This saying by German classical poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe fits the performances of the Vienna Summer Festival which I have seen this year. The biggest disappointment was Michael Haneke’s staging of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, which happens to be one of my favorite operas. This is a production developed for the Madrid Opera and was touted as a mini-sensation. Well, while the staging was good and interesting, mixing baroque costumes with contemporary ones, in order to show (I guess) that what developed between the three (!!) , not just two couples, the musical performance was less than disappointing. In the overture, Cambreling’s conducting reminded me of a Bavarian (or Austrian) village brass band, playing as loud as they could, in an umptata (as we Austrians say) manner. During the long first act, the music never flowed. This may also have been due to the pauses between the arias, to some extent seemingly replacing the usual recitative. All of the subtlety and the love-struck sisters’ extolment of their fiancées was lost to game-playing and deceiving. The “third” couple, Despina and Don Alfonso, in Haneke’s view also seems to have been in a long-term relationship (some critics said, married), getting at each other with vengeance. In this reading, Despina’s “guidance” of the sisters is not so much due to her experience and the financial reward she gets from Alfonso, but rather to getting back at him for some previous misdeeds. The only really convincing scene is the finale where it remains completely uncertain, what will happen, who will couple. As a spectator friend observed: Haneke should stay with filmmaking, of which he really is a master. As if he had overheard this remark, Haneke was quoted as saying that after Don Giovanni and Cosi he would direct no more operas.
The real counterpart in (my) assessment was William Kentridge’s production of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, with Matthias Goerne’s beautiful baritone singing and Festival director Markus Hinterhaeuser accompanying in as good a manner as can be imagined. Each of Schubert’s 24 songs of leaving, longing and loving is accompanied by one of Kentridge’s drawn video films, linking 19th century romantic Weltschmerz with today’s South African reality and longings. While some of the melancholic songs are juxtaposed with very light-hearted landscape and nature drawings, some others show the savagery of the apartheid regime, but also tender love stories. A sensational evening which deserved each second of the more than 10 minute applause at the end. All 3 protagonists, Kentridge, Goerne and Hinterhaeuser excelled in a unique combination of their respective arts.
An then, the marathon: Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen cycle, spanning all together around 15 hours of extraordinary music. This was an older production by actor-director Sven-Erich Bechtolf which is mainly remarkable for its inconsistency and steep decline. While Rheingold is staged beautifully, with all the protagonists giving credence to the ludicrous story, stitched together by Wagner from the Germanic poem Nibelungenlied and Nordic mythology, via Walkuere and Siegfried, Bechtolf seems to have run out of ideas of stamina by the time Goetterdaemmerung arrives. There a super-ugly scenery, composed of an empty stage with a dark-green glass paravent in the back, the persons stagger around the stage as of Wagner-yore. Their acting, which had been excellent in the previous evenings, reminded me of the first Wagner stagings I had seen in my boyhood hometown of Graz in the early sixties. I would call that “ponderous immobility cum large-steps crossing of the room”. In addition, they put up a christmas tree farm as the hunting ground where Siegfried gets slain by the less-than-threatening Hagen. What is more baffling is the liking Bechtolf seems to have taken to shroud-enveloped (semi-) corpses: both Walkuere on her rock and later Siegfried in Gunter’s palace are wrapped in fleece-material in a more than ungainly manner. All this is too bad, because the singing was marvelous in all 4 evenings, with an immaculate Nina Stemme as Bruennhilde (in Walkuere she was replaced by a weaker Linda Watson), Peter Seiffert as a brilliant Siegmund, Tomas Konieczny as a very impressive Wotan, Jochen Schmeckenbecher as truly sinister Alberich, a grandiose and statuesque Elisabeth Kulman as Fricka, very convincing Norbert Ernst as Loge and a brilliant, if vocally declining Stephen Gould as Siegfried. All the other roles were very well disposed. The Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper started a little timid with Rheingold, but found its full impressive effect as time – and the story – went on. Jeffrey Tate gave an impressive performance conducting this very memorable “Buehnenfestspiel”.