Analysis: Friday Nights with Yury Revich at the Theater an der Wien

A Musical Wiener Melange helps UNICEF; Performers Celebrate 100 Years Of Austrian / Polish Republics

By Jonathan Sutherland

On any given evening in Vienna there are more musical performances going on than slices of sticky orangey chocolate cake being wolfed down at the Café Sacher.

Opera aficionados and admirers of musicals can avail themselves of concurrent offerings at the splendiferous Staatsoper, the folksy Volksoper, the cosy Kammeroper, the recherché Ronacher and Raimund theaters or the historically pre-eminent Theater an der Wien. Located just a hop, skip and, a jetée away from its much more imposing Staatsoper sister, the Theater an der Wien is inextricably linked to Vienna as kren is to tafelspitz.

A Historical Perspective

Speaking to the New York Times back in 2009, long-standing Intendant Roland Geyer opined “For the Viennese generally, this is sacred ground, precisely because it breathes all that history.” The theater was built by Mozart’s prolific and profligate librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, although sadly diesen  Hallen were not so heil’gen for the scribe from Straubing and his ownership ended in bankruptcy in 1804. Beethoven had a notable association with the building as his only opera “Fidelio,” four of the symphonies, two piano concertos, the violin concerto, and the oratorio “Christ on the Mount of Olives” were all premiered on Schikaneder’s stage.

Now nestling beside the epicurean eateries of the bustling Naschmarkt, the Theater an der Wien is so endowed with musical milestones it is difficult to name a particular highlight. The champagne corks in “Die Fledermaus” first popped there in 1874 and Lehar’s “Die Lustige Witwe” waltzed its way into the operetta history in 1905. Joan Sutherland and Nicolai Gedda sang Haydn’s arcane “Orfeo ed Euridice” in 1967. Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria” in 1971 was a musical revelation. Claudio Abbado conducted the Schubert rarity “Fierrabras” in 1988 and Riccardo Muti was on the podium for Mozart’s three da Ponte operas in acclaimed productions by Giorgio Strehler from 1996-2002.

Things were not always so halcyon. There was a risk of the theater’s demolition and conversion into a car park in the aesthetically philistine 1950s. Andrew Lloyd Webber made his presence felt with felines and phantoms in the 1980s which for many traditionalists was far from the cat’s whiskers.

Fortunately those days are long gone and the Theater an der Wien is now in the vanguard of presenting more esoteric operatic repertoire in often provocative productions which would be greeted with bewilderment in Das Haus am Ring by the throngs of Tripadvisor zealots squeezing in a visit to the opera between “Third Man” zither hunts and indiscriminate Grüner Veltliner swilling at an overrated Heuriger in Grinzing.

A Fitting Venue For A Worthy Cause

Given the house’s extraordinarily diverse history, it was a fitting venue for an extremely eclectic concert entitled “Dreamland” which was part of the regular “Friday Night’s with Yury Revich” series. The occasion was a benefit for UNICEF Austria specifically directed to aid children suffering in Syria. The concert raised 35,000 euros for the worthy cause. The selection of performers was not just a musical Wiener melange but a visual kaleidoscope of colors and typical “Friday Nights” multi-genre entertainment. Projections and visual treats were directed by French regisseur Benoît Bénichou on a stage set for Handel’s “Teseo” which was being performed that week. The juxtaposition of a baroque mis-en-scène with music by Bob Dylan, for example, didn’t seem at all bizarre.

Foot-painter Simona Atzori brought a unique method of daubing to music by Schumann played by Italian pianist Simone De Crescenzo. Weiner Staatsballet stars Liudmila Konovalova and Jakob Feyferlik danced the Andante from “Swan Lake” and added corporal pulchritude to the proceedings. Young Singaporean cellist Brendan Goh played an impressive interpretation of Mark Summers’ “Jullie O.”  Dual pianists Donka Angatscheva and Yuliya Draganova ignited some Iberian fuoco with Sarasate’s “Spanish Dance.”

There was a fascinating reading of the Marschallin/Octavian dialogue from Act One of “Der Rosenkavalier” by Nicole Beutler and Markus Freistätter which revealed just how inspiring Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s insightful libretto was to Richard Strauss. “Romanian Roulette” involved some wild instrumental playing by an ensemble of Romanian musicians supporting singer Mercedes Echerer who brought zigeuner zing and Transylvanian fire into the normally lugubrious Linke Wienzeile. This was infectiously exuberant music-making with a particularly impressive solo from trumpeter Alexander Wladigeroff who at one point actually played two instruments simultaneously.

The Gala opened with the Amadeus Vienna Primary and Secondary School Choir singing the Mancini/Mercer 1962 hit “Moon River.” Although not quite competition to the Vienna Boys Choir, there was an honesty and charm about the performance which set the tone for the performances to come. Only the consciously Americanised extended “r’s” ending the word “river” seemed odd. There were certainly no clipped Audrey Hepburn Oxbridge consonants observed.

Memories of Marlene Dietrich came to the fore when legendary German singing actress Ute Lemper purred through “Sag mir wo die Blumen sind” with sexy susurration in three languages. Lemper has palpable star quality and a rare capacity for nuanced word coloring reminiscent of Zarah Leander, Edith Piaf, and the incomparable Mabel Mercer.The seductive chanteuse returned in the second half with a trifecta of contrasting songs – Kaczerginsky/Voloviski “Dann Shtiler Shtiler;” Bob Dylan’s “The answer my friend is blowing in the Wind” and Charles Trenet’s poignant “Que reste-t il de nos amours.” There was again an effortless and mesmerizing ability to draw the audience into the profound emotions of the music. The celebrated singer was accompanied with adept sensitivity by pianist Vana Gierig.

The Opera Stars

The programme notes stated that soprano Hasmik Papian has sung with Renato Bruson and Fiorenza Cossotto. As both legendary artists are now 82 and 83 respectively, this pointed to considerable longevity in the Armenian singer’s career. It would be fair to say that the voice is no longer in its first bloom and popular Puccini hits such as “O mio babbino caro” and “Vissi d’arte” could have done with less amplitude and more accurate intonation. Lauretta in “Gianni Schicchi” is a passionate young woman, not a matronly warbler with a vibrato wider than the Ponte Vecchio. In the “Tosca” aria there was an uncomfortable scoop from E-flat to B-flat on the first “così” although the A-flat to G-natural rallentando fermata on “ah” after the climatic B-flat on “Signor” showed traces of past vocal prowess. “Two Armenian Songs” by ethnomusic pioneer and musical monk Soghomon Soghomonian, aka Komitas, were sung with far greater assurance and authentic musicianship.

South Korean megastar soprano Sumi Jo has a particular connection to Austria in that Herbert von Karajan cast her to sing Oscar in the Salzburg Festival production of “Un Ballo in Maschera” in 1989. Her earlier roles were focused on the birdy coloratura repertoire such as Gilda, Die  Königin der Nacht,  Olympia, Lucia and Elvira in “I Puritani” but she later moved into more cross-over repertoire and gained an Academy Award nomination two years ago for “Simple Song No. 3” heard in Paolo Sorrentino’s movie “Youth.”

Although she never sang “Norma” on stage, Jo’s first selection was the Callas classic “Casta Diva.” Appearing in a diaphanous white ball gown with filigree veils, there was something spectral about the sinewy soprano.  The opening declamatory “sediziose voci” was omitted and accompanist Simone Di Crescenzo slid straight into the andante sostenuto. Certainly, Jo still has splendid breath control for the long phrases but the acciaccature were largely absent and the piano markings on “a noi volgi” closer to mezzo-forte. The accelerando crescendo to top B-flat on “sembiante” had plenty of power although this time the forte marking was sung piano, admittedly rather nicely although the melissmatic semiquaver arpeggios were far from pristine. De Crescenzo’s playing of the syncopated passage for chorus was far too heavy and ignored the pianissimo dynamic markings.  Jo’s cadenza on “ah si” was certainly original and an extraordinarily sustained forte top B-flat fermata on “riedi” may have been a crowd pleaser but was not particularly Bellinian.

In deference to the Lehar-loving locals, Jo returned in the second half with “Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiß” which was quite brave given the Korean’s less than Hanoverian German diction and the song’s saccharine over-familiarity in Vienna. There was plenty of calculated coyness reminiscent of Netrebko at the Proms in 2007, but mercifully with less “Tanzes Königin im gold’nen Alcazar” kitsch choreography. There were serious coordination problems in an arrangement of Mozart’s variations on “Ah vous dirai-je Maman” aka “Twinkle twinkle, Little Star” with De Crescenzo seemingly incapable of following Jo’s semi-extemporized rubati. The piece was salvaged by young Russian/Austrian virtuoso violinist Yury Revich who was intuitively much more flexible in tempi. Several variations brought out Jo’s coloratura skills although the presto vivace passages lacked her former crispness and clarity.  That said, La Sumi is still a diva down to her perfectly manicured fingertips and it is always a pleasure to hear a singer with such an illustrious past.

The Lynch-Pin

Founding “Friday nights” five years ago, Revich was, in fact, the lynch-pin of the entire Gala, playing in seven different sections including a charming entr’acte of Shostakovich’s “Duet for Two Violins” with the pint-sized prodigy Kai Gergov who at eight years of age played with the aplomb and precision of a mature maestro. Towards the end  Revich quietly left the stage to Gergov in deference to the World Children’s Day on 20th November as the section was cutely called “Kids Take Over.” The highlight of the concert was unquestionably Revich’s playing of Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy” which displayed the star violinst’s extraordinary technical expertise and innate musicality. His 1709 Stradivari relished the passionate pyrotechnics of the piece and the audience responded with raucous yelps and cheers usually more associated with Iberian bullfight arenas than salubrious concert halls in Austria.

The last musical item as was a return by the Amadeus Primary and Secondary School Choir singing the quintessentially croony Viennese classic from the 1927 film “Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume” better known for the refrain of “Wien, Wien, nur du allein” made famous by Richard Tucker. There was plenty of sentimental slow swaying from the young singers and the rest of the performers somehow squeezed onto the stage to more or less join in. The marathon Gala lasted for more than three hours and concluded with a moving video presentation highlighting the plight of children in Syria. The short film clip was conceived and co-directed by none other than Yury Revich, evincing there is no end to the personable young artist’s formidable talents.

Celebrating Republics

A few days later, a “Festliche Matinée” was presented by the Austrian-Polish Society in conjunction with the International Chopin Society to commemorate 100 years since the creation of the Austrian and Polish Republics. It was held in the acoustically gratifying Josef Haydn Saal of the renowned Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien where the Rector has the delightful honorific of “Magnifizenz” and distinguished alumni include Gustav Mahler, Arthur Nikisch, Hans Richter, Clemens Krauss, Herbert von Karajan and Mariss Jansons. Under the auspices of the indefatigable nonagenarian President of the International Chopin Society Professor Theodor Kanitzer, the programme featured a lot of instrumental music by Poland’s most famous son as well as other native composers such as Theodor Leschetizky, Paderewski and Szymanowski.

The vocal component of the concert comprised the “Gaudete” Choir of the Polish Community in Vienna led by its charismatic director Michał Kucharko. A selection of music by Chopin, Karol Kurpiński and Michał Ogiński was perhaps less familiar to the Austrians present but instantly recognisable to the predominantly Polish audience. “Gaudete” is an amateur à capella choir but with a remarkable precision of intonation and scrupulous attention to dynamics and diction which many professional ensembles would envy. The only minor caveat was that their black and white performing uniforms made the accomplished performers seems more like singing waiters and waitresses about to scamper back to the post-concert buffet reception.

The “Festliche Matinée” was just another example of the wealth and diversity of music that “Wien, Wien nur du allein” provides on a daily, if not hourly basis. It is no wonder the 2018 Economist Intelligence Unit annual Global Liveability Index rated Vienna the most liveable city in the world – with or without its ubiquitous Sacher torte.


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