Messiah to Mitridate

Columns | Oliver Macdonald | May 2009

Elena Garanca in Werther (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper / Axel Zeininger)

Two important operatic events took place in Vienna at the beginning of April. One was the staged performances of Händel’s Messiah at Theater an der Wien, which drew much excited and enthusiastic appreciation from mostly delighted audiences. The other was the publication of the Staatsoper’s Handbook for the season 2009-2010.

There is an interesting link between the two, which may not be immediately obvious. The answer lies in the directors of great opera houses. Messiah was composed at a time of near despair of a failed musical director and a notorious sex scandal, which involved the wife of the director of another famous theatre. The handbook heralds the final season of one of the most remarkable and successful tenures of the post of director of a major opera house anywhere in the world.

In London in 1719 a group of noblemen founded a concert hall for the promotion of the Italian opera seria and George Friedrich Händel was appointed Musical Director. The Royal Academy of Music lasted until 1729, when it collapsed in financial ruin, due partly to the enormous costs of the singers. For Händel, the 1730s were very productive but the results were disastrous. The outlook was pretty grim in 1741 when the Viceroy, the Lord-lieutenant of Ireland commissioned a series of charity concerts in Dublin. This gave Händel new hope and us new works, several oratoria, including Messiah.  Händel voyaged to Dublin with two servants and a favourite contralto in tow.

The singer was Susanna Cibber. Her husband, Theophilus Cibber was director at Drury Lane Theatre, where he had incurred enormous debts. These he attempted to settle by condoning his wife’s affair with a wealthy creditor and by providing peepholes on a pay per view basis to raise additional funds. He subsequently divorced her on the grounds of adultery and sued her lover for £5,000 in damages. The whole affair became a notorious scandal and the court reportedly awarded him £10.

Messiah was originally written for staged performance, similarly to how it was presented here last month. This was objected at the time by Dean of St Patrick’s, Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver’s Travels fame) who delayed the premiere until he was satisfied that all of the proceeds were going to charity. This most successful of Händel’s oratorio had its premiere eventually in a Dublin music hall on Apr. 13, 1742 and enjoyed instant success, which was not the case when presented later in London.

A gracious lady d’un certain age, who has had an opera subscription since time immemorial, insisted to me that real opera must be dunkel or dark. Fortunately, this is not necessarily so. Tatiana Lisnic and JD Florez in L’Elisir D’Amore: newcomers, Joyce Di Donato (from Kansas) and Colin Lee (South Africa) in Il Barbiere; Silvia Tro Santa Fe, |Florez and co in L’Italiana in Algeri; Sophie Koch and the cast in Der Rosenkavalier and Fidelio with Schnitzer and Seiffert all reflected the joys of Spring in great operas full of laughs and little space for gloom and tears. In the Volksoper Einar Gudmunsson was the only non-role debutant in Harry Kupfer’s Bohème on Apr. 6. The conductor, Enrico Dovico and Mimi Esther both made warmly received house debuts. This production with a difference continues with performances in May.

But as May is here, the season’s final Marathon is on: The premiere of Rheingold on May 2 is the final leg of the new Ring. The first full Ring begins on May 5 and ends on May 10. The hardcore opera marathoners will turn up again for the second run between May 16 and 21. For sprinters and middle distance opera goers May is the best month of the season. La Traviata with Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja will thrill packed houses on three nights. So will Elena Garanca and Rolando Villazon in Werther (very dunkel!) on four other nights. A special Don Giovanni on May 25 marks the 140th Anniversary of the "House on the Ring." Edita Gruberova has to be seen as Lucia Di Lammermoor beginning on May 28. Catherine Naglestad from California makes her debut as Tosca in the company of Jonas Kaufmann and Ruggiero Raimondi.

I will never forget the first time I heard Jonas Kaufmann in Salzburg. He was singing from the pit, standing beside the conductor. Does any reader remember why?

The last performance of Mozart’s Mitridate, Re di Pontois at Theater an der Wien on May 2 [see "Messiah to Mitridate"]. If you can’t get to see it there is a visually stunning DVD of a production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who incidentally, also did the brilliant production of our L’Italiana in Algeri – a study in pastel.

The next seasons’ programmes are now out from all three opera houses.  Some ticket sales begin on Jun. 1. It will be easier to find a jackpot winning ticket on the street than to get a ticket for the Staatsoper’s premiere of the new musical setting of Carmen on May 3, 2010 with Garanca, Netrebko, Villazon and D’Archangelo singing under the baton of Mariss Jansons. But as opera-goers we will give it our best shot.

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