Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Culture wars

Noises about Klaus Bachler’s Kurier interview rumbled their way through all of last week and if I had a euro for every time I’ve heard ‘in der Ära Bachler war ich oft in der Volksoper’ I would have been eating Tafelspitz at Plachutta on Saturday night. The Staatsoper’s press office has done what it does best, namely nothing, which has been interpreted as stony silence. The city’s theatres have more of a leg to stand on and so one of those typically Viennese bun fights has played out in the press over the last few days: Herbert Föttinger of the Theater in der Josefstadt agrees with much of what Bachler claims about the ‘böse Wien’ but otherwise makes the case for his house’s progressive credentials (new plays by Daniel Kehlmann and Peter Turrini), while the Burgtheater’s Matthias ‘I never talk about colleagues in the media’ Hartmann has gone for the fightback option of trashing Bachler’s Burgtheater tenure. On hearing nothing about the Burgtheater in Germany: ‘when Bachler was in Vienna one heard nothing about him, and saw even less, as in his last three years at the Burgtheater he was mostly in Munich’. There was also this put-down, which wants so desperately hard to be withering: ‘when I was once in the hospital for my collarbone, the doctor asked me what I was doing next at the Burgtheater. I replied that I’d not yet taken over. Ah, she said, so Peymann is still there?’

Dragging up Claus Peymann was inevitable because these insults are being traded very much in the context of his impact on the Burgtheater, which in hypothetical operatic terms was a great deal more turbulent than, say, the idea of Calixto Bieito taking over the Met. A German firebrand who when Intendant of the Schauspiel Stuttgart once held a whip around to buy new dentures for imprisoned Red Army Faction leader Gudrun Ensslin, Peymann came to Vienna armed with a radical vision – watchwords: gesellschaftkritisch, österreich-kritisch – and the capacity to carry it out amid violent political protest, transforming the Burgtheater into the most talked-about German-language stage in Europe. His legacy dominates the house to this day, surviving the more cautious impulses of Bachler and Hartmann and belying claims of artistic stagnation, for now and the conceivable future. While Hartmann’s oppressively entertaining productions seldom conceal, to borrow Hofmannsthal’s phrase, any depth on the surface, recent highlight of his Intendanz include a David Bösch Romeo und Julia one might expect the RSC to be ready for sometime around 2050, two new stage works apiece from Jelinek and Handke, and in the last few weeks a landmark staging of Prinz Friedrich von Homburg from Andrea Breth.

In 1986, the same year Peymann was appointed to the Burgtheater, another reforming Direktor by the name of Claus took over the Wiener Staatsoper. But instead of turning critics into supporters, as Peymann did, Claus Helmut Drese quickly found himself the target of a press campaign to undermine his leadership and, by extension, changes which constituted the biggest Staatsoper shake-up since Karajan internationalized the house and did away with all-German performances in the 1960s. But compared to the Burgtheater his artistic reforms were mild, amounting to an emphasis on new productions, none particularly scandalous, of operatic fare unfamiliar to the Viennese. Fierrabras and Khovanshchina, led and subsequently recorded by new GMD Claudio Abbado, were joined by a Verdi, Gluck and Rossini repertoire expansion, but critical acclaim notwithstanding, the perceived upshot – the dismantling of the repertory system – was seized upon, as well as Drese’s claim that ‘the Vienna State Opera requires the world’s best singers, cost what they may’. Stunt casting and the sidelining of ensemble members became the staple charge of Wilhelm Sinkovicz’s pot-stirring columns, which alleged financial irresponsibility and agitated for Drese’s removal as soon as it became clear that quality, at whatever expense, was putting quantity in jeopardy. Drese, joined in solidarity by Abbado, was eventually hounded out of Vienna in 1991, the final irony being that after a subsequent freeze on new productions and curtailing of rehearsals, an anomalous Rosenkavalier of 1994, now passed into lore, was hailed as a vindication of new Intendant Ioan Holender’s conservative instincts. That Carlos Kleiber showed up unannounced at the Staatsoper’s archive, weeks before rehearsals started, to mark up the orchestral parts was seen, so a Staatsoper employee there at the time tells me, as ‘eccentric’, but even Holender has conceded in retirement that nothing in his long Intendanz came close to that final gasp of the Drese era.

And so on Sunday Gert Korentschnig published a column calling for substantive discussion of the issues the rowing between Munich and Vienna has highlighted. Such a debate may yet happen about the Burgtheater, where the quality of criticism reflects the quality of what gets put on there, again the fruit of Peymann’s commitment to a lively and challenging theatre culture. But one needn’t compare many of Der Standard’s erudite Burgtheater reviews to Sinkovicz expending 300 words of blather about a Gründerzeit hotel lobby for Arabella (and convincing nobody that such a thing should at all matter) to see that those complicit in twenty-five years of operatic mediocrity have no interest in such a discussion, or indeed believe it necessary. In a revealing editorial that captured in a nutshell the present gulf in expectations between the two houses, Die Presse welcomed the extension of Hartmann’s contract last year but at the same time urged at some length for ‘everybody’s darling’, as they phrased it in Denglisch, to be more rebellious
. Dominique Meyer, whose contract was extended at the same time, registered as an afterthought, receiving a perfunctory, lukewarm endorsement to carry on doing whatever it is he does.

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