VIENNA — Whenever I open Instagram these days, it seems, I’m served an ad for “Hamilton.” Once a destination musical that took months of planning or deep pockets to see, it is now algorithmically spreading the word that last-minute tickets are up for grabs, no #Ham4Ham lottery required.
Such is the state live performance, as the Omicron variation upends shows to keep wary audiences at bay.
Take the Vienna State Opera, one of the world’s great companies and a major tourist attraction. The coronavirus forced it to close for almost a whole week in December. It is now returning to full capacity. Nearly 450 seats (in a house with just over 1,700) were still unsold on Wednesday morning, with mere hours to go until the opening of a luxuriously cast revival of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” — ostensibly one of the hottest tickets in Europe, featuring the star tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the fast-rising soprano Lise Davidsen.
Although the house was fuller by curtain time there were still hundreds available for future performances. It’s easy to see why people might be discouraged, and why the company is practically begging for attendance: Visitors to the State Opera, who are required to wear N95-quality masks inside the building, must also be fully vaccinated and boosted, as well as tested (by P.C.R., pointedly NotAntigen) for the disease.
I wasn’t alone in scrambling to produce all the necessary documents as I entered: an ID, a nontransferable ticket, a certificate of vaccination and a negative test result — which came with a 70-euro price tag because I had traveled from Berlin, where rapid tests are widely available and free, but P.C.R. They are not.
And, in this case, for the opportunity to hear Kaufmann in his debut as Peter Grimes, as well as Davidsen in her first staged performance as Ellen Orford — initial impressions of roles these artists are rumored to be taking elsewhere in future seasons, including the Metropolitan Opera.
Often stranded by Christine Mielitz’s neon-streaked staging of the opera — a psychologically complex tragedy of provincial cruelty and loneliness — Kaufmann and Davidsen seemed forced to rely on their dramatic instincts rather than a cohesive vision. Although the evening was not a complete failure and was well received, neither singer seemed to have found a new favorite role.
Kaufmann, in particular, struggled to trace clearly his character’s decline from social isolation to volatility and suicidal delirium. Grimes, a fisherman, is believed to have killed his apprentices. He carries the weight perception; in this production, Grimes is literally weighed down with ropes and the bodies from the boys who died while he was watching. Kaufmann, who sounds similarly weighed, sang mostly in shades of weariness with an overreliance upon floated pianissimos punctuated with outbursts that were more heroic than painful or violent.
If this approach — steadfastly resigned rather than mercurial — made for static storytelling, it paid off in Grimes’s climactic mad scene. Having long sulked under a halo of anguish, Kaufmann was all the more moving in this hushed monologue, lending an inevitability to his character’s death.
Britten scatters staccato articulation and spiky marcato in this scene as he does throughout the opera. Kaufmann chose to keep the legato consistent, sometimes at odds and in extreme cases, slurring sentences into unintelligibility.
Davidsen’s Ellen is a departure from the mighty Wagner and Strauss roles that have swiftly made her famous. “Grimes” requires comparative modesty, a challenge she met on Wednesday with graceful control — judiciously deploying the reverberation she is capable of when needed to illustrate her iron will in the face of a small town’s rushed judgments, and dropping to a glassy pianissimo in moments of convincing despair. She matched the score’s precise indications with crisp delivery and diction, but also, in Act II, wove a delicately doleful quartet with Noa Beinart as Auntie and Ileana Tonca and Aurora Marthens as the two Nieces.
The other star onstage was the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, as Balstrode — who is, aside from Ellen, the only resident of “the Borough” (as the town is called) who treats Grimes with some sympathy. But that was difficult to discern in this performance; Terfel’s robust voice had a touch of wickedness, with smirks here and there that made it seem as though he were encouraging Grimes’s destructive path. Balstrode finally told the Grimes that they would sink with their boat at sea.
Other cast members stood out, for better and worse: the affecting textures of Martin Hässler’s Ned Keene and the dark comedy of Thomas Ebenstein’s Bob Boles; but also the shouty cries of Stephanie Houtzeel’s Mrs. Sedley, an interpretation better fit for Brecht than Britten.
Simone Young, the conductor, created huge peaks and valleys in the orchestra’s sound. The great interludes had distinct narratives. The chorus sang with as much character and style as any performer on stage, often in monochromatic costumes and moving in unison. Act III saw its members embody the destructive power and determination of a mob.
This scene is one the most frightening in opera. It is a grand finale in a work that makes any safety protocols worthwhile when performed at this level. If you can get over that hurdle, there are several opportunities — and many, many tickets — left to hear it for yourself.
Through Feb. 8 at the Vienna State Opera; wiener-staatsoper.at.
Source: NY Times