A New Relief of Vienna

There used to be an inn here, called The White Ox, set up by shepherds and cattle traders by the tollgates of Vienna. In 1762 Leopold Mozart checked in here – on his first tour with his two child prodigies: daughter Nannerl and six-year-old son Wolfgang Amadeus. In the 1820s the inn was turned into an elegant restaurant and hotel, Zur Stadt London. There was also a fast coach station, from which Frédéric Chopin set off on his journey to Prague on 19 August 1829 at ten o’clock sharp. “I have already packed my sack, I just have to go to Haslinger, and from there to the café opposite the theatre, where I will find Gyrowetz, Lachner, Kreutzer, Seyfried, etc. In two nights and one day we will be in Prague; at 9 o’clock in the evening we will take the Eilwagen. It will be a lovely journey, lovely company,” Chopin wrote that day at dawn in a letter to Feliks Wodziński.

Other celebrities who stayed at the Zur Stadt London hotel, also known as Hôtel de Londres, included Friedrich Nietzche, Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. In 1848 Robert Blum, a radical German poet who was opposed to the partitions of Poland and who wrote a play about Tadeusz Kościuszko, was arrested there. Towards the end of the century the property passed to a new owner, who constructed a new building, the Rabl Hotel, combining elements of Art Nouveau with the Neo-Baroque style. It was erected in 1902 according to a design by Carl Caufal, a fashionable architect at the time. Eight years later the hotel was acquired by the thriving Český dům cooperative and became the centre of the Czech community in Vienna. Leoš Janáček stayed at the hotel during the preparations for the Viennese premiere of Jenufa in 1918. A theatre, a choral society and the Lower Austrian branch of the Sokol Gymnastic Union were based there as well. Performances and concerts were held in a small ballroom located in the side wing.

So much history and yet the place is still so inconspicuous. The façade of the building, which has housed Hotel Post since 1942, is easy to miss among the tightly spaced buildings of Fleischmarkt. In the mid-20th century Wiener Kammeroper, established shortly after the war by the Hungarian-Austrian conductor Hans Gabor, found home here after numerous twists and turns. Exactly eight years ago the company was taken over by Theater an der Wien. A group of young artists, the Junges Ensemble, began to present performances in a small hall adjacent to the hotel, trying their hand not only at Baroque and contemporary operas, but also at intimate adaptations of masterpieces from the core repertoire. Nobody could predict that in 2020 the Kammeroper would turn from a kind of opera studio into a melting pot brimming with ideas – an experimental laboratory for solutions to overcome the crisis that has painfully affected the entire music sector and will not let go.

Miriam Kutrowatz (Idaspe). Photo: Eriks Bozis

Those who were lucky enough to get tickets for the September premiere of Vivaldi’s Bajazet – less than one hundred and fifty people, because half the seats in the auditorium had to be empty – stood in a side street, wistfully looking through the window at the closed theatre café. When the door finally opened, they quickly put on their masks and staggered inside to take their seats and shake off the evening chill. At first no one paid attention to an inconspicuous bespectacled man who was bustling around, bringing more and more props, then testing their acoustic properties with a smile on his face. After a while the spectators began to realise that the man was preparing a recording studio on stage. A few minutes passed. The mysterious bespectacled man brought the last object from the wings: an old-fashioned reel of tape. He crouched down on the proscenium and put it in the orchestra pit. At that moment the sounds of the Italian overture burst out from the depths. Played live, of course. Only then did everyone understand that the new production directed by Krystian Lada started before the opera itself. In a moment we were to find out that the inconspicuous man on stage could also be the cruel Tamerlano.

Last year, when I nominated Lada for the Passport Award of the Polityka weekly, I was not sure yet whether I wanted to give the award to a director and dramaturge or an opera activist. I believed that it was reasonable to nominate Lada, considering his belief in the vivacity of the form, his conviction that the opera speaking the language of a modern theatre would touch the hearts of the audience as authentically as a good movie or a novel, his courage in presenting the burning issues of today’s world on stage. This Warsaw-born young artist who now lives in Belgium found his way into opera via a route that was completely different from that of most Polish directors. He studied abroad: literary studies and dramaturgy at the University of Amsterdam. He was not yet thirty when he became director for dramaturgy and cultural promotion at La Monnaie. He worked as a journalist and editor. He wrote librettos, stage adaptations of literature and scripts for television programmes. He polished his skills as a dramaturge under the watchful eye of the best in the field, including Ivo van Hove and Pierre Audi. He participated in the Young Talents programme of the ENOA (European Network of Opera Academies). He was a member of the advisory team at Opera Europa, a Brussels-based non-profit organisation bringing together European opera houses and festivals. Three years ago he founded The Airport Society: an association of artists and activists who explore the subtle network of connections between contemporary opera, and the world of technology and the reality of current social phenomena. It was with this group that he made his debut as a director: with the performance Aria di Potenza, in which he highlighted the “operatic” aspect of politicians’ speeches, juxtaposing them with famous arias.

He attracted my attention shortly afterwards, in 2018, when he directed Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Wrocław Opera. I realised during the pre-premiere interview that I was dealing with a sensitive and modern-thinking “theatre animal” rather than yet another arrogant progressive who had forced his way onto the opera stage. Lada carefully picked out the tropes contained in the musical text and tried to present them using the language of contemporary theatre. What’s more, he demonstrated that he had a sense of humour: in the Wrocław production he had the belligerent Capulets wear the Fowler Brotherhood’s uniforms and invited a delegation of Brotherhood members to the premiere. They came dressed in full fig and would not stop admiring the director’s concept.

Miriam Kutrowatz, Sofia Vinnik (Asteria), Rafał Tomkiewicz (Tamerlano), and Valentina Petraeva (Irene). Photo: Eriks Bozis

Since then Lada has been involved in several extremely different projects – from the monumental open-air Nabucco in Wrocław, through the shocking installation Unknown, I live with you in the former chapel of the Bridgettines in Brussels, featuring music by Katarzyna Głowicka and drawing on the poetry of the participants in the Afghan Women Writing Project – I wrote about the performance later that people cried, covered their eyes and then returned to watch and hear it all again – to Rossini’s Sigismondo at the Opera Rara festival in Kraków, where Lada brilliantly combined the musical narrative with references to Matejko’s historical paintings.

He directed the Viennese Bajazet in a similar spirit: half-joking and half-scary. This three-act opera, composed in 1735 for the opening of the Verona carnival, is really hard to grasp. In addition, in cannot in all honesty be called a work by Vivaldi, because it is an example of the pasticcio, a fashionable genre in those days, in which musical sections from operas by different composers were combined to create a new story with a completely new libretto. The complicated story of the Ottoman sultan Bajazet and his daughter Asteria held captive by Tamerlano, the ruler of the Uzbek Turks, was compiled by Vivaldi in a quite twisted manner. He himself wrote arias for the “good” characters and when it came to the villains he used music written by other composers: Giacomelli, Hasse and Broschi – perhaps to emphasise mischievously who really knew his musical métier.

Lada drew upon the ancient “theatre within theatre” convention, placing the action of the opera in a studio whose owner –Tamerlano, unsurprisingly – is making a radio drama about Bajazet. On a bright, almost empty stage (with just recording equipment and props for sound effects –  excellent set design by Didzis Jaunzems) – the drama unfolds with the actors not so much portraying their protagonists, but revealing, unintentionally and often against their will, their own identity, surprisingly similar to that of characters they play. It is basically a production about the power of conventions, stereotypes and ordinary human prejudices. It is not the “stranger”, the awe-inspiring Bajazet (Icelandic baritone Kristján Jóhannesson), but the inconspicuous Tamerlano (countertenor Rafał Tomkiewicz displaying excellent acting and vocal skills) who turns out to be a real villain. Tamerlano’s metamorphosis in the finale and the far-fetched happy ending concocted by the librettist have all the features of the grotesque. Only the “good” Idaspe (played by the phenomenal young Viennese singer Miriam Kutrowatz) – a friend of the “bad guy” Andronicus – remains a mystery until the very end. He observes the events from a distance and manipulates everyone at the same time. Is he a sound director responsible for the entire broadcast? An omniscient narrator? A sexless, emotionless spectre functioning on the fringes of human existence?

Valentina Petraeva, Rafał Tomkiewicz, Sofia Vinnik and Kristján Jóhannesson (Bajazet). Photo:Herwig Prammer

Some of Lada’s ideas seem to be almost over the top – like the partially animated projections of the wild fantasies of Tamerlano and his henchmen. Yet there are a few things that redeem them easily: the consistency of the overall concept, the perfect cooperation with the rest of the team, especially with Natalia Kitamikado, the designer of visually sophisticated costumes, and, last but not least, the fact that Lada understands the specificity of the opera form. He doesn’t content himself with adoring its allegedly old-fashioned and exotic beauty. He can talk to this beauty in her mother tongue.

The Bach Consort Wien was conducted in the Viennese Bajazet by the singer and conductor Roger Díaz-Cajamarca, who led the ensemble with energy and enthusiasm, though perhaps not very subtly. Fortunately, the singers could again rely on the director, who is well-versed in music. Lada knows how to place accents in a Baroque da capo aria, when to encourage singers to improvise, and when to restrain their ideas, whether to leave them empty-handed or, on the contrary, to give them lots of props so that they can focus on what they should focus.

If this season at Theater an der Wien passes without any major obstacles, can be looking forward to other surprises on the microscopic stage at the Fleischmarkt, including an intimate adaptation of Tristan and Isolde, which will be the directorial debut of the Wiener Staatsoper star, the bass Günther Groissböck. There are no stars at the Kammeroper. There are people young in age and spirit who want not to revive opera after the pandemic, but to keep it alive now – with a great deal of love and very little money.

Every Viennese knows the song about the “dear Augustin”, a street musician who during the Black Death plague of 1679 got drunk, blacked out, spent all night in a pit with dead bodies, and survived. Not everyone draws the right conclusions from the story – it is not a parable about artists being immortal. It is a song about the hope that someone will get them out of that lime pit. Krystian Lada and the young Theater an der Wien artists are certainly worthy of it.

Translated by: Ilona Duchnovic
Original article available at: https://www.tygodnikpowszechny.pl/nowa-odsiecz-wiedenska-165412

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