Thoughts of Spring: An Encore at the Staatsoper

Columns | Oliver Macdonald | February 2011

As we begin the second half of the season we can look back at the first half with great satisfaction at a large number of outstanding productions and performances. If I had to choose just one opera a month I would begin with Handel’s Semele at Theater an der Wien for September. October was Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia with an outstanding cast led by Edita Gruberova and Michele Pertusi. The final performance of the five will be remembered as one of the great nights at the Staatsoper. The cast enjoyed the prolonged and well-deserved standing ovation. November has to be Verdi’s Rigoletto – because it was the only opera I saw in Vienna that month.

December belongs to the Mexican composer, Daniel Catan. His 2010 opera Il Postino, with Placido Domingo as the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, made its European debut to acclaim in Theater an der Wien. More of this below.

Andre Serban’s production of Massenet’s Werther  first hit the boards in the Staatsoper in February 2005 and had 35 performances, many of them very memorable, up to this year. However, the four performances in January, with Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch as Werther and Charlotte, exceeded all expectations. These two performed with vocal beauty, sensitivity and explosive passion throughout. The final night was  intense. Werther was so fired up by Charlotte and her agonised struggle that his aria "O, soupire de printemps" had to be repeated before the audience would allow the show to continue. The electric energy from the stage was fed back to them by a rapt audience. From there on, the pair transcended all norms of excellence. They were Werther and Charlotte, hurled inescapably through the consuming passions of their love until he dies, as she, face and arms bloodied by his mortal wounds, clasps him to her as he expires. At the end they knew that it was an exceptional performance. So did the orchestra, which under the baton of Frederic Chaslin had stoked the fires throughout, as did the grateful audience. Another one of the really great nights at the opera.

Il Postino is of special significance. The story of the relationship between the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) and Mario, the young postman on the island where Neruda and his wife are living in exile, is quite well known thanks mainly to a very successful film made in 1994. The film shifted the location to an Italian island. This setting is retained by Catan in his opera.

The young postman, Mario, notices that nearly all the letters for Neruda are from women. He figures that his romantic endeavours would be much more successful if he could write poetry (Don’t we all?) so he asks Neruda to teach him how.

The music is a mix. Sometimes it was a symphonic poem, occasionally a very boisterous one. More memorable were the many moments of great lyrical beauty and sensitivity, as might be found in Puccini, matched vocally and dramatically by the great maestro and the rest of the cast. The background of a tiny island community, typically set in their ways contrasts beautifully with the quiet, sophisticated pair of exiles and is the source of some fine, gentle comedy.

The warm settled relationship of Neruda and his wife, Mathilde (sung and played so well by Christina Gallardo-Domas), is the perfect foil to the young, zealous passion of Mario (Israel Lozano) for his Beatrice (Amanda Squitieri). A very special touch was the performance of Mario’s father doing his party piece at his son’s wedding. This opportunity for an aria was given over to the sound of the island - a folk song sung in the traditional style, more reminiscent of a flamenco song than of classical opera.

And the tragedy of a promise not kept, which I will not reveal, was heart- rending. Placido Domingo as Pablo was magnificent as he reacts to meeting the son of the by-then departed Mario, who is named…….Pablito!  All very touching.

There is a lot of good opera in store for February. Some of my favourites can be found in the Events calendar on page 25. The second of the new productions of Mozart’s operas with libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte will appear in the Staatsoper in the middle of the month. The French soprano Jael Azzaretti will make her house debut as Juliette opposite Massimo Giordano as Romeo in this remarkable production of Charles Gounod’s opera. The lighting "architecture", as it is described in the programme notes, and the wonderfully colourful costumes are unforgettable.

Benjamin Britten fans have a double whammy awaiting them with the return of Billy Budd to the Staatsoper and the premiere of a new production of The Rape of Lucretia in Theater an der Wien with Angelika Kirchschlager in the title role. Puccini is well represented in the programmes too. The Staatsoper is showing more performances of the legendary Franco Zeffirelli’s production of La Bohème and one more of Madam Butterfly. Over in the Volksoper, there is the double bill of two of his one act operas Gianni Schicchi and Il Tabarro (the Mantle).

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