Staging Haydn: A Pink Horror

At the Kammeroper, L’isola disabitata’s magnificent music was overshadowed by the glaring eyesores on stage

On The Town | Cynthia Peck | November 2010

Legend has it that L’isola disabitata (The Uninhabited Island, 1779) was Joseph Haydn’s own favorite opera. But the current production at the Kammeroper is a juvenile debunk of what Haydn, one would hope, had taken seriously. The music is lovely. The singing was great. But the staging is a pink horror of a teenage girl’s bedroom.

This Robinson Crusoe opera tells the tale of two sisters left on an island, ostensibly abandoned by the elder sister’s freshly wedded husband. Sorrowful arias about the infidelity of men and their gruesome cruelties – indeed men’s faces look like wild beasts – are intended as warnings to the little sister, too young to know anything about such matters.  Suddenly, 13 years later, the husband shows up, accompanied by his best friend. He relates how he was kidnapped by pirates, and it has taken him that long to get free. When little sister catches eye of the friend, of course, it is love at first sight. ("What are you? Certainly not a man with your lovely face.") The couple is reunited, and it is a happy ending all around.

Despite the Kammeroper’s description of the opera as a psychological drama and director Yona Kim’s attempts at portraying blind obsession and passion, the result is more like kids playing dress-up. The toe-nail painting, stuffed animal cuddling little sister pulls on a hot pink mini-skirt over her PJs when the boys show up. Big sister’s room, with its messy shelves full of angels, perfume bottles and tampons, is a pint-sized claustrophobic confusion. The jilted bride cuts up photo after photo of her sweetheart, and a red plastic squirt gun finds its way to her temple several times. Best friend shows up in his cowboy boots and sporting sunglasses. And husband’s frilly shirt is, I guess, supposed to set us back to Haydn’s time.

The singers were wonderful, although a couple of them need to hone their acting skills. Elder sister Costanza (the mezzo Eleni Voudouraki from Athens), desolate in her bathrobe, was better at singing intensely than at miming suicide threats. The splendid volume of lost and found husband Gernando (the Slovak Juraj Hollý) was combined with a vapid sort of sleep-walking temperament. Best friend Enrico (home-grown Viennese Sebastian Huppmann) perhaps needed a little more roundness to his voice, but he managed the black leather bomber jacket suavity very convincingly. Especially little sister Silvia (the Belgian soprano Chiara Skerath) was a delight to hear and see. A fresh, flexible voice and the right eyelid-batting innocence.

The Kammeroper sponsors the annual International Belvedere Singing Competition, a marathon of young singers and a trade fair for music agents looking for new marketable products. Commendably, the Kammeroper engages some of the prize-winners, and presumably it is a springboard for bigger careers.

Vienna’s fourth opera house, the Kammeroper is tucked away on a side arm of the Fleischmarkt near Schwedenplatz – it is easily overlooked. But like many of the over 40 theaters in Vienna, which are hiding in the most unsuspecting places all over town, it is a small gem. Experiencing opera so intimately can take you back to the time of Maria Theresia, who like almost all nobility at the time had an extensive musical education and saw to it that her children did too. Entertainment at the court was of the highest professional quality, and more often than not was performed by the children for intimate gatherings of the most select guests.

The Kammeroper’s home is a former dance hall. The acoustics are too dry, which certainly does not help the orchestra: intonation troubles have no chance of getting covered up by the resonance of the space. But that, too, is part of the immediacy. It is a sound that used to be common, Hausmusik being a common entertainment until a generation ago, especially in Austria.

The Kammeroper is devoted to presenting rare operas, with the motto "Unerhört Neu Gehört" ("Making the Unheard Heard"). Indeed, many great works have never become part of the standard repertoire. The upcoming season will present an opera by the contemporary British composer Harrison Birtwistle, a 1920s Parisian work by Darius Milhaud, as well as an opera by the many-gifted, self-described "bad boy of music" George Antheil [see review in June 2011 TVR]. A clever man, among other things, in 1942 he invented together with the actress Hedy Lamaar the critical technology for today’s cell phones [see biography in Mar. 2012 TVR].

L’isola disabitata will have seven performances in November (2, 4, 6, 9, 11, 13, 16), 2011. Despite the pink fluff, for something special, be sure to go.

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