Follow Up & Moving Forward

At the end of my studying abroad in Vienna papers and exams overtook me, making it impossible to keep pace with reviewing operatic performances even as I continued to attend them. Since returning from Vienna, school, work, and other events have interfered in my completing reviews of 12 performances I had the opportunity to see as my time in Vienna came to a close. This lack of closure, however, has had a domino effect, leading me to feel like I couldn't review other performances, DVDs, write on various topics, etc. thereafter until I finished things up. At this point, now that I finally have the opportunity and have mustered the willpower, I've decided the best way to get this done is to seek middle ground. Writing a post each for the twelve performances in as much depth as my previous posts would require far too much time and effort. Additionally, it is impossible for anyone to see these performances with the same production and performers and I don't remember the details as clearly this far out, though much of it is as vivid.

Hence, I have decided to present each performance with the highlights of the cast and team, a photo representative of the performance, and some brief remarks about what has stuck with me this long after the fact from those performances. I will conclude with general remarks. Then I can get on with current affairs!

Tannhäuser | Richard Wagner
Dirigent | Franz Welser-Möst
Regie | Claus Guth

Tannhäuser | Stephen Gould
Elisabeth | Anne Schwanewilms
Venus | Irene Theorin
Wolfram | Matthias Goeme
Hermann | Sorin Coliban

My recollection of this Tannhäuser was that it was very aloof in its staging. There were a lot of dark sets that were relatively sparse. That said, the technique of using sets that actually looked like the Wiener Staatsoper building was very clever. The lighting was also very dark. The overall mood was thoughtful, rather than sad or moving. Additionally, while solid singing was had from the cast, backed up by Welser-Möst, I felt like perhaps a little bit more direction could have made the performances more evocative. Stephen Gould here, as before, seemed like a very solid pick for the title role with even vocals throughout and a clear voice that could be heard, but did not blow the part out of the water.

L'italiana in Algieri | Gioachino Rossini
Dirigent | Marco Armiliato
Regie | Jean-Pierre Ponnelle

Isabella | Stella Grigorian
Lindoro | Maxim Mironov
Taddeo | Alfred Sramek
Mustafa | Ildar Abdrazakov
Elvira | Chen Reiss
Zulma | Rachel Frenkel

I do not recall this production as well as some of the others beyond that it was raucously funny in the appropriate places. The acting by the singers was quite superb, but beyond this, it was the production itself that was well wrought to create this comedy. It was pleasant to see Chen Reiss again, impressed as I was with her every time I saw her. Additionally, Stella Grigorian, Alfred Sramek, and Ildar Abdrazakov all helped add to the comedy of the piece. Maxim Mironov, as Lindoro, possessed a voice (and a face) seemingly almost too sweet and young to be singing the role he was on stage. It was not seemingly a voice built for vocal fireworks in that it had neither the knife-like squillo many Bel Canto tenors possess nor quite the size of some other singers of the repertoire. The voice carried with no problem, however, and gave the character a sense of tenderness that was rather incredible.

La Boheme | Giacomo Puccini
Dirigent | James Gaffigan
Regie | Franco Zeffirelli

Rodolfo | Ramón Vargas
Mimí | Anita Hartig
Marcello | Marco Caria
Musetta | Simina Ivan
Schaunard | Tae-Joong Yang
Colline | Jongmin Park

This performance of La boheme was quite an opportunity for me both because it was performed by some substantial singers and also because of Zeffirelli's famous staging. The great debate rages eternally over different production styles and the relative value of bigger, more boisterous scenes with fully constructed sets like Zeffirelli employs versus more modern sets that use sparser sets, more technology, and more backdrops or projections. In any case, Zeffirelli's vision gives bohemian France a feeling of being alive that, I believe, no modern-style production could. I want to comment on Anita Hartig as Mimí, but have some suspicion that she had to bow out for the performance I witnessed so I will refrain, much as I like Hartig. Much debate has been had whether Vargas could successful transition into heavier repertoire, and he definitely has done so. The vocality of his Rodolfo may not be the most stunning of all time in its beauty, but the high notes are there, the Puccini style is there, and the beautiful legato line is also there. As importantly he ably acted the part consistently. While Marco Caria and Simina Ivan put in reasonable performances as Marcello and Musetta, Tae-Joong Yang and Jongmin Park brought surprising depth and dimension as the more iminor Schaunard and Colline. From a personal perspective, I will cherish the memory of, for the first time, seeing an opera with someone with whom I was in love. Indeed, there is perhaps no greater opera with which to have that first-time experience.

Nabucco | Giuseppe Verdi
Dirigent | Michael Güttler
Regie | Gunter Krämer

Nabucco | George Gagnidze
Ismaele | Ho-Yoon Chung
Zaccaria | Konstantine Gorny
Abigaille | Maria Guleghina
Fenena | Rachel Frenkel
Anna | Elisabeta Marin

Verdi's Nabucco is an opera with which I am less familiar, despite its pivotal place as a transition from the high Bel Canto period to the stronger, more robust kind of singing demanded in the later Romantic period by Verdi, Wagner, and ultimately the Verismo composers. Indeed, I remain somewhat in the dark about it. In all honesty, the cryptic, "matrixesque" backgrounds and minimalistic staging only served to confuse the plot. They were not ineffectively artistically, but it required a great deal of figuring out in order to appreciate the sentiments. As far as singing goes, I was honestly most struck by Maria Guleghina's tremendously large voice. She was under the weather (as I believe may have been announced), and it showed. Some high notes were a bit off and some passages were a bit rough in the low sections. Also, it was clear that certain portions were off the breath. Nonetheless, when she really went for it her costars, the chorus, and the orchestra, were practically drowned out by her voice. As a side note, I recently had the opportunity to see Ho-Yoon Chung in a concert performance in Toronto, and enjoyed his performance there. I fondly recalled he performed at the Wiener Staatsoper, and it is nice to see his name listed here again, even if I do not remember him specifically in this role.

Der Rosenkavalier | Richard Strauss
Dirigent | Peter Schneider
Regie | Otto Schenk

Marschallin | Anja Harteros

Baron Ochs | Kurt Rydl
Octavian | Michaela Selinger
Herr von Faninal | Franz Grundheber
Sophie | Chen Reiss
Marianne | Caroline Wennborne
Valzacchi | Benedikt Kobel
Annina | Zoryana Kushpler
Italian Singer | Norbert Ernst

This being my first time seeing Strauss' seminal Der Rosenkavalier, I have to say that I have some difficulty separating out the opera from this particular performance. I did enjoy the production, however. It was more or less in period dress, and the opulence of the court was quite evident. This provided a rich backdrop on which both the serious and comical elements of the piece could occur. As far as the singing goes, I can honestly recall very little other than remembering some of the singers, most particularly Chen Reiss and Norbert Ernst, from other performances. While it's not a new revelation to anyone who knows the music, I loved the trio at the end between The Marschallin, Sophie, and Octavian. The point being that Anja Harteros, Michaela Selinger, and of course the inimitable Chen Reiss combined to realize the magic everyone agrees is in Strauss' music in this piece.

Daphne | Richard Strauss
Dirigent | Simone Young
Regie | Nicolas Joel

Peneios | Georg Zeppenfeld
Gaea | Elisabeth Kulman
Daphne | Meagan Miller
Leukippos | Michael Schade
Apollo | Johan Botha

While I admit I was bored at points in Der Rosenkavalier, I overall had a great impression of that piece and understood why it is so beloved. Daphne though, I have to say, confused me a bit. Daphne is a relatively obscure opera and (more understandably that Der Rosenkavalier) one that I also had not seen. Nonetheless, while I recall the performances being fairly even and the bizarre staging, a mixture of clownery, demonism, and native South American themes, provocative, I felt that the already convoluted plot was even less clear given the unusual staging. This was an instance where the production had a very clear idea, but one that I felt was not communicated very well to me on the outside.

Aus einem Totenhaus | Leoš Janáček
Dirigent | Franz Welser-Möst
Regie | Peter Konwitschny


Aus einem Totenhaus, Janáček's last opera, is unusual in several ways. First, it is his only opera not directly inspired by Kamila Stösslová, his longtime love interest. Second, there is little plot progression, but rather non-linear interplay between the characters as they recall their days before going to the Siberian prison, the setting. Third, in light of this, there are no star characters, just a very large, relatively equal ensemble. The singing was all very well done. While not like Wagnerian or Verismo operas, this kind of music also is at its best when the singing is not a focal point, not so noticeable. Indeed, this ensemble performed exactly this way. The setting, however, and the acting that went along with it, was what blew me away. The idea was that, while these characters are still in prison and there is still a power structure, the setting is a white tie party. The warden and guards act as hosts while the prisoners are guests. In general, prisoner-guests are enjoying themselves, but when they step out of line, they are forcibly, physically rebuked. There are lots of different interpretations of this vision. Without going into too great a depth, however, I found it fascinating to see this juxtaposition between the terrible, bleak story of the prisoners and their current situation with the facade of the party.

Madame Butterfly (at the Wiener Volksoper) | Giacomo Puccini
Dirigent | Stefan Herheim
Regie | Tetsuro Ban

Madame Butterfly | Melba Ramos
Suzuki | Adrineh Simonian
Pinkerton | Jenk Bick
Kate Pinkerton | Manuela Leonhartsberger
Sharpless | Morten Frank Larsen
Goro | Jeffrey Treganza
Yamadori/Puccini | Josef Luftensteiner
The Bonze | Peter Wimberger
Dolore | Pauli Gerrit Koller

I should have been going to the Wiener Volksoper for the duration of my time in Vienna, but I never got around to it until the very end of my stay. I wanted to include this production of Madame Butterfly here, however, because it is an interesting contrast to the Wiener Staatsoper production that I saw much earlier during the season. That production was "period" but with the odd twist of washed out colors in an almost cartoonish kind of color scheme. The singing in that production, perhaps with the exception of Suzuki, was just as washed out as the set. It was strident, unpleasant, unromantic, and hard to listen to on the part of the tenor, and under sung and unconvincing on the part of the soprano. This production at the Wiener Volksoper was also set in period, but with a generally more minimalistic theme. A rotating pagoda with paper screens was the focal point of the work, often lit in low, bluish hues. Though the voices at the Wiener Volksoper are not generally of the size, beauty, or fame (for what that's worth) of those at the Wiener Staatsoper, in this case, the Volskoper performers far exceeded those at the Staatsoper's Butterfly that same season. Melba Ramos had a few vocal foibles, but all in all was stellar in her commitment to the role and her ability to sing with emotion and beautiful tone. Jenk Bick also was a great improvement over what I had seen previously, and Adrineh Simonian was at least on par as Suzuki. This production, however, was far from conventional. It seemed like it would be until the very end. I had wondered why Josef Luftensteiner was billed as Yamadori/Puccini throughout the show. It was clear at various other points, based on costuming and on acting, that when not playing Yamadori, Mr. Luftensteiner was Puccini, observing how his opera was progressing. The purpose of this, however, did not become clear until the very end of the opera. Just before committing suicide, Butterfly, in a stunning moment, refuses to comply with the plot, throwing the knife to the ground. With the crowd jeering around them Puccini, with a gesture, has members of the ensemble grab hold of Butterfly while they stab her to death, ensuring the completion of the plot. Certainly purists would abhor such an ending, and it does take the tragedy out of the piece, to some extent (it's still sad she dies, of course, but it doesn't have the same pathos). This ending was though-provoking, however, and I enjoyed considering the meaning of it. It was a great, controversial way to end my opera-going activities in Vienna.

Other Performances
While the primary purpose of this blog is opera, many other forms of art, such as oratorio (in the broad sense), oratorio (in the narrow sense), art song, and even other classical music are closely related to opera and bear mentioning, as well. I went to two concert performances in December around Vienna that incorporated voice, as well as one musical theatre performance (in German), and one dance performance.

Messe in H-Moll BWV 232, hohe Messe | Johann Sebastian Bach
Vienna Academy
Vienna Academy Consort
Dirigent | Martin Haselböck

Soprano 1 | Lenneke Ruiten
Soprano 2 | Sophie klußmann
Alto | Ida Aldrian
Tenor | Tilman Lichdi
Bass (Quoniam tu solus sanctus) | Günter Haumer
Bass (Et in spiritum sanctum) | Christian Hilz

I will admit that I am not generally a tremendous fan of Bach. Also, while I am not aware of the history of this particular work, the work itself was not a draw. The main draw was the opportunity to hear... basically anything, performed in the famed main hall of the Musikverein. Indeed, I can't say that I particularly remember this performance or the performers beyond that I was certainly satisfied with the performance and thought that it exhibited a definitive level of polish. If I had been more proactive, I might have seen something like Mahler in this hall, as there is a great historical connection there and the hall would have been great with instrumental (orchestral) music. Still, I could tell the hall was incredible, and this was a great performance to experience, there.

Weinachtsoratorium (Teilen IV-VI) | Johann Sebastian Bach
Ensemble Claudiana
Chorus Viennensis
Wiener Singakademie
Wiener Sängerknaben
Dirigent | Luca Pianca

Soprano | Sunhae Im
Echo Soprano | Judith Ertl
Alto | Marie-Claude Chappuis
Tenor | Paul Schweinester
Bass | Georg Nigl

Once again, I went to this performance for a specific reason unrelated to the work or composer. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Wiener Philharmoniker) and the Vienna Boys' Choir (Wiener Sängerknaben), are two of the ensembles on which the fame of Austrian musical prowess internationally rests. Though there were some opportunities, the Wiener Philharmoniker was out of the country for large periods of time while I was studying in Vienna and, of course, tickets were extremely hard to get when they were in town. Also, while I was unable to see a concert focused around or exclusively put on by the Wiener Sängerknaben, because they were included in this performance of Bach's Weinachtsoratorium, I took the opportunity to see them, if only so I could say that I had. They did not play a particularly large part in this performance, but it was at the very least clear that they were an incredibly well trained, talented boys' choir and perfect for the job. I remember being particularly impressed by the female soloists here, as well as the coloratura of the tenor. Hopefully in the future I will be able to hear the Wiener Sängerknaben again in the future in a more focused way, and also, of course, the Wiener Philharmoniker.

Tanz der Vampire | Jim Steinman
Dirigent | Christoph Bonecker
Regie | Roman Polanski

Graf von Krolock | Drew Sarich
Sara | Amelie Dobler
Professor Abronsius | Veit Schäfermier
Alfred | Michael Heller

Some diehards might object to me putting this piece of German musical theatre on a blog billed as being about opera. That said, while there is a lot of campiness in this piece, I really do feel like the German's have a greater feel for making authentic musical theatre that is closer to opera than to the musical theatre of the United States and Britain (though this also is, of course, amplified). In fact, Jim Steinman, though not German himself, strongly emphasizes the influence of Wagnerian music on his compositional style. I have long enjoyed Steinman's music, and appreciated the opportunity to see this musical because it is put on almost exclusively in Europe, the Broadway version having failed spectacularly. I will admit it is not a work of art in the same sense that most operas at least aspire to be. But the over the top sets, campy storyline, and wild acting style, contrasted against the dead seriousness of the characters believing in the ultimate impact of the story, is priceless. The music, as well, bombastic and melodramatic, is enjoyable. It was really just a fun, wild evening of musical theatre.

Schritte und Spuren | Bubenicek, Elo, Kylian, Lightfoot, Leon

I don't know very much about dance beyond its involvement in some (particularly French) operas and its connection to famous pieces of orchestral music. I felt some obligations, however, to go to at least one dance performance put on at the Wiener Staatsoper (under the auspices of the Wiener Staatsballet) while I was in Vienna. This ended up being an excellent decision. Schritte und Spuren was an ensemble endeavor, put on by a whole host of relatively equal dancers across several different pieces. I have therefore left the full information relatively sparse. While one or two of the individual productions fell flat, I was generally extremely impressed with the show as a whole. The music was fine but more interesting than that was the mix of diverse styles of dance and the thought provoking content. The piece pictured (although there were two that were similar in their design aesthetic) was perhaps the most intriguing (I say that in part because it is the one I still remember best). It was able to provoke a lot of deep thoughts about the nature of love and sexuality without seeming overwrought or satirical about the matter. I was certainly glad I had this experience, and it ultimately led to my having greater involvement in dance at Lawrence University as a stage manager.


I could go on and on about the impact of this experience on my life, the things I learned, the conclusions I've drawn, etc. (that list already started to go on and on). I will keep it brief here, however. Indeed, for those curious, my article in the September 2012 issue of Classical Singer magazine fleshes out this kind of analysis. Though it might be difficult to get a hold of the paper copy, I am happy to provide a digital copy to those interested. In short, I was strongly interested in opera and loved the art form prior to going to Vienna. I had only seen three productions live (two of which were relatively unimpressive) prior to my study abroad, however. This opportunity suddenly allowed me to see twenty-seven operas in a condensed four month period. While many of the operas were less standard repertoire (there are some glaring holes like Tosca or Le nozze di Figaro, for instance, in my experiences), there could have been no better true introduction to the art form. The conclusion I drew about choices from my experiences, was that I particularly appreciated those ideas that enhanced the work being performed. Certain pieces like Eugene Onegin or Aus einem Totenhaus utilized artistic ideas, carried out by the performers, that really enhanced the meaning of the story and the original setting. Others, like La traviata, Káťa Kabanová, or Daphne, seemed like they were designed around interesting ideas, but ones that were, at best, divorced from the value of the piece itself, and at worst, worked against it. Good singing and good performing aren't things that I can list off as certain values. They are fairly constant. That said, there were definitely good performers and bad performers, and those that were able to not only sing well generally, but sing well in the spirit of the work were certainly the most effective. As I mentioned in my article for Classical Singer, the way that those involved in creating performances create them are constantly developing over the course of their careers. Similarly, however, those of us who appreciate opera as audience members are also constantly developing. While there is possibly nowhere else in the world as good as Vienna to experience a condensed quantity of high quality opera as I did, that does not debar us from still experiencing it as best we can. Every time we hear a recording, watch a video of a performance, or see a live performance, we are enhancing our ability to form opinions about what makes a performance truly great. This doesn't lead to snobbery, it leads to informed reception of art. It is an understanding of what worked well in a performance and what didn't that enriches us all, performers, reviewers, and audience members alike. That discourse helps us seek out the performances we will most enjoy, and shape an art form that is constantly evolving, perhaps not into something better than before, but something meaningful to us now, as well as perhaps, forever.


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