SCARPIA / This town is looking like a ghost town: The big names in Vienna have left for the holidays. But seek and ye shall find ..

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The Independent Culture
One of the odder things about Vienna is that as the height of the tourist season approaches, most of its great musical institutions likewise pack up and disappear. The Musikverein is firmly geschlossen; the gentlemen of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra appear to have been put out to pasture with the Lippizaner horses; the Opernhaus announces in bold banner headlines that it is 'Off Opera' (this month's star attraction, Dionne Warwick); and while the Theater an der Wien is still doing business, its main feature is a new rock-musical. (Elisabeth is a portrait of the beloved Empress who, apparently, hated Vienna and spent most of her time devising excuses to be somewhere else.)

So what is there for the musical summer tourist to choose from? Obviously one can't spend all one's time looking at birthplaces and tombstones - though for an English music-lover, the culture-shock of walking round a corner in a quiet cemetery and suddenly confronting the names Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms is not to be underestimated. There is a Viennese summer festival, Klangbogen Wien, which runs to the beginning of September - star guests for July, Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO. Otherwise the offerings this month have been packed, varied and completely unthematic (by no means always a bad thing), though with few really eye-catching events.

One evening's offering, Monteverdi's Selva morale e spirituale, performed at the Universitatskirche by the period instrument group Das Orchester des Spectacvlvm (18 July), was a mad disappointment. The music is, of course, magnificent, the performances were more than competent, and the mixing of early 16th-century Monteverdi with opulent, later baroque architecture worked very well. Placing the movements in a liturgical context was a nice idea in theory; unfortunately this meant putting some of the most beautiful music in the Italian church repertory alongside long stretches of that dreary harmonised chant to which the Catholic authorities are so inexplicably partial, sung quarter-heartedly by a congregation that obviously felt otherwise. For this non-Catholic, the effect was rather like seeing exquisite jewellery mounted in Blu-tak.

Much more enjoyable was an evening of echt-wienerische operetta at the Theater an der Vien (15 July): slices of Nicolai, Lortzing and Flotow with the Luxembourg RTL Symphony Orchestra, five enthusiastic and very accomplished soloists and an actor-narrator to fill in the storylines. It's a very light banquet of course, and the atmosphere was decidedly sedate, but one forgets how good a lot of this music is. It certainly puts G & S to shame - or at least the S half. Well-crafted and effortlessly tuneful, it is as singable as harmonised Catholic chant isn't.

But the Scarpia prize for services to Viennese musical tourism in the month of July has to go to the Wiener Kammeroper. It provided two spectacular evening Klangbogen entertainments in the 'Roman' ruins in the gardens of Schonbrunn Palace. First (10 July) came the revival of their hugely successful staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni. The singing was variable, but at its best, very enjoyable - notably Renato Girolami's Leporello and, thanks to some discreet but effective amplification, it all sounded clear and free from open-air dryness. With vital performances and sequence after sequence of visual treats it all seemed to pass very quickly, even without an interval between the acts. The climactic image - a blazing Don Giovanni plunging from a balcony into sepulchral blackness - will take some beating.

It did not however eclipse Requiem (13 July). The idea of choreographing Mozart's liturgical masterpiece is stunningly bizarre, and the advance synopsis of Stewart Trotter's death-rebirth storyline seemed unencouragingly new-agey. In fact Trotter's imaginative echoing of textual images, musical light-dark contrasts, even contrapuntal devices, lent weight to his images and kept bathos at bay. Ballet is usually allowed to be relatively free in its approach to the scores it takes, but here was an involvement with musical substance few contemporary opera productions can match. It was also powerful and elegant in its own right. By the end the temperature had plummeted, but the audience reaction was warm enough. Where were the enraged purists - on holiday too? They at least weren't missed.

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