The Opera House in Hannover

From the outside, the Hannover Opera House still (or again) looks much the same as it did when it first opened as the Royal Court Theatre (Königliches Hoftheater) on September 1, 1852.

The Royal Court Theatre in 1852

In July 1943 the inside of the theater was destroyed fire bombs in one of the many bombing attacks of the Second World War, but the outer walls remained standing. The theater was re-built starting in 1947 and re-opened on November 30, 1950, with a performance of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss.

To save time and money, only the most rudimentary stage machinery was installed in 1950, consisting mainly of cranks and pulleys that were turned by hand. The first hydraulic stage machinery was not installed until 1960-63.

At the same time, the backstage areas were enlarged and rearranged, following plans that had existed since 1927 but had never been implemented.

In the 1980s the auditorium was re-designed and re-built, not only for optical reasons but also to improve the acoustics. Then in the 1990s the thirty- to forty-year old stage machinery had to be replaced because it no longer conformed to modern safety standards. This also meant strengthening the foundations under the stage area, which was done during the summer break in 1996.

The summer break in 1997 had to be lengthened to permit installation of completely new machinery above the stage, and the same happened in 1998 to allow replacement of everything below the stage.

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi

My immediate reason for going to Hannover in October 2011 was to see Benedikt von Peter’s highly unusual staging of the opera La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).

As I have mentioned in one of my Braunschweig posts, La traviata is now one of the world’s most popular operas, but when it first came out in 1853 it shocked opera goers (and the original cast of singers) because of its highly controversial contemporary topic. It wasn’t about Greek gods or Roman emperors, as everyone expected, but about a French courtesan (sort of an up-market prostitute) who had really lived and in fact had just died six years earlier of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-three.

I have seen La traviata many times in numerous different productions. My favorite is still the classic Axel Corti staging at the Frankfurt Opera, in which Violetta dies not in her bed but on the floor of the second class waiting room in the railroad station in Orléans while she is trying to flee from the Nazis.

Before the performance of La traviata in Hannover

In the Hannover staging by Benedikt von Peter, the orchestra is up on the stage and the action takes place on a roof covering the orchestra pit. Only one character is ever visible, namely Violetta Valéry herself, played and sung by the American soprano Nicole Chevalier. All the others sing from the first balcony of the auditorium.

In the first scene Violetta has invited lots of people to her party, but no one turns up, not a single one. Alfredo’s fervent declaration of love, sung from the balcony, is evidently just in her imagination.

This works because Nicole Chevalier is a brilliant singer and actress who succeeds in filling the stage for two and a half hours (without an intermission) with her portrayal of a lonely and desperate woman.

The only scenes which didn’t work so well for me were the ones where Violetta is not even present, like the confrontation between Alfredo and his father, who were both singing in the darkness from different sides of the auditorium.

When she dies at the end she is still alone. She is convinced that Alfredo is by her side, but that is also just her imagination.

The applause at the end of the performance was long and enthusiastic.

The trailer for this production includes explanations in German by the stage director Benedikt von Peter.

In the lobby of the Hannover opera house

While looking through my stacks of old opera programs, I found three earlier ones from the State Opera in Hannover.

Program booklet for Lucia di Lammermoor

Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) is based on a novel by the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). It is the story of a young woman, Lucy Ashton, who is forced by her family to marry a man she detests. She is driven to insanity and stabs her husband on their wedding night. The opera is especially famous for its “mad scene” which goes on for about twenty minutes (after the stabbing) with mainly just the soprano and a haunting flute or glass armonica accompaniment.

I have seen this opera numerous times in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, Lille and Darmstadt, but the most unusual staging was the one in Hannover in 2001. In this staging, Lucia does not die at the end, but is secretly committed to an insane asylum by her family. An actress plays Lucia as an old woman. She is on the stage throughout the opera, re-living her memories of her traumatic experiences when she was younger.

This unusual staging of Lucia di Lammermoor was inspired by the fate of the French sculptress Camille Claudel (1864–1943), whose family committed her to an insane asylum for the last thirty years of her life.

Program booklet for The Bartered Bride

Another opera I saw in Hannover was The Bartered Bride (in German Die verkaufte Braut) by Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). This was a conventional, light-hearted production — nothing unusual, but fun.

Smetana’s most popular work is no doubt his symphonic poem Vlatava (The Moldau), which is often played in concerts and supposedly also in the planes of Czech Airlines after each landing. (Perhaps someone who has flown with Czech Airlines can confirm this?) Smetana also wrote eight operas, all of which are still performed occasionally in the Czech Republic. The Bartered Bride is the only opera of his that I have seen so far (in Hannover, Bad Orb, Leipzig and Frankfurt), but Frankfurt has scheduled a new production of Smetena’s Dalibor for February 2019.

Program booklet for Verdi’s Rigoletto

The first opera I saw in Hannover was Rigoletto, by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). I don’t remember much about the production, which was in 1993, but looking at the cast list I see that the role of Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter, was sung by Kirsten Blanck, whom I had never heard of at the time. (I later met her when she sang the Queen of the Night in Frankfurt, in Mozart’s Magic Flute.)

Mozart, Beethoven and Goethe

On top of the entrance hall, which originally was open on both sides so the rich people could be driven up to the front door in their horse-drawn carriages, there are several statues of famous composers and authors. These statues look very much like the ones that were there when the building was first opened in 1852, but no one could tell me if the current statues are the originals or replicas.

On the left is a statue of the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). So far I have seen sixteen of Mozart’s twenty-two operas, mainly in Frankfurt but also in Aachen, Pforzheim, Bonn, Paris and Dresden, among other places.

The second statue in the photo shows the composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), who was born in Bonn on the Rhine River. Beethoven is best known for his nine symphonies and other orchestral works, but he also wrote one opera, Fidelio, which I have seen in Frankfurt, Berlin, Berne and Edinburgh.

On the right is a statue of the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), whose birth house in Frankfurt am Main is now a museum devoted to his life and works. There have been at least four operas based on Goethe’s works — probably more, but four that I have seen in the last few years.

Stage entrance of the Hannover opera house

My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2018.

See also: Sixty-three opera houses in Germany.

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