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Eight operas (I)

November 6, 2006

Summary thoughts from a recent swing mainly around Eastern Europe.

The Magic Flute at the Vienna State Opera I’ve already posted about. I didn’t realise at the time that the opera house had been bombed by the Allies towards the end of WWII and what we were sitting in was a painstaking re-creation, 10 years in the construction. They did it well, but the full glory of the neo-Baroque original could not be re-captured. They just can’t do stuff like that any more.

The Marriage of Figaro, at the Volksoper, Vienna, was disappointing. The Volksoper made its name in operetta, and for Wiener Blut and other trifles no doubt would have been fine. But Mozart was beyond them. The opera was sung in German, which I think is always a mistake. It sounded only marginally less awful than it does in English. Mozart wrote his cadences for the Italian language in song, and they just don’t work otherwise. Booking late, we had a box seat overlooking the orchestra, and though I hate to say it, some of the byplay in the pit was more interesting than the action on the stage. First and Second Flute engaged in deep discussions during the long passages of recitative (I never realised before just how boring they are to the orchestra). First Flute produced a letter from her bag, read it, looked distressed. In the next break, Second Flute held forth to her with some kind of advice, which she tearfully attended, nodding gratefully, while he demonstrated something emotionally significant from a notebook of his own. And so it went on, an interesting counterpoint to the lack-lustre performance on stage.

The production was generally OK, and the singing more than passable. But the conductor seemed indifferent to what went on on the stage — he scarcely looked in its direction, seemingly bored whenever the orchestra was not fully engaged. As well, he worked very, very hard, with much ostentatious waving and gesticulation, but I couldn’t hear that anything he did made any difference whatever to whatever the orchestra was doing.

A bad moment came right at the end, where Figaro opened a bottle of champagne and playfully sprayed the orchestra with it. They were furious, marching out of the pit even before the curtain calls began. First and Second Flute remained (I do hope they went home together; they were a fine-looking couple), carefully wiping down their silver pipes. Imagine if any of the instruments had been a Stradivarius.

Basically ho-hum.

Don Giovanni, at the Zagreb Opera, was another thing entirely. A blazing, impassioned performance. The singing was not perfect, with some slight discontinuities between pit and stage, but still very, very good, with wonderful work from the orchestra. This was a reading that left no doubt the drama was framed by the passion of women. Donna Anna was more dominant than one is accustomed to, the very spirit of betrayal and revenge. Even Donna Elvira’s last plea to the doomed Don (“I still love you despite everything”), which so often seems dramatically weak, worked marvellously as the artful stagecraft gave us every hint as to the awful fate that awaited him, and from which she sought to redeem him. And Don Giovanni was magnificent: tall, handsome, careless, cruel, and to the end totally, recklessly defiant. What’s not to like about that?

We were initially put off by the set — in the photographs it looked like a railway station waiting room, albeit art deco, framed in neon — but it the event it worked out brilliantly. The characters came and went through the windows, which sounds awkward but wasn’t. Only the one set was used. All in all, the best Don I’ve ever been to. Slavonic passion as opposed to Viennese elegance. Oh well, both have their place in opera.

The opera house itself is great. Smaller than Budapest and Prague, but of the same neo-Baroque style. Wonderful painted ceilings that I irritated my neighbours by standing up to admire. Interesting if a little sad to see the other opera-goers (God knows what they thought of us): a few trendoids, but most were elderly, dressed in what passed for best under the old regime. They would have been dowdy in 1960. But then style was never socialism’s strong suit.

[More to follow.]

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