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By Glenn Loney, July 24, 2004

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.

Please click on " * " to skip to each subject in this index:

New Intendant David Pountney: *
But Lake Constance Remains the Same-
Farewell To West Side Story on the Lake!
A Word or Two from the Wiener Symphoniker!
Rediscovering Early Kurt Weill:
Der Protagonist & Royal Palace
Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Story of Io:
Outstanding Offering of Bregenz 2004
After the Festival: Stomp and Other Tours!




New Intendant David Pountney:

But Lake Constance Remains the Same-

In recent years, Austria's late President, Dr. Thomas Klestl, always opened the Bregenz Festival with an impressive speech. He customarily delivered these well-reasoned and timely addresses with a vigor that suggested he not only believed in what he was saying, but that he could actually have written the speech himself! Unlike some Presidents...

This summer-shortly after Klestl's death at 71-his successor, President Heinz Fischer, a genial and popular politician, showed his own merits in this vein.

But-instead of the customary program of speeches and symphonic passages-the new Intendant, David Pountney, surprised everyone with a rowdy revue of the talents and topics to be shortly on view. The chorus from West Side Story really woke up the suits and gowns. A real treat and a Preview of Coming Attractions...

Actually, when talking about the Bregenz Festival in Austria-with its famous Music-Theatre Stage rising out of one of Europe's largest lakes-it would be better to identify that lake as the Bodensee. Rather than Lake Constance.

At least for Americans who would like to visit this impressive festival next summer. You can look all over a map of Europe but you won't find any body of water labeled Bodensee. It's always printed with its English name, not its German one. It also has a French title, as it borders on Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and France.

Desperate to create a tourist industry after World War II, the Burghers of Vorarlberg-Austria's most western province-found an ideal solution in 1946, when someone got the Bright Idea of staging a beloved operetta on a stage specially constructed on the lake. Not beside it...

Since that time, vacationers driving from Germany or from Switzerland have often decided to spend at least a night in Bregenz when they saw that monumental stage from a distance. Train-passengers can also see it from afar.

That's how I first discovered the Bregenz Festival in 1956. If I last until 2006, it will be my 50th anniversary-although, to be quite honest, I did not go every summer in the early years. The lake-stage productions, costly to produce, usually ran two seasons. Initially, they weren't so wonderful that you would want to see them again the following year.

Because the open-air amphitheatre facing the lake-stage is built against the Bregenz Festspielhaus, it was decided that opera-productions could be presented inside what was then called the Kongresshaus, popular for international conferences.

This change in programming made me a festival regular. During the recently concluded Intendancy of Dr. Alfred Wopmann, the quality of both outdoor and indoor Music-Theatre productions improved immensely.

The indoor opera stagings-unlike the two-year lake productions-were only on view for one short season. As Artistic Director, Dr. Wopmann specialized in discovering forgotten or neglected works of opera. Among these were Fedora, La Wally, The Invisible City of Kitez, and even Of Mice and Men. This John Steinbeck novel, set to music by Carlisle Floyd, was also a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera.

It was a great success, as was the World Premiere in Bregenz of Bohuslav Martinu's The Greek Passion. This had been commissioned by the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, but its subject-matter-the same folk-version of the Passion of Christ that got the film of this Nikos Kazantzakis novel banned-proved too controversial for the management.

Only after its debut in Bregenz, did this deeply moving opera finally premiere in London at Covent Garden. A major reason for its success was its powerful staging by David Pountney, who is the new Bregenz Intendant.

Pountney is no stranger to the Bregenz Festival, however. His major stagings on the lake are still talked about: The Flying Dutchman-which seemed to take place in a 19th century spinning-mill Hell; Fidelio-influenced by Magritte, and Nabucco, a monumental pre-Holocaust evocation of Jewish suffering.

When he took over the festival, Pountney inherited last year's giant production of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. But he had already made plans for New Directions and New Developments.

In coming seasons, there will be more stagings in the vast Werkstattbühne, where the space can be conformed to what is most effective for the opera or musical. There will be operettas and musicals in the city's smaller Theater am Kornmarkt.

Already in this season, the Werkstattbühne has been outfitted-in a curtained-off section-with le Club. Here, fest guests can have a drink or a snack, but also, on special evenings, enjoy unique programs such as Katja

Reichert singing Kurt Weill songs, Helmut Krauss & Bert Brecht, Next Please!, The 5 Phases of Fred, a West Side Story farewell performed by the departing cast, and even an evening with Fest Director David Pountney and his son: Made in Britain!

In the past, small-scale stagings have also been offered in Sankt-Martins-Platz, a square in the upper Medieval town of Bregenz which is enclosed by historic buildings. This will surely be used again.

Pountney launched his Intendancy with an even greater integration of art, artworks, art-installations, & artists into the Festival program. Bregenz already has an historical museum, the Palais Thurn und Taxis art museum, the stunning new Kunsthaus, and a number of art-galleries.

The Kunsthaus and the Werkstattbühne were the major venues for a variety of productions, including Sir Harrison Birtwistle's The Io Passion, Hoffmanniana, Weill's Die Zaubernacht, Thalia Vista Social Club, and Frank Loesser's Broadway hit: Wie Man was wird im Leben ohne sich anzustrengen. You may know this show better as How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

A major problem in scheduling outdoor and indoor productions at the Festspielhaus has been the fact that the foyers and corridors which serve both venues cannot be used simultaneously. These area are all going to be reworked so that this will no longer be a problem.

Previously, operas have only been performed in the evening. But Festival guests do not have to observe working-hours, so afternoon opera performances will become a regular feature of the fest.

In addition, concerts, play-productions, and readings-already popular-will be expanded in the programming. So Bregenz will be the place to be next summer. Especially if you cannot get tickets to Bayreuth-virtually impossible-or afford the super-expensive Salzburg Festival opera tickets.

The big attraction on the lake will be a visually astounding production of Verdi's Il Trovatore. I can say this with some surety as Gerd Alfons, the Tech Director, showed me the set-model. You will see it from miles away...

David Pountney made a name for himself at the English National Opera-ENO-with some amazingly innovative stagings of venerable opera War Horses. He has repeated that success at Covent Garden, in Munich, and at other major opera houses.

Oddly enough, hosting the post-premiere receptions for the casts of West Side Story and a Kurt Weill double-bill, Pountney seemed influenced by the Public Posture of another innovative opera-director, Peter Sellars.

At one party, he wore a Japanese robe-a Sellars favorite; at the other, Pountney favored a colorful coat, also in the manner of Sellars. Perhaps he will invite Peter Sellars to stage a controversial work at Bregenz? If it were not before controversial, it will surely be after Sellars has given it his Magic Touch.

But Pountney-whose signature-image is his amazing side-burns-can out-Sellars Sellars any day of the week. His Munich Faust had Marguerite hiding from angry townspeople in an immense refrigerator. And an aged Faust went up to Heaven in a wheelchair!


Farewell To West Side Story on the Lake!

Photo by Karl Forster, from http://www.bregenzerfestspiele.com/

There will be no video-tapes of the biggest production of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story ever mounted on any stage. But then the Bregenz

Bodensee lake-stage-especially designed & constructed for this modern Broadway classic-is not like any other stage in the world. No matter what musical or opera is produced on it.

Designer George Tsypin's monumental fractured steel & glass skyscraper West Side Story setting for two seasons dominated the Bregenz skyline-including the winter months in between! It could be seen in the distance by motorists and train-passengers-who often stopped to get tickets. Only to discover all 7,000 seats had been sold out for that night!

Initially, I thought Tsypin's skyscraper looked too much like a 9/11 visual-quote-or an appeal for sympathy-although he had the design-idea well before that terrible disaster.

At the time the show was conceived-just after the shabby old tenements had been torn down to construct Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts-there also were no skyscrapers in the neighborhood. That bothered me: What did Wall Street have to do with Romeo & Juliet on the Upper West Side, after all?

Well, of course it's a Visual Metaphor: a Stark Post-Modernist Contrast of the constricted, confused, and almost cheerless lives of young Whites and Puerto Ricans with the Power & Wealth of Manhattan's Over-Achievers. None of whom appear in this show...

In the second season, however, I discovered I had grown to love that Image.

As had thousands and thousands of Bregenz Festival visitors as well! It will be much missed. That's why it's such a shame there's no video!

But it will rapidly be replaced with the steel pilings and entirely new stage-structures designed for next summer's spectacular production: Verdi's Il Trovatore.

This season, I was even more swept up in the doomed romance of Maria [Katja Reichert] and Tony [Jesper Tydén]. And Andreas Wolfram was certainly a menacing Bernado, with Kinga Dobay charming as Anita.

Francesca Zambello's staging worked more effectively: she had refined some scenes. [She also staged Bregenz's memorable revival of Of Mice and Men.

Oddly enough, Richard Wherlock's choreography seemed much more vital. Oddly, because last season he used his own dance-ensemble, currently on tour somewhere else.

So he had to train and drill entirely new dancers, which may well have been responsible for a more "Broadway-Feel" to the musical and movement dynamics of the score and the story itself.

That the lusty chorus of West Side teenagers was actually the Moscow Chamber-Choir suggests that TV and the Internet will make us One World yet.

Seeing this production again made me both joyous and sad. I would never be able to see it again despite my greatly increased admiration for it.

And whatever wonders Verdi will inspire on the new lake-stage, they won't be anything like the inspirations of Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, & Stephen Sondheim.

I know that many of my friends-both in New York and elsewhere in America-would have loved to see this production, but, because of its very monumentality, it could not be dismantled and toured.

Photo from www.bregenzerfestspiele.com

A video would have been very welcome. But that cannot be, owing to the contractual rights of the four names above-or their heirs. Not to overlook the residuals of the live performers and the musicians. The Bregenz Festival simply could not have afforded to make such a tape.

Wayne Marshall conducted the Vienna Symphony with a sharp eye for the dramatic situations developing overhead on stage, unseen by the orchestra except on TV-monitors.



A Word or Two from the Wiener Symphoniker!

During the Festival, the Wiener Symphoniker held a press-conference. This orchestra is the pit-band of the outdoor lake-stagings. It plays inside the set-structure, unseen by the audience.

Understandably, orchestra-members would like to take a bow now and then. This season, David Pountney and Tech Director Gerd Alfons arranged two giant video-screens on the light-towers at either side of the lake-stage. The audiences of 7,000 spectators could thus at least see Wayne Marshall conducting.

But an even better solution for the musicians-who already have concerts in the Festspielhaus and play for the indoor operas as well-is to have a concert or two on the great stage, where thousands, instead off mere hundreds, can hear them!

There is, of course, always the danger of a sudden Alpine Storm, or a Gewitter, but the lake operas face the same problem of Uncertain Weather.

With more opera and musical offerings, however, the Bregenz Festival may need more musical forces than the Vienna Symphony can provide. It already has some 14 or 15 sub-groups, specializing in Jazz, Early Music, Chamber-Music, and other smaller-scale performance modes.

What emerged of special interest from the press-conference is the fact that the Wiener Symphoniker derives almost 60 percent of its annual budget from its contract at Bregenz. This surely represents only a sixth of its performance-year, so Bregenz-rather than Vienna-seems to be its biggest subsidizer!

In fact, the orchestra provides Vienna with outstanding conductors in varied programs of classical and modern music. It also tours, with Japan on the calendar at the moment. But, considering its funding, it might well be renamed the Bregenzer Symphoniker!


Rediscovering Early Kurt Weill:

Der Protagonist & Royal Palace

Even before the Festival opened-partially in Celebration of Kurt Weill-it had seemed an odd choice for the Festspielhaus premiere: to program two short justly forgotten Weill works, instead of a major Kurt Weill musical or Music-Theatre epic. Mahagonnny, anyone?

Although Weill's music for Der Protagonist is not without interest-academic or musicological, at least-it is not a through-composed score, having silent gaps to permit mime or drama. Whether you'd want to hear this on a CD is a question, especially if you have no text or moving-images to give it some sort of context.

The basic idea is that the central actor gets so caught up in drama and reality that he crosses the line and murders his sister-for whom he may have an unspoken, even unrecognized, incestuous attachment.

Luigi Pirandello has dealt with the paradox of theatrical make-believe confused with reality rather more interestingly in Six Characters in Search of an Author. Even though some composer-desperate for a libretto-topic for which he could craft an opera-score-has in fact set this drama to music, it still works best as a play.

Somewhat in the manner of Richard Strauss's Ariadne-inspired by Molière's Bourgeoise Gentleman-some actors have been summoned to the Duke's household to perform for his amusement.

I would have preferred to see this in a production which could have been closer to what Weill's librettist, Georg Kaiser, had in mind. Something more keyed to 1926 and the decadence of the Weimar Republic-as experienced in the Berlin or Dresden of that time.

As it was, director Nicolas Brieger opted for a more Post-Modern vision, with rows of theatre-sets jumbled at odd angles and the Duke's eight dead-faced musicians seated in some of them.

Three other actors appeared. One put on the bulging plastic buttocks and distended stomach of a cassocked cleric. Two of them cross-dressed as garish and vulgar chippies. Sex-acts of various kinds were enthusiastically pantomimed.

Well, it was 1926-and what did they know about AIDS-or even Adolf Hitler?

Had I not read a program-synopsis, I would have had no idea who the lovely young woman and the handsome young man-both dressed in white-were supposed to be. She was the beloved sister, about to run off with her lover.

This caused The Protagonist to go crazy and stab her, but at least it meant the work was coming to an end. As well as any further incest...

The second half of the Weill double-bill was much more rewarding. With a text by Ivan Goll, Royal Palace explores the fantasies of a woman [Catherine Nagelstad] who is interacting with her Husband, the Lover of Yesterday, and Tomorrow's Lover.

The Weill score is a fascinating mutating collage of jazz, romantic strains, and other contemporary or nostalgic musical modes.

What made this production so compelling, however, was the hauntingly beautiful-and occasionally visually tricky-way in which the director and his designers created it on stage. The video-images were magical and mysterious. Some of the trick-projections were astonishing in their manipulations.

Yakov Kreizberg conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in both scores. He has some interesting programs coming up with this fine orchestra, both in Vienna and on tour.

This production showed how Multi-Media can work on stage. Indeed, without the videos and projections, Royal Palace would have been a very pale experience. This is, in fact, a show which ought to be seen at BAM. But without Der Protagonist.

At the post-premiere Artists Reception, David Pountney seemed almost apologetic that he had asked the cast to do their best with Der Protagonist, obviously recognizing what a difficult task had been set for them. He specially saluted the stalwart and strong-voiced Gerhard Siegel, who was the protagonist of The Protagonist. As well as Tomorrow's Lover in Royal Palace.

Pountney also programmed Weill's Der Kühhandel in the Kornmarkt Theatre, but I wasn't able to stay in Bregenz that long. Having already seen it in revival at the Juilliard Opera Theatre-or was it the Manhattan School of Music-I thought one exposure was enough.

The music is not without musico-historical interest-given such Brecht-Weill works as Mahagonnny and Threepenny Opera-but the Anti-Fascist Cow-Fable is a too-well-worn device by now.

In a desperately poor Latin American country, a despotic dictator needs cash to wage an unnecessary war. A peasant couple have to give up their beloved cow, their only means of support. As their sacrifice to the cause. All turns out for the best...

I may have missed a seminal staging of this long-neglected work by not staying on in Bregenz, but I suspected no innovatory stage-tricks could make this work memorable.

One does remember the Manhattan School's adventure with Der Tsar lässt sich photographieren-but largely because of the immense Camera-prop. Or Hal Prince's New York City Opera efforts on behalf of Silver Lake.

It is perhaps more interesting to hear the scores of some of these really early Kurt Weill works than it is to see them. After Carl Orff had found his musical voice in Carmina Burana, he destroyed most of his earlier scores. This could be a good model to follow...


Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Story of Io:

Outstanding Offering of Bregenz 2004

At a press-conference for this unusual new work of Music-Theatre, "Sir Harry"-as David Pountney affectionately addressed him-called it The Passion of Io, although it was also identified as The Story of Io.

It is also the story of an opera that began as a sketch on a paper-napkin.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, designer Alison Chitty, and director Stephen Langridge were seated in the Covent Garden café when Birtwistle had the idea to draw a room-seen from the inside and from the outside.

Seized by the idea that there might be an opera in that room, they went over to a rehearsal-studio at London's National Theatre. On the walls were hanging some reproductions of famous paintings.

What caught their collective eyes were a Magritte scene, a desolate Edward Hopper, and a Vermeer of a girl reading a letter.

So Chitty evolved a kind of Magritte house, complete with street-lamps, one seen outside, the other viewed from the inside through a window. The Hopper desolation was not neglected. But the woman inside the house was very reluctant to read the letter being dropped into her letter-box.

Birtwistle asked author Stephen Plaice to create a libretto which would allude to the tragic story of Io, beloved of Zeus. To protect her from the wrath of his always jealous wife, Hera, he transformed Io into a cow or heifer.

But Hera had her revenge by sending a great stinging fly to torment Io throughout her desperate travels through the world.

As Plaice developed the fable, it centered on a man and a woman who had once visited the ancient and enchanted site of the Mysteries of Lerna in Greece. They have brought an incense-offering with them. Something mysterious happens to them.

But, after they are back in the city, she does not want to remember. She absorbs herself in her daily routine. She does not want to see him again.

On the small box-stage, the outside of her Magritte-house has a window, a door, and a letter-slot. Also a street-lamp standing near. The man comes silently the door but does not dare to knock. He drops a letter in the slot.

Inside, quietly reading, she hears the letter drop. She wishes to ignore it.

The man makes seven approaches to her door. He drops the letter seven times.

This invokes the classical Magic-Number of Seven. [As in Tennessee Williams' The Seven Descents of Myrtle!]

As both Birtwistle and Plaice point out, it is always the same letter and the same time. But, at each approach, something is changing. Dreams are being enacted. Songs are being sung.

At last, the Gods appear-masked as in an ancient Greek tragedy-and the memories of Lerna and the tormented Io come alive.

In fact, in Section Six, the woman becomes Hera and sings an arietta: "If I Come Back Again in This Light."

The man and the woman come together again in her dream. Awake again, she looks in her mirror and sings: "Here I am, Io, Queen of Antioch." The man stands outside by the lamp, stung by Hera's fly.

Birtwistle's charming low-keyed score-almost an accompaniment-was played by the Diotima String Quartet, plus a clarinet.

This haunting chamber-opera-beautifully realized on stage at the Aldeburgh Festival-is a Natural for BAM in Brooklyn. Co-produced by London's

Almeida Theatre, it seems designed for touring.


After the Festival: Stomp and Other Tours!

When you have a handsome Festspielhaus like that in Bregenz, there's always the problem: What to you stage out of Festival Season?

The city's subsidized theatre, the Theater am Kornmarkt, has it own interesting repertory each season. And it's not nearly as big as the Festspielhaus, so it's not so difficult to fill.

Bregenz has not yet discovered the idea of Christmas, Easter or Pfingsten Festivals, as have other fest-cities such as Salzburg.

In the meantime, at least for the locals-there are tours: this season Stomp is promised. This show has been touring Europe forever. Don't they ever get tired of banging on garbage-cans in Old Europe?

Also scheduled for the Festspielhaus are Queen Esther Marrow & The Harlem Gospel Singers, Carmen Flamenco, and Die Schöne und das Biest!

Broadway, Eat Your Heart Out! [Loney]

Copyright Glenn Loney, 2004. 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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