Staatsoper, Volksoper, And The Reframing Of Vienna’s Opera Legacy

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Johanna Arrouas (Polly), from left, Julia Koci (Lucy), and Sona MacDonald (Macheath) in the Volksoper production of ‘Die Dreigroschenoper.” (Photos by Barbara Pálffy/Volksoper Wien)

VIENNA — The opera landscape here, beloved by both locals and tourists for its traditionalism, is in a state of transition. With the stage director Lotte de Beer in her inaugural season as artistic director of the Volksoper and the former recording company boss Bogdan Roščić steering the Staatsoper into his second season, both houses are being shaken up by experimental stagings. (In addition, Stefan Herheim just began his tenure at the Theater an der Wien.) Whether the provocative approach will be sustainable remains to be seen.

The Volksoper, perhaps most famous as a destination for Strauss’ Die Fledermaus and its populist approach, has mounted a regendered version of Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper, seen Dec. 6. What was supposed to be the most shocking element — the seasoned Weill performer Sona MacDonald as the gentleman gangster Macheath — turns out to be the most convincing part of the show. Which does not say much for the production as a whole.

Oliver Liebl, in blue coat, as Spelunkenjenny.

The house orchestra under Carlo Goldstein, conducting the score for the first time, is buoyant but at times awkward rhythmically (Weill’s music, with its combination of classical transparency and acrid jazz, is more demanding than what meets the eye). The composer also did not write for opera singers but rather singing actors, which makes an assessment of the Volksoper’s talented ensemble members challenging. Johanna Arrouas indeed brought too operatic a touch to the role of Polly, but the character came across as appropriately tough and sassy — nearly biting Lucy’s head off in the “Eifersuchtsduett.” Carsten Süss is an authoritative Mr. Peachum, Ursula Pfitzner appropriately coquettish but malicious as his wife.

The new take on Weill’s score reinstates the “Arie der Lucy,” a florid number the composer considered too vocally demanding and cut after the original 1928 production (the task of orchestrating the aria was here assigned to Keren Kagarlitsky, assistant to the Volksoper’s current music director, Omer Meir Wellber). As performed by Julia Koci, the insertion only heightens a sense of confusion about the purpose of this Dreigroschenoper. The role of the prostitute Spelunkenjenny is performed an octave down by a male singer, Oliver Liebl, joining MacDonald for what turns out to be an otherwise static rendition of the tango number “Zuhälterballade.”

Ursula Pfitzner (Frau Peachum), from left, Johanna Arrouas (Polly), and Carsten Süss (Jonathan Peachum).

The evening was all the more awkward given that the performer originally intended as the police chief Tiger Brown fell ill, leaving director Maurice Lenhard to stand in for dialogue and lip-sync to the singing of Ben Connor. As for the production itself, Lenhard demonstrates little interest in Brechtian theater, instead making superficial attempts to inject the work with contemporary relevance.

Comprimarios decked out in pillows and blankets are meant to drive home the current energy crisis, a gesture that seems as uninventive as it is unnecessary, given the depth and timelessness of the Weill-Brecht collaboration. Brightly colored wintertime garb for the Peachums is nonetheless in keeping with the work’s playful but dark irony and makes a strong statement about the social disparities at its heart (costumes by Christina Geiger).

Also moving is the casting of a boy soprano (Camillo Kirchhoff) who performs the “Moritat vom Mackie Messer” at the start of the show. And yet his appearance during the overture — barefoot, wrapping himself in a blanket — seems gratuitous. The set by Malina Raßfeld, dividing the stage into circular tiers decked out in dark yellow carpeting, is aesthetically off-putting, finally evoking Brecht’s biting social commentary when it cedes to a bourgeois living room for the brothel where Macheath makes a visit. But it is hard to justify this production’s creative vagaries as it purports to comment on both gender equality and economic scarcity. Although MacDonald emanates authenticity in this work from the moment she walks onstage, even her singing — which sounded at times uncomfortably low — was occasionally jarring.

Michael Volle as Hans Sachs in ‘Die Meistersinger’ at the Staatsoper. (Photos courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper)

At the Staatsoper, a new production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger has proven an audience favorite — no surprise, given the high musical standards and tasteful staging by Keith Warner. The success is bittersweet given the recent announcement that the contract of music director Philippe Jordan not only will end in 2025 but that the position will not be filled upon his departure. The conductor recently expressed his opinion that the current administration was leading the house on a “fatally wrong track” through its choice of directors and an approach that does not allow enough of a cross-fertilization between music and theater (something he set out to hone in his years as music director of Paris National Opera).

That Jordan is one of the best Wagner conductors of his generation was already clear in the opening bars of the overture at the second performance on Dec. 8: The house orchestra brought forth splendid brass, singing legato lines, and an elastic tempo that would go on to carry the singers throughout the evening. The cast stars Michael Volle in one of his signature roles, Hans Sachs, and he reliably becomes one with the character. The baritone’s voice has been richer on other occasions, but he brought depth and poignancy to his philosophical monologue about the insanity that plagues mankind (“Wahn! Überall Wahn!”). He was also an unflappably strict cobbler in the second-act confrontation with the town clerk, Beckmesser, beating his hammer in protest against the untidy rhythms of his flowery serenade “Den Tag seh.”

Wolfgang Koch was a bumbling and buffoonish Beckmesser as he rendered the number (whose musical style may mock either bel canto or cantor singing). In the song contest of the final act, he appeared in a sequined red military suit (costumes by Kaspar Glarner), sitting in shame at the bottom of the staircase (see below) as the young knight Walther von Stolzing delivered what Sachs considers an immaculate rendition of “Morgenlich leuchtend in rosigem Schein.” The tenor David Butt Philip brought stamina and a steadfast touch, although not much seduction, to the role of von Stolzing, who wins the hand of Eva. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, meanwhile, was a charming presence in that role as she cut above the ample orchestra with lean but powerful tones, making a particular impression in the third-act quintet, “Selig, wie die Sonne,” and her final exchanges with Walther.

Walther von Stolzing (David Butt Philip) sings the Prize Song in Act 3 of ‘Die Meistersinger’ at the Staatsoper.

Sets by Boris Kudlička are restrained but evocative, leaving space for Warner’s intimate character portraits. Semi-transparent scrims serve for elegant transitions, such as when a backdrop of architectural blueprints fades into winter landscape for Walther’s number “Am stillen Herd” in the first act. A more surrealist touch emerges with a green figure personifying Nietzsche, who occasionally sneaks onstage (at one point emerging from Sachs’ worktable). Choreography by Karl Alfred Schreiner tastefully integrates the well-trained house dancers into passages such as an interlude in the final scene following the appearance of the town tailors (here depicted as orthodox Jews). “Revere your German masters!” admonishes Sachs as the opera comes to a close — a service Wagner, but not Weill, has been rendered as the city of Vienna sets out to renew its state theaters.