Mahler Mashup ‘Opera’ Meets ‘Rigoletto’; Jester Wins, And It’s No Joke

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A scene from the Vienna State Opera production of ‘Von der Liebe Tod,’ set to Mahler’s ‘Das klagende Lied.’ (Photos by Michael Pöhn / Vienna State Opera)

VIENNA — No city is more opera-mad than Vienna or operatically more conservative. Scroll through the repertoire for the current season at the city’s fabled Haus am Ring and the lone item that will surprise you is Von der Liebe Tod (“Of the Death of Love”), a title only a dramaturg could love. It designates a lop-sided double bill of symphonic songs cycles by Gustav Mahler, run together without a break.

The 70-minute opening entry is the precocious faux-medieval cantata Das klagende Lied (“The Mournful Song”), involving chorus, a full complement of soloists, and, in this case, a small army of mimes. The introspective, middle-period Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Deaths of Children”) forms the coda.

Ordinarily assigned to a single soloist as the stand-in for a mourning parent isolated by loss, the five songs are sung here by a baritone in alternation with an alto. The Vienna State Opera regulars stayed away in droves; the third performance on Oct. 5 played to row upon row of empty seats. On the other hand, the concurrent revival of Pierre Audi’s mildly adventurous Rigoletto, in service since 2014, continued to pack them in. For the production’s 38th performance Oct. 8, tickets were unobtainable for love or money. Simon Keenlyside’s turn in the title role justified the excitement, and we’ll get to that. But first, the novelty.

Magisterially conducted by the rising star Lorenzo Viotti and staged by that congenital provocateur Calixto Bieito, Von der Liebe Tod marks the 125th anniversary of Mahler’s appointment as director of the company then known as the Vienna Court Opera; indeed, the entire season is dedicated to his memory.

Baritone Florian Boesch, soprano Vera-Lotte Boecker, and tenor Daniel Jenz in ‘Von der Liebe Tod.’

How, though, to celebrate? As every Mahlerite knows, the master was a legend among opera conductors, renowned above all for his Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner. Beginning in provinces with operetta, he worked his way up from minor European houses to the top houses of Vienna and New York. As a creator, he possessed little flair for the dramatic. At one end of the spectrum, his imagination gravitated to the lyrical, the private, even the obsessive. At the other, his eye was on the philosophical, the cosmic, and the transcendental. The cut-and-thrust of lifelike characters in action was not his speed. True, he set dialogue from time to time, as in “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” (“Where the Splendid Trumpets Blow”), one of his songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. It’s a ghost story in miniature, but where’s the war of wills? This isn’t a drama, it’s a vignette, practically a tableau. The conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, which provides the road map for the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, isn’t drama in an Aristotelian sense, either, but pageantry on the eschatological scale, subsuming individual destinies.

The three movements of Das klagende Lied — “Waldmärchen” (“Legend from the Forest”), “Der Spielmann” (“The Minstrel”), and “Hochzeitsstück” (“The Wedding”) — constitute a triptych of tableaux reminiscent of the Wunderhorn songs for their narrative content, reminiscent of the Faust scene for their epic scale.

Daniel Jenz and Florian Boesch in the ‘Kindertotenlieder’ section of ‘Von der Liebe Tod.’

The story, such as it is, concerns two brothers searching a forest for the red flower that will win the finder the hand of a haughty queen. When one brother finds it, the other strikes him dead and proceeds to claim the prize. A minstrel discovers the dead man in the forest and carves one of his bones into a flute. Sounded at the royal wedding — first by the minstrel, then by the murderer — the flute reveals the crime.

Mahler embarked on the project in his final year at the Vienna Conservatory. Two years later, in 1880, it was complete. Major overhauls followed. The belated premiere, in 1901, omitted “Waldmärchen” in its entirety. Since 1969, when the original three-part manuscript resurfaced, the long form has found champions like Pierre Boulez, Bernard Haitink, Michael Tilson Thomas, Simon Rattle, Cornelius Meister, and now the 30-something Lorenzo Viotti (son of the late conductor Marcello Viotti, whose blossoming American career, notably at the Met, was cut short by his premature death at 50 in 2005).

From the opening sounds of muffled timpani and horns, Viotti’s work with the virtuosi of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (known as theVienna Philharmonic when out of the pit) was sheer enchantment. Whisking us in no time to long ago and far away, they proceeded to unfurl Mahler’s infinitely inventive tapestries in sound, resplendent with the beauties of unfallen Nature and the splendors of the queen’s court, aglow under Romantic mood lighting of tantalizing variety. It’s not the musicians’ fault if in the end it’s just so much cinematography. There’s insufficient incident. The piece meanders.    

Bieito dramatizes the chilling, sketchy tale in a big, empty box that contains a little box full of dirt, redolent of death and graveyards. Early on, the chorus, dressed in white, files in bearing potted plants wrapped in cellophane, which soon rise into the flies, quite beautifully, on invisible wires. Later on, a mass of multicolored industrial cables descends from on high like the business end of a giant string mop. Hordes of soloists, choristers, and mimes grab cables (one each) and writhe in private rituals of unguessable significance.

Vera-Lotte Boecker, Jonathan Mertl, and Florian Boesch in ‘Von der Liebe Tod.’

Purposeful action is at a premium. The fratricide makes for brutish business, but the carving of the flute — not from bone, as the poetry describes, but from a severed arm still dripping with blood — is much worse. One arresting sequence involves a reenactment of the crime by the tall, pouty boy alto Jonathan Mertl and the elfin boy soprano Ramtin Geretschläger. Eyes wide open, standing upright but motionless, the elf gets cocooned alive in a body bag. At the point of inflection introducing Kindertotenlieder, the erstwhile killer in Das klagende Lied — the baritone Florian Boesch — cradles the pitiful, wrapped body in his arms, morphing into the second part’s grieving father. Apart from that wrenching moment, any connection between the two panels of Von der Liebe Tod is conspicuous chiefly by its nonexistence.

For a change of scenery in Kindertotenlieder, the walls of the big white box are hung with dark paper to create a surface for graffiti of death’s heads, crowns, and swords. (Across the street, in the colossal galleries of the Albertina, there’s a stunning retrospective of the startlingly similar work of Jean-Michel Basquiat.) As noted above, avatars of both the father (the male “I” of the lyrics) and the mother (more commonly encountered in the concert hall) have a voice this time out, suggesting the possibility of mutual consolation — or perhaps not. The alto soloist Monika Bohinec renders the even-numbered songs with soothing, dignified composure. The trademark burr in Boesch’s voice conveys lasting pain, yet in the closing phrases, he finds radiance, not of peace, perhaps, but of numbed acceptance. So, too, does the orchestra.

Still, at the end of the day, neither the distinction of the musical execution nor the incidental shred of theatrical interest can begin to float this lead balloon. Never say Norman Lebrecht, of Slipped Disc, didn’t see this coming. “Mahler would puke at seeing his song cycles presented as an opera for the benefit of Vienna’s returning tourists,” he scolded ahead of the premiere. As one of those tourists, I’d call the show an arty experiment that failed.

On to Rigoletto, in the durable staging of Pierre Audi, who situates the drama on a big Lazy Susan of a set partly given over to a little stand of dead trees. It’s among the trees that we discover the title character during the prelude, lost in troubled thought. Next, it’s off to the Duke’s palace in Mantua, a duplex affair, with a raw party space downstairs for the hoi polloi and a gilded lobby above, the antechamber of the boss’s boom-boom room. Gilda descends from on high as if in the cab of an open elevator. Sparafucile’s lair — another duplex — suggests a wooden death’s head or maybe just (bright idea!) a dead light bulb.

Simon Keenlyside as Rigoletto.

What there is to look at neither anchors the drama nor gets in its way. With Keenlyside on hand, it served simply as the backdrop to personal triumph.  

Let’s start with voice. After a rough patch, the baritone’s instrument is back in prime condition, ready for the rhetoric of Rigoletto’s great Act II set piece in all its facets, from volcanic opening to shattered, pleading ending. But pear-shaped tones have never been this artist’s raison d’être. Keenlyside’s Rigoletto speaks in song, as sensitive to subtext as a great actor in a play — and not just the in the purple patches. Barely inflected at all, Rigoletto’s three-word prompt for Gilda’s story of her seduction — just “Parla… siam soli…” (“Speak… we’re alone”) — takes his tragedy across a new threshold. A grave epiphany, not to be forgotten.

The physical performance is gripping, too. Denied the emblematic trappings of Verdi’s jester — the humpback, the cap and bells, the fool’s head on a stick known as the marotte — Keenlyside explores the tortured jester in his bedrock humanity. With physical touches of the grotesque, he almost evokes Kleinzach — a telling cross-reference. In savage microaggressions against the Duke’s sycophants, he pays back their ingrained animosity, even as he stirs the pot.

Erin Morley as Gilda.

To the part of Gilda, Erin Morley brings a shimmering soprano of modest size but clear as a mountain stream. On the plus side, she’s lovely to look at, she acts with grace, and her musicianship is above reproach. On the minus side, though she can be heard piping through the climaxes, she does not ride them, and she lacks sensuality. The doll-like package pleases many but leaves others wanting more.

As the Duke, Benjamin Bernheim, a tenor on the fast track, left a mixed impression, too. Tall, trim, with the poker face and straight-arrow bearing of a CEO’s private secretary, he cuts a pleasing but unexciting figure. The aria “Parmi veder le lagrime” sparked in him a pang of pathos and range of color that were otherwise under wraps. But his money notes landed with admirable consistency — a sure sign of a bright future on major stages. With wider experience, stage smarts may come. The supporting cast was of repertory rather than festival caliber. And while individual members of the orchestra did themselves proud in their solos, the ensemble in the pit as well as the ensemble between pit and stage was far from reliable. Let’s hope the conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi was having a bad evening.