Italy in the spotlight at Klagenfurt’s Stadttheater

by Rino Alessi

Italian tourists have always been attracted by the most southern Austrian Land, Carinthia, for its beautiful landscapes and hospitality. Klagenfurt, the state’s small capital city, offers a rich cultural life – first and foremost thanks to the varied program of its Stadttheater, which includes prose, musicals, ballet, opera and operetta.

The theater now has a new, young and energetic “intendant”: Florian Scholz. Scholz has been able to attract internationally renown artists such as Cesare Lievi – director of the “Macbeth” scheduled for the bicentenary of Verdi’s birth –, but he has also created an ensemble of young talents within his company, who allow him to curb expenses and guarantee high-level performances. In this renewal operation he has had a young British conductor at his side, Alexander Soddy, who came to Carinthia last year and was quickly appointed music director of the Kärntner Sinfonieorchester. This season, Soddy will present the first two titles in the program: “Der Rosenkavalier” by Strauss to Hofmannsthal’s libretto, and “Macbeth”, which Verdi and his trusted librettist Piave created based on Shakespeare’s homonymous work.

Having a resident ensemble of young artists offers many benefits. First and foremost, when a guest falls suddenly ill, a replacement is readily available at no extra cost. At the beginning of the season, the “Rosenkavalier” – in a new, elegant production by Marco Storman (director), Philipp Nicolai (set designer), and Sonja Albartus (costume designer) – saw the young members of the ensemble perform side by side with established artists such as the ‘Kammersänger’ Rolf Haunstein, well known among Wagnerphiles, who played the rich merchant Faninal, father of young Sophie, engaged to the deuteragonist Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau.

From the theater’s ensemble, Golda Schultz – a South African soprano endowed with a pure and crystalline voice – played the part of Sophie, while 28-year-old baritone David Steffens was supposed to play two minor roles… until the regular performer was suddenly unwell, and young Steffens was promoted to the role of Baron Ochs. A challenge the artist approached impeccably, as we were able to appreciate during the final, overcrowded, performance of Strauss’s masterpiece.

“Der Rosenkavalier” – with the title character of the Knight of the Rose played, ‘en travesti’, by Angela Brower – does not paint a flattering picture of Italy: Valzacchi and Annina (Patrick Vogel and the outstanding Christa Ratzenböck, who at one point sings suspended in mid-air), the intriguers responsible of Ochs’s introduction to Sophie, are Italian, and so is the tenor (played by the Turk Ilker Arcayürek) who sings a fashionable aria in the crowded garderobe of the Marschallin (Betsy Horne) – who in this production looks like a rockabilly, styled with a quiff and golden jacket.

Luckily, Verdi can re-establish Italy’s honor and the indisputable excellence of Italian opera: the composer’s talent is unparalleled. In his “Macbeth”, he left no room for love: the plot is all about power and the fascination with magic and the esoteric world…

Director Lievi – who recently left his position as superintendent for prose at the Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine, and who debuted in Klagenfurt with Verdi’s tenth opera – says there are three aspects of “Macbeth” that particularly interest him. First of all, the relation between the characters’ story and the pre-Christian world of witches, tied to the concept of “nature” that Verdi explored after his Venetian success with “Attila”. Secondly, the character of Lady Macbeth (played by Tatjana Melnychenko, very intense and focused during the sleepwalking scene), who is the link between witches and hysterical women of all time. Finally, the “value”, or ‘valore’ (“Io ti darò valore”, that is “I will make you able”) that ties the diabolical woman to her husband, unable to retort (Maksim Aniskin, baritone with a powerful – more than soft or expressive – voice).

The couple tries desperately to have children – a king’s real asset in Shakespeare’s as well as in Verdi’s time. Their obsession turns them into murderers, as they kill others’ heirs, and finally leads them to seek a personal a escape in folly.

This Carinthian “Macbeth” is a truly exciting show. On his team, Lievi had Josef Frommwieser (set designer) and Marina Luxardo (costume designer), and while the two leading roles were given to singers from Eastern Europe, the ensemble’s promising Merunas Vitulskis played the part of Macduff, and – just as with “Der Rosenkavalier” – Günter Wallner did a great job of preparing the choir.

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