OPERA / Burning down the house: Fire-raising in Vienna - Laurence Hughes reviews HK Gruber's new Gomorra at the Volksoper

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The Independent Culture
PYROMANIA might seem rather a delicate subject in Vienna at the moment, given the recent fire at the Hofburg. But Gomorra, the new opera by eccentric Viennese composer H K Gruber, embraces the subject with enthusiasm.

The curious plot concerns a visit of a representative of the 'higher authorities' to the city of Gomorra, ruled by its tyrannical Fire Brigade. All is not as well-ordered in Gomorra as it seems, and a band of rebellious pyromaniacs, led by the charmingly named Hilarius (Adolf Dallapozza), initiates a cataclysmic fire and flood, causing the destruction of both city and inhabitants, apart from the two young romantic leads, who escape in a rubber dinghy.

This cryptic little parable is clothed in music typical of Gruber's eclectic, whimsical but hard-edged style. The kind of jazz and pop references familiar to British audiences from Frankenstein]], his 'Pandemonium' for chansonnier and orchestra, are here writ large: sleazy nightclub blues and Mantovani strings rub shoulders with brass and percussion material out of Stravinsky and Bartok - and there are moments when Schoenberg's shade hovers in the background. The overall effect, with the main vocalists amplified in a 'cabaret' style reminiscent of Kurt Weill's German works, is remarkably lucid, and the scoring (with such unusual instruments as massed musical boxes, tuned cow bells, paper bags, whistles, sirens and, at the very end, the amazing effect of virtually the whole orchestra playing mouth organs) is incredibly vivid and fresh. That said, the second, bleaker, half had its longueurs, which were broken all too often by excessively brutal and loud brass and percussion writing.

The premiere was conducted with manic enthusiasm by the composer, who drew a matching energy from the performers that made up for an occasional lack of precision. Ildiko Raimondi and Josef Luftensteiner made a suitably romantic (if, in the latter case, rather beefy) pair of young lovers, and Karin Goltz, as Valentina, the dominating daughter of the Fire Chief, gave a powerful performance (perhaps too powerful for the amplification). But the outstanding rendition of the evening was from Hans Helm, whose baleful presence and doom-laden bass voice perfectly caught the character of the power-mad leader of the Gomorra Fire Brigade.

Walter Schwab's set and costumes - strange, sci-fi cityscapes out of Metropolis, with art deco settings in silver, black and gold - culminated in a totalitarian nightmare of grandeur in the ball scene (a grotesque parody of the countless ballroom scenes of Viennese operetta). Amid the scenes of destruction, the appalling spectacle of a supermarket collapsing in fire and smoke no doubt sent a chill to the heart of the respectable first-night Viennese audience. The direction of Mike Fields concentrated on a kind of stylised 'movement' that was very effective when portraying the automaton-like lives of Gomorra's unfortunate inhabitants, but seemed sometimes to emphasise the comic-strip atmosphere of the work to the exclusion of the composer's more obviously serious intentions.