Monday, August 10, 2009

"Don Giovanni" At Theater An Der Wien

While we were in Vienna, we attended a performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Theater An Der Wien.

For us, the attraction was the theater itself more than the opera performance, although I always welcome the chance to hear “Don Giovanni”, perhaps the greatest opera ever written.

Theater An Der Wien is one of the most historic theaters in all of Europe—and one of the most beautiful, too, at least in its refurbished state.

The first proprietor of the theater was Emanuel Schikaneder, friend of Mozart, librettist of “The Magic Flute”, and originator of the role of Papageno.

Beethoven’s first version of “Fidelio” premiered at Theater An Der Wien, as did four Beethoven symphonies (numbers 2, 3, 5 and 6) as well as Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto No. 4.

Schubert’s music for “Rosamunde” was first heard in Theater An Der Wien.

Johann Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” and Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” received their first performances in the theater, as did numerous other light operas by composers such as Karl Millocker, Carl Zeller, Richard Heuberger and Oscar Strauss.

Between 1945 and 1955, Theater An Der Wien served as home of the Wiener Staatsoper while the famed opera house was being rebuilt after destruction during the war.

Joshua’s mother very much had wanted to attend an opera performance while we were in Vienna, and “Don Giovanni” was our only option. The Wiener Staatsoper and the Wiener Volksoper are always closed during the month of August. I had assumed that Theater An Der Wien would be closed during the month of August, too—but when Josh and I checked the theater’s website, we saw that a run of performances of “Don Giovanni” was scheduled to begin on August 1 and that the second of six performances would coincide with our stay in Vienna. We snapped up tickets as soon as online booking opened, knowing that the performances would be sure to sell out.

For the last three years, Theater An Der Wien has once again become a venue for opera, mounting nine or ten productions each year in stagione. Its productions feature international-level conductors, singers, designers and directors. With Theater An Der Wien now offering opera presentations, Vienna effectively has three opera companies, just like Berlin, although guest choruses and guest orchestras are engaged for all Theater An Der Wien productions. (The Arnold Schonberg Choir and the Austrian Radio Orchestra had been engaged for “Don Giovanni”). The quality of productions at Theater An Der Wien is thought to rival the quality of productions at the nearby Staatsoper.

Sparks must have flown at rehearsals for this production of “Don Giovanni” because, three days before the production was scheduled to open, the original conductor was replaced.

Vienna newspapers reported that conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini had to cancel all “Don Giovanni” performances because of a “short-term illness”—but, in Viennese-speak, a “short-term illness” means that Alessandrini was asked to leave the production. Alessandrini, clearly, had fought with the orchestra or the stage director or one or more of the singers—and, just as clearly, had been the losing party in the battle. Riccardo Frizza was the replacement conductor.

Frizza would hardly be my first choice as a “Don Giovanni” conductor—but then neither would Alessandrini.

Frizza’s leadership on August 4 was not good. It was, fundamentally, not “Mozartean”.

Mozart’s sublime harmonies and modulations amounted to absolutely nothing under Frizza’s baton. The bar-by-bar shifts in mood from sunniest sparkle to darkest despair were absent in Frizza’s music-making, as was any sense of drama and forward momentum. Mozart’s music simply bounced along, pleasant but uneventful, like music from the Galant period. Frizza might as well have been conducting Quantz.

Absent effective leadership from the pit, there is no point in performing a Mozart opera. Vocalists alone, no matter how good, cannot possibly save a performance. All they can do is manage to offer a well-sung number here and there.

And that’s pretty much what the Theater An Der Wien audience encountered: some fine individual numbers interspersed in an otherwise unremarkable musical fabric.

Theater An Der Wien’s cast was a good one.

Erwin Schrott sang Don Giovanni. Hanno Muller-Brachmann sang Leporello. Bernard Richter sang Don Ottavio, Markus Butter sang Masetto, and Attila Jun sang the Commendatore.

Aleksandra Kurzak (in magnificent voice) sang Donna Anna. Veronique Gens sang Donna Elvira. Nina Bernsteiner sang Zerlina.

This was as fine a roster of singers as might be assembled, anywhere, for “Don Giovanni”. It was regrettable that such a fine array of singers had to contend with such inadequate support from the pit.

When we had ordered our tickets online, Josh and I had gotten into our heads the notion that Theater An Der Wien’s “Don Giovanni” was to be a new production.

We were mistaken. This “Don Giovanni” was not a new production. It was a revival of a Keith Warner production premiered in Vienna in 2006 and shared with The Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen.

The physical production, cheap and unattractive, was set in the corridors of a modern hotel. Predictably, doors opened and closed constantly as in a Feydeau farce. This device instantly became tiresome.

Attempts at humor were broad, not pointed. Class distinctions between characters were conveyed in the heavy-handed manner typical of the current crop of British stage directors, who invariably turn everything into John Osborne’s “Look Back In Anger”. The production was unbelievably inept.

Persons encountering Mozart’s masterpiece for the first time would have departed Theater An Der Wien shaking their heads in disbelief, wondering how “Don Giovanni” could possibly have held the stage for more than two centuries.

And such was precisely the reaction of Josh’s mother . . .and father . . .and sister . . .and brother . . .and Josh himself.

I felt like I had to apologize to everyone at the conclusion of the performance for dragging them to such a gruesome presentation, wasting their time if not actually ruining one of only two evenings we spent in Vienna.

I do not understand how Warner gets work. He is as untalented a director as I have ever encountered.

Warner’s reputation in the U.S. is very low. Indeed, the only Warner American engagements I can recall were back in the 1990’s. All were at minor opera venues such as Boston, Charleston, Cooperstown . . .and Saint Paul.

Warner was invited to direct a Minnesota Opera production of “Carmen” in the early 1990’s and, inexplicably, he was invited back to direct a Minnesota Opera production of “The Flying Dutchman” in the late 1990’s. Both productions were disasters, conspicuous examples of crassness and tastelessness.

I do not believe that Warner has worked in the U.S. since.

That is a good thing.

The man is a hack.


  1. You always pepper your writing with witticisms.

    “Frizza might as well have been conducting Quantz.”

    “Class distinctions between characters were portrayed in the heavy-handed manner typical of the current crop of British stage directors, who invariably turn everything into John Osborne’s ‘Look Back In Anger’.”

    You are secretly subversive!

    Keith Warner was responsible for the most recent Covent Garden “Ring”. I don’t think anyone liked it. Calvin and I certainly did not.

    What part of Mittel Europa did you like most? We would like to hear more about your trip.


  2. Really, Edythe, everything was wonderful. I think Josh plans to write about our trip next week, after we are back in Boston.

    If anything was out of the ordinary, it was Vienna, which was suffering a heat wave. It was so hot in Vienna we were happy to leave town.

    From sheer dumb luck, our intentional shortchanging of Vienna worked out well for us. We spent only two nights and one full day in Vienna by design, electing to make our primary city Munich, where we began and ended everything.

    Owing to the oppressive heat in Vienna, that decision turned out to be the right one.

    The weather everywhere else was beautiful, and we were pleased to be able to take advantage of it.