Director of the Vienna Opera Ioan Holender claims in a short note at the front of the enclosed booklet that this gala is not a celebration but “an opportunity to recall the great dedication and the many sacrifices that Austrians brought to the task of rebuilding their beloved” opera house, critically damaged in an air raid in March 1945. Ten years from that event, in November, a rebuilt opera house opened, and 50 years on, this gala took place. Quiet moments for reflection do not, however, appear in the two-disc DVD record of the gala. Five conductors, a huge cast of fine singers, including superstars such as Placido Domingo and Edita Gruberova, and an elegantly dressed and coiffed audience all seem in the mood to enjoy the glory of the operatic tradition till going strong in the Austrian capital.
However, a couple of distinguishing characteristics separate this DVD from typical galas, affairs which may entertain a live audience but make for less than riveting viewing later. First, instead of a random assortment of arias without theme or sensible order, this concert focuses on selections from several of the operas presented in that first season after the rebuilding of the house—and all of them operas central to the house’s repertory. As each section begins, the director cuts away from the concert to the poster with the cast listing for the 1955 production. Second, longer scenes dominate the evening, which allows for a level of characterization not usually found in the formats that center on isolated arias.
The advantages of this strategy do not make much of an impression, unfortunately, on the first disc. Seiji Ozawa opens with the third Fidelio overture, and then Zubin Mehta takes the baton for a Don Giovanni section, which begins with two solo arias. Ferruccio Furlanetto sings Leporello’s catalog aria. Edita Gruberova then appears (to an ecstatic reception from a house audience she has entertained for many years) with a most impressive “Non mi dir.” Finally a fuller cast enters for the act I finale, but Thomas Hampson goes for a gruff sound and a grating smile of self-infatuation. Ildiko Raimondi and Boaz Daniel don’t come across as gala-level signers in their roles as Zerlina and Masetto, although they are unobjectionable. The return of Gruberova, with the glorious Soile Isokoski as Donna Elvira and Michael Schade as Don Ottavio, helps bring this section to life at last.
Disc one ends with another gala favorite, the Rosenkavalier trio. In fact, Angelika Kirschshlager sang Octavian in the recent Berlin Opera Night DVD, and perhaps in the same glamorous female tux. Here she joins Soile Isokoski’s splendid Marschallin and the sweet but unprepossing Sophie of Genia Kuhmeier. West Coast readers may want to make plans to attend Isokoski’s run in this role in summer 2007 in San Francisco. Christian Thielemann conducts, and seems to be a Vienna favorite. Perhaps some of his fans can recommend a better barber. Warning to viewers who like the titles on: the banal translation of the trio seriously undermines the sublimity of the music. Turn them off here.
So far this DVD has been fair entertainment, but disc two takes it to another level. Danielle Gatti leads a dynamic, detailed act three from Aida, and shortly into the other thirty minutes of this section, the gala frou-frou disappears and the drama comes to life. Especially outstanding is Violetta Urmana’s Aida. She only manages a soft ending to “O patria mia,” and the lack of floating high notes may dismay some. But everywhere else, she pours out the dignity and pathos in an uninterrupted stream of gorgeous tone. Franz Grundheber still has a lot to offer, and though his habit of scrunching up one side of his face makes one wish the director backed off on the close-ups, his fearsome King contributes mightily to the scene. Though not in their class, Johan Botha does have enough voice to make a fine aural impression. An attempt at a soft singing in the top range goes awry; otherwise, he holds his own.
Then the crowd goes crazy for Placido Domingo and Agnes Baltsa in the great Radames/Amneris confrontation scene. Domingo can come on stage beaming with an almost childish glee at the fun of the occasion, and then turn on the dramatic power as easy as flipping a switch. Although she is also done no favors by the director’s insistence on close-ups, Baltsa digs into Amneris’s dark infatuation with undeniable relish. And the crowd goes even crazier.
Thielemann comes back on for the Meistersinger prelude, and then we learn the conductor is not the tallest man performing that night, as Bryn Terfel joins him for two of Hans Sachs arias. Terfel will grow further into this role, but what a treat to have his glorious tone and dramatic restraint—yes, that’s right—in this role. He lets his eyes do the acting, and Hampson would have done well to do the same.
Falk Struckmann and Deborah Polaski now join conductor Franz Welser-Most for arias and the finale from act three of Die Frau ohne Schatten, with Botha’s Kaiser, the Kaiserin of Ricarda Merbeth (little to do here but capable), and some lovely “stimmen der Ungeborenen.” Struckmann struggles a bit at the top, and as the tune here is one of Strauss’s loveliest, a more lyric baritone might have impressed more. Polaski’s Dyer’s wife employs her power and edge well, certainly better than in some lines from the finale of Fidelio, which closes the program under the baton of Seiji Ozawa. Polaski’s edginess gets too pointed there. Botha, seemingly the only power tenor employed by Vienna these days, takes on the few lines for Florestan. Hampson, Walter Fink, and Struckmann fill out the scene, with Hampson redeeming himself with some unmannered and handsome vocalizing.
EuroArts ends the disc with something your reviewer loves—a complete round of ovations for the artists, including solo bows. This credits section goes on over 9 minutes, but viewers of a successful live DVD recording, whether of a gala or complete performance, want to celebrate the performers along with the audience present.
And “celebration” is the word, no matter what the house Director writes. Especially for that Aida section, this Vienna State Opera gala concert deserves no less.
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy