Bregenze Festspiele Summer 2008

Reviews by Polly Hope

Bregenze, a city at the sharp end of a tiny cheese wedge sticking into the western corner of Lake Constance in Austria, Germany a couple of miles to its north and Switzerland a couple of miles to its south, pointy Alps as backdrop and a shimmering boat filled lake in the foreground. The town is host to a wonderful music festival bristling with excitement, especially opera. The huge open air floating stage with its audience of five thousand produces major large-scale classic operas whilst the other venues produce almost entirely new works for music theatre. A must visit place for music fanciers each summer.

TOSCA. Giacomo Puccini.

Director: Philipp Himmelmann. Designer: Johannes Leiacker.

TOSCA is the big new production this year, and what a whopper it is! Grand Opera as rock concert, and boy does it work! The vast auditorium is packed as the sun sinks behind the stage. The set is a hundred foot high at least and as wider than it is high. We are confronted with a painted eye covering the entire set. My heart sinks, how can such a set show off such a dramatic and intimate work as Tosca? It works. How it works!

Cavaradossi climbs into his paint smeared overalls, then into a hoist, and up and up he goes, singing his heart out, to get on with the painting of that eye. Tosca runs on in red satin trousers and they are off. It is the Tosca we know, everything is there, Angelotti hides, Scarpia arrives, the children sing. Then the eye opens to reveal a host of clergy singing the church scene in a smoke filled cathedral. Bells peal from all directions from around the lake. Even he swans join in when the music hits their pitch and swarms of bats, real ones, circle the surtitles on screens either side of the stage.

In Act 2 the pupil of the eye lowers itself to become a big circular stage where the drama of Scarpia, Tosca and the torturing of Calvaradossi is performed. Just one chair and a box for props on a circle forty foot wide. Another pupil of the eye emerges, it is thousands of tiny lights, like a Coca-Cola ad in Piccadilly Circus, on which close up faces of the singers emerge, or is blood streaked during the torture scene. All is breathtaking. There is no interval, (getting five thousand out for interval drinks would be impossible.) In act 3 the eye platform rises right to the top of the set, vertical this time, whilst the rest of the set has folded away backwards and we are in a prison. Calavadossi's cell is the centre of the eye. Tosca appears leaning over the very top a hundred feet up. When Calvaradossi is shot his body falls at the front of the platform, then slowly rolls over the edge and plunges 80ft into the lake. Tosca turns and leaps, we see her, in film, at the centre of the eye falling and falling, getting smaller and smaller until her body is too tiny to see. You can hear the entire audience gasp.

Sounds awful? I tell you it is quite wonderful. Despite knowing every note of the opera it was edge of the seat stuff. As the artistic director of the festival, David Pountney, showed me, the orchestra is actually in another theatre! As he said, it could just as well have been in Vienna hundreds of miles away. I saw the orchestra warming up before I took my seat. There is a screen for the singers to watch the conductor, Christian von Gehen, and he has a screen to watch the singers. The whole production is a complete triumph of technology, huge praises to the large international team involved. The complications of making it all work is mind-boggling. It takes two years concentrated work to mount a new production. I am surprised they can do it so quickly.

There are three separate casts during the month long season. I saw Tatjana Serjan, Andrew Richards and Claudio Otelli as Floria, Calvaradossi and Scarpia respectively. All brilliant. Of course their voices were amplified, and I loathe amplification, but here it worked. The technology was all so well integrated that it became that dream. A complete work. And what is more, looked at in a new way for the 21st century. I loved it and was deeply moved.

Next year they will be playing this Tosca again. If you are going to Europe don't miss it. It really is worth that detour.

PLAYING AWAY. Music: Benedict Mason. Libretto Howard Brenton. Director: David Pountney.
I think this is the very first opera about football, and it is Britain who is playing away in this production at the Wekstatebuhne at the Bregenze Festival in a vast empty hanger of a building where several new operas are given their premiers. Oh that such an operatic feast happened in other places, culture is civilization and opera is its pinnacle, bringing all the arts together in a great explosion. But meanwhile it is Austria we must be grateful to for mounting such an event. Its enthusiastic audiences are hungry for new works and generous state funding can fill their appetites.

Football is the most popular of all sports now and it is a great idea to have a real live opera about the beautiful game. This glittering sport, full of dramas, failures and successes, victors and losers, tears and triumphs. PLAYING AWAY certainly takes care of these issues. It tells of an English football club playing an away match in Germany. Yes, you guessed, they lose, but lots happens on the way there. Mason's music is loud, very, energetic and mostly tonal with a twist. It fits the bill. The story is presented by a chorus of the Barmy Army in their customary war paint and their louche behaviour. The chorus is completely integrated in the whole work and rarely leaves the performance space. They sing and they dance, they shout and despair, blow trumpets and get drunk. Almost too real.

The story is that of a footballer, a David Beckham look alike who captains his team. He eventually has an accident that means he will never be able to play again. His girl friend takes off with the goalie. The Korean businessman, (played by a Korean girl wonderfully well,) stops his buyout of the club. The manager isn't too honest and the Great Referee, a Mephisto like character, who plays many parts and ends up mowing the football pitch, which is where the work began.

Praise to everyone, they all kick their football boots off with energy. The entire cast is from Britain, except the actual football, played by an Austrian singer. A great idea having a live football, and can she dance as well as sing! You bet she can.

David Pountney directs and, as always in the works he coerces onto stage, there is never a dull moment. The intricate action is vibrant and continuously active. With such a huge cast, about forty I think, not a detail is forgotten. Howard Benson's libretto is pertinent, modern, clever and of the moment. He has a play on stage in London, 'In Extremis, ' about Eloise and Abelard. Amazing to tackle two such diverse subjects, and both well.

The performers are all miked so the noise is tremendous. The orchestra is at the rear of the hall but the singers go back and forth between the players. The audience is on three sides of the action. The work catches every innuendo of a football match, a great idea and a very fine piece of theatre. Hopefully it will find another home, the work is sung in English. Britain will never fund it, they prefer Purcell, perhaps it could find a venue in America and Beckham could play himself? They've bought our star player so why not our first opera about football?

If this work does show up at a stadium near you don't miss it.