In order to celebrate his retirement after nineteen years as general director of the Vienna State Opera, Ioan Holender organized the glittering parade of star singers and conductors preserved on these highly entertaining DVDs. Opera is a very serious business in Vienna, and their opera company is among the finest in the world, offering a diverse palette of works over a long, ten-month season from September through June. Along with standard repertoire, Vienna has long been known for offering titles from hidden corners of the repertoire and also for the ambition to mount the grandest works on a massive, expensive scale. Sprawling epics such as Rossini's Guillaume Tell, Wagner's Rienzi, and Verdi's most complete, five-act Don Carlos have been offered in ground-breaking productions that would terrify accountants at the Metropolitan Opera and other leading venues. And such excess has not been restricted to repertoire: Vienna fields an international roster of the finest singers and conductors. Alongside itinerant celebrities who may appear in one or two productions annually, the house also cultivates a strong cadre of 'house singers' who participate in many productions per season – often or exclusively in leading roles. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the programming for this celebratory gala was chosen to represent all of the aforementioned strengths while recalling most of the forty-or-so new productions offered during Holender's regime.
Apparently, the full concert was slightly abridged for release on DVD, but even still, the running time comes in at three hours, forty-five minutes – an exceptionally generous program filled with lots of exciting singing. Conductor Zubin Mehta started the evening with a somewhat stolid account of the overture to Wagner's Rienzi, after which, Holender himself made a few opening remarks before ceding the stage to the singers. At sixty-nine years old, Plácido Domingo still has the ability to amaze, and once again proved his superhuman vocal durability by traversing a somewhat effortful 'Winterstürme' from Die Walküre. Under Antonio Pappano's sensitive leadership, Domingo celebrated almost twenty years since his debut as Siegmund in 1992, eliciting enthusiastic ovations from his appreciative audience. Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva followed with a strongly vocalized but blandly acted 'Stride la vampa' from Verdi's Il Trovatore – always an awkward choice for the concert platform with its lack of scenic and orchestral context. The sextet from Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann (raggedly sung) provided a sonic backdrop for the first multi-media event of the program. Huge screens on the wall behind the orchestra were employed to show scenes from the opera when the production was new. This scheme was used several times throughout the evening, though there seemed to be no particular rationale for which productions were included on video.
General Music Director-designate Franz Welser-Möst made the first of many appearances by conducting two selections from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. Tenor Michael Schade offered a beautifully phrased 'Un'aura amorosa', and soprano Barbara Frittoli (looking a bit uncomfortable) joined with effervescent mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchslager in the animated duet 'Sorella, cosa dici?' Frittoli returned later in the program for more Mozart with a poised rendition of the Contessa's difficult 'Dove sono' from Le nozze di Figaro. Schade and Kirchschlager also returned with 'So kommen Sie!' – the charming scene for Valencienne and Camille from Lehár's Die lustige Witwe. Tenor Ramón Vargas made an uncharacteristically bland showing in 'Amor ti vieta' from Giordano's Fedora, showing why light lyric voices are generally ill-suited to verismo. Fortunately, he made a much stronger impression later in the evening with Romeo's 'Ah! leve-toi, soleil!' from Gounod's Shakespearian chestnut, showing excellent breath control but slightly stiff phrasing.
Baritone Boaz Daniel offered the first real misfire of the evening with an out of tune, unstylish rendition of Hérode's 'Vision fugitive' from Massenet's gorgeous Hérodiade. This was one of three selections that might better have been left on the cutting room floor, particularly if other more worthy items were omitted during the editing process prior to commercial release. Tenor Saimir Pirgu's shouted, amateurish rendition of Rinuccio's ardent 'Avete torto! … Firenze e come un albero fiorito' from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi should also have been cut. Finally, soprano Stefania Bonfadelli offered the poorest showing on the DVD with her charmless 'O luce di quest'anima' from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix. After four minutes of wrong notes, poor intonation, sliding through smudged coloratura, and lunging for high notes, I was mystified to see the audience applauding enthusiastically. Bonfadelli's vocal technique was nearly nonexistent: it was a sad display from a once promising young singer.
At the other end of the spectrum, Soile Isokoski brought supreme control to Agathe's aria 'Und ob die Wolke' from Weber's Der Freischütz. Under the serene direction of Peter Schneider, the orchestra collaborated with Isokoski to take us into Weber's proto-Romantic world, producing one of the most satisfying highlights of the concert. Similarly transporting, Waltraud Meier – looking stunning – offered her well-known intensity in familiar repertoire: Isolde's 'Mild und leise'. This showstopper was followed by another, when Leo Nucci arrived to sing Monforte's 'In braccio alle dovizie' from Verdi's I vespri siciliani. At 68, Nucci retains the amazing intensity of delivery and knowledge of Verdian style that have made him into something of an icon. Rounding out the first DVD, Thomas Quasthoff offered a touching rendition of a rarity: Morosus's 'Wie schön is doch die Musik' from Strauss's Die Schweigsame Frau. Under Fabio Luisi's splendid direction, Thomas Hampson reprised his Guillaume Tell with a dignified 'Sois immobile', and finally, Diana Damrau gave a hint of her future in the bel canto repertoire with the final aria/cabaletta for Amina from Bellini's La Sonnambula. The aria – 'Ah! non credea mirarti' was impressive for its poise and breath control. But while she caught the general spirit of the effervescent cabaletta, Damrau rather overdid the fireworks with some ungainly ornaments, slightly dampening the overall impression.
The second DVD offers almost non-stop enjoyment, beginning with a thrilling finale from Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. Welser-Möst worked his way through the dense orchestration while accompanying a stunning quartet of singers including Falk Struckmann, Johan Botha, Deborah Polaski, and a radiant Adrienne Pieczonka. Polaski seemed unusually muted: I'm not sure I heard any of her vocal lines cutting through the acoustical haze. The other three were fantastic however, with Pieczonka particularly moving as she soared high above the orchestra as the Kaiserin. A new recording of this demanding opera featuring Struckmann, Botha, and Pieczonka would be very welcome, indeed. Botha returned later in the program with a handsomely sung, emotionally resonant rendition of Lohengrin's 'In fernem Land'. Pieczonka also made a second appearance, collaborating with soprano Genia Kühmeier in 'Er ist der Richtige' from Strauss's Arabella. Both sopranos offered sterling vocalism, with Pieczonka particularly impressive by virtue of her gleaming tone, patrician phrasing and presence, and remarkable feeling for the texts. Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer sang a five-minute fragment from the second act of Tristan und Isolde without much subtlety, and were followed by Ferruccio Furlanetto's shattering traversal of Philippe's soliloquy from Verdi's Don Carlos, 'Elle ne m'aime pas!'
Soprano Angela Denoke and tenor Stephen Gould reprised their roles in Korngold's fascinating Die tote Stadt by highlighting the opera's most famous moment of lyricism with 'Glück, das mir verblieb'. Denoke's crystalline clarity touchingly illuminated Marietta's vulnerability and contrasted effectively with Gould's blunt, slightly stentorian Paul. Up-and-coming superstar tenor Piotr Beczala appeared twice on the second half of the concert – much to the delight of the audience. First, he offered an excellent, heartfelt 'Pourquoi me réveiller' from Massenet's wrenching Werther, only showing the slightest strain on high, but displaying masterful vocal technique. His second selection was a soaring, lyrical 'Salut! Demeure chaste et pure' from Gounod's Faust. In both instances, his singing was robust, rich-toned, and beautifully phrased, often calling to mind the great Nicolai Gedda. Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova looked stunning and used her poised, silvery voice to make an indelible impression with Anna's seldom heard 'Se come voi piccina io fossi' from Puccini's Le villi. Conductor Simone Young coaxed the maximum poetry from the orchestra, both here and in Botha's ensuing aria from Lohengrin. These moments were magical.
Appearing in a bright fuchsia gown, Anna Netrebko stormed the stage and then thoroughly captivated the audience with 'Je marche sur tous les chemins… Obéissons quand leur voix appelle' from Massenet's Manon. This terrifically difficult scene is a daring choice for the concert stage, since it requires a great deal of vocal 'acting' and contains plenty of coloratura roulades, trills, and high notes. Playing somewhat against type, Netrebko triumphed with agility to spare, excellent, clean execution of the passagework, decent trills, and spot-on high D's. She had the audience in the palm of her hand throughout, and they showered her with the loudest ovations of the evening. Following Netrebko's raw charisma, soprano Natalie Dessay appeared – rather meekly – to sing Marie's aria/cabaletta from Donizetti's La Fille du regiment: 'C'en est donc fait… Salut a la France!' The aria was breathtaking in its control and depth of emotion – particularly given Marco Armiliato's refined conducting, but the cabaletta found Dessay gasping for breaths, physically flailing to spit out the words and phrases, and lunging at high notes. Ending with one of the most effortful high E-flats in recent memory, it became crystal clear why this intelligent soprano has recently chosen to move into more lyric, less high-lying repertoire. Rounding out the program, soprano Violeta Urmana soared through an impressive 'Pace, pace, mio dio!' from Verdi's La forza del destino, baritone Simon Keenlyside thrilled in an introverted reading of Macbeth's scena 'Perfidi! All'Anglo contro me v'unite… Pieta, rispetto, onore', and baritone (!) Adrian Eröd triumphed with a bleeding chunk of Loge's music from Das Rheingold.
After a few closing remarks from Holender, Leo Nucci joined a host of other singers as Falstaff in the rollicking fugue finale from Verdi's opera, 'Tottu nel mondo e burla'. After a long evening of mostly spectacular singing, this closing ensemble – 'Everything in the world is a joke' - provided a fitting conclusion, leaving the audience with hints of philosophy and comedy. Sincere thanks are due to Deutsche Grammophon for undertaking the expense and effort of recording such a grand event and making it available to an international audience. Lovers of great singing need not hesitate: this is a fine addition to any operatic library.