My God, it’s full of stars!

amazon_farewellIoan Holender was General Manager of the Wiener Staatsoper for nineteen years, the longest anyone has held this post, and the august institution honored him with the gala to end all galas in the final days of his administration.  With the goal of commemorating each of the 40 new productions premiered at the Staatsoper during Holender’s tenure, the sprawling concert lasts over three hours and is spread over two very full DVDs. With over 40 separate selections from most of the world’s great and near great artists, the end result is a little variable but on the whole an evening of very strong music making. 

Zubin Mehta begins the evening by leading the Staatsoper Orchestra in a surprisingly intellectual reading of Wagner’s Rienzi overture, and then after some remarks by Holander himself, the concert gets underway. The big guns are brought out to open, oddly enough, and Plácido Domingo and Antonio Pappano step in for a passionate “Winterstürme.” They are followed by Nadia Krasteva’s performance of “Stride la vampa”, which is so good as to make me wonder why she has not yet been engaged at the Met.

A bumpy rendition of the Contes d’Hoffmann sextet follows, enlivened only by the astonishing Staatsopernchor. Two excerpts from Cosi, “Un aura amorosa” sung with great grace by Michael Schade and a slightly effortful rendition of the “Prenderò” duet by Barbara Frittoli and Angelika Kirschlager, are both conducted listlessly by Franz Wesler-Möst.

You may note already that the order of selections seems to be a bit without rhyme or reason, jumping from composer to composer as it does. The evening is organized to reflect the 40 premieres in roughly chronological order, which presents some odd programming choices. For example, Isolde’s Liebestod, sung with enthralling passion by Waltraud Meier, is placed in the middle of the concerts’ first half, not exactly a place of prominence for such a climactic moment, and is immediately proceeded by “O luce Di quest’anima”, from Linda di Chamounix, with Stefania Bonfadelli coping ably with twittering duties.

The Concert promotes homegrown artists alongside the superstars, such as Kratseva, Boaz Daniel (who gives a wobbly rendition of Herod’s aria from Massenet’s Herodias) and Adrian Erod (defying the fach system to be a striking baritone Loge). Hedwig Pecoraro definitely wins the “What on EARTH?!” award for an aria from the seemingly bizarre Der Traumfeserchen by Wilfried Hiller, which he performs in costume as the title character, a gigantic red ball with a devil’s tail and carrying oversized utensils (oddly, there is no conductor for this selection, I assume by order of the composer.)

While the Staatsopernchor get to shine in “Va pensiero,” the first half of the concert is otherwise dominated by star turns, some more successful than others. Ramon Vargas, who seems to be losing power these days, falters in “Amor ti vieta” from Fedora. Two Thomases, Quasthoff and Hampson, shine in excerpts from Der Schweigsame Frau and Guilliame Tell. Soile Isokosi struggles through an aria from Der Freischultz, but Leo Nucci gives a lesson in Verdian elegance with a piece from I Vespri Sciliani. Charm is provided by Kirschlager and Schade returning for a duet from Die Lustige Witwe and by Samir Pirgu in Rinuccio’s aria from Gianni Schicci. Diana Damrau turns “Ah non credea mirarti” from Sonnambula into a dazzling showpiece, completely obliterating memories of the preceding “Dove sono” (sung by Frittoli).

The second half of the concert begins with Vargas able to muster a successful, expressive Romeo in “Ah, leve-toi, soleil!” and then the quartet finale from Frau ohne Schatten, sung powerfully by Falk Struckmann, Johan Botha, Adrianne Pieczonka and Deborah Polaski.  Botha and Pieczonka both return for other selections, Botha for a remarkable “In fernem Land” and Pieczonka with Genia Kühmeier in a lovely rendition of the Arabella “Aber der Richtige” duet. Married Wagnerians Petra Maria Schnitzer and Peter Seiffert sing five minutes of the Tristan Love duet extremely well, only to be topped by an exemplary “Gluck, das mir verblieb” from Angela Denoke and Stephen Gould. Ferruccio Furlanetto proves again a peerless King Phillipe II in “Elle ne m’aime pas.” Piotr Beczala is glorious as both Faust and Werther, but Charlotte’s letter scene vanishes from memory in the hands of Roxane Constantinescu. Krassimira Stoyanova suffers the same fate in “Se come voi piccina” from Le Villi.

The audience greets each of these excerpts with cheers and applause, but nothing approaches the ovations received by Anna Netrebko following her account of Manon’s Cours-la-reine scene.  Her beguilingly, seductive rendition, with cleaner coloratura than I have heard from her in a long time, sends the audience into a frenzy unlike anything else in the evening. Natalie Dessay, who must follow this with Marie’s second act aria and cabaletta from La Fille du Régiment, is as charming as she can be but if Vienna’s reaction is anything to go by, Netrebko has “won” the battle of the divas by a landslide. (It doesn’t help that Dessay gets saddled with the one serious musical mistake of the evening, in which Marco Armiliato lets the chorus gets seriously out of synch with the orchestra.)

The evening closes out with Verdi. Violeta Urmana sledgehammers her way through  “Pace pace, mio dio;” conversely, Simon Keenlyside is rather underpowered but intelligent in Macbeth’s “Pieta, rispetto.”  Then the evening finally comes to an end with the glorious Falstaff finale, launched by Nucci.

The performance of the chorus and orchestra (barring the one serious mistake during the Fille excerpt) is remarkable throughout. The conducting is a little more varied. Wesler-Möst and Bertrand de Billy do the lion’s share of the conducting, each to uneven effect. Wesler-Möst is clearly at home in Strauss and Korngold while de Billy seems to come alive only in Massenet. Domingo, Armiliato, Pappano, Fabio Luisi, Mehta, Peter Schneider, Simone Young and Guillermo García Calvo step up to the podium for a piece or two. The most successful, on the whole, are Luisi and Pappano, with Domingo proving surprisingly expressive in the Romeo aria.

The Staatsoper gets quite a strong showing here. Despite occasional pitfalls, the level of artistry is quite high. On another level, Since many of the business’ greatest stars are in attendance, and the programming is so varied, I suspect that this concert will provide, for future fans, a wonderful document of the state of opera singing in 2010.