Bregenze Festspiele - Summer 2009

A rippling paddling pool at a corner of Austria slipped between Germany and Switzerland on the east end of the Bodensee Bregenze keeps its elbows out with an extraordinarily fine music festival each summer. Mostly opera but sprinkled with excellent concerts in between opera performances. The citizens and their kiddies and dogs splash around in the lake, sailing boats scud about, and wurst is grilled in the cafes on the waterfront. What could be better?

For starters on the first evening a performance of some of John Dowland¹s songs set by Harrison Birtwhistle for eight instruments and a singer, plus two dancers performed by the Semper Dolens Theatre of Melancholy. Oh yes, these songs are melancholy all right! With titles such as ŒI Saw my Lady Weep,¹ ŒSorrow Stay,¹ ŒIn Darkness Let Me Dwell,¹ heart aching stuff and all beautifully sung by Mark Padmore. You could even hear the words! Not sure so many of these songs should be performed in one hit, or even performed in a theatre, better performed as more casual music such as after dinner in a great hall. But why the dancers? The songs tell all and the physical illustrations were both ugly gymnastics and confusing. Take them away and leave the beautiful music alone.

The second part of the evening was devoted to a Harrison Birtwhistle scene, THE CORRIDOR. Super idea, an hour of the last moments together of Eurydice and Orpheus. Again Mark Padmore with Elizabeth Atherton, both excellent. The piece is designed by Alison Chitty, very simple, actually just a red line along the backdrop, and directed by Peter Gill. The problem with this work is that it is a howl from beginning to end. The Birtwhistle score is excellent but because of the shouting any glimmer of tenderness is lost and the agony of the final parting just isn¹t there. An hour is too long to hold such heavy emotion; the audience needs a breather in order to truly suffer the agony. But such a good piece, and an evening of two fine contrasting performances.

The next morning rain has set in. Cloud shrouds the mountains and drizzle hits the high street but thankfully for elevenses there is a concert in the Festspielhaus. My, what a concert it is as well! The Weiner Symphoniker is there en masse and all in grey suits as Œtis morning. First up is Karol Szymanowski¹s SINFONIA CONCERTANTE from the 1930s. I had never heard this piece played live before, so a real treat. Szymanowski is not so well known out of his native country Poland and most deservedly he should be top of the pops. This work is luscious and tender, then wild, almost hysterical. The orchestra, conducted by Kirill Petrenko excels with the brass section coming in directly from heaven, but it is the soloist Emanuel Ax on the piano who wins the laurel wreath. Such an amazing musician, every note is loved and caressed and the stormy parts ever clear and not just thunderous.

After the high stress of the Sinfonia the orchestra vanishes and Herr Ax settles gently onto the piano stool and plays Chopin nocturnes. The programme writes we get two but in the event we got four works, the last being the vast so called Revolutionary Polonaise. Oh Herr Ax, you were magnificent.

To finish, the full orchestra back on their chairs for Alexander Skyjabin¹s LE POEM DE L¹EXTASE, and that is just what it was. Shimmering and glistening, over the top thunderous and gentle as the little waves lapping on the lakeside. Quite a morning, rarely have I been present at such a concert.

Then the next day, the work the entire festival hangs on, AIDA in the great outside Seebhune hanging over the lake. It poured with rain all day. Was there going to be performance? The loud speakers said would have a 15 minute notice if the performance would be cancelledŠ The umbrellas were still upŠ the minutes dragged past; an audience of 5000 were biting their fingernails. Then the clouds broke and a wet sunset appeared and we thronged the theatre, the usherettes handing out handfuls of paper towels to dry our seats. Yes, it was what it said it was going to be. An event, a rock-concert more perhaps than an opera performance, but incredible. The stage is set a hundred yards out in the lake and the enclosed water is used as part of the set. Everyone gets wet sometime during the performance. The chorus, at least some of it, emerges from underwater. Dancers dance on the water rolling in it, [there is a sunken stage just blow the surface. Singers fight on it, dive into the water, get pushed in, swim across and even act drowned. Stars and mere spear-carriers alike.

Two vast cranes hang over the set, ones big enough to build skyscrapers with. These wondrous machines move stuff around. The priestess, here dressed as an abbess, appears over our heads a hundred feet up singing her heart out. How they got a soprano to do that! Guess she was chained on to her platform and had no choice. At the end when Aida and Radames are in a little boat rather than being walled up, the little vessel is lifted up and slowly swung round high above our heads and swirled out into the darkness of the lake. And everyone is singing the entire time.

The production is a triumph of technology; the orchestra is in quite another theatre and of course the singers are all miked But it all works. There are three separate casts for the main parts; nobody could sing this every night. Graham Vick directed, bit of a different scale from his usual Glyndebourne work, not easy to get this cast of hundreds organized. Dan Brown designed the set, two vast feet on top of a pyramid of steps and bits of a broken Statue of Liberty here and there. Not sure what it meant, was it all supposed to be post 9i//1? Carlo Rizzi conducted, and well. So vast is the whole production that I saw his car scooting out over a pier to get him back stage in time to come and take his bow.

But for me the heroes of it all were the technicians, balancing the singing and orchestra, working the lights, manoeuvering the cranes, getting the water out of the divers and so on. These productions on the Seebuhne take two years to mount. I am not surprised. It is a breath taking achievement. But am not convince it is exactly opera. Although the sound is good it is all tinned and in the long thoughtful arias of intimacy one is just too far away and much is lost. In fact Aida has to wear a bright pink dress in order you can always pick her out on stage. A magnificent evening, but go for the fun not the music.

An altogether different kettle of fish for our last performance. KING ROGER by SZYMANOWSKI. Now this really is opera. Indoors on a stage with a curtain and an orchestra pit. Real voices and real instruments but a very unreal set. A rake of stairs stretching across the entire stage, nothing more, but how it was used! The chorus emerges out of the stairs. A brilliant and magical effect, yet simple. The lighting is extraordinary; paths of lurid colour make a carpet down the stairs, zig-zags of blue snake geometric waves. All modern. All brilliant. All breathtaking. Directed by David Pountney, conducted by Mark Elder, designed by Raimund Bauer, dressed by Marie-Jenne Lecca. and lit by Fabrice Keblour. What a team! Colour everywhere, drama throughout this short work, [it runs for a mere hour and a half,] the story of a shepherd arriving at court and getting everyone to join his religion. A story as old as time but here, set in nowhere particular and drenched in blood and guts, it seemed a story of today. The music gores and the voices strangle yet all the drama is there, and we even get a little tender love music.

All the singers were magnificent, too many to name all. Only four
performances, this has to be seen elsewhere. A reason for opera. A mind-blowing event. Please someone bring it elsewhere for others to see

I could go on for hours about all these productions. Bregenze is quite a big miracle in the musical calendar. You readers will never realise quite what you have missed during these chill and rainy days in the middle of holiday Europe. Sign up now for 2010

Polly Hope