Hannes Richter

The Wiener Festwochen

Hannes Richter
The Wiener Festwochen

Every year during the month of May, the space in front of the city hall in Vienna is transformed into a festive outdoor music venue, providing the Viennese as well as countless tourists the opportunity to listen to some of the world's most famous classical music pieces and to watch theater plays and opera performances. The Wiener Festwochen (the Vienna Festival) were founded in 1951 to newly invent post-war Vienna as a cultural metropolis.

Over the years, the festival has established itself as a fixture in the busy Austrian events calendar, and each year attracts over 180,000 visitors. The opening ceremony of the festival, which is free of admission, takes place in May in front of the Viennese city hall and kicks off six weeks of concerts, theater plays, opera performances, and other cultural gems. These event highlights are spread out over multiple venues including the MuseumQuarter, the Kunsthalle Wien, and the Wiener Konzerthaus and offer something for everybody's taste.

The yearly conception of the program primarily aims to offer the local public as well as the international audience outstanding productions and guest performances for which regular operating funds usually do not suffice. On its website, the Wiener Festwochen are described as "a metropolitan festival that sets particular accents, enters into dialogue with artistic creations from other cities of Europe and the world and presents spectacular productions while at the same time upholding and showcasing Viennese creativity." Last year, The Washington Post correspondent Dr. Cecelia Porter traveled to Vienna to get an insight view of the making of and the preparation for the festival. On the following pages, find her intimate backstage report of the of the Wiener Festwochen 2013.


by Dr. Cecelia Porter, Classical Music Critic, The Washington Post

The preparation of an opera performance is one of the most involved, complicated, and even perplexing assignments in bringing an art form to the public. For opera entails joining together many musical and visual forces—solo and choral singers, dancers, orchestras, conductors, composers, librettists, lighting, stage plans, sets, props, and costumes.

And all of this must be focused on the creation of beautiful musical sound and consideration of intensely interacting human emotions. And today, to prepare for performances—as I observed at two private dress rehearsals (Hauptproben) of the Vienna State Opera—opera production requires an ever-increasing use of technology, as displayed by the computers and their technicians set up in the opera house’s orchestra section and elsewhere around the house. All these aspects give a good view of opera on the inside.

As a listener ataHauptprobe of the Vienna State Opera (VSO), I became even more aware of the complexities of opera production than I ever had before. During Vienna’s Festwochen in June [2013], I enjoyed unique inside views (virtually from the ground up) of the complexities involved in producing operas. It was a personal, intimate experience, as well as an absorbing and enlightening one. (General audiences in Vienna can attend certain public Generalproben, which also give opera lovers fascinating previews of performances.)

The VSO Hauptproben that I attended included a premiere production of Richard Wagner’s wrenching epic Tristan und Isolde, a work that Friedrich Nietzsche called “the most metaphysical of all the arts.” Tristan was conducted by the brilliant Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. I also attended a Hauptprobe of Vienna’s brilliant revival of its 2008 production of Richard Strauss’s buffo-manic satire Capriccio, conducted by the esteemed German conductor Christoph Eschenbach, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

I enjoyed a dazzling performance of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, conducted by Jesús López-Cobos. In June 2013, I attended the Hauptprobe of Tristan und Isolde. The atmosphere before the rehearsal began was intense, but exciting, throughout the opera house. It enlisted the cast and orchestra in fine-tuning of musical details involving the singers, conductor, and orchestra, in addition to final maneuvering of sets, checking on full costuming and even make-up, and refining the final details of lighting, staging, and the placement of props.

Nevertheless, Welser-Möst soon signaled that he was ready to begin. (For the day I was there, the Vienna State Opera also listed almost two dozen other rehearsals (for various performers in the opera) on its schedule. Complexity at its height. Wagner’s Bicentennial Year Performances of Wagner’s operas during this bicentennial year of the composer’s birth have reached around the globe again.

The Vienna State Opera’s breathtaking premiere production of the composer’s wrenching Tristan und Isolde, composed and premiered in 1859, was among seven of theVienna StateOpera’smammothWagner works presented during the 2012-2013 season on Vienna’s historic Ringstrasse. (This year, the VSO also presented the four-part “Ring Cycle” (Der Ring der Nibelungen) series (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung) Die Feen, Der fliegende Holländer, and Parsifal. Of course, Vienna also gave this year a multitude of operas by Wagner’s exact contemporary, Giuseppe Verdi, who, too, was born two hundred years ago.

The Vienna State Opera’s 2013 Tristan was directed by David McVicar in his State Opera début; conducted by the Opera’s General Music Director Franz Welser-Möst; and singers Peter Seiffert (Tristan); Nina Stemme (Isolde); Stephen Milling (King Marke); Janina Baechle (Brangäne); Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Kurwenal); Eijiro Kai (Melot); Carlos Osuna (the shepherd); Marcus Pelz ( the ship’s pilot); and Jinxu Xiahou (voice of a young sailor); plus the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Chorus, and Stage Orchestra. Not until 1865 was Tristan premiered— but by the Munich State Opera.

Vienna first saw Wagner’s work in 1883, as produced by the Vienna Court Opera, followed since then by four hundred and twenty-five performances. (The VSO once struggled through seventy-seven rehearsals of this opera, ultimately giving up its attempt to present the premiere.) Before the June [2013] rehearsal of Tristan began, the staff focused on two symbolic circular objects of the set: the rising and fallingmoon, and a brilliant ring of lights, both changing color according to the story.

To bolster all this, in Act Three, Isolde suddenly appeared on stage in a flashing red dress (with a train) to reinforce the red-orange of the moon. All these changes of color intensified as reflections of the characters’ evolving emotions, transforming these seemingly ordinary objects into dominant pillars of the plot. Clearly such a work required stringent coordination in maneuvering even the smaller details of the set. Another day brought a Vienna Hauptprobe of Capriccio by Richard Strauss, again allowing me the opportunity to closely watch the staff members scurrying around the stage or sitting intensely poised at computers—the tools of today’s technology. At the Capriccio Hauptprobe, I noticed a heated but civil discussion ongoing between production staffers, the orchestra and some of the cast.

One fellow guest suggested that the commotion involved the time for a break in the rehearsal. Strauss intended the opera to continue without intermission for all of its two hours and fifteen minutes, or more. During the pause agreed upon, I moved closer to the orchestra pit to hear conductor Eschenbach rehearse the ethereal string sextet that opens Capriccio. Simultaneously, a young dancer silently practiced her solo on stage, her motions seeming to reinforce the parody element of Capriccio. As for Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’smain literary source was Gottfried von Strassburg’s thirteenth-century epic poem of the same name.

The tale is even older, going back centuries to Celtic origins. In Gottfried’s Middle High German “courtly romance,” Tristan reigns as the hero. (Other medieval versions of this story likewise view Tristan as the supreme hero including Thomas of Britain’s Anglo-French Tristan dating from c. 1160, and a number of versions in Old French and Middle High German.) But somehow, through Wagner’s electrically intensifying music—for singers and orchestra alike—the composer transcended Gottfried’s epic, Wagner elevating Isolde to the most heroic, albeit tragic, position above all the other protagonists.

The Staatsoper’s enthralling June, 2013, production made this all the more evident due to Nina Stemme’s enormously spellbinding voice, climaxing in the Liebestod, which affirmed Isolde’s ultimate transfiguration from a victim into a tragic heroine. Welser-Möst’s magnificent, even regal orchestra far exceeded its role as support for Stemme’s singing. For Wagner, the essence of operatic heroism in Tristan (as in many other works) is musical, making both voice and orchestra not only equal but merging into one overwhelming sound.

Stemme is a “trueWagnerian singer,” as the world-famous soprano Evelyn Lear would have phrased it. (Lear, who died recently, coached young singers preparing for Wagnerian roles in a program, “Emerging Singers,” sponsored by the Washington [D.C.] Wagner Society. For several years, Lear invited me to attend some of her private lessons, training young Wagner-aspiring singers).

At the June Hauptprobe, Stemme—with overwelling confidence— virtually became Isolde, singing with true Wagnerian splendor and volume to her sound, climaxing with her electrifying Liebestod. Peter Seiffert, a well-known Heldentenor, was an imposing Tristan with a voice of stunning magnitude and depth, well-balanced with Stemme as in their unbelievably spellbinding Love Duet “O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe,” in Act Two. Also Kurwenal, (Jochen Schmekenbecher), Brangäne (Janina Baechle), King Marke (Stephen Milling), and Melot (Eijiro Kai) and all the supporting cast were powerful and compelling.

But, as heroic figures, both Tristan and Isolde were destined to be victims of conflict in their role as legatees of medieval social norms and an anonymous Fate. In Wagner’s version of the tale, Fate took the form principally of passionate desire, fueled by Brangäne’s trick, which, in a sense, makes Brangäne (beautifully sung by Baechle) a symbol of wisdom and caretaker for Isolde. Following the chivalric code of courtly love, Gottfried’s poem claims the same motive for love as Wagner does: the potion made love rule supreme; as with both Gottfried’s medieval outlook and Wagner’s romantic-era heritage, the potion leaves Tristan and Isolde no option.

Consequently, it draws a veil of ambiguity and uncertainty clouding their love. Fluidity in Tristan und Isolde In Tristan, the atmosphere of overwhelming uncertainty implies that there is no end to this story, most tellingly because of Wagner’s “Tristan chord” (essentially a conglomeration of seemingly incompatible notes and its harmonic implications) and its multiple, ever-changing resolutions (movements from this chord).

This harmonic fluidity causes the music’s textures to continue refiguring themselves, a fluidity creating amassive tone-poem flowing on in seemingly perpetual fluidity. Magically, the Tristan chord serves as a kind of Leitmotiv throughout the opera. (Wagner’s celebrated contemporary, fellow-romantic composer and pianist Franz Liszt, virtually created the technique of continual thematic transformation as a way of developing the structure of his tone-poems.)

Further, Tristan, too, is propelled in continual evolution—not just of the music, but also of the text and plot. The set reinforces this effect, for the moon’s cyclic rise and fall—the centerpiece of the set— and the ring of fire are circles, the symbols of cosmic infinity, another kind of fluidity. And Wagner’s music perfectly adheres to its medieval model, which follows the course of an inevitable Fate flowing endlessly toward an infinite destiny. At the same time, despite the opera’s musical fluidity, the extreme simplification and condensation of the action results in a totally inner action, where human emotions lie deep.

Due to this concentration on human feeling, Tristan und Isolde requires little, if any, stage spectacle. Welser-Möst conducted from beginning to end with infinite flexibility in his hands, arms, and entire body, “fluidly” preserving Wagner’s endless orchestral and vocal motion. (In a similar fashion in Das Rheingold, with its overriding symbolism of the Rhine River and the Prelude to his Ring Cycle, the composer continually unrolls his E-flat major chord, this chord forming the principal source for the Leitmotivs throughout the cycle.


It is interesting to note that Wagner was in the midst of composing the Ring Cycle, when he interrupted it to compose Tristan und Isolde. Conductor Welser-Möst summoned the Vienna State Opera Orchestra to produce a sound that kept flowing “eternally.” Unifying his forces, Welser-Möst kept all the voices and orchestra totally focused. (The English horn, one of the solo instruments that Wagner emphasized in this opera, was played with superb liquidity and foreboding resonance, the insrument’s sound steeped in the tragedy at hand.

The rich elegance of the strings, their well-known Klangstil (tone quality) was met equally by the brilliant woodwinds and brasses, and punctuated by dead-accurate percussion. In Act Two, the offstage “hunting horns” sounded as enchantingly morbid as Wagner’s English horn is foreboding. Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, a “Conversation Piece” In another Hauptprobe in June [2013], I attended the Vienna State Opera Hauptprobe of Richard Strauss’s late opera Capriccio, a manneristic parody that combines humor and seriousness.

Based on the opera’s chief ideas contributed by Stefan Zweig, the libretto of Capriccio was written by Clemens Krauss and Strauss himself. The opera was premiered in October 1942 at Munich’s Nationaltheater. First given in Munich in 1942, Vienna’s 2013 version was a revival of its 2008 production, but conducted this time by Christoph Eschenbach making his Vienna State Opera début. The conductor lent Capriccio his own beautifully exacting style. The underlying subject of Capriccio text is the word-music relationship in opera, while simultaneously revealing Strauss’s own approach to stylistic fluidity.

Preceded, to some degree, in Strauss’s Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), Arabella (1933), and Intermezzo (1924), the composer’s continuously melodic, conversational, but conventional Italian recitative style in Capriccio is raised to a fine art. In this late work, Strauss’s orchestral as well his vocal lines breathe a sense of eternal continuity, from the opera’s beginning to end—explaining, at least partly—why Strauss allowed no intermission in this opera, an opera that he himself labeled a one-act “conversation piece.”

Reinforcing this sense of continuity, an atmosphere of “pastoral” lyricism reigns consistently throughout the opera. Strauss’s music fuses simplicity and richness with the temper of the countryside, although the opera is set in an luminous aristocratic salon in a Parisian chateau in the mid-1770s. This elegant mindset is artfully expressed in Vienna’s staging—different ever-revolving columns and bright pastel colors, as well as in the frilly costumes. Like Capriccio, Strauss’s Feuersnot, Salome, and Elektra— are one-act operas, stage equivalents of his ever-flowing orchestral tone poems composed between 1888 and 1898. (Interestingly, Strauss’s music includes quotations from his and others’ works.)

At one point, I heard Wagner’s giants Fafner and Fasolt stomping through Vienna’s orchestra. As in 2008, the 2013 production underlined Strauss’s subtle, enigmatic realization of Capriccio visually, structurally, and philosophically. As the Hauptprobe began, one was pleasantly enchanted by one of Strauss’s most inventive orchestral sonorities: a stunning, silken string sextet that opened the opera, chamber music replacing the traditional full orchestra overture. It sounded wonderful. As the rehearsal continued, the orchestra’s woodwind and brass playing fortified the unique Klangstil of Vienna’s inimitable strings. (All the State Opera’s instrumentalists are drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.)

As the rehearsal continued, Eschenbach skillfully sustained the opera’s delicate ambience and complex emotional innuendos, complicated textures and sophisticated orchestral timbres that slowly but continuously intensify the opera up to its very last notes. Capriccio is a charming period romance: a score dotted with wistful humor, Strauss’s characters metaphorically revealing the issues underlining the complexity and elements of creating an opera, as well as depicting real people and situations.

The most prominent question in Capriccio is the ancient topic of the relationship between words and music. (Compare, for example, the theories of “painting” the words through the music were also primary issues guiding the “birth” of Florentine opera in 1600.) Capriccio director, Marco Arturo Marelli sums up his guiding view of the opera: “it is through the music that a text is emotionally defined.”

Marelli continues, Capriccio “is a retrospective piece, a wistful farewell. It is a review of a composer’s life, with very profound knowledge of this profession; perhaps for this very reason it has no disingenuous pathos, no exaggeratedly facile emotions. Incidentally, what we have essentially in Capriccio is not only Strauss’s last opera, but the last opera in music history in the traditional sense—his lovely farewell.”

The celebrated lyric soprano Renée Fleming was perfectly cast as the Countess in Capriccio (in 2008 and 2013), one of her signature roles. She has a versatile voice capable of the brightest coloratura and lighter spinto. She manages high notes easily but can also sound comfortable down towards a mezzo range. In the Hauptprobe of Capriccio that I attended, she combined moments of broad comedy with an underpinning of farewell to her role as a delicately fetching heroine.

Her voice had a ravishing, glistening timbre, perfect for role because she knows all the infinite dramatic and musical nuances at the heart of this opera. Angelika Kirchschlager (2008 and 2013) was aptly cast as Clairon; Bo Skovhus equally so as the Count (2008 & 2013).The superb cast also included Benjamin Bruns as the Italian Tenor (2013); Kurt Rydl as La Roche (2013); Michael Schade as Flamand (2008 & 2013); Íride Martinez as the Italian Singer (2013); and Markus Eiche as Olivier (2013).

A Vienna State Opera premiere production: Gioachino Rossini, La Cenerentola ossia La bontà in trionfo (or Goodness Triumphant): Dramma Giocoso in Two Acts. The June 2013 Festwochen also included the Vienna State Opera’s premiere of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella), using the libretto of Jacopo Ferretti. Conductor Jesús López-Cobos delicately but clearly underlined Rossini’s fusion of traditional 18th-century Italian opera buffa style with opera seria pathos and romanticism’s sentimentality.

La Cenerentola, in fact, belongs to a succession of his finest operas that mix the semi-serious with the comic, such as Il turco in Italia, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and La gazza ladra—all dating from 1814 to 1817. They clearly display Rossini’s inventive approach to structure, as well as his love of lavish orchestration and gift for breathtaking vocal writing. López-Cobos called on all his forces, both on stage and in the pit, to combine all these elements into a captivating whole.

This Vienna State Opera production assembled a well-balanced cast of singers who updated the old fairy tale of Cinderella with acting that gave zest and energy to the story’s basic theme of jealousy. Other stock opera buffa expressions of this temperament were intensified by constantly contorted facial expressions and gestures that satirized the old operatic themes of spells such as “evil” and “nastiness.” It was a performance to remember.

The outstanding cast included Don Ramiro: Dmitry Korchak; Dandini: Vito Priante; Don Magnifico: Alessandro Corbelli; Angelina (Cenerentola): Rachel Frenkel; Clorinda: Valentina Nafornita; Tisbe: Margarita Gritskova; Alidoro: Michele Pertusi; also: the Vienna State Opera Orchestra; the Vienna State Opera Chorus, directed by Martin Schebesta; the Vienna State Opera Stage Orchestra; the Vienna State Opera Ballet.

The stage director was Sven-Eric Bechtolf. The Vienna State Ballet: DON QUIXOTE For the Vienna Festwochen of 2013, the Vienna State Ballet presented its own splendid version of the old tale of Don Quixote. Based on an episode in Miguel de Cervantes’s well-known novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, Marius Petipa first choreographed the ballet, set to Ludwig Minkus’ music.

The work was premiered in Moscow in 1869, an expanded version being presented in St. Petersburg two years later. (Don Quixote as a ballet is rooted in even earlier versions given in Vienna dating back to 1740 and 1768.) For June 2013, Kevin Rhodes conducted the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera in a splendid, precise version of the ballet epic. Under the Vienna State Ballet’s director, Manuel Legris, the performance continued the tradition of using the music of Minkus as arranged by John Lanchbery.

The choreography was originally created in Paris by the legendary Rudolf Nurejew and Marius Petipa. Thomas Mayerhofer generated high energy and dramatic conviction to his role as Don Quixote, while Christoph Wenzel was an agile, perfect fit as Sancha Pansa. Maria Jakovleva lent brilliance and astounding accuracy to her assignment as Kitri. The Vienna State Corps de Ballet offered never failing support with truly astonishing technique, even when the tempo resembled a racing competition.

Such “athletics,” along with costumes painted in deeply colored mauves, reds, and greens further enlivened the brilliant performance. Finally, I briefly note three outstanding concerts I attended in June as part of The Wiener Festwochen 2013: a brilliant night of Johann Sebastian Bach by the Concentus Musicus Wien; the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Brahms and Berlioz; and the Wiener Hofmusikkapelle in an all- Schubert program.

Certainly one of the highlights of Vienna’s Festwochen in 2013 was the performance of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach at the Grosser Musikvereinsaal of the city’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. The celebrated conductor Nicholas Harnoncourt led his Concentus Musicus Wien (which he and Alice Harnoncourt founded in 1953) in three of these works. Wearing suggestions of costumes such as hats and wigs dressing up their routine concert attire, and cleverly portraying Bach’s “characters” in each cantata, the singers transformed these cantatas into one-act operas.

The magnificent soloists were the established opera and concert stars soprano Martina Janková, countertenor Andreas Scholl, tenor Michael Schade, and bass Luca Pisaroni, who can jump from one musical genre to another with seeming ease. On another evening at the Musikverein, conductor Tugan Sokhiev led the Vienna Philharmonic in deeply expressed performances of Johannes Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin (Folkhard Steude) and Cello (Péter Somodari) in A minor, Op. 102. Sokhiev cleanly articulated even the most subtle phrases and maintained a finely coordinated partnership with the stunning soloists.

For the second half of this concert, the conductor offered a visionary interpretation of Hector Berlioz’ dramatic and sonorous Symphonie fantastique: “Episoden aus dem Leben eines Künstlers, Op. 14. Sokhiev kept the orchestra on a straight course never lagging in impetus, while beautifully bringing to life the dreamy, yet wildly varying character of each movement. The Festwochen of 2013 also included a captivating and waltz-infused all-Schubert performance by the Wienerhofmusikkapelle, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst at the Musikverein.

Consisting of members of the Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra opened the concert with Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 7, D. 759, the “Unfinished.” From the opening pianissimo tremolos there was instantaneous communication between conductor and orchestra. Particularly remarkable was the perfect coordination of the dynamic changes in Schubert’s emotional innuendos.

And Welser-Möst forged that perfect union of musical intellect with intense expressivity that underlies Schubert’s path-breaking Lieder. The evening also included Schubert’s Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major, D. 950, with soprano Olesya Golovneva, mezzo Hermine Haselböck, tenors Peter Lodahl and Rainer Trost, and bass Robert Holl. The soloists were joined by the Wiener Sängerknaben (Vienna Choirboys) in their signature “sailor-boy” uniforms; and singers and orchestra combined in an exhilarating, Based on an episode in Miguel de Cervantes’s well-known novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, Marius Petipa first choreographed, moving performance of the Mass.