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Welser-Möst quits as music director of the Vienna State Opera

8 September 2014, Vienna, Austria

Franz Welser-Möst
Franz Welser-Möst(Photo: Roger Mastroianni)

Report by George Jahn

Simmering differences between Franz Welser-Möst and Dominique Meyer over the artistic direction of the Vienna State Opera have led to what those who know the scene say was inevitable – the resignation of Welser-Möst as music director.

Meyer sought to keep the dispute private, saying little after issuing a general statement. The Vienna State Opera general director said Welser-Möst’s departure was ‘a huge loss’, adding that he greatly valued him as an artist and conductor.

But Welser-Möst’s comments hinted at the breadth of their disagreements. ‘It has to do with singers and directors; it has to do with the entire domain that determines the artistic direction of the house,’ he said. ‘Believe me: this is a very painful decision for me.’

The break was announced on 5 September but had apparently been long in coming. From the start of his tenure two years ago, Welser-Möst sought to have a greater voice in determining the repertoire, the performers and the presentation of one of the world’s greatest opera houses.

As the conflict festered, leading Austrian cultural figures were called in to mediate, with the latest session taking place last week – in vain.

Welser-Möst’s decision hit like a bombshell, leaving Meyer scrambling to find conductors for 34 performances this season, including two opera premieres: Verdi’s Rigoletto and Elektra by Strauss.

It is nonetheless in keeping with the outwardly quiet 54-year-old Austrian music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Unspectacular when not conducting, Welser-Möst is known for putting his foot down rather than consent to painful compromise.

He stepped back two years ago from Così fan tutte at the Salzburg Festival rather than accepting what he said was insufficient rehearsal time. He also criticised Salzburg director Alexander Pereira’s 2012 opera picks – including Carmen, La bohème and Die Zauberflöte – as too tame for the sophisticated Salzburg audience.

With his contract scheduled to run until 2018, Welser-Möst’s departure adds to the reputation of the Vienna house as teeming with intrigue, with a notoriously high turnover of music directors as a result.

Welser-Möst is in good company. Those forced out or quitting before their terms ended include Gustav Mahler, Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Lorin Maazel.

World Premiere | Trans Mahgreb at Bregenz Festival

1 September 2014, Bregenz, Austria

Organised confusion: 'Trans Mahgreb' at Bregenz Festival
Organised confusion: 'Trans Mahgreb' at Bregenz Festival

The nightmare unfolds in 'Trans Mahgreb'
The nightmare unfolds in 'Trans Mahgreb'

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

Outside the theatre, before Trans Maghreb, the audience was ‘transported’ to Libya in rebellion, where this Austrian-Arabic chamber music theatre piece took place, with a recreation of the sights, sounds, and smells of the country. The audience became part of the action, herded around the stage, intermingling with the performers. (I was given a bullet-proof vest marked ‘Press’ to wear.) Unfolding in a black-box space amidst real sand evoking the endless Libyan desert and wall projections of Gaddafi encircled with fire (symbolically evoking his demise), the work became a terrifying experience of what it would be like as a Westerner caught up in the middle of the Arab Spring uprising.

Based on the same-named novella by Hans Platzgumer, who also wrote the libretto, it told the story of an Austrian engineer and his workers who, while building a rail project in the Libyan desert, were locked up by rebels fighting against Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Their only hope was their Austrian supervisor Anton Corwald, who cared more about money than his workers, and escaped leaving them die.

Spoken and sung in a mixture of German, Arabic, Turkish, French and English, the piece alternated post-modern minimalism, improvised jazz and what could only be categorized as noise. Interspersed were arias and spoken dialogue. The music lacked unity and continuity with jarring results. Radically different sounds accompanied the separate actions, changing according to the events and psychological aspects, more akin to a movie soundtrack than music theatre. The audience was herded to and fro like cattle to bear witness to the different events and horrors unfolding around them.

Trans Maghreb was commissioned as part of the ‘Kunst aus der Zeit’ (Art of our Times) series at Bregenz Festival. Director Ran Braun conceived the work as organised confusion, resulting in controlled chaos that immerses the audience. The overall effect was powerful and moving, and demonstrated how diverse the concept of ‘opera’ has become.

19th-century Polish opera in rare London staging

6 August 2014

A costume design for 'Halka' by Mike Leopold
A costume design for 'Halka' by Mike Leopold

Stanislaw Moniuzko’s opera Halka gets a rare London performance on 4 and 5 October at POSK, the Polish Social and Cultural Association in Hammersmith, commissioned as part of the centre’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Hailed by critics of its day as one of the greatest Polish operas, Halka was premiered in a two act version in 1848, then revised in four acts for its premiere at the Warsaw State Opera in 1857. Despite its success, and lushly romantic score, it is hardly ever performed outside Poland.

The London production brings together a cast of very talented young Polish singers. Monika Swiostek, who has sung the role in Poland, appears as Halka, Marcin Janusz as her fickle aristocratic lover Janusz. Rafal Bartminski sings the role of the faithful Jontek, while Piotr Lempa and Marcin Gesla alternate the roles of Stolnik and Dziemba. Violetta Gawara sings Zosia and the opera is being sung in Polish with English surtitles.

Halka is being directed by Opera Now correspondent Richard Fawkes and conducted by Stephen Ellery, who is also arranging the score for a chamber group. The set is designed by Mike Leopold, a recent graduate from Wimbledon College of Art.

50,000 items of opera memorabilia to go under the hammer

6 August 2014, Gloucestershire, UK

The first tranche of one of the largest and finest private opera memorabilia collections ever known will go under the hammer at Dominic Winter Auctioneers in Gloucestershire, UK, on Wednesday 17 September.

The collection of 50,000 items was assembled over 60 years by Anthony Gasson, an optometrist from Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, who died in 2012. A lifelong opera lover, Gasson’s collecting centred on the operatic greats of the 19th century, though his collecting zeal ran the full gamut of operatic history from printed music by Handel, Purcell and Mozart to signed photographs and pictures of Maria Callas and other stars of modern times.

A small number of autograph letters and other material has already headed towards the British Library and the Victoria & Albert Museum, but the heart and substance of Gasson’s collection remains intact, including books, paintings, bronzes, prints, photographs, autograph letters, visiting cards, stage and costume designs, programmes, conductors’ batons and more.

The auction on 17 September will offer The Anthony Gasson Opera Collection, Part One: Printed Books and Selected Memorabilia, with further Parts scheduled for auction in October and on into 2015.

Highlights of the first auction include a fine lifetime oil portrait of Rossini, a bronze bust of the child prodigy Mozart, drawings of Richard Strauss and Enrico Caruso, a first edition of an aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute published a month before he died, photographs of operatic celebrities by the great portraitist Nadar, and autograph letters by Wagner, Puccini, Rossini and Britten.

Legendary Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi dies aged 90

28 July 2014

Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014)
Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014)(Photo: Decca/Mike Evans)

Obituary by Ashutosh Khandekar

Carlo Bergonzi’s extraordinary affinity with the music of Verdi was almost inevitable. The great tenor, who died on 25 July aged 90, was born in the northern Italian region of Polesine Parmenese, just a stone’s throw from Verdi’s birthplace near Busseto.

As a child, Bergonzi sang in the local children’s chorus in Busseto, but in his teenage years he trained to be a cheese-maker at his father’s Parmesan factory. Steeped in the music and culture of his local surroundings, he trained first as a pianist, then as a baritone at the Parma Conservatoire.

The Second World War took a heavy toll on Bergonzi. He was interned in Austria for his anti-Nazi campaigning, returning to Italy after the war both physically and mentally exhausted. He took to his musical studies again as a way of regaining his confidence and he made his operatic debut in the baritone role of Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1948.

He continued to sing as a baritone until 1950, when he stepped into the shoes of an indisposed young Tito Gobbi in the title role in Rigoletto: during that performance, Bergonzi recalled that he began to understand that he was no baritone: ‘I didn’t succeed in finding the power, also the velvet voice for the pathetic moments, that the part demands. Still, I saw the performance through. I was very happy to have worn the costume, but the experience gave me the first suggestion that I should change repertory.’

In making the change to tenor, Bergonzi was self-taught, emulating the very best on offer by listening to the recordings of Caruso, ‘for the inimitable purity of the sound’; Gigli, for sheer control ‘from piano to forte’; Schipa, for ‘extraordinary technique’; and Pertile, for his powers of interpretation.

In just three months, Bergonzi launched himself on his career as a tenor. In 1954, he made his La Scala debut in a new opera, Masaniello, by Jacopo Napoli. It was, however, in the operas of Donizetti, Puccini and above all Verdi that Bergonzi really made his mark. The voice never had the beauty of Corelli or Pavarotti, nor the visceral power and drama of Vickers or Domingo. What Bergonzi brought to the operatic stage, in a career that spanned half a century, was natural elegance, technical assuredness and an open-hearted musicality that gave his performances a beguiling and often moving honesty.

The great connoisseur of voices John Steane pointed out that ‘impeccable’ was the adjective most associated with Bergonzi. You can hear his attention to detail and the care that he takes with dynamics and phrasing in so many of the classic opera recordings that he made at the height of his career, recently re-released in a timely 90th-anniversary box set by Decca, under the title Carlo Bergonzi: The Verdi Tenor. Especially notable in this 17-CD set are a miraculously vivid Aida (1959) with Karajan conducting and Renata Tebaldi in the title role. As Radamès, Bergonzi is peerless in his finely judged yet utterly unaffected phrasing. His Alfredo opposite Joan Sutherland’s virtuosic Violetta proves to be the ideal pairing in a 1962 La traviata, full of tenderness and youthful ardour. His Duke in Rigoletto (1964, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role) has a suave nobility that makes the character’s wicked actions seem all the more appalling.

The longevity of Bergonzi’s career means that opera lovers today might still recall his frequent appearances at the Royal Opera House, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s. By then, his voice had started to show some wear and tear, and his semaphoric acting looked quaintly archaic. Indeed, Bergonzi’s physical presence on stage was never his strongpoint. He once admitted his shortcomings in an interview to The Times: ‘I know what a proper physique should be for the parts I sing, but I have tried to learn to act through the voice. The proper, pure expression of the line is the most important thing.’

The voice, indeed, said it all: few tenors could match Bergonzi’s vocal eloquence, freshness and mastery of phrasing. Even at his disastrous farewell appearance in a concert performance of Verdi’s Otello at Carnegie Hall in 2000, the voice still had moments where the pure, steady timbre of the tenor’s glory years shone through. (In the end, however, the effort of singing one of the most challenging tenor roles at the age of 76 took its toll, and Bergonzi withdrew from the performance after Act II.)

It is in the Decca and Philips recordings of Verdi, mostly dating from the late 1950s and 1960s, that Bergonzi shows himself to be the model tenor, a beacon of superb technique, taste and faultless musicality. It’s hardly surprising that Pavarotti referred to him as ‘The Boss’. In his latter years, he mentored a new generation of tenors by way of the Accademia Verdiana, the singing school that he ran from his hotel, I Due Foscari, in Busseto. Through his teaching, he provided a seamless link to the ‘Grand Tradition’ of great tenors which stretched back through the 20th century to the lifetime of Verdi himself.

  • Carlo Bergonzi, operatic tenor, born 13 July 1924; died 25 July 2014

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