Fulbright Winter Ball

Ball season is over, but the Fulbright Ball defied convention and took place last weekend. Jamesa—a fellow Fulbrighter, whom I met in Vienna for a ball—attended with me. That was nice, because I didn’t know anyone else there! We sat at a table with alumni including one who’d been a Fulbright student in 1970. (She joked that our table had both the oldest and the youngest Fulbrighters.) Our tickets included a delicious meal and a dessert buffet (though I only got one bowl of creme brulee and two bowls of mousse before they ran out). The dancing was less exciting—the DJ played an odd mix of ballroom and disco music. Even during the ballroom music, everyone stuck to the partners they came with. But Jamesa and I joined forces for a messy Munich Francaise at midnight! (I was confused, because I’d just gotten good at the Fledermaus quadrille, and now I needed to do different steps to all the same music!)

The beginning of a Ring

I started watching my second complete Ring cycle on Friday, with Das Rheingold at the Bayerische Staatsoper. It was very pretty, but not nearly as moving or deep as the last Ring I saw. (Go, Seattle!) You can read my review here. (For comparison, here is my review of the Seattle Opera production a year and a half ago.)

Falstaff in Scottland

I saw Verdi’s Falstaff at the Staatsoper last week, and I forgot to post my review on this blog! You can read it hereFalstaff is not my favorite Verdi opera, and this production was fine but not super-exciting. But there were kilts.

I’m starting to think that the Staatsoper’s stage is simply too big for sort-of-minimalist productions unless they have stellar Personenregie. Singers just get a little lost without sets or excellent direction.

The end of Fasching

Carnival is over; Lent is here. Of course, I’m Jewish, so the only reason that matters to me is the fabulous end-of-Fasching parties. Lots of people opt for Cologne or Venice, but I returned to Vienna for the final weekend of ball season.

Friday was the Bonbonball (in the Konzerthaus), and it was about sugar. We were handed large bags as we entered, and we filled them with samples of all sort of Viennese cookies, chocolates, and candies. Schwedenbomben were available for eating all night. Balloons were dropped from the ballroom ceiling with coupons for more free sweets inside. The lottery prizes were giant truffles and boxes of boxes of Mozartkugeln.

"Flying sweets". I just stayed out of the way and tried not to get trampled.
“Flying sweets”. I just stayed out of the way and tried not to get trampled.

There was also a beauty contest: the selection of Miss Bonbon 2015. I entered, but didn’t even make the finals. However, there ended up being some drama around the selection: the jury didn’t pick the audience favorite (presumably because she was a little older and heavier than the other candidates, with short, dyed hair and much more personality than your stereotypical beauty queen), and there was so much booing and rage that they finally gave her the same prizes as the official winner.

I danced a lot and met many young Viennese gentlemen, My dance partner for most of the evening turned out to be an amateur opera singer as well as a good dancer! I also made the fortuitous acquaintance of Stephan, who was going to be at the Monday night ball with a table for twelve and free sparkling wine coupons. Needless to say, I took his offer to join him at the table.

Me, at the BonBonBall.
Me, at the Bonbonball.

Continue reading The end of Fasching

A disgraceful Disgrace

Although I am getting better and better at understanding quickly spoken German, I still always miss words at the theater. So when I saw that the Kammerspiele was performing Schande (Disgrace) with English supertitles. I was excited by the prospect of a show that would be easy to follow. I shouldn’t have been, for two reasons: (1) it’s an awful play, and (2) the supertitle operator seemed to be drunk or sleeping for large sections of it.

I think my second complaint is self-explanatory, so let’s dicuss the first. I haven’t read J.M. Coetzee’s novel on which the play is based, so I don’t know if it’s any good. But I can tell you definitively that it doesn’t work as a play. (German reviewers seem to disagree with me on this one, but they’re free to be wrong.) There is no dramatic arc. Exciting things occasionally happen (far too rarely), but there’s no clear rhythym to them and no clear climax. The adaptor Josse de Pauw’s choice to make the scenes unchronological just exacerbates the problem: where does the story begin and end? Actually, it keeps feeling like the play should end, but it drags on and on and on. Perhaps this sense of endless tedium is partially due to the ill-advised decision to stage a two-hour show without an intermission.

Stephan Bissmeier (David Lurie), Barbara Dussler (Melanie/Desiree Isaacs). Photo: Julian Röder
Stephan Bissmeier (David Lurie), Barbara Dussler (Melanie/Desiree Isaacs). Photo: Julian Röder

The events portrayed ought to be exciting, though they somehow are not. The play opens with a sex scandal (Professor Lurie is dismissed in disgrace for seducing and raping a vulnerable student) and includes a violent attack on the professor and his daughter. It deals with race relations and political change in South Africa. (It’s also pretty racist—the agents of violence and chaos are invariably black, and there’s a hint that Laurie’s daughter’s black business partner arranged for her to be raped as part of a scheme to take control of the business—but perhaps that’s because most events are presented through the eyes of a suspicious, middle-class, white man during a period of extreme racial turmoil. It’s disturbing nonetheless.) Continue reading A disgraceful Disgrace

The other Henry IV

“Henry IV” sounds like the title of a Shakespearean history play, right? That’s because it is, but the Shakespeare play is not the Henry IV I saw. No, this play (actually called Enrico IV) is Pirandello’s second-most-famous play, which means no one in America has ever heard of it. (Why would our canon need more than one play per non-English-speaking playwright?*) Like the one Pirandello play we actually do know (that’s Six Characters in Search of an Author), it is completely insane. Not least because the moral seems to be that the line between theater and insanity is very thin—so what are we watching, anyway?

Perhaps a summary is in order. Twenty years ago, a high-society group including the marchioness Matilda, the baron Belcredi, and our unnamed protagonist planned elaborate costumes for a historical pageant. They were each to represent a noble personage; our protagonist chose Henry IV. But a fall from his horse during the parade (perhaps provoked by Belcredi) left him addled, convinced that he truly was Henry IV. Instead of sending the protagonist to a sanatorium, his wealthy nephew installed him in a villa and hired actors to play his guards/councillors. Now the nephew, his fiancee (Matilda’s daughter), Matilda, Belcredi, and a doctor have come to observe the protagonist and explore possibilities of a cure. They assume historical disguises to do so.

But in the next act, our protagonist reveals his secret to his councillors: for many years now, he has been perfectly sane. He simply prefers to live as Henry IV than to inhabit the real world. The visitors attempt a strange cure by dressing Matilda and her daughter identically and replacing a portrait of a younger Matilda with her daughter. (The nephew also dresses like Henry IV and replaces another portrait.) But it backfires: the protagonist, who has cherished a passion for Matilda all these years (fed by gazing at the protrait of an eternally young Matilda), grabs her daughter and refuses to let go. Belcredi inerferes. The protagonist stabs him to death, and then announces that he will now have to remain Henry IV for the rest of his life. The dying Belcredi insists that the protagonist was sane and chose to commit murder; Matilda repeats over and over that he must be truly insane.

Shamelessly stolen from the website of the Teatro Goldoni
Shamelessly stolen from the website of the Teatro Goldoni

Continue reading The other Henry IV

Carnival in Venice

I’m spending most of Fasching/Carnival at dances in Vienna, but I saved one weekend for Venice! Despite extensive travels in the south of Italy, I had never been to Venice before. When I arrived, I simply couldn’t get over how pretty it is. It’s one thing to imagine a city as a collection of islands with canal-streets and another to actually see it. Of course, it’s an old city, too, which means there are lots of beautiful old buildings (and bridges).

My first day in Venice was a little flood-y. By which I mean the water was up to my knees in some places. Lots of shops had to close, and the vaporetti (water buses) were not running.

By the afternoon, the tide was low again, so I went on a walking tour of the city. I grabbed cicchetti (the equivalent of tapas) with some other tourists. (They were from Chile. My Spanish was a mess after a day of trying to think in Italian.) The polenta and gnocchi in Venice are excellent. Then I did something completely predictable: I went to the Goldoni Theater and got student tickets! There was a very strange Pirandello piece on—I’ll write and post my review soon. Continue reading Carnival in Venice


I’ve complained a lot in previous reviews about directors staging tragedies as comedies. But Sebastian Kreyer’s staging of Ibsen’s Ghosts was much funnier than I expected, and I didn’t mind at all. I suspect this is because it was structured opposite of many of the stagings I dislike. Those often begin seriously and then degenerate. This is silly at the beginning but eases up on the gags as the truth about Captian Alving’s dissolute lifestyle and Oswald’s deadly disease becomes more and more apparent. This is both more respecful of the play’s serious themes and better for the show’s pacing. (It isn’t slowed down by gags in key dramatic moments.)

Helene (Ursula Maria Burkhart), the pastor (Oliver Möller), Oswald (Max Wagner). Photo:  Arno Declair
Helene (Ursula Maria Burkhart), the pastor (Oliver Möller), Oswald (Max Wagner). Photo: Arno Declair

Oh, Kreyer’s choices aren’t always perfect. The pastor’s constant falls aren’t funny (though his malapropisms are), and showing young Oswald and Oswald’s father (in a silly manner—as a miniature twin of current Oswald and a grey-bearded current Oswald, respectively) as they are discussed seems cheap, given the seriousness of what is being talked about.

But a lot of decisions I would have scoffed at on paper work really well. Everyone sings, and the songs are well-chosen and inserted at appropriate moments. (And oh my goodness Max Wagner’s voice is glorious.) (But why Mara Widmann seems to be plugging The Three-penny Opera is anyone’s guess.) The metatheatrical moments—the pastor’s apology to the audience for his harshness towards Helene; the maid’s informing Helene of her visitor by anouncing “Ursula Burkhart to the stage, please”; and Helene’s comments about “what [her doctor] Ibsen thinks” cause laughs without being overly distracting. Helene’s fishing trip is a riot. (Why is she putting on a yellow rain jacket and hat? It only makes sense when she comes back with the fish Oswald requested.) And Oswald’s deteriorating health and frustration with his artistic impotence are beautifully represented by his interactions with a bucket of paint. He partially strips, paints on himself, sticks paper onto his paint-covered body, and smears paint on the walls—destroying his mother’s orderly house and doing everything but actually painting with his materials. Continue reading Ghosts

Queens exchanging insults: Maria Stuart at the Kammerspiele

If we don’t count Woyzeck at the Kammerspiele and at the Volkstheater (because one was only loosely based on the original script), Maria Stuart marks my first time seeing two different productions of the same play in German. In fact, Schiller’s Maria Stuart was one of the first plays I ever saw in German, just over a year ago in Vienna. That production—starkly minimalistic, sort of modern, and dramatically lit—was fabulous. So perhaps it was inevitable that I would be disappointed the second time around.

It’s not that Andreas Kriegenburg’s new production is bad. It’s my favorite show I’ve seen at the Kammerspiele so far. (I haven’t been lucky there, on the whole.) The abstract set serves as both a prison and a royal court, depending on the lighting. That lighting is noticeably terrible in the first scene (yes, it’s a dark prison, but I still want to be able to see the actors’ faces!), but improves thereafter. The historical costumes are gorgeous, with Elisabeth in a stunning yellow gown and red wig that contrast with Maria’s bald head and dirty shift. (She gets her own pretty red gown and blond wig after intermission, though.) The men are hard to tell apart in their Puritanical blacks—with the hilarious exception of the French ambassador, who sports a tight-fitting, lime-green, velvet suit.

Annette Paulmann (Elisabeth), Walter Hess (Paulet), Edmund Telgenkämper (Davison), Wolfgang Pregler (Shrewsbury), Vincent zur Linden (Count Aubespine, the French ambassador), Oliver Mallison (Leicester), Jochen Noch (Burleigh). Photo: Judith Buss
Annette Paulmann (Elisabeth), Walter Hess (Paulet), Edmund Telgenkämper (Davison), Wolfgang Pregler (Shrewsbury), Vincent zur Linden (Count Aubespine, the French ambassador), Oliver Mallison (Leicester), Jochen Noch (Burleigh). Photo: Judith Buss

Continue reading Queens exchanging insults: Maria Stuart at the Kammerspiele

Stunningly sung implausibilities

Il trovatore is one of my favorite operas. I also love the original play by Guitierrez, to which it’s pretty true. But both are completely ridiculous. The Bayerische Staatsoper’s production doesn’t hide from that absurdity—it’s crazy, too. Leonora is blind. Top hats abound. Uncomfortable nudity keeps popping up. But it works, especially when sung by such an amazing cast. (Anja Harteros is a goddess!) See my full review here.