Feature Travel Archive 2

Austria: Treasures of an Imperial Past


By Patricia Keegan and Dan Davis 

The Esterhazys were the richest and most powerful of the Hungarian nobles and stalwart supporters of the Hapsburg monarchy, but their main claim to fame these days is that the music-loving warrior, Prince Paul Esterhazy, hired Joseph Haydn to serve as Kapellmeister in 1761. The great composer was in charge of all musical activities for the family, churning out masterpiece after masterpiece for the dejection of the Esterhazys and their guests for the bulk of his long and active life.

The linkage with Haydn lent luster to the Esterhazy name long after the dynasty crumbled under the onslaughts of war and the upheavals of the 20th century. It's celebrated today by the annual Haydn Festival at the restored Esterhazy palace in the lovely town of Eisenstadt, situated in the fecund wine country a half-hour's drive south of Vienna.

A day at the Festival in mid-September yielded some memorable musical experiences, beginning with a noon concert by the aptly-named Haydn Quartet at the Palace's Chapel, a long, narrow, gilt-trimmed hall whose pale blue walls set off a magnificent inlaid wood pulpit and a marble alter crowned with a Baroque-era painting of Mary and Jesus flanked by kneeling angels. The concert included a rarely performed arrangement for string quartet of excerpts from Haydn's greatest oratorio, The Creation. The reverberant hall bathed the instruments in a warm, rich aural environment that often made the four string players sound like a full orchestra, without losing instrumental detail, which often occurs in such surroundings.

Emerging into the sunlit afternoon, we continued our Haydn odyssey with a visit to the hilltop church known these days as 'the Haydn Church' where the composer's remains are interred in a marble sarcophagus.

Another mandatory stop for Haydn pilgrims is the Haydn Museum, situated in the house in which the composer lived and wrote most of his scores. Some of those scores - including many in Haydn's own hand, along with early copies and print editions - are on view at the museum. Other rooms are filled with contemporary portraits of the composer, his friends and renowned pupils, instruments, a unique table that opens to hold eight music stands for at home concerts, and, among much else, Haydn's death mask. More rooms in an adjoining house now seamlessly incorporated into the museum offer special exhibit areas and a multimedia room where visitors can view and hear Performances of Haydn's music.

That evening, it was back to the Palace for a Haydn opera, the rarely heard L'isola disabitata, at the Haydnsalle, the Esterhazy's large, brilliantly decorated concert hall. The festive air was enhanced by a wind and brass quintet situated in the corner of the cobblestoned inner courtyard, piping concertgoers in with bouncy arrangements of Haydn's tunes.

On entering the hall, once we could tear our eyes from the ornate painted ceiling, we saw a stage dominated by the side of a large ship -the vessel carrying the protagonists to a stormy shipwreck, vividly portrayed in the Overture. The plot background - shipwreck, struggling ashore on a deserted island, the kidnapping of the hero by pirates, and the resultant abandonment of the heroine and her little sister were mimed to the extended Overture.

The opera begins with the heroine, convinced she's been ditched by her husband, warning her now teenaged sister against the perfidies of men. Of course, the husband has managed to escape and now returns to the island in search of his wife, leading to plot entanglements revolving around mistaken identities, the awakening of young love (the sister and the husband's young relative who accompanies him), forgiveness and reconciliation. It culminates in a grand final Quartet, in which the four principles are joined on stage by sole violin, cello, flute and bassoon who embody their personalities in purely musical terms.

The Festival performance was a knockout - four handsome, fresh-voiced young singers whose artistry conveyed the wide range of emotions captured by Haydn, who elevated this standard desert island melodrama into a work rich in musical inventiveness and emotional depth. The staging added immeasurably to the evening's success - only some silly, unnecessary updating in Act One (the sailors accompanying the husband and his cousin arrive with cameras and surveyors equipment!) mar the otherwise satisfying production. one unbreachable rule of the theatre is: if you're going to have a shipwreck on stage, it had better be a good one. This one was a smashing success. The Festival's music director, Adam Fischer, conducted the Austro-Hungarian Haydnphilharmonie, with aplomb and the smiles on the faces of the audience as they left the hall, testified to the evening's success.

Back in Vienna the following night, the famed Staatsoper proved an irresistible lure, with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. At the Staatsoper, the hall itself provides an awesome sense of occasion from the magnificent grand staircase leading to the tiers to the lovely interior with its blend of Jugendstil austerity wedded to a sedate version of Baroque jewel-box. On this evening, the vocal electricity was supplied by the Figaro, Ferruccio Furlanetto, whose expansive baritone and pungent acting brought the character to life, and American mezzo Susan Graham, whose beautifully sung and acted Cherubino stole the show. The production, premiered in 1977, looks a bit faded these days and Ponnelle's cynical outlook (his Count flirts with the girls after his reconciliation with the Countess) undercuts Mozart's music. But Figaro, with the right singers, is virtually director-resistant and all in-all, it was a grand evening at the opera.

So was the next night, for what's a visit to Vienna without seeing a Strauss operetta? His most beloved work, Die Fledermaus, was given a superb performance at Vienna's second opera house, the Volksoper. You'd think that an old warhorse like this would be ossified by overfamiliarity, especially in a house that specializes in operetta. But this was a Fledermaus as fresh and fetching as it must have been on its opening night 124 years ago. The Volksoper production wisely resists the temptation to introduce post-modern distortions and managed to invest the sight-gags with a freshness and sense of fun that added to the joys offered by the superb cast of singing actors. The troubled Eisenstein couple were especially fine, with Sona Ghazarian etching an expansive Rosalinde and Adolf Dallapozza acting well and wrapping his lyric tenor around Gabriel's lines with thrust and verve. But then, the entire cast was fine, the non-singing buffo, Frosch, brought the house down with his antics, Linda Pavelka was a stunning Orlofsky, and the orchestra leaned into Strauss' infectious waltz rhythms to the manner born.

There will be more Strauss operettas in the coming year, the centennial of his death in 1899. And there will be more Haydn rarities at the next Haydn Festival. In fact, Vienna, Eisenstadt, and the rest of Austria are a movable musical feast, a natural destination for travelers seeking sounds, as well as sights.