Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Operatic anniversaries

This year (2013) was a big year for operatic anniversaries. Both Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi were honoured with 200th birthday celebrations while Benjamin Britten's birthday rolled around for the hundredth time. Naturally enough, these milestones provided ample opportunity for the programming of celebratory operatic productions the world over. Melbourne could not have imagined a better year in which to mount its first ever production of Wagner's
Ring of the Nibelungen
and most opera houses around the world have performed at least one opera by the big three.

But last week I saw a wonderful new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) by Richard Strauss at the Bavarian National Theatre in Munich, an opera that has a different set of historical associations for the city. Many of Europe's great nineteenth-century opera houses were badly damaged during World War II, with those of Munich, Vienna and Berlin being high on the list. In the postwar years they were gradually reconstructed. In each case, the reopening celebration was an important event for the respective cities and the operas chosen to mark such occasions make an interesting little case study of other operatic celebrations. 

Vienna's State Opera reopened in 1955 and the opera chosen to be the first performed in the reopened building was Beethoven's Fidelio. In Berlin things were more complicated. The reconstructed Berlin State Opera was reopened in 1955 with a performance of Richard Wagner's Mastersingers of Nuremberg but by then the theatre found itself in a East Berlin. And in Munich the National Theatre remained a construction zone until 1963, when the first sounds thought most suitable to its reawakening were those of Strauss' Frau ohne Schatten. 

It is an interesting challenge: from the entire operatic repertoire, choose one work that best encapsulates the feelings of rebirth, hope, recovery and closure that must have come to each of these cities as they reconsecrated their opera houses. Fidelio was perhaps an obvious choice for Vienna. Its composer had adopted the city as his home. Its story recounts a release from darkness and captivity through the love of a woman. Wagner's Mastersingers presumably made for a safe choice in the East Berlin of 1955 (still six years before the building of the infamous wall). Die Frau ohne Schatten was a fine choice for Munich. Richard Strauss was one of the city's favourite musical sons and this is surely his ultimate operatic masterpiece. Like Fidelio, its plot deals with themes of triumph through self-sacrifice, of birth and of the emergence into light. 

To cap off the operatic anniversary celebrations, lovers of the operas of Richard Strauss will have plenty to look forward to in 2014, the composer's 150th birthday.

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