Vienna is a uniquely enchanting city. Its immaculate boulevards, parks and palaces are outward manifestations of an inner civic and cultural complexity. Its coffee houses offer a stylish way to relax that percolates through the city’s cultural offerings. Culture is everywhere in Vienna: jazz piano nights in cafes, nightly ballets and operas and world-famous orchestras are normal here. Engaging with this cultural scene can be surprisingly affordable and is a wonderful way to learn what makes this city tick. Over three performances in three iconic venues, Vienna shows me the true meaning of ‘breathtaking’ and leaves a lasting impression that makes a second visit virtually inevitable.
Day One: Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Musikverein
My first visit is to the Musikverein, where Vienna’s famous New Year’s Day Concert is held. The auditorium provides an impactful introduction to Vienna’s architecture, with chandeliers dripping from the ceiling and gold ornamentation all around. Standing tickets to concerts here only cost seven euros but are not for the faint-hearted – shows can last over two hours! The standing area provides a window to the Viennese concert crowd. Familiar faces jovially greet one another, creating an atmosphere of a social get-together rather than one of sterile stuffiness.
On this occasion, the performance is by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti. Richard Wagner’s ‘The Flying Dutchman’ opens the performance with a jolt. In comparison, Paul Hindemith’s symphony ‘Mathis der Maler’ is decidedly downbeat, especially for the standing ticket-holder who just wants to stretch their legs. However, the music is lifted from its lacuna by Sergei Prokofiev’s livelier ‘Symphony Nr. 3 in C-minor, op. 44’. Overall, this is an affordable introduction to Vienna’s cultural delights and makes me excited to see more.
Day Two: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Konzerthaus
Vienna’s Konzerthaus is a splendid early-twentieth-century auditorium built to give more people access to concerts. On this occasion, the performance is from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring Nicholas Angelich on piano and conducted by Philippe Jordan. Although this show is seated, my seat is behind the orchestra. This means a little loss of sonic quality but enables a fascinating observation of the conductor-to-orchestra relationship, as well as Angelich’s deft piano-playing. The piece being performed is Beethoven’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58’, and the keys and orchestra meld together under Jordan’s expert conducting.
After the intermission, the piano disappears and the orchestra play Beethoven’s slightly less invigorating ‘Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68’. It is fascinating to observe this world-famous orchestra from this perspective, often unseen and more often simply forgotten.
Day Three: Onegin at the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera House)
The Staatsoper is a stunning building, largely reconstructed after WWII bombing in the image of the original. On this occasion, it plays host to the most breath-taking and best-value performance I have ever seen – John Cranko’s 1965 ballet, Onegin.
The Staatsoper’s ten-euro standing tickets are fabled, and the early bird definitely catches the worm when it comes to securing a good standing place. Being closer to the front of the queue means gaining a better position in the auditorium. I ask specifically for the ground-floor standing area, called the ‘stehparterre’, which is the best standing vantage point in the house. The trick is to be front-and-centre, and luckily, I secure this very spot. From the stehparterre’s slight elevation, the music reverberates perfectly, while the action is completely unobstructed. This may well be the best overall position in the house, with the biggest drawback being that you have to stand up! Then, all attention turns to the performance itself.
Cranko adapted his ballet from Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, working with composer Kurt-Heinz Stolze to interpret Tchaikovsky’s music into the score. It is a simple tale: Onegin (Eno Peci) snubs Tatjana’s (Nina Poláková) affections for him, but comes to regret his actions, begging Tatjana for forgiveness while Tatjana turns the tables. The on-stage outcome is a masterful combination of sound and sight, and a powerful example of world-class talent in action.
The sets are rich, ingenious and convincing. Lighting is utilised to stunning effect. The costumes are exquisite, accentuating the performers’ every move with subtle fluidity. The score perfectly responds to the mood of the on-stage action, while the cadences are beautifully crafted and perfectly placed. The pas de deux is deft and delicate, featuring fluid, light movement and a bittersweet undertone that is characteristic of this ballet as a whole. By the first intermission, Onegin’s superb production quality is already apparent.
Act II stands out for its inventive staging. Its key “abandoned park” scene involves masterfully manipulating light to create a sense of darkness. Act III delivers again, with Poláková’s deliberate woodenness in her performance subtly depicting Tatjana’s confliction over Onegin’s advances, while Peci’s frantic movement vividly portrays Onegin’s increasingly domineering desperation. The resolution to this scene is timed so that Tatjana’s simple act of tearing a letter also rips a hole in the expertly-constructed tension in the auditorium. The curtain closes on a deft and dramatic final moment, while the auditorium opens into rapturous appreciation. This is an astounding performance from start to finish.
Vienna lives and breathes its cultural scene. Immersing myself within it has broadened my artistic worldview in unexpected ways. For the price of two Viennese ‘melange’ coffees and a little patience, you too can be granted access to the artistic heart of this uniquely enchanting city.
Illustration: Hazel Laing