Tearing Through Wet Cardboard: Calixto Bieito & Christian Gerhaher Take On Elijah In Vienna

Vienna, February 20, 2019—For opera that’s lightly coated by the dust of centuries, Vienna’s State Opera House is just the thing: A marvel of a musical museum with mainstay works in workmanlike productions and with – all too often – surprisingly shoddy musical contributions. Anyone looking for musical theater with a pulse in the Austrian capital, meanwhile, has to turn their gaze onto the little Theater-an-der-Wien. The theater that sits next to the rivulet that gives the city and venue its name has a storied past, witnessing the premieres of four Beethoven symphonies and operas like Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus and Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow. It fell into disuse and eventually became a home to productions of musicals until, some 11 years ago, it was reborn as an opera house. Ever since it has been a place that tries to give opera a spark with daring productions and a repertoire that explores the less traveled paths, be they baroque or romantic or – occasionally – contemporary. That’s worth a lot in a city where otherwise tradition, however understandably, weighs heavily on its institutions.

One specialty of the stagione-system Theater an der Wien has proven to be fully staged oratorios, Handel’s Messiah and Saul and Schubert’s Lazarus directed by Claus Guth, or Mozart’s Requiem and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio choreographed by John Neumeier among them. This February it was to be Mendelssohn’s Elijah, directed by one-time enfant terrible Calixto Bieito and with the incomparable Christian Gerhaher as the lead.

People who use “Regietheater” as an insult – tantamount to “Eurotrash” – might well be thinking of Calixto Bieito. Excess has been the name of his game, preferably laced with violence and nudity. He has been scandalizing opera audiences for decades, especially at the Stuttgart Opera, which collected several German “Opera House of the Year” awards in the process. Where most critics have it right is that Bieito can be a bit much. Where many have it wrong – especially those beholden to the aforementioned “Regietheater” insult (which signifies nothing so much as ignorance) – is that he is disrespectful of the music or ignorant of the subject or willful in his execution. Those kinds of directors exist (fortunately not very many); Bieito is not one of them. He may distract, he may disturb, but often – if you let him – he will create unforgettable moments and a few insights with his knack for archaic power. You’d think that having him stage Elijah, the story of the mass-murdering religious fanatic whose actions would make any ISIS recruit blanch (a.k.a. “perhaps the most beloved prophet in the Bible”) would have been like throwing raw meat to a ravenous dog.

Not so. Apparently Bieito has grown tame in old age. The result of his production was shocking only for how there was nothing shocking about it. It offered all the interest of watching people tear through wet cardboard for a good two hours. I’m being specific because that is specifically what happened for most of the time. After Elijah’s opening declamation, given by Gerhaher in plainclothes with his hangdog face and sad eyes, Obadjah (Maximilian Schmitt) pulls a stubby Gothic church made of cardboard on stage. Shortly thereafter, the enraged members of the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus smash it again and tear it apart. This act of impotent rage drowned out the very decently performing Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste, but it wasn’t scary. Very un-Bieito. Further tearing that cardboard (wet, after the much implored precipitation finally came to fruition) in ever smaller pieces ends up the chorus members’ main – nearly their only – activity for the rest of the oratorio.

Why soprano Carolina Lippo – shoehorned into the non-existent role Seraph but dressed like a renegade steampunk mime – is made to permanently grin and grimace like the victim of a botched lobotomy remains the production’s secret. Maximilian Schmitt, an incredibly adequate tenor, started out overtaxed, at and beyond his limit and consequently halting, un-lyrical, but caught his stride in time for his beautiful final aria “the righteous shall shine”. Kai Rüütel’s Angel had some moving moments in consoling Elijah; her soprano always accurate but not in a confidence-inspiring way. Among the singers, setting the peerless Gerhaher aside, only Maria Bengtsson truly shone on this second night; wonderfully secure and with concentrated beauty to her soprano – like a brook of clear water.

Gerhaher, if you care about text and declamation and intelligent-yet-natural singing, is the finest singer we have – well beyond just his generation. Think Fischer-Dieskau without the mannerisms. He is not a natural opera singer; he excels in doubt and discomfort (little of which is actually acted). His voice seems to have darkened and gained in volume – arguably at the expense of his usual introspective nuance. I had never heard him flat before, nor strained; on this occasion he was – briefly – both. But of course there also were Gerhaher-typical touches where just one word could bring you to your knees. Like the “Geistern” in “O thou, who maketh thine angels spirits…”, where he tickles the imagination to conjure entire worlds on the strength of fine, aphoristic insinuations. The vocally splendid Arnold Schoenberg Chorus of over-actors and non-actors was dogged by habitual clumsy blocking and a few errant entries. Little of the chorus’ action had any obvious meaning or made much sense. Nor did any actions done unto them: The Angel and Elijah and the Seraph decimated them with a thumb’s throat slash (so far so reasonable; any efficient genocidal maniac needs accessories after all, but they all popped up again like whack-a-mole priests of Ba’al).

In the end, Gerhaher’s Elijah is doused with gasoline, eventually given a lighter, and – after doing nothing much for a long time (we are meant to marvel at the high definition slow motion footage of ravens projected at the back of the stage) – maybe tries to light himself on fire — except nothing happens. Symbolic of a final, ultimate impotence. Whether that of Elijah’s or the production’s is up for debate. Saraste’s performance nicely leaned into the dramatic (for lack of better word) aspect of the production but wouldn’t have been notable for sheen or beauty in a concert setting. The electronic organ sounded like e-music jitter bouncing off the ceiling. In the end, the oratorio – which lives off its highlight moments at the best of times – was made to feel too long and tiresome. Appreciation for the fact that Calixto Bieito didn’t go for obvious shock-and-awe or gore couldn’t mask the feeling of a missed opportunity.