The People’s Opera

Volksoper provides opera for the people. And operetta. And musicals. And ballet. How wonderful for the people of Vienna to have such a charming, prolific and affordable opera house in their midst. Going to the movies must be redundant here when there is such a variety of lovingly staged live entertainment on offer.

Der Mantel/Gianni Schicchi (sung in German)
7.30pm Thursday 9 February 2012

It’s Il Trittico-lite as Volksoper snips the usual middle act to present a highly contrasted pair of classic works.

Der Mantel is German for Il Tabarro, which is Italian for The Cloak. Confused? You won’t be when watching this simple but effective staging of Puccini’s masterful dramatic tragedy.

With ticket prices so much lower than at the main house, Man in Chair was a little nervous about what sort of standard to expect at Volksoper. The curtain rose on a modest but purposeful set for Der Mantel, but it was the opening bars from the orchestra that revealed that the utmost importance was placed on the music. Rich, swelling sound rose from the orchestra pit all night, filling the medium-sized auditorium with the pleasure of Puccini’s wonderful music.

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Even better, the quality of the singing also matched the orchestra. The three leads of the central love triangle in Der Mantel were each exceptional singers and strong actors.

The ensemble cast of Gianni Schicchi worked together with perfect timing and harmony. Much more comedy and nuance could have been mined from their characters but if the choice is acting or singing, clearly comes up trumps for opera.

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The absence of Suor Anjelica throws the extremes of these one act operas into sharp relief. The humour of Gianni Schicchi was most welcome after the deadly drama of Der Mantel.

A most enjoyable night that held the promise of further enjoyment to come at the other performances booked for the coming week.

La Cenerentola (sung in Italian)
6.30pm Sunday 12 February 2012

It was a Rossini double-header for Man in Chair having just seen the Barber the night before.

So it seems that pre-show announcements from management are a fact of life the world over. We already knew that Dandini had been replaced, according to a little slip of pink
paper attached to the foyer cast poster, but now it seemed there was more news. I say “it seemed…” as the manager spoke, of course, in German which was not a problem really apart from we English speakers being left out of two apparently quite funny jokes.

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It transpired that the new development was that one of the ugly step-sisters was to mime while a member of the music staff, who wouldn’t have fit into the dress, sang on side stage. This actually worked quite well as the pantomime nature of the rosy cheeked sisters suited a slight exaggeration to allow for miming.

The comedy of the opera was interpreted as a bit of a door-slamming farce. An initial green concave set was followed by a red convex set, each with five doors. On return to the first, it had cleverly been placed by a canvas replica to shake, rattle and collapse in the storm, leaving us with an attractive final musky twilight backdrop.

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A visual treat in the finale came when the company held out Angelina’s wedding dress over the whole stage while she rose into the air Wicked-style.

Singing was absolutely first rate across the night, with the replacement singers not even noticeable. There are such a lot of stand and sing numbers in Cenerentola, but the director made use of symmetry and visual wit to break up the numbers. Don Magnifico, more of a toad than ever in green velvet and hair to match, was a particular hit. The petite Angelina (La Cenerentola) was a delight, easily taken into the hearts of the audience.

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A bit of a dated production overall but the music, always the main attraction, was superb.

La traviata (sung in Italian)
7pm Monday 13 February 2012

Oh Volksoper, now we’re talking. Look how far a comparatively modest budget can go with brilliant originality.

To provide so many surprises in Man in Chair’s favourite, and hence most familiar, opera takes a unique vision and bucket-loads of creativity. And the singing was superb as well. Where something quite regular had been expected, the whole evening was a delightful surprise.

As visual accompaniment to the deathly strains of the overture, the image of Violetta on her deathbed was seen, with a young girl holding out a large ball as if to ask her to come and play. The festive music that opens act one brought partygoers, in full black formalwear and black masks, as well as a collection of black and white harlequins in ghoulish skull masks.

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Framed by an elegant white false proscenium arch, the set was revealed to have a donut-style revolve, in which the outer circle rose on a slant, the higher half exposing a set of steps. Particularly good use of the revolve was made when it carried Violetta off singing “Amami Alfredo”.

The single set allowed the action to flow, although the transition from act one to act two was actually so smooth that newcomers to the piece may not have even realised the change of time and location.

One disappointment at the beginning of act two was the omission of “Il Mio Rimorso”. This may have been connected to vocal problems, as indicated by a significant crack from Alfredo just before throwing the money at Violetta at the end of act two.

The centre of the donut revolve had a curved scrim that could rotate around to suggest separation while maintaining visual contact. At times, Violetta was downstage while the party continued on the other side of the scrim. During “Che Strano” a ghostly figure shadowed Violetta from behind the scrim. The street carnival was seen behind it in act three.

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We have all heard Giorgio Germont sing of his blessed daughter, well this time we saw her, from a distance anyway. He had brought family with him in act two and they were seen upstage as silhouettes.

A nice artistic touch was the matching of the red invitation to Flora’s party with the red costumes of the gypsies and matadors who performed there. The centre section of the revolve rose for the staging of the ballet of Piquillo, which was given the campest and wittiest treatment in memory.the high platform also ensured Giorgio was clearly visible when witnessing his son’s shameful humiliation of Violetta.

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Act three began with the original deathbed visual with the same haunting music of the overture. At Violetta’s final burst of strength, the little girl is seen passing her the ball again. Violetta reaches for it but dies as the ball rises to the heavens – it was not a ball but the bubble of life, which has slipped from her grasp.

My Fair Lady (in German)
7pm Tuesday 14 February 2012

A solid achievement, all the more impressive in consideration of the rate at which productions are turned over at this house.

Of all the musicals of Broadway’s Golden Age, a show that is so fundamentally about the English language and the way it is spoken would seem one of the least likely to work in a foreign tongue. But work it does, eliciting the first out-loud laughter heard after a week in Vienna.

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Despite some not insignificant cuts,the show still somehow ran for a whopping three hours and ten minutes, mostly related to changing over the large scale sets. An odd omission was the front-of-curtain scene before Ascot between Mrs Higgins and Pickering. Coming 75 minutes into the performance, the pause was understandably interpreted as interval and ushers had to dash about telling audience members to say in their seats. More annoying, except that it kept act one down to one hour and forty minutes, was the excision of the entire Embassy Ball scene. In act two, Eliza’s return to the flower market with the “Wouldn’t it be Loverley” reprise was cut as well.

Whilst the towering sets were not necessarily beautiful they are certainly grand. Higgins’ study, decorated with all manner of details, is the massive centerpiece, joining the pub and Wimpole St on a giant turntable that rose from beneath the stage.

Higgins was played with more bluff and bluster than is often the case, with the chemistry and attraction between he and Eliza being quite noticeably emphasized. They almost kissed during a brief waltz after “You Did It”. The biggest change was the ending, where they kissed passionately after “I washed my face and hands before I come, I did”‘ then ended with Eliza lying on Higgins kissing him after “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?”. This really seemed to be artistic licence taken a bit too far.

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Singing and acting were very strong throughout and the orchestra, especially the brass, sounded absolutely terrific. The lamentable choreography was almost unbearable to watch. Costumes for Ascot were eye-popping, with a whopping ensemble of fifty on stage.

For non-purists, plenty to admire and enjoy.

All photos by Simon Parris except for La traviata

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