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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
SALZBURG FESTIVAL SURPRISES IN SUMMER 2003
By Glenn Loney, July 28, 2003
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Looking Forward/Looking Back
Fantastic "Peer Gynt"
Elfriede Jelinek's "Macht Nichts"
Brides and Grooms for Mozart's "Entführung"
Wernicke's"Don Carlo" Returns
Wide-Stage "Tales of Hoffmann"
Henze's Last Opera: "L'Upupa"
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Looking Forward/Looking Back: Fewer New Productions But More Tickets SoldWith the departure of the former Intendant, Dr. Gerard Mortier, after the Salzburg Festival of 2001, local officials began to breathe more easily. Especially Dr. Helga Rabl-Stadler—the charming, dedicated President of the Festival—who found herself under frequent attack from this most contentious of Artistic Directors. Mortier was determined that festival visitors—despite the very high cost of tickets—should be forcibly exposed to the newest of music and the most bizarre of directorial concepts. Part of Mortier's campaign to advance his Post-Modernist Arts Agenda was to alert the press to the alleged conservatism, even Philistinism, of Salzburg Officialdom. This did not create the most favorable atmosphere in which to produce this justly famous annual festival.
Currently, Mortier is stirring up the arts in the Ruhr Gebiet, employing dead Krupp Factories and dis-used Gasometers as venues for his visions of the New. This spring and fall feature the second season of this Ruhr Triennale. When it is completed, Mortier goes off to Paris to become Intendant of the Opera Bastille and the Palais Garnier. Some Parisians know what to expect, so this appointment was strongly contested.
Meanwhile, back in Salzburg's Altstadt—amongst the great baroque churches and palaces of the former Prince-Archbishops—the new Festival Intendant, Prof. Dr. Peter Ruzicka, is trying to program operas, dramas, concerts, and allied events which will appeal to a wider audience. And not alienate very wealthy festival guests with negatively provocative productions of classics, as Mortier so often did.
Unfortunately, with economic downturns in Europe, state subsidies and corporate sponsorships have not been as substantial as in the past. This past summer, the previously announced program of new productions of works by Austrians forced into exile by the Nazis seemed a casualty. But it is such a good idea that it will surely have to be funded somehow and go forward. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt" could have a fantastically Surreal production on the vast stage of Salzburg's Grosses Festspielhaus! Preferably not staged by Peter Sellars…
Salzburg will also be celebrating a Major Mozart Anniversary in 2006. The American opera-philanthropist Alberto Vilar had pledged some millions to make over the Kleines Festspielhaus as a special Mozart-Theatre. But the money may not be forthcoming, owing to financial reverses being suffered even by small investors. Nonetheless, Salzburg and Vienna have to find the funds for this important project.
The good news is that ticket-sales are increasing under Ruzicka's Intendancy. In the final years of Mortier's tenure, empty seats at major productions were an embarrassing testimony to the effects of his arts-policies on rich and elitist festival-goers. Before this past summer, there were some 219,000 tickets available for all the festival events. Just before the formal opening of the fest, 180,000 of them had already been sold! Final sales of over 200,000 were forecast.
This is very impressive, considering the fact that Salzburg Festival opera-tickets are the most costly in the world—although Covent Garden and the Met are catching up. Top price for an orchestra-seat for ""Don Carlo" " or "La Clemenza di Tito" was Euro 350, in a season when the Euro had eclipsed the American Dollar in value.
Off To the Salt-Mines of HalleinIf you have ever taken a tour of Salzburg area Salt-Mines—the great Medieval and Renaissance wealth of this Principality was built on salt, after all—you might imagine a Festival production in the Hallein Salines would involve staging a show in a vast underground salt-crystal grotto, approached through sparkling salt-spangled tunnels.
It's an interesting idea, but the actual Hallein venue is an immense salt-drying hall—which can be amazingly adapted to a variety of wildly innovative stagings. Lucca Ronconi's version of Pirandello's Giants from the Mountains used levels and compartments of the structure. Peter Stein's unforgettable production of Grillparzer's "Libussa" had an undulating stage—constructed of rough wooden planks—to suggest the terrain on the River Moldau which would become the City of Prague.
At the conclusion of this mythic drama revealing the roots of Czech History, men with chain-saws rushed on stage and began sawing through the boards until the entire stage had fallen down, out of sight of the astounded bleacher-bound audience. Of course, this unusual stage had to be re-built before each performance. But then, Peter Stein's stagings are always more innovative and interesting than those of Peter Sellars…
This past summer, two quite different, but equally impressive, productions were mounted in the great drying-hall. The first of these ought to have a World Tour. The second is perhaps too Austria-Specific—or even too author-specific—to provoke the necessary Shock of Recognition in audiences outside German-speaking Lands.
A Wildly Fantastic "Peer Gynt": Even Ibsen Would Have NightmaresOver the past half-century, I have seen most of the "cutting-edge" innovative theatre, dance, and opera productions mounted in Europe and the Americas. Before being totally astounded by Johann Kresnik's surreal "Peer Gynt" at the Salzburg Festival, however, I would have said: "I've seen it all. Most of the new geniuses are now only recycling Happenings and other performance-art adventures of the Sixties and Seventies."
A Festival co-production with Schauspielhaus Hannover, Kresnik's "Peer Gynt" staging is one of the most outrageously imaginative and Over-the-Top revisions of a Modern Drama Classic I have ever seen! Even in its first amazing moments, it is already Over-the-Top: A fusillade of white plastic lawn-chairs comes flying over tall green mountain-peaks. Out of nowhere—with no chair-throwers in sight—these Wal-Mart chairs thump down on the forestage, just short of the first rows of the astounded audience.
Suddenly, on the tops of the peaks, strange mountain-men—with immense antlers on their heads—begin to leap about on these precarious perches. They are, in fact, Trolls, headed by Henrik Ibsen's Troll King. It used to be one of the initial challenges for acting-students to develop a character for a troll in "Peer Gynt", but the lusty, crazy Hannoverians have outdone anything one could imagine. Some trolls even poke their heads out of the stage-floor, or disappear down tight holes in the stage.
At one point, the Astroturf-green covering of the mountain-peaks is pulled off to reveal these rocky outcroppings as the Great Stone Faces of Fallen Idols, such as Karl Marx, V. I. Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and even John F. Kennedy. Neither as peaks or portraits are these images mere scenic backdrops. They are major performance-platforms, with actors leaping from ledge to ledge, or from eyebrow to lip…
Kresnik's enthusiastic players have to be very sure-footed indeed, as these rock faces are not their only challenges. At one point, tux-clad attendants wheel on large garbage-carts filled with stone-bones. These are promptly dumped and strewn about the stage. As though these weren't hazardous enough, shortly afterward a hail of blue and silver Red Bull cans rains down from the rafters. [Red Bull, the energy-drink, is headquartered near Salzburg and has become a major corporate sponsor!]
But there are other oddments up in the overhead as well. When Peer is shipwrecked, five fully inflated life-rafts drop down with great thumping crashes on stage. After the cast has fought for places in the rafts, a number of lovely naked women—part of the ten-person dance-troupe in the show—perch on the rims of the rafts, miming defecation at sea. There is, in fact, a great deal of flaunted nudity, bared breasts, and suggestive movement in this taboo-breaking production. Handsome blond Benjamin Höppner—who plays Peer I—has to expose himself for all to see. At least, he is not required to become erect…
Johann Kresnik's directorial specialty since the 1970s has been "Choreographic Theatre." He focuses on taboo political and social themes, often using theatre-classics as his point of departure. In some ways, his new "Peer Gynt" is a long way off from Ibsen, but in others it does echo the major events in Peer's picaresque bumbling, fumbling through life. Ibsen, for instance, could never have imagined the creation of the State of Israel or the Arab Refugee Camps—which helped destroy the Twin Towers. But here Peer meets fervent Palestinians and fanatic Settlement Israelis. Peer finds them both crazy.
Nor would Ibsen have included photos and quotations of Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, or Lenin in his Norwegian peasant-fantasy. But here they are: all the Great Ikons of the 20th Century… Kresnik has even recreated the images of American Astronauts landing on the moon!
I suggested to the Festival Press-Office that this amazing production simply had to tour in the United States. Or at least be seen at BAM—the American Home of the "Next Wave"—for a week of astounded audiences… But fears were expressed that Americans would be offended by the satiric uses Kresnik makes of the Moon-Shot. Frankly, in the wake of the recent Weapons of Mass Destruction, Regime-Change, and Nation-Building scams, the American Public may be more than ready for a little satire, especially from Europeans who were not part of the Attack Iraq Coalition.
Kresnik's able, athletic, and enthusiastic ensemble is composed of ten dancers and eight actors. But all of them have to act—and to move in his often wildly abandoned choreographies, as well. Not only is there a Young Peer, but also Numbers II and III, revealing Peer in Middle and Old Age.
Clearly, Kresnik has used Ibsen's poetic fantasy as a Point of Departure, but the basic moral is still there. And the Button-Molder—or Knopfgiesser—is still at the end of the road, waiting for Peer.
Serge Weber has created special music for the show, which was ingeniously designed by Martin Zehetgruber, with fantastic costumes by Heide Kastler. These are all talents to watch, preferably also on American stages!
Somewhere in the archives of the New York Theatre-Wire you may find my report on the Hannover Exposition 2000. In that, I noted the remarkably innovative work of Hannover's Schauspielhaus and its Opera. Hannover is well worth a visit, as well as Salzburg.
Elfriede Jelinek's "Macht Nichts" Is a Trilogy of Death Warmed-OverThe late Thomas Bernhard's dramatic stock-in-trade was satirizing his fellow-Austrians, whether resident in Salzburg or Vienna. Some of his works are searing, even shocking, satires. But even in effective English translations, they don't have much resonance for American audiences. Sacramento doesn't resemble Salzburg, for instance, although Arnold Schwarznegger—the name can signify Black Negro, or a dark person from Egg—apparently would love to live there.
Nor does the Romance of Old Vienna raise resonances anywhere in Virginia, although there is actually a Vienna, Virginia. So Bernhard remains a great contemporary Central European playwright, admired in the academy, but not often produced on American stages. And, after Austria's Peter Turrini disgraced himself last season at the Salzburg Festival with Da Ponte in Santa Fe, he isn't apt to have any major American productions any time soon, least of all in New Mexico!
American production in English translation is also a problem for Austria's leading female playwright, Elfriede Jelinek. She is widely admired in Mittel Europa, but her plays are virtually unknown across the Atlantic. In Austria, however, she seems to have become something of a cult. Several seasons ago, she was the focus of a Salzburg Festival program which even zoomed in on her tastes in clothes and other authors. A press-ticket to a staging of one of her works—which featured a lot of older people in rows of easy-chairs—was denied me. The reason: "You're an American. You wouldn't understand it."
Had I not read various synopses and newspaper reports on Jelinek's "Macht Nichts," I might have been even more baffled, although it was certainly fascinating to watch dead people briefly come back to life in slow-motion. Macht Nichts: It's a German phrase which became very popular with American Occupation Army GIs after World War II It can variously mean "It doesn't matter," "Forget about it," "Don't get upset." Jelinek has used the term as the title for a trilogy of meditative monologues by zombie-like dead people—personas she favors in fiction and on stage. This work was not conceived as a play, but director Jossi Wieler and designer Anna Viebrock have ingeniously adapted it for stage-performance.
This was originally mounted at the Zurich Schauspielhaus, and it subsequently won the Mulheim Drama Prize as "Work of the Year." This is not exactly a German equivalent of an award at Sundance, but authors and their directors have to take their prizes where they can find them… Can you find Mulheim on your map of Europe?
As the Salzburg staging of this work was delayed a season, designer Viebrock's setting for the Hallein Saline Hall must have been specially constructed. Even if it is in essence what was shown on the Zurich proscenium stage, it would certainly have had to be adjusted to the broad space in front of the spectators' bleacher-seats. Viebrock provided a long beige box—with sliding windows in the center—raised up on concrete columns, suggesting a garage below a condo. In this misty space below, a hunter prowled with his rifle, a feathered alpine hat on his head. Seen through curtains on the window-sections was a dinner-table—with three people slumped over their meal, either asleep…or dead. From time to time, they variously emerged from comas to move robotically and then slump again into oblivion.
They seemed an oddly matched family at first, with the gabby Matriarch correcting her daughter and humiliating her husband. But no, the woman began to talk of past triumphs on the stage: she was not just any wife and mother. In fact, the dead character was based on the late, great Austrian actress, Paula Wessely. Jelinek seems to have a strong animus against her, notably for her Burgtheater career during the Nazi era. Jelinek had this still vain-in-death figure play scratchy recordings of old applause for her performances. In the play-text, she is called the Erlkönigin—or Queen of the Elves—transmuted from that famous horror-poem, Der Erlkönig—a monstrous rider, bringing death. She was brilliantly, obsessively played by Graham F. Valentine.
It is by now no secret that Elfriede Jelinek is fascinated by Zombies and the Undead, not to mention Horror Films and the like. But the zombie-daughter [Sylvana Krappatsch] was someone else altogether. She was the original Snow White, or Schneewittchen. Unfortunately for her, before she could find her Seven Dwarfs, she was shot dead by the Hunter [Ludwig Boettger].
The man [André Jung] slumped over the Wienerschnitzel—who roused himself to an insanely raging monologue—was based on the playwright's father. Need one say more?
In Salzburg's Neo-Baroque Landestheater: Psychotic "Woyzek" a Long Way Off from BüchnerIt is one thing to stage an outrageous visual and cultural riff on Ibsen's already surreal "Peer Gynt". But it is quite another matter to rework Georg Büchner's "Wozzek" fragments into a gratuitous blood-bath which makes completely meaningless the original character and the plebeian tragedy the playwright tried to evoke. This is the hideous handiwork of director Michael Thalheimer.
Almost a century before there were such artists as Expressionist dramatists, Büchner—almost inadvertently—had provided a model. His epic "Danton's Death" was a precursor, with Leonce and Lena an ingenious satirical Expressionist fantasy. But he died too young, while some playwrights of his time lived entirely too long… "Wozzek"—its English title—was never completed and only structured into a drama—and then an opera—long after his death.
In Büchner's dramatic account of an actual soldier—driven to a terrible and pathetic act of violence—Wozzek is a simple-minded, ignorant, fearful cipher, variously mocked, deceived, and abused by men above him in rank or station. His only emotional anchor is the love of his common-law wife, Marie, and his affection for their son. When she betrays him with the cocky Drum-Major, he goes berserk and chases her into a lake, stabbing her to death.
Over the decades in the late, but not-so-great, 20th Century, this story has proved—again and again, whether acted or sung—its dramatic power even for sophisticated audiences. Why the revisionist Regisseur Thalheimer thought it was needful to pillage this powerful material for a Post-Modernist Horror Show remains a bloody mystery.
In the Salzburg Festival co-production with Hamburg's Thalia Theatre, Wozzeck's world is defined and enclosed by a huge metal box, open at the audience's end. Wozzek is initially discovered striking a pose, which he holds for an eternity—a possible challenge to the spectators, or a visual harbinger of worse to come. Of course—in line with the current Germanic fascination with actorial nudity on stage—Wozzek bares more than his soul. The Drum-Major strips down to his boots and trousers, but the naked white gut of middle-aged European actor is almost as horrible a sight as an inert corpse. Maybe worse, because the actor's mid-section is still in gelatinous motion.
A major conceit of this odd production is the presence in front of the metal-box of a slightly dissipated lounge-singer, crooning songs of love into a mike. This device has its counterpart in the new "Hamlet" staging at the Edinburgh Festival, which features Horatio as an Elvis-type white-suited lounge-pianist. The "Wozzek" vocalist, it must be assumed, provides a bitterly satiric contrast to the mayhem occurring in the box. Horatio, at a white baby-grand piano, serves almost the same function in Elsinore/Edinburgh.
Each of Büchner's original characters makes a downstage-left entrance, narrowly constrained by the front edge of the box and the sidewall of the Art Nouveau proscenium. No one makes a precipitate entrance, however. Each spends some time establishing some physical or visual quirk to symbolize character. The Drum-Major repeatedly jabs the air with his baton, suggesting his both his cock and his cockiness.
Not limiting himself to killing Marie, Wozzek takes a blade-razor to the Major, the Captain, and the Doctor. Soon the shining metal walls of his box are spattered with stage-blood. Before he murders Marie, he rapes her violently. Her friend Käthe gets off easy: Wozzek only breaks her neck…
One critic described this Wozzek as a "Serial-Killer." Other review-headlines included: "Bloodbath after Büchner, "Festival Massacre," and "Wozzek als Amokläufer."
If poor old Wozzek can be so easily transformed into a multi-murdering psychopath—from a simple man, greatly wronged, and driven frantic—can Oedipus be far behind? Michael Thalheimer could easily have him slaughter "Jocasta", "Creon", "Tiresias", "Antigone", "Ismene", and even the "Oracle of Delphi" on the steps of the Parthenon. With a bouzuki-player over by the Erechtheion, singing the songs of Manos Hajidakis. Jocasta could be played by a man dressed like Jackie O!
This unsettling—and unnecessary—reworking of a classic of drama is only part of a very disturbing trend among Germanic directors, desperately seeking notoriety through novelty. They cannot write their own plays, so they savage the scripts of far more talented people. But, just as some of the most disgusting of American teen-age-targeted horror-films—replete with formerly X-rated language, in which "shit" and "fuck" are the common denominators of discourse—these European stagings may well reflect a very deep-seated malaise and insecurity in their societies and culture.
What is immediately distressing, however, is that this "Woyzeck"/"Wozzek" was spawned by Hamburg's Thalia Theatre, whose distinguished director, Jürgen Flimm, created such an impressive new "Ring" for the Bayreuth Festival. The fact that Flimm has also been Salzburg's chief of theatre—surely having programmed this disastrous production—is not reassuring at all. And Flimm was preceded in this position by Frank Baumbauer, who championed some especially "innovative" Salzburg stagings and is now "pushing the envelope" in Munich at the renovated Kammerspiel.
Flimm is now stepping down in favor of opera and drama director Martin Kusej, who has already given Salzburg some memorably peculiar re-visions of major operas. Stay tuned…
And That Was Only a Play Revised To Death…Mozart's"Entfürhrung" Gets the Full Treatment: Seven Times Seven Brides for Seven Brothers!Add Stefan Herheim's name to the list terminally-afflicted Post-Modernist stage-directors. His new Salzburg staging of Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" is so far off from the original of Salzburg's historic "Wunderkind" that it could be an Austrian vision of Charles L. Mee's hilarious "Big Love", seen first at the Humana Festival and shown recently shown at BAM. Mee's murderous comedy is a revision of the ancient Aeschylean tragedy of the fifty daughters of Danäus, forced into marriage with the fifty sons of King Aegyptus.
Instead of Mozart's core-plot of two Christian Virgins enslaved in a Turkish Harem—also facing forced marriages, or worse—Herheim has turned "Entführung" into a Modern Morality, a light-hearted musical-comedy about popular marriage rituals in the West. In fact, there are so many brides and grooms on the stage at times that this show looks like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers times seven!
One critic disparagingly described this staging as a "Skandal-Revue." Although the bevies of brides initially appeared in full wedding-gown drag, they soon stripped down to their slips, and thence to white bras, bikinis, and sheer hose. If this was intended as a Westernisation of women in a harem, being beautified for sexual pleasures, it missed the mark, as Muslim Harems were intended only for the use of the reigning Pasha, Caliph, or Sultan. And not as elegant showcases for marriageable young women, pursued by handsome young tux-clad bachelors.
There are even images of white-clad workers preparing to wall-paper a bridal-bower—which they actually do, assisted by some clever video-effects. Nor are the wedding-gift kitchen-appliances neglected. Laundromats, dish-washers, sink-ensembles, and ironing-boards worthy of Wal-Mart take center-stage.
Osmin, Bassa Selim's harem-master [the admirable Peter Rose], first appears dressed as a Roman Catholic priest, urging on young lovers to Christian Marriage. Later, he appears in formal dress, teased by the lovely young ladies. At one point, he even wears Bavarian Lederhosen, with the cute effect of his actual naked chest being seen above a TV-screen featuring his Hosen-clad torso in video.
Video games and tricks were prominent, including a video of Mozart's lovers on a flying-carpet, possibly to maintain some tenuous link to the original opera. In fact, this production was so relentlessly designed, tricked-out, and frenetically in motion that Konstanze [Iride Martinez], Blondchen [Diana Damrau], and their boyfriends were almost totally eclipsed. As in the new Flying Sofa "Entführung" production in Munich, Konstanze's great aria, Martern aller Arten, passed almost without notice. For a description of Munich's IKEA-commercial version of Mozart's "Singspiel", check out the accompanying Munich Festival report on Theatre-Wire.
Gottfried Pilz designed the set and costumes. Ivor Bolton—who is no stranger to such bizarre productions in Munich—conducted with obvious enthusiasm. As in Munich, the spoken-role of Bassa Selim evaporates in the mists of bridal-veils.
Salzburg's Salute To the Late Herbert Wernike: Magnificently Panoramic "Don Carlo" Returns!What a wonderful way to celebrate the stunning achievements of the late Herbert Wernike as director/designer of memorable Salzburg Festival opera-productions! Not just the handsomely designed foyer exhibition in the Festspielhaus, but also the revival of his monumental Post-Modernist "Don Carlo" . Would that the Festival could bring back his magical "Rosenkavalier", with offstage set-elements reflected on stage in tall mylar panels.
Outside the Festspielhaus, two immense shining cone-like spikes were suspended horizontally over the plaza, almost meeting but leaving a spark-gap. Having seen Wernicke's "Don Carlo" before, I recognized these as menacing symbolic elements in his stage-design for the oppressive Spanish Court of King Phillip II. But only when I looked at program illustrations of Penitentes in Holy Week in Seville and victims of the Spanish Inquisition did I realize that their conical hoods—much later favored by America's Ku Klux Klan—had been adapted by Wernike into these gleaming metal-spikes. On stage, from either side or from above and below, they are constant reminders of the grim grip of the Roman Church, the Holy Catholic Inquisition, and King Phillip's own fanatical religiosity on his Court and People.
Valery Gergiev conducted with subdued power, supporting an impressive cast including Olga Borodina as Eboli, Ferrucio Furlanetto as the King, Kurt Rydl as the blind Grand Inquisitor, and the dashing Dwayne Croft as Posa. Although Johan Botha is vocally strong as Carlo, his girth works entirely against the image of singer-as-hero. Stocky isn't quite the word for it. More suited to "Don Carlo" in concert…
Jacques Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann"Gets Lost on the Vast Festspielhaus StageKent Nagano is one of America's most able young conductors. He has distinguished himself both at the Salzburg Festival and at the Opéra de Lyon. At a Salzburg press-conference not so long ago, he was asked about his preferences in Japanese music. This amused Nagano so much that he had to point out that he was a native American, born in California, and that he knew next to nothing about the traditional music of Nippon.
He surely knows a great deal about European operas, however, so he is not to be blamed for the defects of the new "Tales of Hoffmann" production in the Grosses Festspielhaus. The British production-team of director David McVicar, set and costume-designer Tanya McCallin, and lighting-designer Paule Constable simply did not know what to do with the wide, wide stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus, which seems like two football-fields set end-to-end when it is opened to its fullest.
The framing-plot—and the three fantastic "Tales of Hoffmann"'s disastrous adventures in love—were all performed in an immensely wide grungey room. This milieu at times threatened to swallow them up—or overwhelm them with needless gigantism. Worse yet, as this vast chamber was supposed to be some kind of garret in which the burned-out drug-addict-alcoholic failed-poet Hoffmann was raving and trying to scribble down his fevered imaginings, it seemed the world's largest studio-apartment. It made most of those Grand Central Station-sized "Bohème" attics look cozy in comparison.
Add to that the designers' attempts to localize each of the stories—anchoring them in some area of the stage—which diminished their visual and musical impact. McVicar and his choreographer, Andrew George, are also anything but expert in deploying large numbers of chorus, dancers, and extras on such a large stage. The resultant mob-scene crowding certainly detracted from the central events.
While the set-prop of a bare naked tree hung with violins was an effective visual symbol for Antonia's sad tale, it was not enough to focus attention on the action. If anything, it diffused it. To make the stage look somewhat more intimate, Giulietta's gondola was much longer than the regulation boats in Venice. It scooted out of a monster fireplace from stage-right and just sat there as the major set-prop, while some scantily-clad young men climbed the walls. More like Death, than Sex, in Venice… Waltraud Meier sang the role of the devious Venetian courtesan, only days after she'd done Venus in Munich. This casting could be habit-forming, but it doesn't guarantee the erotic charge the music suggests.
Neil Shicoff was a raving nut-case as the desperate Hoffmann, but he sang affectingly and played the Lower Depths role—as set for him by McVicar—with skill. He was also rough and dismissive with the Nicklausse of Angelika Kirchschlager, whom McVicar imagined as a woman, Hoffmann's much-abused and long-suffering lover. Both Lover and Muse, in fact. As Nicklausse is a breeches-role, there has always been a strange sexual linkage between Hoffmann and his young friend. Is Nicklausse, in fact, an effeminate, but suppressed, homosexual admirer of the boastful poet?
In four roles, Ruggero Raimondi was sleekly sovereign in his malice toward Hoffmann. Ursula Pfitzner was the sexy Stella, whose assignation-letter to Hoffmann is intercepted by the villainous Lindorf. One of the most effective performances, however, was the mechanical doll Olympia, robotized by L'ubica Vargicová. Krassimira Stoyanova's Antonia was sadly moving, but the staging vitiated the effect of the tale.
On occasion, the three tall windows on the stage-left side of the great chamber variously opened for entrances, or even for long thin tables, which slid on stage to fill some of its emptiness. I had the strange sensation that I had already seen this table-effect in some quite different opera-production, possibly in Munich, but I cannot place it. Of course, resourceful designers are always looking for good scenic ideas they can adapt for their own needs. Or did I see this effect in a pre-cognitive dream?
Definitely Hans Werner Henze's Last Opera: "L'Upupa and the Triumph of a Son's Love"If I am not mistaken, the German composer Hans Werner Henze is now 83 years old. At least I read that in a pre-festival round-up. This puts him right up there with Bayreuth's Wolfgang Wagner—who will surely never mount a Henze opera in his historic Festspielhaus. Salzburg, however, commissioned Henze to create a new opera, which he insists will be his last.
Years ago, the Salzburg Festival also premiered Henze's"Die Bassariden", an operatic version of "Euripides"' tragedy, "The Bacchae", with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallmann. This was interesting, but it didn't make a major place for itself in opera repertories. Nor did his more accessible "King Stag"/"König Hirsch", or "The Young Lord", which at least was shown in New York, with Sir Rudolf Bing in the cast, no less. This is all too often the fate of new operas, even those encouraged by hefty commissions and guarantees of festival-productions.
Almost alone of modern opera composers, Sir Benjamin Britten is the genius whose works have indeed found places in opera repertories. But Henze has certainly kept on trying, fortunate in support by German and Austrian funds and opera-houses. For me, his most impressive opera achievement was virtually his first, the haunting and tragic: "Elegie für Junge Liebende", or "Elegy for Young Lovers", also with an Auden/Kallmann libretto. This was premiered almost 40 years ago in Munich in the jewel-box Cuvilliés-theater.
Henze's new work is titled "L'Upupa and the Triumph of a Son's Love". It is based on an old Arab tale, but it seems rather more Sufi Persian, related to "The Conference of the Birds", which Peter Brook once turned into performance-art and toured widely—including Africa and America. On the evidence of the Salzburg premiere, however, it doesn't seem likely that there will be a similar tour for this picture-book production.
Indeed, the libretto is so simplistically children's-theatre that it is difficult to imagine this opera entering any regular repertory. It may be—as other of Henze's operatic works—best seen as a "Festival Opera." This was composer Carl Orff's term, even for some of his own operas—such as "The Comedy of the End of Time", also premiered at Salzburg—which would only be produced on special occasions.
The charming production of "L'Upupa"—cleverly designed by Jürgen Rose, who created both sets and costumes—seems almost too relentlessly cute for grown-ups. Nor is its attenuated picaresque story made more compelling by Henze's serviceable, but not memorable, score.
Over a century ago, the Belgian Symbolist playwright, Maurice Maeterlinck, had more dramaturgical success with a similar fable, "The Bluebird". Its immediate popularity eventually brought it to the screen. Shirley Temple even starred in the Hollywood movie-version. An innocent boy and girl go off in search of the "Bluebird of Happiness", accompanied by, as I recall, pet animals and animated Bread, etc. Well, it was Symbolist, after all… Maeterlinck had even more success with his mysterious/ambiguous "Pelléas et Mélisande": Claude Debussey transformed it into an opera which still holds its place in a number of opera-repertories.
Henze surely cannot have been hoping to reprise "The Bluebird", yet the Arab tale which he adapted himself has some odd similarities. The Upupa is a wonderful bird, somewhat like the Bluebird, but it hasn't been sighted in some time. So an aged Arab father [Alfred Muff]—who should know better—sends his three sons off to find this avian wonder. As often happens in the world of fairytales, the two older brothers are lazy, mean, abusive, dishonest, quasi-criminal, murderous low-lifes. Their younger brother Kasim [Matthias Goerne] is a good-natured simpleton who makes Parsifal and Siegfried look like Mensa candidates.
Of course it is he who has all the luck, not least in acquiring a friendly Demon [John Mark Ainsley] who is able to assist him in many magical ways. Along the stations of his quest, he also acquires a beautiful young fiancée—recalling "The Love of Three Oranges", but this maiden [Laura Aikin] doesn't die on him.
Unfortunately, when the duo return to his home with the Magic Fowl, his wicked brothers dupe him and take the credit for the bird. They also trick him into falling down the well, where his bride-to-be soon follows. His poor father is understandably distraught. But Kasim's Demon fortunately comes to their rescue. Instead of turning his evil brothers into two black stones at the bottom of the Rhine—as such a young hero would have done in a fairy-tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm—he is forgiveness itself. And his father frees the fabulous bird to the winds.
Especially owing to "Rose"'s colorful and imaginative production, this opera would surely delight fairly sophisticated children—though those with no experience of opera-theatre or the German language would soon lose interest. Even some privileged kiddies near me—these were not cheap seats—began to fidget.
And, while one admiring critic admitted there were no melodies or little songs in the score—such as one might "sing on the way back to the auto," or share with the children as a good-night—Henze's score nevertheless had its tonal felicities and it subtly underscored the fable in progress.
Whether this is a work which can also find an admiring American public, either young or old, is another matter. The Salzburg premiere production, staged by Dieter Dorn—who gave Bayreuth a magical Flying Dutchman in almost the same broad basic colors as L'Upupa—could be a coup for BAM and its "Next Wave." But Supertitles are an absolute Must…
"L'Upupa" could also be something really special for the programming of the New Victory, the children's theatre on West 42nd Street which specializes in shows that delight both kids and parents. It is certainly colorful and charming to look at, with ingenious directorial and design effects. What it lacks is a compelling, or even a lilting, score. But then, this is in a sense almost a farewell-work by a very senior composer. Hans Werner Henze is entitled to respect and a hearing.
Still, the problem remains about so many new operas produced over the last half of the 20th Century: After their festival premieres, will they ever be heard, let alone seen, again?
Almost four decades ago—when Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig were both a young married-couple and rising stars at the Vienna State Opera—they complained to me about having to learn very difficult—often virtually unsingable—roles in World Premiere Operas. Berry—who was, with Ludwig, then a newcomer to the Met—said: "When you are on your way up, you have to sing these things at the Salzburg Festival. But then they may not even be performed in Vienna after that. All that work for nothing! But when you have finally arrived, you don't have to do those opera anymore." [Loney]
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Copyright and copy; Glenn Loney, 2003. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: email@example.com.
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