VIENNA, Austria (AP) – Where to begin about a magical evening of opera, featuring some of the world’s finest singers and conductors performing excerpts from six storied works from Richard Strauss, Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Beethoven?

Perhaps by getting to the reason for the occasion that brought together Christian Thielemann and Zubin Mehta with Placido Domingo, Agnes Baltsa, Bryn Terfel and more than a dozen more opera greats of the stage and orchestra pit.

On Nov. 5, 1955, the newly rebuilt Vienna State Opera reopened for the first time since the dying days of World War II, when it burned after taking a hit from a bomb dropped by a U.S. warplane. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of that day Saturday, the Vienna institution stepped back half a century with gala concert excerpts of Beethoven’s Fidelio – performed at that reopening – and the five subsequent premieres.

Great names alone do not a musical event make, and this evening, too, had its weak moments.

Seiji Ozawa had to settle for an E for effort for his rendition of the Leonora Overture from Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony – a workmanlike performance by the State Opera’s musical director that lacked sparkle and fire despite the maestro’s frenzied efforts at the podium.

Although he redeemed himself with a fluid and sensitive performance of the finale from Fidelio, Ozawa was definitely not the conducting star of the evening – how could he be in the company of Thielemann, Mehta, Daniele Gatti and Franz Welser-Moest?

With Thielemann THE Wagner guru of the day, and Gatti among the strongest contemporary Verdi conductors, the battle lines appeared drawn – but there was no clear winner.

Thielemann led the orchestra in a muscular yet pliant rendition of the overture from the Meistersinger von Nuernberg (The Master Singers of Nurenberg) and a powerful choral vignette from the opera’s 3rd Act.

Gatti countered with excerpts from Aida that focused the State Opera Orchestra in the classical Verdi style of underpinning and complementing – but never upstaging – the singers.

Apropos singers.

Baltsa and Domingo got five stars for the strongest applause even before they uttered a note. When they did – as Amneris and Radames in Aida’s 4th Act – Baltsa occasionally overreached whereas Domingo almost underperformed, perhaps in recognition that even his voice will not last forever.

Violeta Urmana took the prize for pure raw passion, pitch and power as Aida, along with Johan Botha, who took on the role of Ramades in a vignette from the opera’s 3rd Act.

Top honors for ensemble singing went to Soile Isokoski (The Marshallin), Angelika Kirchschlager (Octavian) and Genia Kuehmeier (Sophie) of Strauss’ “Rosenkavalier” (“Knight of the Rose.”)

They, along with Georg Tichy as Faninal, delivered a wonderfully fluid rendition of the final trio and closing duet that Thielemann wove into a musical tapestry of orchestral and vocal delights.

Welser-Moest was nearly as masterful, at least in the orchestral sense, in the second Strauss rendition of the evening – a vignette from “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (“The Woman without a Shadow”) that nonetheless disappointed vocally. Deborah Polansky was emotionless as the Dyer, while Falk Struckmann over-reached as her husband.

Honorable mention for the most noise – and fun – went to Thomas Hampson as Don Giovanni, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Leporello, Isokovski (Donna Elvira), Edita Gruberova (Donna Anna), Michael Schade (Don Ottavio), Ildiko Raimondi (Zerlina) and Boaz Daniel, as Masetto.

And what would a night at the Vienna opera be without a hint of scandal?

Opera director Ioan Hollander took an oblique swing from the stage at Herbert von Karajan, one of the first post-reconstruction artistic directors at the State Opera and a venerated institution among many Austrian music lovers. While not mentioning him by name, he alluded to him among those linked to the Nazis who survived the era and rose to postwar fame.

You could have heard a pin drop.

Austria itself is celebrating its rebirth this year. The country shook off a decade of post-World War II allied occupation 50 years ago and formally became independent May 12, 1955.



On the Net:

Vienna State Opera: http://www.staatsoper.at


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