11 JANUARY 1963, Page 16

Barbarians in Vienna


THERE is an Italian Policy in Vienna; though it has noth- ing to do with the South Tyrol, nor with poor Mattei's proble- matical pipelines to and from the East. It has to do with the opera.

Italian opera is played in season and out, in Italian. You might expect it to be sung and played; sometimes it is just played at. I sat last week through a production of Andre Chenier; the sets were half-way between Milan 1890 and Brecht 1950; the thin chorus did business instead of singing; two members (from their costumes) had strayed from Carmen and may well have been singing it, too. Even the acting had returned, to the nineteenth century, being full of Italian histrionics and posturing. They say that the Supremo Karajan is once again re-negotiating with the theatre administra- tion; others say, he is waiting until the new arrangements are made at the Metropolitan, New York, before making up his mind; it was at once denied. Everything is denied before it is said; but the press is now silent and seems to have run out of ideas for a once-passionate defence of the Maestro; or was the uproar a year or so ago only opposition as always to the State bureaucracy? It may be, in Vienna; a lot is put up with in Vienna that would never do in Berlin or Hamburg, where the arts are taken seriously.

The original cast of a production sings for two or three performances and then minor or young singers, junior members of the orchestra and different conductors almost every week, take over The great have gone to Buenos Aires, or to London to make records. This 'system' is said to be both necessary and inevitable, since singers nowadays want the huge incomes of in- ternational fame on records. Of course, the young performers must have their chance, but not by the replacement of whole casts and half the musicians at a time. And it might be sup- posed that if the great singers stayed at home and sang, the world would come to them, and the long-play companies, too. The travelling system has another great disadvantage; not only is there no real company any more, but the star per- formers are always tired and overwrought with the endless moving from place to place. There is no longer any point in going to

Vienna to hear Tristan; nor the golden chunks of Die Meistersinger; Parsifal comes once a year, at Easter. The sublime Fidelio is not on the reper- toire. There are none of the Slav operas at all. It is fashionable to condescend to Richard Strauss in London, I know, though not anywhere else. The one German opera where you cannot hear a whole row of his works is Vienna. Even Mozart is treated with unconcern lately; a famous and brilliant singer choked on her wine in Cosi and burst out laughing in the audience's face. Was sind das denn far Manieren?

It is not only Karajan and his Italian policy that has gone wrong, though he cannot shed the main responsibility for the almost incredible drop in standards during the last five years. Audience policy is all wrong, too. The opera has been turned into a tourist attraction and is in danger of becoming just that. A large number of seats are parcelled out to the big tourist agencies in America and the European capitals. It is suspected that some of the luxury tours include 'an evening at the world-famous Vienna Opera' in their all-in price. The result is an audience that, at least partly, has come to be seen, to say it was there, and can constantly be heard. A year or so ago, during a festival performance of Mathis der, Maier, for which I had paid double price for my ticket, a loud whirring noise startled me and a hundred others at precisely 7.30. It was followed by a raucous whisper, 'Did you forget to switch off the alarm in your watch?' On many occasions recently people—always foreigners--have been allowed in long after the overture has started. On another occasion a visitor from a far distant land, who had been • given a diplomatic ticket by the Foreign Office, snored serenely through the first act of Parsifal. His unwanted seat was empty after the interval, but his neighbours had paid over £3 for their seats to be insulted by his snores. Why distress the poor man with the great music of Parsifal when he would be de- lighted with Griifin Maritza?

Between the guest tickets for visitors, the tourist quotas and the porters of the big hotels, the general public does not get a look in, unless it can afford such prices, which it cannot. Neither should it have to, for it pays for its opera in its taxes; ,without indulging in folkish cant either of the left or right, it re- mains true that the music, of a big city should belong to its people if it is to stay alive. The galleries and standing space, once filled with poor devotees, can no longer be bought at the door by queueing all day. A single man arrives in the morning and the knowing who can pay his fee give him their names and go away. When the box-office opens he buys ten, or fifty, tickets; the students who have been at their lectures can- not get in. And with the unknowing audience that cares nothing for either music or theatre, standards drop every season. It is now a common- place for every single aria, no matter how mediocre the singing, to be clapped enthusiasti- cally. A poor performance becomes insupport- able and a fine one is ruined. it is a disgusting and barbarian habit, only just permissible after the perfect performance of a great singer or the rare appearance of an old and dear favourite.

Those who would like to hear opera not often played- Henze, Webern, Britten, the old and the modern Italians and, above ill, the great German operas—are better off without glamour in Frank- furt, Hamburg or Stuttgart. It is sad, but unless your German allows you to enjoy the spoken theatre, Vienna is no longer worth the journey that I have willingly taken so many times, just to spend every evening at the opera.