The Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper) is one of the world’s busiest opera houses, with 350 performances per year.
When I was there, in the last week of October 2016, they put on five performances of three different operas. I went to all three of these. There were two evenings that week with no performances, but that was an exception — apparently because part of the orchestra was touring in Japan. (But don’t worry, on those two evenings I saw performances by two of the other Viennese opera companies.)
A glance at the State Opera schedule shows that in most weeks there is a performance every evening — typically seven performances of three different operas in rotation. This means that the two hundred stage hands are busy every day, working in shifts to take down the stage set of one opera and install the set for the next one.
In the month of January 2017 they had only one evening with no performance. In February 2017 there were three days without performances, because of the annual Opera Ball.
For comparison: the Frankfurt Opera typically has “only” four or five performances per week, but also of three different operas in rotation. For set changes, Frankfurt has the advantage of a huge revolving stage, which somewhat reduces the amount of manual labor involved in taking down one set and putting up the next one.
All you loyal readers of my post Lully and Strauss in Nancy might recall that when I visited the city of Nancy in eastern France I saw David Hermann’s staging of a beautiful French baroque opera called Armide by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), a composer who was born in Italy but spent most of his adult life working at the court of the French King Louis XIV. As for most of Lully’s operas, the libretto for Armide was written by his friend and colleague Philippe Quinault (1635–1688).
Nearly a hundred years later the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), who was living mainly in Paris and writing a series of operas in French, decided to use Quinault’s old libretto — practically unchanged — and compose completely new music for it. This might sound foolhardy to us, since he was in effect inviting audiences to compare his music to that of the great Lully — but since audio recording had not yet been invented, hardly anyone in the 18th century was in a position to make such a comparison.
Also, it was not uncommon in the 18th century for as many as two or three dozen composers to set the same libretto to music — the libretto of La clemenza di Tito, for example, had already been used by nearly forty other composers before Mozart took it on in 1791.
In any case, Lully’s Armide from 1686 and Gluck’s Armide from 1777 are two very different operas, or so they seemed to me, even though the story and the words are roughly the same in both.
Not only the music, also the staging was very different in the two productions I saw. In Lully’s Armide, as staged by David Hermann in Nancy, there was more emphasis on the knight Renaud and the efforts of his friends to free him from the amorous clutches of the Muslim sorceress Armide, so he could get on with his military duties. In Gluck’s Armide, as staged by Ivan Alexandre in Vienna, Armide is not a sorceress but a young man — though played and sung by a woman, Gaëlle Arquez. This young man is a soldier who has the assignment of dressing like a woman so as to lure horny Christian knights to their doom. So we have a typical opera constellation of a woman playing a man playing a woman.
(This reminds me of the Canadian website schmopera.com, which aside from interviewing some of my favorite singers also sells T-shirts reading: “Opera is girls being boys being girls.” Of course they were thinking mainly of Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss.)
Unfortunately this interpretation of Armide as a young man does not always fit the text of the opera, especially in the scene where Hidraot (her uncle) advises Armide to find a husband. This is illogical if Armide is a man, unless you assume there was such a thing as same-sex marriage in Damascus back in the 11th century.
Like most people who watch early operas, I sometimes get muddled about which of the stories come from Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) and which come from La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) by Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). Both of these are sprawling epic poems, in Italian, with dozens or hundreds of characters and sub-plots, set either in the reign of Charlemagne (Ariosto) or in the First Crusade of the early Middle Ages (Tasso) with glorious Christian knights battling infidels and sorceresses in faraway countries. From a 21st century point of view I suppose it doesn’t make much difference which of the stories come from which poem, but just for the record, Armide is from Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata whereas Alcina (which I saw the next evening) is from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso.
The orchestra for Gluck’s Armide was not the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (part of which was on tour in Japan at the time) but rather Les Musiciens du Louvre, conducted by Marc Minkowski. Their tuning for this production was 400Hz, meaning that the A above middle C was tuned to that level. This is a tuning that was often used in earlier centuries but is lower than we usually hear today. Since we are accustomed to a pitch of 440 to 443Hz, the lower tuning sometimes gives us the impression that everything is in a minor key (which it isn’t) or at least less exuberant than what we are used to. To me this lower tuning has an almost magical quality, as if I had somehow been transported back to an earlier era, 240 years ago.
The next day (after Armide) I went back to the Vienna State Opera and saw Alcina by Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759).
Alcina was one of Händel’s later operas. It had its world premiere at the Covent Garden Theatre in London in April 1735, barely three months after his Ariodante. Both of these operas were based on episodes from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso.
The Vienna production of Alcina, staged by Adrian Noble, was highly praised when it premiered in 2010. You can get an impression of it by watching this English-language version of the trailer, with the original Vienna cast from the year 2010 — not the same cast I saw in 2016, but the same conductor and musicians, Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre.
Their tuning for this performance was 415Hz, meaning that the A above middle C was tuned to that level. This was slightly higher (by 15Hz) than their tuning for Gluck’s Armide the night before, though I must admit that as a non-musician I didn’t notice the difference. (Perhaps some musician can explain to me why they would tune slightly higher for Händel than for Gluck, rather than the other way around?)
A nice touch in this production of Händel’s Alcina was that seven of the musicians wore costumes and appeared on the stage from time to time, where they were integrated into the staging while playing solos or accompanying the singers.
See also: Händel’s Alcina in Hof, Germany.
One of the minor mysteries of the Vienna State Opera is why they wait so long before allowing spectators to enter the auditorium. Theoretically there is an introductory talk somewhere in the building that starts half an hour before show time — but since we aren’t always allowed in any earlier than that, we need the time to find our cloakroom (you have to use a certain one, depending on where you are sitting) and deposit our coats, and by that time the introductory talk is already finished, if indeed it took place at all.
Address of the Vienna State Opera: Wiener Staatsoper, Opernring 2, 1010 Wien.
The nearest CityBike station is 111 Oper.
Underground: U1, U2, U4 – Get off at Karlsplatz.
Trams: 1, 2, D, 62, 71 – Get off at Opernring.
Phone: 01-514 44-2250
My photos in this post are from 2016. I revised the text in 2017 and 2023.