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By Glenn Loney, July 18, 2002

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
[01] The 56th Bregenz Festival Summer
[02] Giant Bohème Last Time on Lake Constance
[03] Martinu's Dream-Opera Julietta
[04] Austrian President & Czech Ambassor Open Festival
[05] Bernstein's West Side Story Set for Lake-Stage Summer 2003
[06] David Pountney Succeeds Alfred Wopman as Bregenz Festival Chief

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Celebrating the 56th Summer
Of the Bregenz Festival on Lake Constance—

Bregenzer Festspiele: moma: Mimì, Rodolfo
There's a curious connection between Austria's distinguished yet popular Bregenz Festival and the somewhat off-hand—yet occasionally magnificent—Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This summer they were both 56 years old.

Another connection—of no particular consequence: I have been going to Bregenz since 1956. Though I did not begin the trek to Edinburgh until 1958. So I feel something of an Old Hand in studying the development of some of Europe's most important summer festivals. Some, not all.

Bregenz has had its triumphs and its trials. Its artistic and economic ups and downs, like most festivals worthy of the name.

Thus far, it has enjoyed its finest hour(s) under the artistic direction of Dr. Alfred Wopmann. Not only has he raised the famous and spectacular lake-stage opera and musical productions to an international level of musical and dramatic excellence. But he has also sparked a distinctive kind of innovation in design, staging, and interpretation.

This has been titled the Bregenzer Dramaturgie, and it works just as creatively—though necessarily differently—indoors with forgotten or neglected operas on the festival's proscenium-stage.

But the summer of 2003 will be Dr. Wopmann's directorial/curatorial Swan Song. It would have been—under those circumstances—entirely appropriate to have planned an immense production of Swan Lake on Bregenz's great lake-stage on Lake Constance.

And, indoors in the Festspielhaus, how about a cutting-edge staging of Richard Wagner's great Swan Knight opera, Lohengrin?

That is not what has been programmed, however. So a festival devoted entirely to works of theatre, dance, and opera which feature swans is yet a long way off…

Bregenzer Festspiele: Forster

La Bohème on Lake Constance for Second Season:
Giant Chairs & Café Tables Survive Fierce Winter!

Production & Performances Better Than Ever!

Initially—though I would be the first to admit that the monumental cafe-table stages and immense chairs sprouting out of the Bodensee for the current Bohème production were absolutely unforgettable—I didn't think they struck quite the right visual note for this sentimental, yet somewhat raffish, tale of young artists and young love in mid-19th century Paris.

But, as the opera was not played in that period, but in the present, at least it was still at least figuratively in Paris. But its one big scene—the celebratory outing to Café Momus—was in effect the visual symbol for all that occurs in Puccini's much-beloved opera.

This was certainly spectacular enough—you could see the giant chairs kilometers away on the train—but it did not well serve most of the much smaller scenes. They tended to get lost with all the varied performance surfaces, colorful costumes, immense set-props, dazzling lighting changes, and frantic stage-activities of a group of non-singing Movement performers.

The ideal opera or musical for the Bregenz lake-stage—which in any case has to be entirely reconstructed for each new work—would be one with few intimate scenes. They often get swallowed up on such a large stage, unless they are boxed or framed in a spectacular way that makes them stand out.

Preferable are Music-Theatre works with several large-scale scenes requiring or encouraging something very spectacular for the audiences of thousands to admire. Offenbach's Tales of Hofmann was certainly one of these. Also Mozart's Magic Flute.

Preferably, there should also be some amazing and unexpected magical/technical transformations from scene to scene. At Bregenz, this can be done both with machinery and lighting.

There may of course be glitches, like the Carmen evening when the bull-ring would not slide out on its tracks. So Escamillo had to sing his Toreador's song in the high mountains of the Smugglers' hideout.

Both Beethoven's Fidelio and Verdi's Masked Ball are operas with intimate moments and only one or two potentially grand scenes. Nonetheless, their Bregenz productions on the lake-stage were both stunning triumphs.

Richard Jones and Antony McDonald—the British directorial & design team that created the Masked Ball, with its immense skeleton looming over the Bodensee—also exercised their fertile imaginations on La Bohème. But they were less successful in framing or focusing the intimate scenes than they had been with Verdi.

For their second summer in and around Café Momus, however, they toned down some of the distracting stage-activity which had nothing to do with the central action. And the lighting was much more effective in directing the audiences' attention to those spots on stage where really important developments in the plot were being sung and played.

Maybe Bregenz is a bit like Bayreuth in this regard? After the first season of a new Wagner production, visual and interpretative details which have not quite worked—especially those which have attracted critics' notice—are rethought in the second year.

But Bregenz lake-stage productions don't have third or fourth years for further refinement.

Fortunately, I enjoyed the Bregenz Bohème much more this time around. And it wasn't just a case of "getting used to it."

Alexia Voulgarido—one of three Mimis—was even more affecting this summer than she was last year in the premiere. She is definitely a young talent to watch!

Also outstanding—and an obvious audience-favorite—was handsome young Rolando Villazon, as Rodolfo. And the tempestuous Elena de la Merced was impressive as Musetta.

Ulf Schirmer conducted the Vienna Symphony with a sure hand, taking into account all the requirements of such a large-scale, diffuse production. He helped it attain a kind of musical/visual cohesion.

Julietta (Photo by Bregenzer Festspiele: Forster)

Checking Up on the Czech:

After Huge Success of His Greek Passion
Bohuslav Martinu's Neglected Julietta Revived

One of the Hallmarks of the Bregenz Festival—under the Intendancy of Dr. Alfred Wopmann—has been the often amazing and innovative productions of neglected, obscure, or totally forgotten operas on the indoor stage of the Festspielhaus.

This is an aspect of the so-called Bregenzer Dramaturgie which has definitely sparked renewed interest of opera-houses both in Europe and abroad in staging these frequently powerful works.

BWE—or Before the Wopmann Era—the indoor operas were a kind of "extra," to encourage opera-lovers to stay more than a day or two. And they were usually sure-fire Opera War Horses, in an effort to fill as many seats as possible.

Not only has Wopmann changed all that with his policy of exploring virtually unknown works, which never made it into the standard opera repertory. Or operas which dropped out soon after their premieres…

But he has also given them new life and currency, as well as introducing some astonishing singing/acting talents, previously unfamiliar to Western European—and North American—opera stages.

Add to that his genius for engaging directors and designers who almost instinctively find the keys to bringing these forgotten operas to vibrant life and you have an achievement well worthy of acclaim.

One hopes the Austrian Government—whose major officials are always present at Bregenz premieres—will award Dr. Wopmann its highest honor in the Arts for his services to the nation when he retires in 2003 as Festival Director!

His dedication to the works of Bohuslav Martinu certainly was rewarded with the Bregenz production of The Greek Passion, later seen as a co-production at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.

The Bregenz production was not a revival. It was a World Premiere, for the work had never been performed in English, as Martinu had originally conceived it in the 1950s for Covent Garden!

I could only wish that the David Pountney/Stefanos Lazarides production, shown so powerfully on the Festspielhaus stage, could be seen worldwide. It should certainly be seen at BAM and other American opera-stages.

And now Martinu's also almost forgotten opera Julietta has benefited from the Bregenzer Dramaturgie as well. This was obviously a pet project of Dr. Wopmann's, and the festival's amazing technical staff have given it their all to make the production visually unforgettable.

Shortly before I saw the premier, Gerd Alfons—Bregenz's genial head of production—assured me I would be astounded at the various images I would see. And he was certainly right.

Previously, I had known the opera only from a recording. The score seemed both haunting and somewhat elusive. But then I had not read the accompanying libretto, as those CD album-books are printed in such tiny type you could go blind trying to decipher them.

I did read the program synopsis, so I knew the rough outlines of what is in effect a plotless dream or nightmare. Based on a work by Georges Neveux, the opera bears the German title of Juliette oder Das Traumbuch—or Book of Dreams.

As one entered the Festspielhaus, one saw an immense mountain of books, with the baffled book-seller hero, Michael, seated on top, fussing away with books and papers. Suddenly, the book-mound collapsed, throwing Michael and his chair thunderingly down to the floor.

How Gerd Alfons' tech staff achieved this—devised by designer Vera Bonsen—is a story in itself. But even more amazing is that an opera-singer would consent to take such a seemingly dangerous spill—before he had sung even one word!

But Johannes Chum is one of the new breed of singers who is up for anything. And still able to give an outstanding vocal and acting performance totally in character. This young man is a tenor who will surely soon be heard on many major opera-stages.

His adventurousness in helping make a rather bizarre production succeed both musically and dramatically is matched by that of soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, the haunting, mysterious, unachievable Juliette.

When Vera Bonsen's overpowering stage-environment is disclosed, it looks like an immense concrete World War II bomb-shelter bunker. An iron-curtain separates the downstage chamber from a similar one upstage.

But these are not merely cavernous rooms where Germans can wait out Allied Air-Raids. In fact, whatever wars they were built for are long over, and they are now the Landscape of Forgetting and Endless Dreams.

The two chambers are effective hillsides of refuse and sandy silt. There appears to be a breakthrough in the bunker walls at the summits of the sand-hills, toward which all the characters seem to be futilely striving, At the close of the opera, some people actually seem to be escaping into the sunshine. Most do not.

The soil-surfaces are thunderously cluttered with myriads of white window-frames and broken furniture. White chairs were notable, which may be an inside-joke, a tribute to the immense chairs outside on the lake-stage for La Bohème. At one point, characters remove many of these, for reasons I could not discern.

No matter. This is an amazing and unforgettable stage-environment. Whether it is a stage-picture which best serves Martinu's own Dream-Surrrealist imaginings—as noted in his libretto—is another matter.

In any case, having decided that the Surrealism of a Dali limp-watch or a Magritte top-hat are passé, director Katja Czellnik and her designer opted for a new vision entirely.

Instead, the visual message is now the Myth of Sisyphus—which does have a resonance in the original libretto, as Michael is continually trying to come together with the enchanting Juliette, who forever and perversely eludes him.

Accordingly, characters in Martinu's libretto—probably greatly to his surprise, if he has looked down on this staging—instead of filling the routine, if dreamland, functions one would expect of them, are now all trying, like Sisyphus with his endlessly futile rolling of that stone uphill, to push something uphill. Only to be defeated near the summit and slide back down again.

Thus, the locomotive engineer is endlessly rolling a great metal locomotive drive-wheel upwards. No trains will be leaving this bunker. Michael is stranded.

The ship's captain—instead of presiding over an immediately departing steamship—now is futilely trying to pull a small boat up the incline. Appropriately, the ship has Try Again painted on its side.

This may well be a Beckettian citation. As in his formulation of: "Try and fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better!" But it's not quite what Martinu seems to have been implying in his libretto.

Even Juliette is trying to get up the incline. But she's seated at her piano, which inches uphill, only to slide back down. Later—as this grand-piano is also representing her home—it looks like a bombed-out ruin, in which she has taken shelter.

There are also frequent rides-by of a linking character on a bike made of a cello-case!

So this is a visually and vocally powerful production, with Dietfried Bernet conducting the Vienna Symphony with a nuance and subtlety entirely in keeping with the dream/nightmare nature of Martinu's haunting score.

Wolfgang Göbbel's brilliant white-light illumination makes the nightmarishness of the proceedings even more implosive.

A generally admirable cast—especially considering all the physical gymnastics they are called upon to perform—was highlighted by the performances of Matteo de Monti, Eberhard Francesco Lorenz, Richard Salter, and Susanne Reinhard.

Only after seeing, hearing, and being amazed and confused by this staging was I able to obtain a copy of the German libretto.

The brief program synopsis explained that Michael—a book-seller, who traveled about looking for old books—had been to this coastal town before. He had heard the voice of Juliette, which has haunted him so much, he's had to return to hear it again, and to see the object of his dreams.

Juliette proves most elusive, even taunting him with other men, after which she disappears in the forest, Michael following. She cries out. Has he murdered her? This happens offstage, so we will never know. But Michael hears her voice again…

When Michael thinks of leaving the town, which he reached by train, he's told there's no railroad station. And, of course, he misses the boat which is just leaving.

One of the oddnesses of the town and its people is that no one remembers anything. And, for Michael, even the buildings seem to change in some strange way.

This is a fantasy in three acts, in which Michael later learns people are paying to live out dream-fantasies. Eventually, they become willingly trapped in them, the world of reality far behind.

This theme is a long way off from Martinu's The Greek Passion, based on Kazantzakis' novel. Greek Realism vs. French Surrealism?

I must confess that I did not understand most of the sung German text. I hear German spoken only one month a year, so it takes a bit of adjustment on the first few days of hearing and speaking German again.

If one already is familiar with the texts of Wagner's operas, this is not a real problem. But how many Wagner-lovers really understand every word of the operas in performance?

Martinu's German libretto is something else entirely…

Thus, I missed the transition from the second into the third act, for there was no curtain-break. It all seemed a continuation of Act One. An Austrian critic even observed that the first act was quite enough, as the second half seemed only more of the same…

When the Bregenz Festival premiered its powerful production of Carlisle Floyd's operatic version of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men last season, it provided supertitles in both German and English.

Even in American opera-houses, it's often helpful to have titles in English. Singers who are trying for beautiful sounds—or surges of emotion—don't always articulate the words so clearly.

At the rival Salzburg Festival—with its obvious interest in attracting American and other English-speaking opera and theatre lovers—English-language supertitles are a rule now. On a Nestlé-sponsored overhead screen, no less!

As Bregenz is effectively an international festival—although most of its visitors do come from Deutsch-sprachige-Raum—it would seem a thoughtful improvement to follow Salzburg's lead in this matter.

Had this been provided, I would have had less difficulty trying to decode what I was seeing on stage, in terms of what the synopsis had suggested would occur.

Having read Martinu's own stage-directions and production-suggestions only after seeing the staging now makes me eager to see this unusual opera in a different production. One more in keeping with his imaginings, which could make the dreamlike events less vague or baffling.

Bregenz's Julietta director and designer surely do not know the German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari? If they did, they might have realized that the visualization of the real world as a kind of Expressionist Nightmare is exactly what Martinu suggests in his libretto.

Perhaps the keyword in production-planning should have been Expressionism, rather than Surrealism?

Next time, let's give Julietta an Expressionist staging and see how it works, ok?

Austrian President Klestil & Czech Ambassador Grusa
Open the Annual Bregenz Festival with Major Addresses

Can you imagine President George Bush II making a point of being present at the opening of, say, the Metropolitan Opera season—or even the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—to deliver a major address about American Life & Culture, as Austria's President Dr. Thomas Klestil does every summer for the Bregenz Festival?

Can you even imagine President Bush at the Metropolitan Opera at all?

Dr. Klestil spoke with feeling and thoughtfulness, as he does every summer. If he does not write his own speeches—what head of state does that anymore?—he has speech-writers who know how to strike exactly the right note. Right notes are important at Music Festivals, after all!

He was given an Austrian Army honor-guard and a musical salute by a military band as he approached the Festspielhaus. He and his gracious wife, Margot, greeted the public and officials. And they were in turn greeted by cute little children, dressed in the centuries-old native costumes of the Province of Vorarlberg.

Of course President Klestil also opens the Salzburg Festival, but that is a much more formal event, with less access of the public—as befits a fest which charges as much as $400 for an opera-ticket.

The Bregenz Festival, by contrast, is much more open, informal, and truly popular—though that does not imply any dumbing-down or gratuitous crowd-pleasing in fest programming.

Austria's State Secretary for the Arts, Franz Morak, also spoke. He is a former Burg Theater actor, so he is not unfamiliar with the needs and wants of Austrian subsidized theatres and operas. Last season, he struck fear into the hearts of some by noting that government supports needed to be reduced, with regions and communities bearing more of the costs of both festivals and regular seasons and other cultural attractions.

Nonetheless, the importance of culture to Austrian Quality of Life is no secret. Unlike the situation in the United States…

Morack told the local press: "That every year five times as many people go to the opera as go to the football stadium has long been known." But certainly not on this side of the Atlantic: this was news to me.

Morak praised the effective artistic and business management of the Bregenz Festival for creating productions of such high quality and imagination that they have successfully appealed to what he called the Massenpublikum. This of course also implies that huge federal subsidies are not needed, something the richly funded Salzburg Festival might begin to worry about.

The major address of the Festival Opening ceremonies, however, was given by the Czech Republic's Ambassador to Austria, Jirí Grusa. Referring to Martinu's Julietta, Grusa titled his Festrede: "Office for Dreams, or the Simple Future."

The text of this address ought to be made more widely available. I do have a copy, but not the time to type it into this report.

Dr. Grusa was a prominent dissident in Prague during the worst years of Communist domination. His writings and his editorial work were a constant threat to the State. He and Vaclav Havel were both literary heroes for Czechs, who longed for the return of Democracy and Freedom.

During the short, sweet, and all-too-brief Prague Spring of 1968, I had the good fortune to interview Grusa, as well as other important leaders in Czech culture. When I returned to New York—after Dubcek had been removed and the movement for freedom crushed—I found a message that I should not publish anything anyone had told me weeks before.

Bernstein's West Side Story To Explode
On Bodensee Lake-Stage Next Summer!

In the summer of 2001, Bregenz tech-director Gerd Alfons told me that the next lake-stage show would be Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. But, as this was virtually a State Secret, he asked me to preserve secrecy. Which I have done.

As with Porgy and Bess—shown recently on the lake-stage, the second production of Gershwin's opera there in some years—West Side Story has also been staged before. And of course, since its Broadway premiere in 1957, it has repeatedly toured European stages. Currently, Munich's second opera-house, the Gärtnerplatz-Theater has an attractive, but small-scale, West Side Story staging in its standard repertory.

But the forthcoming Bregenz production is sure to outdo any previous stagings because of the spectacular opportunities which a lake-stage created specially for the show offers designers and directors.

This is a musical which can really evoke a blockbuster fantasy of New York City in the late 1950s. Not to forget slum-youth gang-warfare.

This has not exactly disappeared in Manhattan, but at least it's not much in evidence at Lincoln Center, where the action of the original show was centered. But before the slums were torn down and Lincoln Center was constructed.

Stage-director Francesca Zambello—who did such fine work on Bregenz's recent production of Carlisle Floyd's opera-version of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men—will stage the work, but it won't be any kind of recreation of a West Side Story you think you remember.

The always innovative George Tsypin—Peter Sellars' favorite designer—will devise spectacular astonishments for the lake-stage. What they will be I have no idea, for Gerd Alfons was not about to show the model or the plans so soon.

Tsypin created the sets for Valery Gergiev's fantastic War and Peace at the Met.

Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story is surely a show that many Americans will want to come to Brengenz to enjoy. Book now as the seating is limited—and there are not that many hotel-rooms available. An added selling-point: tickets for all festival events are much cheaper than at the Salzburg Festival!

I have had the good fortune in recent seasons to have been invited to talk about Porgy and Bess and Of Mice and Men in the Bregenz Opera-Workshops related to those productions.

That probably won't happen this time, however, for librettist Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim are the obvious choices for offering New York perspectives on the work and its creation.

The indoor Festspielhaus opera production will be Leos Janácek's Das schlaue Füchslein, translated either as The Cunning Little Vixen or The Clever Little Vixen.

This Czech opera choice must relate to the stagings of the Czech composer Martinu in some way, for the opera is hardly forgotten or neglected. The Munich Opera currently has a monumentally Minimalist staging in repertory.

Bregenz Festival 2003:

Farewell, Alfred Wopmann!
Welcome, David Pountney!

Bregenz Festival 2003 is the final season of Dr. Alfred Wopmann's admirable stewardship. It is to be hoped his retirement will be suitably honored by Austria. He certainly has contributed much to its cultural life and achievements.

He will be succeeded by a longtime colleague and collaborator, David Pountney.

Pountney made his mark as an innovative opera stage-director at the English National Opera, and he has never looked back. His Faust at the Bavarian State Opera is a nightmare fantasy not easily forgotten.

At Bregenz on the great lake-stage, Pountney's mounting of Wagner's Flying Dutchman and Beethoven's Fidelio were monumental triumphs of Post-Modernity. On the Festspielhaus proscenium-stage, he has astounded audiences with Martinu's The Greek Passion and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel.

Pountney's current monumentally mechanistic Turandot staging for the Salzburg Festival is one that he might very well want to rework a few years from now for the Bodensee lake-stage!

Whatever opera/musical choices he makes, David Pountney is sure to provide much to astonish and even more to think about and debate. He is a Thinking Director, as well as something of a Rebel. [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2002. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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