Bregenze Festival

Opera Review by Polly Hope

Opera & music festival Bregenz. Austria

Do you know the music of Weinberg? Few do and until last week all I knew was the one CD I have stacked away with the Ws after WagnerŠ

Weinberg was Polish and Jewish and literally ran like hell as the Germans entered Warsaw in WW2. His sister got blisters on her feet and returned home never to be seen again. Mieczyslav keep running and got to Tashkent. Finally he returned to Moscow and became a good friend of Shostakovich. Bit of a short life story, no room for more.

Being Jewish and a very private person he never really made headline news, though the cognoscenti were aware of his talent, He was a well-kept secret and only died as recently as 1996.

Now, here in Bregenz, David Pountney, the artistic director of the Bregenz festival, has honoured Weinberg with a programme of Weinberg¹s operas and music and has tied the works together with a symposium covering several days of discussion. Concerts galore of amazing works, plus productions of two of his operas, and a cantata, almost an opera, for mass choir, including a choir of some thirty boy sopranos.

First, ŒTHE PASSENGER,¹ written in the 1960s, the work got an initial production in Moscow, a middling success, since when it has been forgotten. The action takes place inside Auschwitz, a brave choice, and a first, as far as I know, of an opera set in that ghastly environment.

The story concerns Lisa, one of the prison guards, and Martha, one of the prisoners. Two leading ladies, and both of them sopranos, is an interesting choice. The action goes back and forth from post WW2 and some years earlier inside Auschwitz. Lisa, with her husband, a diplomat, are traveling on a liner to Brazil to take up a new post. Suddenly on deck Lisa sees a veiled figure who she thinks is Martha. Martha is supposed to be dead and she Lisa
had sent her to her death. This is the dilemma sung about throughout the opera, back and forth, Auschwitz to ship and back again.

Even at the very end we are never certain if Lisa has actually seen Martha or is seeing a ghost haunting her. Nothing is resolved, just as the Holocaust can never be resolved. The Jewish maxim of Œ Never Forget¹ is rightly insisted on, but what spooks, at least me, even further is almost the last phrase of the opera, ŒNever Forgive¹. This is indeed too chilling.

It was incredibly brave to write an opera where one of the two main protagonists is an SS guard. It is brilliant. The two singers, the Lisa of Michelle Breedt and the Martha of Elena Kelessidi are perfect. All the singers are excellent, and the work is long and the music is new and difficult. It must have been a major task to learn.

The design by the South African designer Johan Engles is intriguing and very clever. The poignant railway lines of Auschwitz criss-cross the stage and wagons slowly roll round the stage on a circular track full of suffering humanity. All is dirty and rusty. Nazi guards snarl and joke and keep male prisoners apart from the women. The horror is briefly relieved by a short love interest. Above the murk floats the deck of a luxurious liner where all is pristine white, even down to the men¹s suits and ties.

The opera is conducted by Theodor Currentzis, goodness what a fabulous young man. Born in Greece, studied in Russia and runs Russia¹s largest opera house in the middle of Siberia and is still only thirty-eightŠ. He manages this complex score perfectly, though some of the very long slow arias must be a real challenge; the work has to keep moving despite nothing happening except
waiting for death.

David Pountney directs, as he told me, he thinks it is his best work ever. He could be right, though I have seen many of his winners. It will take time for such a vast work to be digested. I need to se it again when it eventually come to London.

The other Weinberg opera is THE PORTRAIT, originally a Gogol story and supposedly a comedy, but you could have fooled me. A Faustian story coupled with the Rake¹s Progress. A penniless artist uses his last kopek to buy a portrait of an unknown person in a market. In the night the portrait reaches out and scatters gold coins in heaps on the floor. The artist is now rich and begins to paint society portraits until he gets fed up with not being
true to his art so he kills himself. What big laugh? Personally I don¹t get this. Great artists, Titian, Rembrandt, Goya etc have all painted society poraits without selling their souls to the devil. Artists have to pay the bills like everyone else and it is up to the artist to make silk purses out of sow¹s ears.

THE PORTRAIT is the last but one of Weinberg¹s operas. The production is good; everything in the Bregenz festival is of the highest standard of production. The video work in this production is very brilliant. Gold picture frames are hung on the wall or carried around by the singers are suddenly full of paintings, which then move and become alive people, and in one case climb put of the fame. All so clever. My praise is perhaps a bit faint but then I didn¹t find anything to laugh at, just thought the artist stupid not using his ill gotten gains better.

Concerts galore and I could have stayed another week and heard new works, a lesson to be learnt everyday.

I am supposed to tell you only about opera but I must mention Weinberg¹s ŒRhapsodie uber Moldawische Themen.¹ Wild and wonderful, crazy and fun, the orchestra pulled out every stop, light relief after days of such heavy and depressive works.

All in all Bregenz was mind blowing, all hail to David Pountney, truly a great man of the theatre and each year productions get more complex and enthralling, always getting ever more thrilling with the work he produces and commissions. The excitement for me is seeing work that for me is totally new. Pountney does opera as rock concert with the AIDA on the lake. A glorious over the top production, which I wrote about last year, so you can look it up if you fancy. No more space this season.

So, so good to have such high powered music making in a charming little lakeside town nestling at the foot of the Alps. Do go, still time this season, next year is likely to be even better. Really and truly worth the voyage.

Polly Hope London