The two new productions unveiled in the Austrian capital in the second week of November could not have been more different: a light-hearted, satirical and pop-culture-savvy Les Pêcheurs de perles at the Theater an der Wien from the young Dutch director Lotte de Beer, and a boldly austere and powerful—not to mention musically superb—Khovanshchina at the staatsoper from Lev Dodin, the long-standing director of St Petersburg’s Maly Theatre.
One of the main attractions of the Bizet (seen on the first night, November 16) was Diana Damrau’s Leïla. She gamely threw herself into De Beer’s entertaining conception of the piece, which dragged its quaint and clunky orientalist plot into the 21st century. Before the opera even started, a TV production crew came onto the stage and kicked out the Ceylon natives, tearing down their hut and erecting fake palm trees in readiness for ‘Perlenfischer: The Challenge!’—as Fin Ross’s projection luridly proclaimed onto a large, round, semi-transparent screen. The chorus was contained behind that screen, revealed during its numbers as representative groups of the TV-watching public, glued to the show in tightly-packed compartments (the set was designed by Marouscha Levy).
There were hints of The Truman Show in the way the action was manipulated by the production team, as well as echoes of half a dozen recent reality shows, with Zurga and Nadir delivering their arias to camera in a hastily-assembled booth, their super-size faces projected behind. It was all entertaining and tongue-in-cheek, and done with imagination and flair, if not always the necessary economy (videos spelling out Zurga and Leïla’s backstory were entirely superfluous). But it presented the inevitable problems, not least in a yawning chasm that developed between De Beer’s Konzept, in which scenario and emotions were presented as so manufactured and manipulated, and the opera—particularly as the latter started to get serious.
The characters, already stock and ill defined, inevitably became yet more confusing. On her arrival, for example, Damrau’s Leïla was pointedly nervous and jittery, getting ready to play her bizarre role as part love-interest, part celebrity yoga instructor. The German soprano had to deliver her first aria while demonstrating her latest yoga routine—an impressive feat, no doubt—and the voice itself was never less than beautiful, with an effective mixture of creamy allure and steely core, if not quite the all-out lyrical ease and seductiveness one might want.
As Nadir, presented as the winner of the show’s previous series, Dmitry Korchak sang with a voice that tended to harden at higher volumes, but which was beautifully flexible and honeyed in the quieter passages; the tenor delivered a meltingly lyrical account of his romance. There was less vocal allure from Nathan Gunn’s buff, slightly gruff Zurga, with the phrases often cut a little shorter than ideal. Nicolas Testé’s suave Nourabad served as the ‘presenter’ of the whole thing, merrily rhubarb-rhubarbing to camera when he didn’t have actual lines to sing. The ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien played vibrantly for Jean-Christophe Spinosi, who offered an efficient, unsentimental reading of the score.
The Staatsoper’s Khovanshchina was defined by a seriousness of purpose and sense of concentration that seemed to be exactly what this great, implacable and unconsoling work demands (seen at the second performance, on November 18). The conductor Semyon Bychkov had clearly taken enormous care with the orchestra and chorus (bolstered by the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus and children of the Staatsoper’s opera school) and the musical result was plain to hear: the playing was gloriously refined but also unrestrained in its primal power, the choruses controlled with the utmost dynamic precision. This was very much a case of the drama’s iron fist clad in the most velvety of musical gloves, especially so given Bychkov’s decision to go with Shostakovich’s orchestration (for the Staatsoper’s previous production, Claudio Abbado had gone for a hybrid, employing much of Shostakovich’s version but stripping away what were deemed to be un-Mussorgskian luxuries).
If the orchestral sound seemed to grow inexorably from beneath the pit, this is more or less literally what happened with the way that the drama in Dodin’s bald, unnaturalistic production was presented. Alexander Borovsky’s set arrayed the action in confined vertical planes, on a pair of gnarly, ramshackle, multi-level, grid-like structures—the bare, dark planks also gently hinting, it seemed, at poorly-made crucifixes—which rose out of the stage floor. Further characters made their appearances out of a central opening downstage. Behind all of this this stood a rough, tan-coloured wall. In an understatedly poetic touch, the grids rose up from a flat position during the prelude, returning to that position and lit to resemble glowing embers once the Old Believers had made their final descent into the stage (the atmospheric lighting was by Damir Ismagilov).
The effect each time as the massed choral ranks materialized impassively from the depths was powerfully disturbing, as was the way the principals stood alone on their own level of the structure, or separated—as was most often the case with Marfa—downstage. Occasionally it bordered on bathos, such as when minor characters popped up and down rather too swiftly, while the Dance of the Persian Slave Girls (choreographed by Yury Borovsky) was also somewhat unconvincing.
The way in which the principals were, by and large, prevented from interacting, delivering their words to the audience rather than each other, might have irritated some, as might also, conceivably, the closing spectacle of Dosifey, Andrey Khovansky, Marfa and the Old Believers rooted to the spot and stripping down to their white undergarments. For me, however, it only emphasized the disciplined austerity of Dodin’s conception of the piece—its stark, unflinching poetic imagery reflecting the political and personal structures from which its characters are unable to escape.
As Dosifey, Ain Anger was enormously impressive: a tall, imposing stage presence, he rolled out his phrases in a generous, beautiful bass, mixing dignity and dangerous charisma in his characterization. Ferruccio Furlanetto, in terrific voice, made an authoritative, care-worn Ivan Khovansky, acting with understated nobility. Andrzej Dobber’s dark, menacing Shaklovity was outstanding, sung with smooth, plangent tone. Elena Maximova brought a gorgeously plummy, tangy mezzo to Marfa, whose Act 3 aria—gently adorned by Shostakovich’s jewel-like glockenspiel—was a highlight. Lydia Rathkolb was a vibrant, clear-voiced Susanna. Herbert Lippert was a bitingly emphatic Golitsyn, Norbert Ernst a vivid Scribe, and Christopher Ventris robust as Andrey Khovansky. They, and others I’ve not space to mention, all helped make this a memorable, powerful evening.
Finally to Otto Schenk’s nearly-new Staatsoper production of The Cunning Little Vixen, which opened in June—the veteran director said at the time that it would be his final production for the house—but which was not covered in these pages at the time. On its return in the autumn (seen on November 17), it had to do without Franz Welser-Möst. He was replaced in the pit by Tomáš Netopil, who certainly knew how to bring out all the shimmering, quivering detail of Janáček’s glorious score. He hadn’t quite mastered bringing that out without occasionally overwhelming his singers, however, with some of the exchanges between Chen Reiss’s clear-voiced Vixen and Hyuna Ko’s appealing Fox getting lost in the melee. This was less of an issue for Gerald Finley’s beautifully-sung Forester, who oozed thoughtfulness and gentle melancholy. There were vivid contributions from Donna Ellen as his wife, James Kryshak (Schoolmaster) and Wolfgang Bankl (Harašta); Heinz Zednik made a wonderful (tenor) Rooster.
Schenk’s production is a predictably lavish, old-fashioned affair, in which a vast and extraordinarily realistic forest set (designed by Amra Buchbinder) is a permanent feature—think of the director’s long-serving Met Rusalka minus the pond. There are no scene changes as such, and other locations are evoked with an incongruous sparingness by the straightforward addition of extra scenery downstage. The lavish animal costumes for the children are initially enchanting, but with all the arm-waving and bouncing up and down, the whole thing did risk resembling the world’s most expensive school play. The final minutes are beautifully and powerfully staged as a moment of blinding revelation (with help from Emmerich Steigberger’s lighting), but Schenk’s overall interpretation of the piece, though loving, feels too straightforward, too resolutely bright and bushy-tailed.