The opera house on Lake Zürich was designed and built in 1891 by the Vienna architects Fellner and Helmer, who were involved in building no fewer than forty-eight theaters and opera houses in cities all over Europe between 1873 and 1919, including for instance Augsburg, Gießen, Salzburg and Prague.
The Zürich Opera only seats about 1,100 spectators, but it is famous for putting on numerous new productions each season, many with big-name stars. In addition to the subsidies it gets from the city and canton, the Zürich Opera is highly successful at recruiting corporate sponsors to pay for all its expensive productions.
The first opera I saw in Zürich was Maria Stuarda, by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), a lovely opera which I have already described in my post Operas in Wiesbaden.
The Zürich production I saw was in the news for weeks beforehand because the intended star, Edita Gruberova (1946-2021), refused to perform and in fact held a news conference in which she said she would never again perform at the Zürich Opera. This was because her daughter, a dancer, had been injured in a stage accident in Zürich, and she blamed the Zürich Opera for negligence.
Well, Gruberova really was the greatest (I once saw her in Bellini’s I puritani in Munich, and I’m listening to her sing Maria Stuarda on the CD-player as I write this), but I was also quite satisfied with her replacement, the young Spanish soprano AngeIes Blancas, who gave her own touch to the role and was warmly applauded by the Zürich audience.
The second opera I saw in Zürich was Fierrabras by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), in a brilliant production by stage director Claus Guth. This is an opera which is seldom performed — up to now there have been only four productions of it altogether, two of which I have seen. The Frankfurt production was musically excellent but did not succeed in making much sense of the muddled story line. But since I had seen it several times in Frankfurt, I was already acquainted with it and was well prepared to appreciate the brilliance of Claus Guth’s staging in Zürich.
He set it not in the 9th but in the 19th century in Schubert’s living room, with an actor playing Schubert and a huge piano in the middle of the stage. Schubert was writing the opera as it went along, and each time a new character appeared, he or she was blindfolded. Schubert removed the blindfolds and set the characters in motion, and they soon got out of his control, especially the two rival kings, who scornfully rejected Schubert just as the composer’s father had done in real life.
In February 2010 I went to Zürich again to see a third opera, Elektra by Richard Strauss (1864-1949). This is a short opera (no intermission) with a huge orchestra and huge violent emotions requiring three strong women with huge voices to bring them across. I have seen Elektra numerous times in Frankfurt (two different productions in different decades), Saarbrücken, Nürnberg and Stuttgart, and now in Zürich with Eva Johansson as the vengeful Elektra and Emily Magee as her infuriatingly normal sister Chrysothemis. And Agnes Baltsa as their mother Klytämnestra, who gets what’s coming to her at the end.
At the Elektra performance I was again amazed at how small the Zürich Opera House is, especially in relation to the big-name stars who sing there. They do manage to seat 1,100 people, but in quite a small space. There are only 416 seats on the main floor, and the rest are up on the three balconies. The people in the first row practically have their knees up against the wall of the orchestra pit, not like in Frankfurt where there is enough room for the singers to walk through and sing there if the stage director decides to have them do that.
In fact, that is exactly what happened in the most recent Frankfurt staging of Elektra when Orest and his companion made their entrance through the auditorium and walked (singing and acting) between the orchestra pit and the first row of spectators before climbing a metal staircase to get up on stage. This kind of entrance would not be possible in Zürich.
See also: The lost generation of opera composers,
featuring the Zürich production of Schreker’s opera Der ferne Klang.