By Gil French
The dedication on April 11 of the new Musiktheater am Volksgarten (Music Theater at the People’s Garden) in Linz, Austria, displayed a house worth every cent of the 180 million euros (about $230 million) it cost.
It was designed by British architect Terry Pawson. Outside, its low, immensely broad glass front, opening directly onto the Volksgarten (it’s a 15-minute stroll down the main street to the Danube and the city’s 13th-century main square, where Hitler spoke), is the perfect complement to the exquisite blue-and-white 19th-century railroad offices to the right (one would swear it is a palace, not an office building), to the government offices further right, and to the low traditional buildings that surround the park, where the trees are lighted at night.
Five minutes from the train station (new in 2007), the Musiktheater is the final link that has transformed a rundown area where property values have now begun to skyrocket. Governor of Upper Austria Josef Puhringer said he thinks future generations will find that “the money invested will come back to them with interest.”
The large multi-level lobby, open during the day and evening, contains a snack bar and small shop on the entrance level. On the second level is a broad, open lobby that looks onto the park and easily accommodated the 970 gala patrons who filled the house for a lavish buffet. I never felt crowded and never had to raise my voice to hold a sane conversation. On the top level is a gourmet restaurant accessible day and evening.
The hall itself is horseshoe-shaped and flattened to a shoebox, which results in excellent sight lines. The hall has the same mood as 16th century Germanic art: dark and warm, inviting one to seek comfort and sensual solace in its embrace of dark non-reflective wood, buffed non-reflective amber-gold balconies that blend with the wood, a red stage curtain with vertical pleats and subtle gold trim, and curved rows of wide, soft, red velvet seats with plenty of leg room, all tiered so that no one’s head blocks another’s view. Comfort and accessibility define the user-friendly hall.
The orchestra pit, the largest in Austria, can accommodate the original-size ensemble for any opera written to date. Reducing its size can add about 150 more seats. Orchestra size for Der Rosenkavalier was 95 with no player under the stage floor. Despite a one-second reverberation, the acoustics (designed by Karl-Bernd Quiring) are splendid for both voice and orchestra. Sound is smothered only in the rear rows on each of the three levels; in the side tiers I felt somewhat like I was listening with one ear. Titles appear on screens on the back of each seat (except in the upper side tiers) and above the stage in German, English, and eventually Czech (the republic is only 24 miles to the north).
The rest of the enormous structure, done mainly in light stone, contains offices, rehearsal rooms, an orchestra rehearsal hall also used for chamber concerts, an area for 48 shipping containers that hold 24 separate productions off-stage and eight productions under the stage, and three areas with five levels of dressing rooms for orchestra, principal singers, and supporting cast. Opera houses are always the most expensive arts structures to build.
The theater, called “the opera house” by some, is a repertory theater that operates four to five nights a week presenting opera, ballet, operetta, and musical theater with its own 180-member ensemble and the 124 members of the Bruckner Linz Orchestra, large enough to be able to perform at both the Music Theater and Brucknerhaus (the orchestra hall on the Danube) on the same night (members performing 50% of the time at each location). The annual budget is about $52 million for the production staff of 400, 200 of them full-time. Finances come mainly from the province of Upper Austria and the city of Linz (85% government, 13% box office, 2% private). As Austrian President Heinz Fischer said, “Art in Austria is a mass movement, not an elitist movement.” (America take note!)
Most amazing about the house is the versatility of the stage, from which the farthest seat is about 80 feet. The heart of the stage is a turntable 105 feet in diameter, containing a smaller turntable 45 feet in diameter that can rotate in an opposite direction, plus three 12-by-45 foot lifts, and enormous side platforms that can be brought on stage.
This versatility was on full show during the April 12 world premiere of Philip Glass’ opera Spuren der Verirrten (see trailer at right), literally translated “Evidence of the Lost Ones” but called The Lost purely because, Glass said, that’s what he wrote in shorthand to identify the libretto from the piles of other papers on his desk. (That’s Glass for you.) This was the second Glass opera premiered this year. The Perfect American, composed after Acts I and II of Spuren but before Act III was written, was premiered in Madrid in January.
During The Lost, balletists with angular arm gestures and cartoonish pantomime writhed on the floor (this grew tiresome after about 40 minutes). The orchestral writing, like the ballet style, struck me as mechanical, without accent shape, or lyricism. It was a mix of calm, City of Mahagonny-edginess, colorful instrumentation and numbing chordal progressions that supported the voices. Still, it was beyond the repetitive minimalism of Glass’ earlier works. Dennis Russell Davies’ Bruckner Orchestra Linz played with maximum stylistic edge.
The second half (Acts II and III performed without a break) depicted a hospital-bed war zone like the one in Lawrence of Arabia where the officer yelled, “Outrageous! OUTRAGEOUS!” Fog enveloped the stage as astronaut-like gas-masked figures terrorized the refugees on the revolving turntable. Cartoonish figures passed through – Medea, Oedipus, Abraham and Isaac – carrying ghetto blasters. Wolfgang Haendeler, who stage-directed the cast that grew to 220 performers by the end, should receive the Eisenhower Award for his brilliant strategy as turntables rotated and lifts rose and descended, as did the orchestra pit as some musicians moved onstage and returned, with the entire orchestra moving onstage at the end. Fabrice Kabour’s classy lighting was especially inventive. Anne Marie Legenstein’s myriad costumes were jaw-dropping. Surround sound effects perfectly accented the action.
What all this entertainment missed was what Glass said attracted him to Peter Handke’s forgotten play to begin with: “its abstract intimacy, joy and sadness, and the fact that no character has a name – it goes to the general condition.” Handke said that Rainer Mennicken’s libretto was true to the play in which no action takes place – people only comment on something that happened earlier or on future consequences. In fact, this “poem ending in a celebration” was merely a spectacle of effects that never involved me emotionally. But it did accomplish artistic director Mennicken’s goal of including opera, dance, orchestra, and even 40 citizens of Linz who had never been on stage before in a grand opening statement to the city that this new house is for all citizens.
Glass said that the production was so complicated he couldn’t foresee it ever being produced elsewhere. Dennis Russell Davies, music director since 2002, who had just extended his contract until 2017 and has championed 24 of the composer’s works since 1981, contradicted him immediately, saying he could easily visualize a chamber version of the opera, one which I think would go right to the heart of the work’s theme of modern isolation: “What monsters we have become, we the I-can-do-it-all-by-myself.”
The use of the turntable in Der Rosenkavalier, on the other hand, was especially emotional. Its rotation showed three identical rooms with mirror-like aluminum walls reflecting from a fulcrum (the same turntable dividers used in The Lost). Props were at a minimum. Lighting set the mood for each space. Doors led from one room to the next. Ochs stumbled from room to room discovering his brood of kids in one, his wife in another, then Octavian, the police, etc., all rotating through. Most poignant was a room divider stopping stage center for the grand trio that soared with guest Anne Schwanewilms (the Marschallin), former ensemble member Valentina Kutzarova (Octavian), and guest Mari Moriya (Sophie) – Octavian and Sophie in one gay room and the lonely Marschallin semi-isolated next door, the divider accenting the poignancy.
As Ochs, 65-year-old Kurt Rydl with his Samuel Ramey wobble would be unbearable on a recording, but in person his use of a semi-sprechstimme style combined with his rich bass tone, stage presence, rubber face, and capacity for farce made him highly effective. Act III opened with a bathtub overflowing with bubbles at center stage; Kutzarova’s tease of the horny Rydl stole the show visually and vocally. Schwanewilms, whose calm vocal authority reminded me of Elizabeth Schwartzkopf’s in the role, leapt to her high notes with marksman’s accuracy.
Dennis Russell Davies’ Bruckner Orchestra Linz was quite rough in Act I with sour tuning and numerous errors among the principals (as was the case at the opening night gala, where the only good performance was of “You Are My Heart’s Delight” from Lehar’s Land of Smiles with tenor Piotr Beczala, who developed his career in Linz and here returned the favor). The orchestral pot simmered to warm in Act II, but by Act III Davies and his players were in world-class form: accurate, long-lined, and rich with style. With the exception of Kutzarova, the performers too took time to heat up.
The chorus, on display especially at the gala and in The Lost, is the strongest part of the theater’s ensemble. The vocal soloists are a mixed bag. For example, the soprano housewife in the musical Witches of Eastwick was quite on target, the mezzo just shy too often, and the alto a quarter- to half-tone flat (and loud). The production’s amplification offered gripping but tasteful surround sound for threatening storms, but was mellow, inoffensive, and balanced for the voices and instrumentalists.
The part of the ensemble probably needing replacement rather than just hard work is the ballet corps. Their work in Jochen Ulrich’s 75-minute Campo Amor with music by Monteverdi, Purcell, and Glass was nothing more than Pilates with underdeveloped muscles and poor physical coordination (they even had difficulty grabbing one another’s legs in the right place). Even the curtain calls were amateur. But the production did show off another of the stage’s versatility: an entire rain storm onstage (with highly effective surround-sound lightning and thunder). The singers in Monteverdi’s Combat of Tancredi and Clorinda were adequate at best. With the arrival of Glass’ insipid piano music (half elevator, half lounge lizard repetition with the world’s longest coda) came 40 minutes of wrestling men, writhing women, and torn clothes smashed into the water. More Pilates. What the hell was going on? A mud vat instead of a rain pool would have at least gotten a primal rise from me. The company should look to the nearby Czech Republic for a new ballet director and dancers.
Linz (city population about 191,000, metro area about 1.5 million), a lovely walkable city with easy public transportation, made a commitment not that long ago to change itself from a soot-filled place on the Danube to a city of the arts. It cleaned up its air (major industries are pharmaceuticals and steel – prior to Hitler it was textiles). In fact, nuclear-free Austria is powered by wind, geothermal and hydroelectric sources on the Danube. The Brucknerhaus opened in 1974, and in the last 15 years at least five art museums were opened. Now Linz has a world-class home for opera, ballet and musicals. Bruckner was cathedral organist here from 1856 to 1868 before heading to Vienna. Just 12 miles south is St. Florian’s Abbey, Bruckner’s home-away-from-home, bigger than most palaces and just as glorious, fit for the Austro-Hungarian emperor’s entire traveling entourage. But that’s another tale worthy of a visit to the area.
The 2013-14 season at the Music Theater includes Glass’ The Lost, The Magic Flute, Dido and Aeneas, Das Rheingold and Walküre, Carmen, Rosenkavalier, four musicals and five ballets including Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The annual Bruckner Festival (Sept. 15 to Oct. 6) includes orchestras from St. Petersburg, Munich, Rotterdam, Vienna, Kiev, Frankfurt, Salzburg, Beijing, and of course the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, plus Achim Freyer’s production of Cage Stage with Davies conducting chamber works of John Cage, a performance of Britten’s War Requiem, chamber operas from Moscow, and countless soloists and choirs. (There was even a Black Humor Festival in April and May.) Have you worked up an appetite yet?
(Note: The website for the new house is in German; surely an English version will eventually ensue.)
Gil French is Concert Editor of American Record Guide since 2005, was midday classical music host on public radio for 15 years, and has reviewed classical concerts and CDs for various publications on a steady basis since 1990.
Note: This article was originally published in American Record Guide, July/August 2013, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.