in the world premiere of Aribert Reimann’s Medea at the Staatsoper next February). Maarten Koningsberger as Susanna’s father, Chelsias, was strong, clear and reserved, a model of fatherly qualities.

While William Burden and Alan Ewing as the two elders were impressive vocally, their antics seemed melodramatic – not what was intended by Handel, leaving an aftertaste of parody that was perhaps unnecessary.

And the role of Daniel, sung by a boy soprano at the first performance in 1749, was sung here by Canadian countertenor David DQ Lee – not the youthful freshness of Daniel (and his precocious wisdom). Still, Lee’s expressiveness was riveting.

The choir of William Christie’s ensemble Les Arts Florissants was especially breathtaking, coming to the fore to declare Susanna guilty, and singing with a clarity and intensity seldom heard in a vocal ensemble of this size.

Britten’s Death in Venice

The "new" came a week later, with the presentation of Benjamin Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice, first performed at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk in 1973, three years before Britten’s death. In that first production, the role of Aschenbach was sung by the 62-year-old Peter Pears, Britten’s long-year partner. Britten and Pears founded the festival in 1949 as a venue to present new music and to rediscover forgotten works, very much the same function that the Theater an der Wien is now providing.

The opera is based on the novella Death in Venice by Thomas Mann is one of the most famous texts in German literature, and often the first work by Mann English speakers read. I read it in high school just before seeing the powerful 1971 film by Luchino Visconti, thus beginning a life long lover affair with the music of Mahler. Visconti’s film came out just as Britten was in the process of composing his version of the story, and Britten was advised by his lawyers not to see it. Afraid of plagiarism suits, he did not.

Death in Venice is not primarily a story of paedophilia or even homosexuality, despite the plot of an aging author (Gustav von Aschenbach), in search of inspiration, falling in love with a beautiful adolescent (Tadzio). It is far more one of the heart-break of lost youth, questions of love and aesthetics, creative work and self-discipline. It is an ambiguous story, unsettling in its unresolved ardor.

With Death in Venice the opera, the passion that belonged to Mahler, is now shared with Britten. This score is vivid and evocative: the regular, unending beat of the steamer ship’s paddle wheel during Aschenbach’s journey to Venice (a glance into the pit, small scrub brushes being used to play the snare and frame drums); the sudden luscious legato of the strings upon his arrival in Venice, or la Serenissima, "the most serene," as the city is also known; the large battery of metallic percussion, with the gamelan roundness of the Far East, to accompany the dancing Tadzio, exotic and unreachable.

And perhaps most effective are the Aschenbach recitatives, inner monologues interrupted by short, corresponding rhythmical comments in the piano that seem to be a reflection of the author collecting his turmoil of impressions and putting them into complete thoughts: the orderliness of a bourgeois mind.

Britten conceived Tadzio and his family as non-speaking dancers. At Theater an der Wien the casting was phenomenal: Tadzio the stunning Raffaele Zarrella, just 16 (and scheduled for three performances, the 18-year-old Filipe Pinheiro) with Alexandra Kontrus as his gorgeous mother.

Dazzling staging by Ramin Gray completes the production, with marvelous illusions of gondolas, of light, air and heat, real sea breezes (from huge, silent wind machines on stage), and a group of children of all sizes, wonders of cheerfulness and energy, their bright swimming suits, spots of color in the sandy grey-blue white like spots of life in an unmoving landscape.

The Radio Symphony Orchestra (see "Radio Symphony Orchestra: Playing For Time" on the Front Page, Oct. 2009 TVR ), with Donald Runnicles conducting, was crystal clear, fully aware of the music’s import.

But the production’s definition comes unquestionably from Kurt Streit as Aschenbach, whose moving performance was entirely convincing, from the first appearance of the buttoned-up, famous artist to his transformation into the dying, aged fop. Streit’s voice echoed each step of Aschenbach’s anguished, self-absorbed soul.

The Theater an der Wien is a "stagione" opera house, stagione (season) being an organisational system for presenting opera in which each production is cast separately and has a brief but intensive run of performances. This is in contrast to the repertory system used in Vienna by both the Staatsoper and the Volksoper who have permanent companies and rotate productions over months or even years. Three years ago, the Tosca production at the Staatsoper celebrated its 500th performance, in the same staging by Margarethe Wallmann since the von Karajan premiere in 1958. The Theater an der Wien offers a premiere every month of the year, with each production having its own hand-picked cast and the staging each time excitingly new.

The theater’s 2009/10 season will bring operas ranging from works by the baroque composers Claudio Monteverdi and Christoph Willibald Gluck to the contemporary German composers Hans Werner Henze and Johannes Kalitzke, the opera Die Besessenen by the latter receiving its world premiere here in February. In addition the house is bringing two world-class ballet productions, as well as a series of concerts, including oratorio versions of operas performed without staging, an invitation to the imagination.


For this season’s schedule, see: www.theater-wien.at

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