The highlight of a Vienna Festival marred by the stigma of political extremism, was Scottish Opera’s glorious Macbeth, says Norman Lebrecht
BANQUO’s ghost stalked the Vienna Festival last week, and not only in Scottish Opera’s formidable production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Every conversation, even chit-chat, was pervaded by the spectral absence of Jörg Haider, the far-Right politician whose Freedom Party now sits in Government.
Haider has since withdrawn to his Carinthian lair, where some say he faces ruin from alleged personal scandals and others believe that he is biding his time, waiting for the sting of European sanctions to set up a clamour for the strongman’s return. One way or other, he has changed Austrian politics forever, intruding his reactionary agenda into every sphere of interest.
Art has been pushed on to the political barricades. “Do you want Peymann, or culture?” was one Haiderite slogan, offering voters the choice between straight theatre and the deconstructionist former Burgtheater director, Claus Peymann. Most Viennese, in any straw poll, would always vote for old against new.
The cultural response to Haider has been exaggerated, at times hysterical (a refusal of increased subsidy was decried by Peymann as “state censorship”). Every work of art has become a statement, every season a manifesto. The theme of this Vienna Festival is “Stress”. Next year’s will be “Xenophobia”. There is little space within such frameworks for art to draw a detached breath.
The mood of agitated uncertainty was reflected in the festival’s first musical offering. Half of Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda was filled out by the Italian director, Romeo Castellucci, with unrelated madrigals, and interspersed with electronic noises by an American composer, Scott Gibbons. The effect was aurally alienating, chilling the already sombre 17th- century scores with statutory bursts of staccato gunfire and the usual ambient garbage.
The stage business involved a soiled sanitary towel, a team of surgeons wielding a baseball bat, a sword-swallower, a set of Russian dolls and the simulated extraction of semen from a live white horse, a genuine Lippizaner on loan from the Spanish Riding School.
Just when one thought Castellucci had covered every cliché in the book, he slipped in a desecration of the Host and daubing of church walls before the curtain fell and the horse pungently emptied its bladder, a more succint criticism than mere humans could muster. Yet such was the fear of seeming to endorse Haider’s views that no one walked out of this adolescent extravagance, and applause and reviews were respectful.
The festival’s major drawback has, until now, been its lack of a permanent stage, forcing it to co-produce. Combattimento was shared with the Holland Festival, Strasbourg, the Venice Biennale and several other Italian venues that you would do well to avoid. These constraints will end next year when the Vienna Festival acquires its own theatre in the new Museums Quarter that is rising behind the former Habsburg Palace, a complex of eight galleries and auditoria that will challenge Berlin and London for paramountcy in 21st-century cultural tourism.
It was the need to co- produce operas that sent Luc Bondy, the festival’s director, to Scotland, where at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival he created a momentous Macbeth. Its transfer to Vienna was jeopardised by diplomatic dithers over declaring a cultural boycott. When contracts were finally signed, a realisation dawned that this could be Scottish Opera’s finest moment in 38 years. The Tartan Army came out in force, and tickets were hotter than fresh-cooked haggis.
For an outfit that had lost its chief executive and chairman in stormy circumstances, discovered a seven-digit overspend and landed under the interim direction of an accountant, Scottish Opera’s morale seemed remarkably high.
Bondy’s staging acquired instantly heightened resonances in Haider’s Vienna. The pit in which Macduff discovers his slaughtered family suggested a more proximate Holocaust. The sluttish, necrophiliac witches became symbols of social turmoil. Sexiness vied with murderousness in Kathleen Broderick’s slinky Lady. Richard Zeller’s Macbeth was irresolute, a centre-ground politician. As a theatrical experience, this Macbeth was faultlessly cast and grippingly acted.
Its problems were musical. The Theater an der Wien, where Beethoven conducted the first Fidelio in 1805, enjoys the most diaphanous acoustic on earth. Musicians who know its unique qualities play as softly as they can, knowing that the faintest nuance will resound. The Scots, for some reason, blasted their way through the opera.
Whether their music director Richard Armstrong misjudged the balance, mistrusted his musicians or did not dare to let the music speak is anyone’s guess. The outcome was grating and graceless, not one solo line to caress the ear. The curtain calls were few and the press withering. Der Standard called the ensemble “weak” while Die Presse intimated that Viennese students could do better.
Still, pejoratives aside, this was a landmark night for Scottish Opera and, critically, a political one. The Scottish Assembly must soon decide whether to provide the extra three or four million that should enable the company to build on the experience and reach the attainable next rung of international status. The spirit is willing and the potential good. In Scotland, as in Austria, culture and politics are overlapping, and the future of opera will become a key question of national self-perception.