A Camillia Named ‘Anna’

Nights at the Opera: May 2011

Columns | Oliver Macdonald | May 2011

I had to move house in March. I suppose that I should be in therapy but that prospect seems worse than moving house. My bijou bungalow and garden and the schloss park in which they are situated are going under the hammer with the tag "vacant possession of the entire". So the move was inevitable. Now the resettlement is almost complete and all the stress and problems have been replaced by a simple joy.

Bear with me: Back in 2003, on Saturday the fifth of April, I managed to get tickets to see La Traviata with Stefania Bonfadelli. When she had to withdraw, she was replaced by a young Russian with an amazingly beautiful voice and unforgettable presence. I was so touched by her performance that I went out and bought a Camellia bush, which I named "Anna" in her honour.  Sadly, unlike the singer, it never blossomed, but I took it with me anyway. Out of loyalty.

On Saturday April 5, 2011, eight years to the very day after La Traviata, I went back to see the young soprano sing Anna Bolena to a packed house and watched enthralled as she was taken away by the Executioner and his Tudor Axe. And the next morning, the transplanted camellia had burst into bloom for the first time. "O namenlose Freude!" The soprano, Anna Netrebko, who as fell to the executioner’s axe, continues to blossom as the most beautiful soprano voice we know today.

Moving house? Feeling stressed?  A night at the opera may be the answer.

One of the great advantages of repertory opera is that it will be back to be enjoyed again and again, perhaps with different casts and conductors. On the other hand, the stagione performances are like the Circus. They arrive in town, stay for a few days and disappear, perhaps never to return.

In its five years as a reconstituted opera house, Theater an der Wien has enjoyed a carefully nurtured and growing reputation as a stagione opera house.

One very welcome return has been that of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites last month as part the Easter festival. But anything that brings Deborah Polaski to Vienna is, de facto, to be welcomed. It may be also a factor in the selection of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova at the Staatsoper as the likely opera of the month for June. The premiere will be on Friday Jun. 17.

I should name my favourites for the second half of the season now, because June will be the time to look forward to next season’s fare as well as some Summer offerings.

For February, I liked the return of Billy Budd. Ten years and some 25 performances after the premiere, the return of Neil Shicoff, who plays the role of a tormented man with extraordinary insight and sensitivity, coupled with the refreshing take on Billy by Adrian Erod, who has the best diction on stage, even in English. Peter Rose as Claggart, is less terrifyingly brutal and evil than the original Eric Halverson; still, he stalked the decks with great command  and exuded power as much as respect in the presence of his commanding officer. It seemed implausible that an uppercut from a relatively weedy Billy would have been able to floor him let alone kill him, but that’s part of the dilemma too.

March has several contenders but Handel’s Rodelinda wins the title both for the extraordinary, endlessly energetic performance of Danielle de Niese as Rodelinda and the rest of the cast including Bejun Metha, Kurt Streit, Konstantin Wolff, Malena Ernman, Matthias Rexroth and a group of actors who inhabit, and perhaps clutter the set, as well as for the production in which the complex plot has been transformed from 7th century Lombardy to a modern metropolis represented by an enormous, revolving multi-storey concrete building, teeming with life and activity of a relatively low order, as the background intrigues run their course to a sort of happy ending. The music comes from the Concentus Musicus Wien with its founder, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, still very much at the helm almost sixty years on. Hopefully this particular circus will come back to town.

April is easy. Anna Bolena, Donizetti’s opera on the fall and rise of two Tudor wives, Anne Boleyn and her successor, Jane Seymour was sold out so fast that my application for tickets on 25 March 2010 was not successful. With Anna Netrebko as Anna and Elina Garanca as Jane we saw two of the greatest artists giving of their best, both musically and dramatically, but we mustn’t forget Henry VIII, sung by Ildebrando D’ Archangelo, who is central to the whole situation, and the other members of the cast who added to the excellence of the whole.

For May I think the return of Zemlinski’s Der Konig Kandaules is going to be the one to see. It needs advance homework but is very rerwarding. It returns to the Volksoper from May 05.

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    the vienna review May 2011