Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Mozart and Strauß

On The Town | Oliver Macdonald | December 2011 / January 2012

It is that festive time again. The celebrations for Christmas and the New Year seem to begin earlier and last longer and longer as time goes by. In December and January there are more than 20 operas to be enjoyed in Vienna, to say nothing of ballet, operetta, musical, concert and other special performances on offer in the opera houses.

For Christmas, the Vienna State Opera (Staatsoper) presents Tchaikovsky’s ever popular ballet Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty) as its central family offering, closely flanked by Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) in Christmas week.

Over at the Volksoper, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel is the central holiday season offering, complete with a gingerbread house and a wicked witch. Incidentally, the witch in Hansel and Gretel is the only character who should be booed very loudly at the end of the performance. With very little practice, children can be very good at this.  Both houses are closed for Weihnachtabend on 24 Dec., but have two performances each on Christmas Day.

New Year’s is the only time that the Staatsoper regularly stages an operetta. For several years now this has been Johann Strauss’ masterpiece Die Fledermaus, which is also a perennial at the Volksoper where there are two performances on New Year’s Eve. Both houses also have a performance on New Year’s Day. And an insider tip: Volksoper director Robert Meyer appears in Die Fledermaus each New Year’s Eve as the irresistable buffoon of a prison guard Frosch (frog!), for both the afternoon and evening performances.

The Christmas theme begins with La Bohème in the Staatsoper on 1 Dec. Puccini lovers won’t want to miss the double bill, Il Tabarro (The Mantle) and the hilarious death-bed farce Gianni Schichi in the Volksoper in January.

Comedic operas continue in January with Otto Nikolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and the very entertaining production of Rossini’s Cinderella story La Cenerentola. If you need Verdi, there is the choice of four in the Staatsoper. They have all been around for a while: Nabucco; La Forza del Destino (The Might of Destiny); Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball); and Otello.

There are also two new productions, which stand in stark contrast to the light holiday fare outlined above. Several decades ago I committed myself, perhaps somewhat masochistically, to four years intensive reading of Russian language and literature – although my tutor, a denim-clad upstart, pointedly noted that while one usually reads for a degree, no one could fairly accuse me of studying!

So with this encouragement, I developed a great liking for Russian writers, particularly Dostoyevsky, whose thinly fictionalised memoir of his imprisonment, From the House of the Dead, left a deep and lasting impression. This work is also the subject of  an opera, Aus einem Totenhaus, by Leos Janáček, which has its Staatsoper première on 11 Dec. If the opera is as touching and as far reaching as the original Dostoyevsky, it will indeed be memorable.

In Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, Joxer comments to Captain Boyle "The whole world, Capt’n, the whole world is in a terrible state of chassis" (chaos).  Some say the same today, or at least about the eurozone.  I only saw Kurt Weill’s opera The Rise and Fall of Mahoganny (in English) once, unforgettably, in Wexford in 1985. As social satire, it is deeply disturbing.

How relevant is it today? In 1930, the premiere in Leipzig led to a riot in the theatre.  The second performance took place with the lights on and the police lining the walls. The Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny by Kurt Weill makes its very first appearance at the Staatsoper on 24 Jan.

Other articles from this issue