Festival Time Again

Nights at the Opera: July / August 2011

Columns | Oliver Macdonald | July / August 2011

And now the Viennese opera houses are dark, resting and renewing their energies after ten months of almost non-stop performance.  By any standards, it has been a very successful season for the three big houses. The State Opera has been under the closest scrutiny, as it completes its first year under the new directorship. This time last year, the house underwent changes in the style of presentation, which have enhanced the image of the great house as well as given it a much-needed facelift backstage.

With a repertory system programme innovation is limited but there were adventurous steps taken with new productions. The first premiere was Cardillac which was enthusiastically received. Was this because its preoccupation with financial woes echoed a certain topicality? Who knows. Then a concertante offering with five performances of Lucrezia Borgia. The atmosphere was indescribable. It was like watching the last five matches of world cup football with Austria winning all and in the lead in the final. The euphoric appreciation shown to superstar Edita Gruberova and the team, with portraits draped over the fronts of boxes and balconies, was the match of anything Mediterranean. Woman power reigned in Anna Bolena where an excellent HenryVIII (Ildebrando D'Archangelo) was pushed into the background by the performances of Anna Bolena (Anna Netrebko) and Jane Seymour (Elina Garanca). The new Mozart is a bit too recherché but young Julia Novikova as the Queen of the Night struck a chord as one to watch. She doesn't boom but has a special clarity and a coloratura that will rattle a few chandeliers before too long.

The last night of the season was last night of the last new production, Katya Kabanova, which allowed new Musical Director Franz Welser-Most show his special feeling for Janacek to very good effect and also brought the wonderful Deborah Polaski back to the house after too long an absence. On many nights the clapo-meter showed the greatest applause for the said MD and the State Opera Orchestra. They can be happy because for ten months they gave of their best, and they are the best.

Festival opera in Austria began in Vienna with a performance of Rigoletto as part of Wiener Festwochen in Theater an der Wien. This was festival opera at its best.  For the most part, the set was blank back walls, which moved around to create people space as required.  This was very effective. Musically it was brisk and lively. Gilda (Chen Reiss) was wonderfully enigmatic. There was something more than the sweet innocent child being carefully protected by Daddy. No, this Gilda was a prisoner, who might otherwise have known her way around the world quite well. But the towering monster of Rigoletto (George Gagnidze) is known to me.

I heard George singing in November 1994 in the State opera house in Tbilisi. They were hard times in Georgia but the spirit of the people remained alight. It was freezing cold. We were seven people in the audience, wrapped in heavy coats, hats and scarves, clouds of steam appeared from the singers like breath on a frosty morning. I admired them for their courage, determination and professionalism. Never was "the show must go on " more meaningful in my very experience.

So, with the houses closed what is to be done? Lots, as it turns out. There is probably more opera taking place in Austria during these next two months than during the season.  Magazines such as Buehne and Merkur are full of "What's On" pages. The film festival on Rathausplatz includes many operas and will include live transmission from the State Opera at the beginning of the next season in September.

The Salzburg festival is famous, glamorous and expensive. There are eight operas on offer including the three most popular Mozart operas with libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte. They are not related other than by their common reflection on human frailty. Nevertheless they are often referred to as the Da Ponte Cycle. Salzburg is much more than opera. Some of the world’s best symphony orchestras (led by the Wiener Philharmonic, of course) are giving concerts and there is much more worth while to see and hear as well. I am desperate to get a ticket to see Stravinsky's Le Rossignol on Saturday Aug. 20. I would even give it back in time for someone to see the other opera, Iolanta by Tchaikovsky with Anna Netrebko in the lead as the blind princess, although, obviously I would like to see that too. (all leads to oak@ireland.com).

I have included some festival operas in the events section p 25. On a final festival note, I must mention that the Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland, that is celebrating 60 years of the at times almost miraculous life this October. Nobody has ever regretted attending this tiny festival with an enormous heart and amazing young singers.

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