Operatic Jewel on Lake Zurich
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
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
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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