|About this Recording
2.110659 - DONIZETTI, G.: Don Pasquale [Opera] (Sung in German) (Vienna State Opera, 1977) (NTSC)
Don Pasquale and the Vienna State Opera on Tour
The Vienna State Opera on tour? For opera enthusiasts this was something only the Metropolitan Opera in New York was known to do—every year at the end of the season they went on tour for five to six weeks, bag and baggage, meaning all the artistic and technical personnel (about 700 to 1,000 people), making appearances mostly in industrial cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Detroit, or Denver—and they did it with ‘grand opera’! The reason for these tours was not only to reach out to those music lovers who had no opportunity to visit New York, but also to thank the numerous sponsors and supporters of the Met (mostly industrialists).
As far as Austria is concerned, the Vienna State Opera was and still is a socalled ‘federal theatre’, whose funding comes from all taxpayers in Austria. It is of course true that, from a geographical point of view, music lovers from Vienna and the surrounding area are at advantage over their fellow Austrians. This fact was certainly one of the reasons why national tours throughout Austria of live opera productions began in the 1977–78 season. And so this light-hearted and wonderful production went on tour to Gmunden, Krems, Enns, Villach, Bad Gastein, Güssing, Ischl and many other places—in city theatres, convention centres, community centres and city halls… a remarkable and unique project!
After this decision was taken, other questions remained. On the artistic side: What repertoire should we present on tour? And with what cast? On the logistics side: How will the entire organisation manage such an extensive tour? And on the financial side: Who will bear the additional costs which are beyond the means of the Vienna State Opera? Regarding the last point, a co-operation with the Chamber for Workers and Employees provided financial support for the tour.
In order not to overwhelm audiences, some of whom had never seen a live opera performance before, an entertaining opera was chosen with a simple plot featuring easily accessible music. The choice was soon made to perform Donizetti’s masterpiece, Don Pasquale, but in German to make it easier to understand.
Top-notch artists were invited to perform on this tour. The director was Helge Thoma, at that time also senior director of the Vienna State Opera (and thus responsible for all scenic operations at the opera house). He was later a successful ‘long-term director’ at the Stadttheater (now: Staatstheater) Augsburg. Set design was entrusted to Matthias Kralj, whose extensive experience in theatre was valuable for the ‘travelling company’—he designed backdrop elements such as archways, arcades and house walls that could be easily transported and modified at each tour venue. The costumes were designed by Evelyn Frank, a recognised costume designer and wife of the set designer: this ensured a stylistically consistent look for sets. Héctor Urbón, a native of Argentina, was the conductor and had appeared at the most important opera houses in Munich, Zurich and Berlin.
Ideal singers were chosen for the individual roles, all of whom, with one exception, were part of the Vienna State Opera ensemble. The title role of the elderly bachelor, who in his late years once again tries his luck with a young woman, which results in disaster, was in good hands with the enthusiastic bass Oskar Czerwenka. Born in Upper Austria, Czerwenka is down to earth, exceptionally funny, also humorous in real life, blessed with a warm operatic bass, and often made not only the audience, but also his colleagues on and off the stage laugh with his charismatic acting. His embodiment of Don Pasquale included not only the comic but, thanks to his artistic sensitivity, also tragicomic and pathos-filled aspects of the character. One of his high points was Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, which he also performed at, among others, the Metropolitan Opera. In the final years of his career, his Tevje in Fiddler on the Roof revealed previously unknown facets of his profound ability to portray characters. In addition to his career as a singer, Czerwenka was also a gifted painter, whose works were shown in art exhibitions.
The 1976–77 and 1977–78 seasons marked the culminating breakthrough as an internationally celebrated coloratura or ‘queen of bel canto’ for Edita Gruberova, at that time still a young member of the Vienna State Opera ensemble. The roles of Zerbinetta (Ariadne auf Naxos premiere: 20 November 1976) and about 16 months later her debut as Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor: 23 Mach 1978) laid the groundwork for her international acclaim. This Don Pasquale production took place exactly between these two career milestones. Here, too, it is easy to recognise her outstanding singing skills, paired with a lively, relaxed, carefree joy in acting, a quality that distinguished her even then and set her apart from other colleagues. With her Norina, we have the good fortune to witness her comedic acting talent. This was a gift that Gruberova, with the exception of her Zerbinetta and adorable Adele in Fledermaus, was rarely able to demonstrate again due to her repertoire focusing strongly on tragic female bel canto roles.
The role of Malatesta, in effect the marriage broker or matchmaker, was in the hands, or more precisely in the vocal chords, of the baritone and longterm ensemble member Hans Helm. In addition to his good looks, his charming comic acting style, and his skilled onstage acting with various partners, he impressed, above all, thanks to the warm timbre of his virile baritone and his technically flawless singing. Born in Bavaria, he first came to the Vienna State Opera from Graz via Dortmund and was an important member of the opera house for a long time. His innumerable roles bear witness to the poise and flexibility of his vocal artistry. It is no surprise that the most important conductors and greatest singers enjoyed working with him.
This production offers a special highlight with the role of Ernesto performed by a singer from Peru: at the time of the premiere, Lima-born Luigi Alva, already was an internationally acclaimed singer. Nevertheless Alva enthusiastically accepted the Donizetti role for the new production at the Vienna State Opera (although this writer is not aware if he knew that the production would be in German and he would have to learn the part specifically for this engagement). In any case, his involvement gave the cast an additional and attractive, southern and Mediterranean component. In addition to his boyish and captivating appearance as well as courageous and expressive performance, Alva’s bright, cantabile lirico leggero tenor is worthy of note.
How seriously this tour production was taken by the organisers is evident not only given the involvement of the Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra, but ultimately also by the minor role of the Notary being given to Alois Pernerstorfer, a dramatic character bass-baritone who, a few years earlier, had been high in demand as Alberich in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, including performances conducted by Herbert von Karajan!
Even if this is ‘only’ a recording of a tour production from over 40 years ago, and even if the rich visual colours cannot compete with a modern DVD HD recording, or the sound can reflect what is possible today: at the same time, a high standard is met artistically, musically and in terms of singing, with the exceptional talent of Edita Gruberova on display. Based on this alone, this recording can be certain of a special place in today’s nearly impenetrable market, and you can only call out to the audience (and perhaps to those new to opera): ‘Enjoy!!!’
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