It was a massive undertaking by composer Heinz Karl Gruber to set Ödön von Horváth’s 1931 drama about the darker side of Wiener Gemuetlichkeit for the Bregenzer Festspiele last summer. Now the offering has come to roost at the Theater an der Wien. Despite brilliant musicianship, stellar performances, decent stage design and loads of compositional interest, it makes for an evening that can be described as good and impressive, but also tiresome.

Ilse Eerens (Marianne) and Daniel Schmutzhard (Alfred) © Werner Kmetitsch
Ilse Eerens (Marianne) and Daniel Schmutzhard (Alfred)
© Werner Kmetitsch

For those who have not been able to take in one of the numerous theatre productions dotting the Viennese landscape over the past years, the story goes thus: nice Viennese girl, Marianne (Ilse Eerens) abandons her fiancé, Oskar (Jörg Schneider) and has a child with the all around loser and philanderer Alfred (Daniel Schmutzhard). She pays for her one attempt to follow her heart by violently tumbling down the social ladder, becoming a dancer at a nightclub where her heartless father (Albert Pesendorfer) rediscovers her, then finally being accused of theft by slimy “Mister”(David Pittman-Jennings) who tries to turn her into a prostitute. Condemned by the church (Markus Butter's Priest) and society, she finally turns back to Oskar only to find out her evil grandmother-in-law (Anja Silja) has caused the death her child out in the Wachau despite her mother-in-law (Anke Vondung)’s best efforts, by leaving him near an open window at night hoping he will contract a lung infection. Parallel to this, Valerie (Angelika Kirchschlager), a worldly, sexually emancipated Tabak-owner who used to be with Alfred, is now biding her time with the über-German student Erich (Michael Laurenz) and watching over neighbourhood characters including the misogynistic Havlitschek (Robert Maszl) and the management at Maxim's (Alexander Kaimbacher, among other roles).

If that seemed like a lot of characters, we are starting to get to one of the fundamental issues with the piece as an opera. The problem in a word was scope. Conceived for a much larger platform, in the Theater an der Wien the combination of Wiener Symphoniker (who play absolutely spectacularly, by the way) and the Voralberger Jazzensemble is just way too much sound for the limited space. Particularly post interval, the baton of the composer could not do enough to tame the massive beast that was his instrumental score and it was often aurally painful for the audience. This lack of moderation extended to other areas of the composition.

<i>Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald</i> © Werner Kmetitsch
Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald
© Werner Kmetitsch

Gruber combines everything from jazz to musical citations of everything from Puccini to banjo pieces to folk songs. He employs copious modern atonal ostinato, writes original Wienerlieder and even features honky-tonk piano (snatches of an amateur playing “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” on an out of tune instrument, then slamming the lid in frustration). The massive cast sang tonally, atonally, melodically, tunefully, in Sprechgesang, negotiated massive leaps, shouted and generally performed every sort of vocal gymnastic in the book. There was a completely superfluous (but excellent) choir (Vokalensemble Nova), and there were topless dancers, at Maxim's. The entire ensemble, with very few exceptions, sang, played and acted (bravo director Michael Sturminger) with conviction and world class ability, but it really felt like someone threw absolutely every operatic ingredient into the pot, blended it together and thought it would be epic. It tastes like someone could not settle on a specific direction. All the individually brilliant elements blend together into a lumpy brown, and our taste buds recoil from the overload.

Angelika Kirchschlager (Valerie) and David Pittman-Jennings (Mister) © Werner Kmetitsch
Angelika Kirchschlager (Valerie) and David Pittman-Jennings (Mister)
© Werner Kmetitsch

That being said, if you are a lover of good singing and performances, Ilse Eerens and Kirchschlager should both receive awards for their efforts, which are absolutely astounding. There is very little in this three hour work which one can say is not good in and of itself; and much was not just a little good, but truly outstanding. But just as too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth, too much of too many different, disparate good things is just exhausting. And that is where this Viennese story ends. 

***11