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New York City
May 2001

An Operatic Jewel on Lake Zurich
by Irving Spitz

Opera buffs please take note. To hear great opera, go to Zurich. The Zurich Opera may not be the first company that springs to mind when thinking of great opera, but in fact it can hold its own with the most prestigious houses in the world.

Built in 1891, the Zurich opera has a rich tradition of musical excellence and innovation. It hosted the world premieres of Lulu, Mathis der Maler and Moses and Aaron as well as the first legal performance outside Bayreuth of Wagner’s Parsifal. Richard Strauss, Lehar, Busoni, Hindemith and Honegger all personally supervised their compositions in Zurich. Conducting giants including Wilhelm Furtwangler and Carlos Kleiber have mounted its podium and Christoph von Dohnanyi, William Christie, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Nello Santi, John Eliot Gardiner and Riccardo Chailly make regular guest appearances. The current musical director is Franz Welser-Most, who is also the recently appointed director of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Just as impressive is the present roster of singers. The opera is popular with singers in that voices project much better in the restricted space of the Zurich opera house, which only seats 1,100. The Metropolitan in New York, in contrast, seats 3,800.

The season runs from September to July and last year there were a total of 209 performances of 31 operas. The opera house also hosts performances of the Zurich ballet, orchestral concerts and chamber music. In the present season there will be a total of 11 new opera and three ballet productions. For comparison, in its 2000-2001 season, the New York Metropolitan lists 214 performances with five new operatic productions. The annual budget in the Zurich Opera is 100 million SF, which is equivalent to $70 million. Of this budget, 55 percent comes from the Zurich canton, 10 percent from the city and the remainder from box office sales. The current annual operating budget of the NY Metropolitan is $193 million, of which 35 percent comes from contributions, 65 percent from ticket sales and less than 1 percent from government grants.

The casts were very good in those operas I heard, particularly Cecilia Bartoli as Angelina in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, an adaptation of the Cinderella story. Her voice is not large, but she certainly possesses an exquisite instrument, and few singers have her remarkable range. Her Angelina is the “gold standard” by which future aspirants to the role will be judged. The production by Cesare Lievi with direction by Claudia Blersch incorporated elements of Dada and surrealism. This seemed fitting since the Dada movement began in Zurich.

Bartoli also took on the challenging role of Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Getting off to a hesitant start with her opening aria, Ah! Chi mi dice mai, she quickly ascended to greater and greater heights. Her stage presence was such that the opera could have been called Donna Elvira. An interesting facet of the opera was the appearance of Donna Elvira’s maid just prior to the graveyard scene when she let out a loud scream. In almost all productions, the maid is usually alluded to but never seen. The British baritone, Simon Keenlyside, gave an excellent account of the Don, and his voice was rich and commanding. Nikolaus Harnoncourt coaxed inspired playing from this fine orchestra, allowing singers ample freedom for phrasing and expression. On the whole this was a very moving performance.

The Zurich Opera is by no means the only music venue in the city. On the night that I heard Cecilia Bartoli in Don Giovanni, Ann Sophia Mutter gave a recital at the Tonhalle concert hall across the lake. There is no doubt that the Swiss deserve credit; two of the highest paid artists in the world played in one evening in a city with a total population of 360,000. In a recent referendum, the Swiss rejected a proposition of joining the European Union. I have a suggestion. Let the Europeans join Switzerland.


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