Sum­mer spec­ta­cles in Aus­tria

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - KEN­DALL HILL

The Great Wall glows golden, the lake sil­ver, the au­di­ence bronze. The last light of an Aus­trian mid­sum­mer’s day pro­vides a fairy-tale set­ting for Puc­cini’s im­per­fect fairy­tale, Tu­ran­dot.

It is July last year and I am one of about 7000 au­di­ence mem­bers seated in an am­phithe­atre gaz­ing across Lake Constance to Switzer­land and Ger­many while wait­ing for the sun­rays to fade and the show to be­gin.

A voice on the PA in­forms us, in sev­eral lan­guages, that we can buy cush­ions, blan­kets and even Swarovski opera glasses to en­hance our evening.

The float­ing stage for this 70th an­niver­sary pro­duc­tion of the Bre­genz Fes­ti­val is a curv­ing, dragon-like slice of the Great Wall of China guarded by ter­ra­cotta war­riors, some of whom are sub­merged in the lake, oth­ers vis­i­ble over the top of the wall.

A man in a white Mao suit and red crown stum­bles on to stage, ap­par­ently per­form­ing a pre-show mime. I have only a vague idea what’s go­ing on as the li­bretto is in Gi­a­como Puc­cini’s na­tive Ital­ian and the Uber­titeln (sur­titles) are in Ger­man, nei­ther of which I speak. But the spec­ta­cle and singing tran­scend lan­guage bar­ri­ers.

The en­tire Vi­enna Sym­phony Orches­tra re­lo­cates to balmy Bre­genz for the sum­mer sea­son each year.

The stun­ning stage set, con­ceived by Bri­tish de­signer Es Devlin, de­buted in 2015. For Bizet’s Car­men, the fes­ti­val’s 2017-18 pro­duc­tion, Devlin has con­jured an arch of play­ing cards framed by gi­ant hands com­plete with chipped red nail pol­ish.

Co­in­ci­den­tally, the Bre­genz-in­spired Handa Opera on Syd­ney Har­bour also staged Car­men this year.

The ge­nius of Devlin’s Tu­ran­dot set is re­vealed shortly into the first act when the cen­tral wall dis­solves in a bil­low of smoke to re­veal a le­gion of Mao-suited fig­ures — the cho­rus, of course — flood­ing on to the stage. The spec­ta­cle draws gasps from the au­di­ence, but it’s just the first of many stag­ing sur­prises.

In one act the cen­tral disc dom­i­nat­ing the for­ward stage trans­forms into a steam­punk vi­sion of cogs and spin­ning whet­stones; in an­other, it be­comes a rayed sun fram­ing the old king Timur in his wheel­chair, which in turn morphs into a fear­some dragon. And at the end of the show, it swivels up­right to be­come a screen, beam­ing vi­sion of the conductor and orches­tra in their pit on to the stage for a well-de­served ova­tion.

The stage and cos­tumes seem like a cross be­tween a Tim Bur­ton fan­tasy and the Beijing Olympics open­ing cer­e­mony, com­plete with fire sticks, rib­bon twirlers, and a lantern-lit barge glid­ing across a lake scat­tered with flower petals. There are dragons and flags and a foun­tain that starts flow­ing, mag­i­cally, from the wall. I feel like a five-year-old at my first cir­cus.

The fan­tasy of the piece is en­hanced by Puc­cini’s soar­ing mu­sic. The Bre­genz fes­ti­val at­tracts some of the world’s finest per­form­ers: Liu the slave girl, per­formed by Guan­qun Yu, and Timur (Mika Kares) are par­tic­u­lar crowd favourites this night.

But the high­light, nat­u­rally, is the last act, when the whole city is on edge af­ter Tu­ran­dot has or­dered that noone in Pek­ing may sleep un­til the name of her mys­te­ri­ous suitor-prince is re­vealed. The Mex­i­can tenor Rafael Ro­jas lifts his voice into the still night air for a per­for­mance of Nes­sun Dorma — None shall sleep! — that brings tears to the eyes and goose­bumps to the skin.

Opera purists may baulk at the overblown spec­ta­cle but each sum­mer sea­son about 250,000 peo­ple cram into the am­phithe­atre to be trans­ported by these Bre­genz block­busters.

As the London Telegraph’s vet­eran opera critic Ru­pert Chris­tiansen put it af­ter watch­ing a per­for­mance of An­drea Che­nier in 2011, “There’s some­thing un­de­ni­ably ex­cit­ing about opera pro­jected on this lav­ish scale.”

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