This year the Vienna Staatsoper has a new ballet director Gyula Harangozó. A Hungarian, after an illustrious career in both the Hungarian National Opera and the Bavarian State Opera, Mr. Harangozó had his last years as a celebrated soloist at the Vienna State Opera from 1985 to 1991. After leaving dance, Mr. Harangozó was the director of the ballet at the Hungarian National Opera from 1996 until this year.
Mr. Harangozó is replacing the sometimes popular, sometimes reviled but always charismatic Renato Zanella. There was quite a controversy over Mr. Zanella’s departure – merited or unmerited.
This year is also the first year of the merger of the Vienna State Opera ballet (guardians of the classical tradition) with the ballet of the Volksoper (traditionally modern dance). As opera is a much bigger draw in Vienna than ballet, much of the work of both companies is as figurantes and divertissements in the major operas. Apparently the merger idea came out of cost rather than artistic considerations.
What has this to do with the premiere of Ivan Cavallari’s Tschaikowski Impressionen on Saturday night at the Volksoper in Vienna?
Quite a bit. This was Mr. Harangozó’s first independent project since becoming director, after a very successful refreshing of Giselle for the fall season with frequent guest artists like the extraordinary Sergei Filin and new soloists like Byelorussian Irina Tsymbal. Expectation and anticipation were high. Very little information had filtered out about this production apart from a wide and aggressive publicity campaign. And this was the first Volksoper production featuring primarily Staastoper dancers.
Almost the entire world of Austrian dance was present. The artistic directors of companies as far away as Innsbruck and Graz came to town. A host of Vienna’s best known dance and theatre critics were present. Tickets were in such short supply that the stage manager of the Staatsoper was unable to reserve a decent seat for himself.
The curtain rose to two Tchaikowksi characters talking to one another. The dance Tchaikowski was played by Tamás Solymosi while his speaking Alter Ego was Wolfgang Grascher. In what would become a symptom of the evening, the phrasings and philosophical musings were banal and trite but Grascher injected considerable life into them.
On the other hand, the two men could not have been worse costumed. They wore what was apparently period attire (I’ve been told that the clothes were off-period by at least 30 years) – but in the drabbest beige-grey ever seen outside of a bad print of a 1970’s film. Worse – the two suits were of a very similar colour but not the same colour neither different nor the same. The cut was unflattering as possible when either of the two men danced. Surely, Tschaikowski who was a very fashionable society man would take more care with his appearance. Was there any reason not to retailor the period clothes- as is customary – to be more suitable for dance?
A second curtain rose to reveal a line of eight men on wooden chairs with top hats. Were they supposed to represent society? A great chandelier hung over the stage. At some point Tchaikowski was half-disrobed and dumped in a pseudo water tank by these men. The water was indicated by a blueish colour part way down the tank. To my taste, if a major theatre intends to dunk the lead actor in water, I would prefer that they get on with it and immerse him in the liquid stuff. Or find some other way to communicate the idea. I mention this particular piece of stage gaucherie just as indicative of a recurring trend in the stagecraft.
None of it mattered much as the soundtrack to this point was played back over loudspeakers. I understand when a small company is obliged to use playback from tape for their music. In the case of a major musical company like the Vienna Staatsoper performing on a national stage like the Volksoper, it is shameful and unacceptable. Particularly when the music is orchestral and canonic like Tschaikowski. It would be as if the entire public had turned up in jeans and t-shirts rather than black tie and elegant formal garb.
Now was some atrocious pantomime. First a woman with a sun umbrella and two small children kissing Tschaikowksi’s head. Next a young woman in a fashionable robin blue trimmed dress is first kissed and then pushed away by our tormented Tschaikowksi – she represented Tschaikowki’s wife whom he abandoned two weeks after the marriage.
All this lead into a pair of dancers coming out in skin-coloured suits which were somehow incredibly awkward looking – more like pink pajamas than impercetible body suits. The two dancers Boris Nebyla and Irina Tsymbal danced quite beautifully a passable duet. They were followed by another six dancers in the same garb. The larger piece was less moving, despite admirable performances by all (Kathrin Czerny, Franziska Hollinek, Iva Rohlik, Kirll Kroulaev, Kamil Pavelka, Rudolf Wächter).
For some reason here and elsewhere the dancers spent most of their time, very far away from the front of the stage. Which is a pity as the stage at Volksoper is very deep and to force the audience to strain their vision to see what were generally quite small bits of choreography (we are talking about two to eight dancers at a time, not twenty-four or forty persons) takes away from the potential impact of the performance.
At one point a procession of ballerinas from the past danced backwards across the stage. Their movements were deliberate and lyric, as if they were held in some kind of slow motion stasis as they moved from the front of stage left to the back of stage right as Tschaikowski sought and imagined his artistic vision. Low and dramatic lighting added to the impact. Tschaikowski’s 19th century ballerinas and dancers wore period costumes to great effect, looking for all the world like the daguerrotype of the old Petersburg Imperial Ballet. This section was impressive and one could only wish it had been developed further.
Things finally began to look up when a grand piano appeared at the back of the stage and a woman in a red velvet dress joined the pianist and we had some live music. Birgid Steinberger played the role of Nadeschda von Meck, Tschaikowski’s great patron. As one comes to expect in Vienna, the singing was wonderful as was Igor Zapravdin’s work at the piano.
Unfortunately this beautiful moment only lasted for a song or two.
End of the first act.
As in Boris Eiffman’s Tchaikovsky, great drama is made of Tschaikowksi’s tormented sexuality in Cavallari’s piece. Did he not just have and enjoy his love affairs with men? Discreetly, of course, but was he really as tortured over the issue as Eiffman and Cavallari make out? I suppose this is one for the cultural historians. Eifmann took his tortured sexuality meme and took it to the limit, in a ballet which never stopped for breath. The aesthetic in retrospect was somewhat kitschy but at least consistent.
While the reaction at intermission was of subdued dismay at a historical ballet gone astray, nothing thus far had prepared the audience for act two.
The curtain opened on a fifteen foot wooden cross outlined in lightbulbs. There are a couple lying prone before the cross. Tschaikowski enters and brings their hands together like the priest in Romeo and Juliet.
We then flashback to the beginning of the Romeo and Julie story. We get about two dozen of the Staatsoper dancers in jeans and t-shirts. The Capulets are green and the Montagues in red. There are street fighting scenes taken almost directly from West Side story but restaged on more pastiche of Tschaikowksi’s score. In fairness there was quite a decent display of stage fighting put on by Kirill Kourlaev, Fabien Voranger and Rudol Wächter. Kourlaev in particular treated the audience to some bravura flying spins. But the whole episode matched or developed to anything we had seen earlier.
When it seemed things could get no more preposterous or disappointing an even more amazing sequence began. A young man (Mikel Jaueregui) with headphones on bops across the stage to Tschaikowski’s music but dancing hip-hop. He flirts with a young woman (Alba Sempere) dressed as a serious student. The back curtain rises to reveal two beds on each side of the stage. Each side of the stage had a desk at the front. The young woman grabs a bag of crisps and leaves through a fashion magazine. On the other side of th stage the young sets himself up for a computer chat. Over their heads are two screens. The screens are plain blue, like DOS laptops from twenty years ago. He summons the young woman to the chat room.
She is Nadia and he is Piotr. Get it? Piotr and Nadia. Piotr flirts aimlessly with Nadia while she whines in chat about having to study too hard for her tests… Until her computer is infected with a virus. First we get confusing text coming out across the blue screen above her head wile Alba Sempere makes mock horror hands at her screen. Suddenly an evil looking man leaps out on stage a tight blue body suit and begins a dance of triumph. András Lukács is the physical representation of the virus.
Again a good performance in what is a ludicrous role.
Somewhere along the line another twenty of these computer virii appear, now on tricycles wheeling madly about the stage in a bachanale of digitial malice. On its own and with a decent soundtrack this bit of madness might have legs. But the dance of the virii had neither music nor context on its side. Again a good performance from the corps-de-ballet wasted.
Piotr eventually vanquishes the virii to get a thank you and a rendezvous promised from Nadia. What is the morale of this story? Fix a modern girl’s computer and get laid? Even in our technological age, computer expertise is no great aphrodosiac – except insofar as that core competence allows you to do astonishing work as a photographer, DJ or a filmmaker or brings you great riches. As unlikely a proposition as the whole rest of this production.
The curtain comes down on Nadia back eating chips and reading fashion magazines. Considering the historical import of this premiere, the audience response was quite staid. A few rounds of polite applause which bought us a view of the culprits here – Ivan Cavallari trotted out with costume designer Roman Solc and dramaturge Alexander Müller to boldly take responsibility for their creation. Anmazingly enough, Cavallari is a handsome and personable chap about forty with long hair and a smart beard and a winsome and genuine smile.
Much of the audience reeled for the exits in stunned and silent disbelief. No standing ovations here.
I thought perhaps I just missed something and didn’t understand the piece so I asked the artistic directors of five different Austrian dance companies share with me at least one thing that they liked in the production. The most positive answer I received was “There was an intermission. It’s always nice when there’s an intermission”.
In praise of Mr. Cavallari. I spoke with some of the dancers I know after the show. Apparently none or very few of them have seen the production from the auditorium so they couldn’t say anything about the piece as a whole, but were happy to talk about the working process. They said they had a wonderful time working with Ivan Cavallieri and the the work process was extremely festive and that they hadn’t had so much fun working on a piece in years.