The new season awaits!

Nights at the Opera: Sept. 2009

Columns | Oliver Macdonald | September 2009

As the last of the summer festivals draw to a close, Vienna’s opera houses prepare to open their doors to the new season. Even the most casual operagoer or the total neophyte should arm themselves with the 2009-2010 Programme booklets from each of the three main houses. Apart from details of every performance and the singers therein, these pocket-sized booklets are crammed with all sorts of information about the houses, complete with seating plans, price lists and the different ways in which tickets can be booked.

It is also useful to know what is not there. For example, there is no performance of La Traviata in the Staatsoper this year. Is this the first time that it is not included in the programme since the current production began in 1992? It is certainly the first time since 1999. Is the production at rest or is there a new one on the drawing boards? I recall that La Bohème took a rest in 2005-06, but reappeared unscathed the following season.

"So what’s new?" is the most FAQ at this time of year. In the Staatsoper, there are four new productions to which we can look forward. One of these is a world premiere of a commissioned work Medea by Aribert Reimann. A second is the first-ever performance of the Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk by Dmitri Shostakovich in the Staatsoper. The other two are familiar friends in new guises: Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi and Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner. Curiously, the three female titles have the common theme of heinous murders committed by the ladies themselves or at their behest. The venerable Viennese who once insisted that good opera must be "dunkel" (dark) will feel vindicated by these offerings.

The big question about Tannhäuser is how faithful the setting of this new production will be to the 13th century Wartberg of the original. Is there a danger of being confronted by modern pilgrims jetting their way to Rome on special-offer charter flights? Or a song contest à la Eurovision? Perish the thoughts!

The Volksoper programme is very appealing and the front cover says it all: 293 performances; 104 operetta; 119 opera; 26 musical; 29 ballet and 15 specials. There are four new opera productions, one revival and ten repertory productions to be seen.

With the exception of La Traviata, all the operas here are sung in German. The four new productions are Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, The Love of the Three Oranges by Sergei Prokofiev, The Abduction from the Seraglio by W.A. Mozart, and a new opera for children Antonia und der Reissteufel by Christian Kolonovits, who will also conduct the performances. In these days of excellent surtitles I am not sure that I would not prefer to hear famous operas, such as La Bohème, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Tosca and Carmen, sung in their original languages rather than in German, as is the tradition of the house and the great majority of its patrons. In addition to these operas, the Volksoper is presenting no less than ten operettas and three musicals. The latter are South Pacific (a new concertante production); Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady. More about these in the Events section, p. 25.

The most adventurous programme on offer is at Theater an der Wien, over by the Naschmarkt. The opera gambit ranges from Monteverdi’s 1642 opera The Coronation of Poppea – she who won the love of Rome’s most famous violinist, the Emperor Nero –  to two works that will be performed for the first time in 2010. One of these is Orlando Misterioso by Nadia Michael, who will also be seen in her more familiar role as a character on stage. About two-thirds of the operatic presentations date from before 1830, thus giving great opportunities to hear many lesser known works.

In next month’s column we will take a look at the top ten performances of the year at the Staatsoper and look at some of the other activities in the houses. The Staatsoper has an Open Day on Sept. 1 and the Volksoper has its special Open Day programme on Sept. 5. Both are certainly worth a visit.

The two outstanding highlights of my summer fare were the production of Fidelio at Salzburg in mid-August with Daniel Barenboim and his Western-Eastern Orchestra, with Waltraud Meier doubling as Leonore and continuity narrator and the phenomenally powerful Kiwi, Simon O’Neill as Florestan. A couple of hours of dedicated idealism were well-placed in the midst of a festival that has become excessive in many ways.

The other was a truly delightful performance of La Fille du régiment at Klosterneuburg with a captivating Daniela Fally as Marie, a quietly understated Tonio in Caner Akin, and a hugely energentic performance as the master fixer, Sulpice, by the man with a thousand expressions, Clemens Unterreiner. Great fun and splendid music.

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