Vienna first night: Jonas bored, conductor booed

Vienna first night: Jonas bored, conductor booed


norman lebrecht

December 01, 2022

The Vienna State Opera opened a revival of André Chenier last night with Jonas Kaufmann as the main draw. Larry L. Lash review it, exclusively for Slipped Disc.

By Larry L. Lash
01 December 2022

VIENNA — Wiener Staatsoper put on Andrea Chénier last night: overall a bad, sad evening despite the ticket-selling presence of Jonas Kaufmann.

The first to blame: Umberto Giordano. „Andrea Chénier“ needs all the help it can get, and last night it got none. What a cheesy, one-tune, shabby little shocker it can be! And the tune ain’t that great.

It is likely the worst I have seen from Otto Schenk (oh! wait! the Met „Ring“!). His name has been removed so it is credited as „Nach einer Inszenierung von …“ („After a production by …”). No one takes credit. Dating to 1981, it consists of a totally bare stage, a few painted bedsheets, and some chairs which come and go. There is no staging outside of basic blocking: chorus on, chorus off; everyone left to him/herself.

Maria Agresta, debuting as Maddalena, sounded interesting in some live radio broadcasts (don’t ask me of what or from where). The voice last night was one-dimensional (loud), not very pleasant, with a tendency to sing under pitch and ahead of the beat. She even omitted the phrase leading to the high note in „La mamma morta“ and just lunged toward a scream which landed south of what is asked by the score.

As Carlo Gérard, George Petean gave the most complete performance. He has an oddly endearing stage presence, knows how to work a house when he has no staging except to stand, face front and sing, but … but … but that break at the passaggio. He clearly knows about it as you could hear him working to mask it (sometimes successfully), but the power of the voice diminishes and there is a slightly more-muted tonal quality (the voice itself is basically mellow; not cutting). „Nemico della patria“ showed the most professional, solid singing in the whole show.

Jonas K’s proud poet clearly wanted something/someone to work with and found himself quite literally alone. It impacted his entire performance. He sang carelessly, kept playing with dimuendi, pianissimi and head voice, and just looked – and sounded – outright bored. He faced front, tried to find something to do (which there wasn’t) so he was reduced to some limited arm-waving. His wasn’t a bad performance per se, but it was far below the level I have come to expect from him.

The audience – outside of Jonas’s usual adulators – wasn’t having a good time, either. There was a total of two sets of curtain calls while everyone was running up the aisles (very rare for a Jonas show).

When Francesco Lanzillotta, who previously conducted only three „I puritani“ in the house in 2019, stepped out for his solo call, booing began. I was startled to think anyone else found as much fault/blame coming from the pit, but there were a lot of people booing and I joined in, spontaneously shattering a self-imposed rule which stood for more than 20 years.

The guy seemingly doesn’t know the score, or how to communicate with his singers. The chorus sang on several different beats and was totally blown apart when an offstage band entered at a distinctly different tempo. Agresta was constantly tugging at him to get things moving, so she sang consistently ahead of the beat, trying to egg him on, but got no help. Overall, the orchestra was obscenely loud, covering everyone in solo passages and ensembles. Jonas gritted his teeth and soldiered on, testing his ability to communicate with a conductor, and found that he simply could not; he just gave up and did what he had to do to get paid and go home.

The company, too, needs to evaluate the need for two intervals, one after Act I and another after Act II. All that need be done onstage is to remove the sheets from the contessa’s drawing room, take out the fancy chairs and bring on the pile of wooden chairs. That’s it. Could be done in 90 seconds. But no: a needless 30-minute pause, a 25-minute act, and then another 30-minute pause. There is no reason on this planet why a performance of „Andrea Chénier“ should last 180 minutes.

I was shocked to see my entire row in the uppermost Galerie empty out as soon as the curtains closed: it was composed entirely of kleine alte Damen who cackled bravi at Jonas at every opportunity.

Bizarre footnotes:

When Agresta got to the passage in „La mamma morta“ in which she describes the fire which killed her mother, a woman began screaming offstage, like an untamed Klytämnestra being murdered by Orest. I thought it might be an errant climate activist, and the house gasped as one, but Agresta kept going and the moment passed without explanation. Was this part of some forgotten concept by Schenk which remains in the prompt book?

Leaving the house on the von Karajan-Platz side, I almost stumbled across a sad, tiny shrine (candles, some supermarket flowers, a handmade sign) dedicated to opera and wannabe rock star Peter Hoffmann on the anniversary of his death 12 years ago. It was left on the steps of the opera house, so it was impossible to ignore. I hope no one’s coat caught on fire.

Next up: can Marin Alsop redeem John Adams’ „Fearful Symmetries“ on Sunday (one of his symphonies which he refuses to call a symphony; there are a lot of them and they are egregiously underplayed, especially „El Dorado“ and „Naïve and Sentimental Music“, as well as „The Dharma at Big Sur“ which is actually a concerto for electric violin)? Last I heard from her she enlightened a Henze orchestral rarity followed by one of the worst Mahler V.’s I’ve ever fretted through. Bless the RSO-Wien: they do their best.

Andrea Chénier plays through 09 December; all performances are sold-out. For those of you with morbid curiosities, it will be livestreamed on ORF’s Ö1 radio station on Saturday (19:00 CET) and archived for a week.

Press photo Michael Pohn/WSO


  • Bloom says:

    Jonas Kaufmann had already sounded awful in the previous charity show and shouldn’t have performed last night. But I guess that with all the Xmas biscuits and Xmas carols and other fakes he has been promoting lately, bad opera singing is becoming something of a reality test.

  • Dixie says:

    Sounds like par for the course for Bogdan & Co. The entire Wiener Staatsoper, I do mean ENTIRE, from Bogdan on down to the lowliest of the lowly including especially the Orchestra (which is, by the way, the Vienna Philharmonic in disguise) should do some intensive soul-searching. I did not attend the performance, and that for all the reasons stated in the review.

    • Ebbaanders says:

      Of course you already knew in advance. Hahaha. Btw J.K. has a cold as we learned at the charity concert (but none of you can speak german – what for …).
      And Mr. Lash, the name is Peter Hofmann!

      • Dixie says:

        Sorry about that: If anyone wants a translation of my German comment, please just let me know!!!

      • John Soutter says:

        Johnny Cough has a cough?

      • Dixie says:

        First of all, mind your manners and do NOT assume! Think of the line from the Odd Couple … I am fluent in German, both spoken and written. Since my German comment was deleted, let me try again in English. After having 50+ years of experience as an opera-goer, which started in Vienna, I did not attend the performance for the very reasons expressed in the review. Even on paper it did not bode well. True, Schenk’s Chenier production is not one of his best and the intermissions are tedious. But this is not the main problem. Those who acuse the reviewer of attending an opera which he presumably does not like all that much is also not valid. It is the music that counts, nothing else. I have attended performances of operas of which I was not particularly fond, but if they were well sung and played, I enjoyed every minute. In addition, a singer once told me that one should have only roles in one’s repertoire that one can sing even when one is not well. Another singer told me that there were only a few days in any calendar year when the voice was optimal, but unfortunately on such days there were seldom engagements scheduled. Bottom line: If JK had followed the above advice on repertoire, neither he nor his fans would have to worry if he were not fully well. However, JK has in the course of time undertaken roles which, in my opinion, were detrimental to his voice – and the results are now obvious to all, even to his fans whether they want to admit it or not.

        • Helen says:

          I don’t agree with your analysis re JK. I do not believe a singer whoever they may be can perform at the optimal at all times. It is almost impossible. Whether you like Mr Kaufmann or not it cannot be denied that he has a unique voice and a charismatic stage presence. He was under par at the recent gala concert, and it is hard from snippets on FB to judge his performance on Wednesday night. Surface it to say the orchestra was so loud it was hard to hear anybody. All I will say as a fan of JK for many years, that I find him fascinating. His voice has brought me joy through many tough times in my life. His voice more than any other. I last heard him live in London in March this year. He sounded wonderful. People may snipe ( why I never know. If you don’t like, don’t listen) but this guy has given me so much pleasure listening to him that I hope he will continue for some time yet. So yes, I am one of JK’s adoring fans that Mr Lash is so dismissive of, and glad of it!

        • Ebbaanders says:

          “a singer once told me that one should have only roles in one’s repertoire that one can sing even when one is not well” – doubt you would find anyone else. Ridiculous, we would end up with “Hänschen klein …”. And there is a difference between feeling not well and being sick. Of course he was able to sing the part and with the pianissimo and crescendo on the A-flat in the “ora soave”. So what.

  • Bloom says:

    And probably they didn t rehearse at all or not enough for a professional show. Because the production was old and, seemingly, unproblematic (at least the Regietheater forces them to rehearse more) , they are stars , because the tenor was/is busy with recording Xmas shows and so on and so forth.

  • Simon A B says:

    A highly entertaining and thoughtfully knowledgeable review. I had a very good sense of what it must have been like to be there (not good) and appreciated the detailed musical comments. But for a production by one of the world’s leading opera houses – really! Could not a young up-and coming house producer have been charged with doing something with the production? The interval situation was particularly ludicrous .

    • Cynthia Chase says:

      Well, actually it was sort of pleasant having those interludes, in the Mahler Saal. Il fallait quand meme discuter, parler ensemble.

  • Luca says:

    A coat doesn’t ‘catch on fire’ it ‘catches fire’.

  • Luca says:

    I always enjoy ‘Andréa Chénier’, especially when sung by Del Monaco and Callas. It’s an opera that runs swiftly with two fine arias for each of the two principals.

    • PB says:

      I love the opera and have performed in a production of it but despite the obvious “fireworks” in the tenor and soprano roles, I always considered the big baritone aria to be the real gem…..

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Oh dear. Boom boom.

  • Susan Jane Mitchell says:

    We have a wonderful David McVicar production of Chenier at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in which Jonas Kauffmann excelled at all performances. It can be a wonderful experience.

    • Liz says:

      The fact that 32 people chose to down-vote your very sensible comment speaks volumes about them. Some simply cannot get over trying to rubbish Kaufmann – I think it’s known as Tall Poppy Syndrome.

  • M McGrath says:

    You say it wasn’t a bad performance by Kaufmann. But what you describe is indeed a bad performance. He has often been bored, or uninvolved, in his parts – and it is nothing new.

    That an Otto Schenk production (and other ancient shows) is still around should make people wary. But common sense does NOT rule in Vienna and so the Staatsoper delivers endless mediocre evenings of opera. That, too, has been standard for many, many years. There are many reasons but it’s not really worth discussing. For good opera go to Theater an der Wien. It is in fact what drove Philip Jordan to exit his post in Vienna. NOBODY can fix the Staatsoper.

    So be smart. Be hyper-selective (perhaps evenings with NEW productions under Welser-Möst?). Avoid the routine repertoire performances in this house that has very little rehearsal time and orchestra members that are constantly changing on short-notice (part of the Vienna Philharmonic’s contract…). Avoid the Staatsoper. Leave it to the tourists, diplomats and the diehard fans of whoever.

    • Ebbaanders says:

      Welser-Möst left because of manager Dominique Meyer. Now there is Bogdan Roscic and Welser-Möst is back. And so is Jordan. In the last two months there were almost none mediocre routine performances. A lot of old productions are now replaced by new ones but it takes time. Wiener Staatsoper is a Repertory Opera House, Theater an der Wien stagione. You can’t compare. And nobody was bored on the stage – what an arrogant review.

      • Larry L. Lash says:

        Philippe Jordan has announced that he will not renew his contract when it expires in June 2025 and that he is giving up not just Staatsoper, but ALL opera. Der Standard reported this afternoon that Bogdan Roščić is eliminating the position of Music Director after Jordan leaves. Judging from what I heard from the pit on Wednesday night, I am not optimistic.

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    Since it’s sold out for the entire run, it doesn’t need to be good.

  • Tiredofitall says:

    It appears Mr. Lash could do with a Midol.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    If this Larry L. Lash person hates Andrea Chenier so much, how can he possibly be expected to give it an impartial review?

    • Larry L. Lash says:

      I most certainly do not “hate” “Andrea Chénier” – I have enjoyed some memorable, thrilling performances of it, particularly at Bregenz and Budapest.

      But I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who considers it a masterpiece. It needs help – that is, it needs a committed, interactive cast, a conductor with a good sense of theatre, and a coherent production.

      These were all missing on Wednesday.

      There are tons of lesser operas that I love, if/when they are given a bit of help. Off the top of my head, “Attila” is one.

      “Andrea Chénier” is pretty much textbook verismo, but I think it really helps one understand the greatness of Puccini.

      And I walked into Staatsoper looking forward to a great evening. As I stated, I had been impressed with Agresta’s voice on radio broadcasts; as stated in previous reviews I hold Petean in high esteem; Kaufmann is variable, but under ideal conditions I can’t think of a more exciting tenor in our time.

      Maybe I should have stated it this way: Respect for Giordano was lacking in just about every aspect.

      • Fred Plotkin says:

        I consider Andrea Chénier a masterpiece and love other works by Giordano. But it has to be led by an outstanding conductor, staged with focus and care and enough rehearsals. And one needs the right singers. On my short list of greatest opera performances I have been to was a 1979 Chénier in Barcelona with Carreras and Caballé

      • Greg Bottini says:

        “The first to blame: Umberto Giordano. „Andrea Chénier“ needs all the help it can get, and last night it got none. What a cheesy, one-tune, shabby little shocker it can be! And the tune ain’t that great.”
        Your words, “Larry L. Lash.”

  • trumpetherald says:

    You can´t rescue this dreary,cheesy,ridiculously melodramatic sorry effort of an opera anyway….

  • William Evans says:

    Larry Lash – an apt name, indeed!

  • Kevin Purcell says:

    My personal opinion is that Andrea Chénier is a wonderful opera. I don’t know anything about the critic, Larry L. Lash, but I would opine you have to cast doubt on anyone who so demeans this opera as having so little virtue. That said, Mr. Lash’s review of the performance he attended might, nevertheless, be well founded.

  • BobR says:

    Enjoyed the perceptive review, but why the criticism of Schenk and his Ring? Compared to most productions since (esp Bayreuth and yes, the MET) his staging was classic.

    • Tiredofitall says:

      Because Schenk-bashing has become a favorite sport in recent years…second in popularity only to Zeffirelli-thrashing. Both directors made significant contributions to opera and theater, albeit in a different era. We should all be grateful to these talented gentlemen and respect their largely successful efforts. Theater box offices certainly were (and continue to be), as well as millions of–and not entirely ignorant–audience members.

  • CRogers says:

    This review is absolutely awful. This reviewer needs to get his prejudices out of the way. Andrea Chenier is an outstanding opera. This review is full of vague references and idiotic commentary designed to show off. It’s not a serious review.

  • Warrick Snowball says:

    If the reviewer has such a low opinion of the opera, why did he bother going?

  • Madeleine Richardson says:

    I can remember Domingo in the title role in Vienna and the curtain calls went on forever.

    • Dixie says:

      Yes, they did go on forever due to his die-hard fans who, not only in the case of Chenier, regularly extended the applause for him artificially, similar to his extending his career artificially by pretending to be a baritone.

  • justsaying says:

    Lash puts his finger on a problem but fails to name it. The idea that a stage director should be the principal “interpreter” of an opera – new in the 1970s, now universal – means that in a revival of a very old production, or a not-very-interpretive production, singers are left to their own devices. But because they have been conditioned to be soft clay in the hands of an über-Interpret, they no longer have devices.

    The comparison to the old Met Ring is apt: did the production, in and of itself, have anything new to say about the Ring? No, it simply gave an appropriate environment for ARTISTS who had something to say through their portrayals. And some of those artists had quite a lot. There were thrilling nights in the long run of that Ring. People are kidding themselves if they think the productions we have now are generating the same kind of audience involvement and emotion.

  • Yes Addison says:

    The production team was booed by a significant portion of the audience when this production was new, with Beňačková, Domingo, and Cappuccilli (all of whom were received very well). It’s surprising that it has lasted this long…but then, other things surely have taken priority.

    I hate this opera, but I’ve seen my share of performances of it. Sometimes it’s that way with the standard repertory, especially when you might want to hear one or more of the singers. There is what they have to work with and then there is what they might get out of it. Very little, it sounds from this review.

  • Peter Henson says:

    You were there so I can’t dispute your evaluation of the production, but I can dispute your comment about Andrea Chenier per se.I have seen many productions and whether moving, exciting or in the case of the Michael Hampe production just plain terrifying they all made for a rewarding experience in the theatre, and although historical fiction added to ones knowledge of the causes and the excesses of the French Revolution.

  • Larry L. Lash says:

    If anyone bothers to read this far down in the Comments at this late date, Mr Kaufmann has just cancelled tonight’s performance and will be replaced by Stefano La Colla. It is being broadcast live by ORF.

    For those of you who are having a good chuckle about my name, ask my parents about their choice. Here’s more material for your laughter: my middle name is LeRoy (it was my father’s given name).

  • David Hornby says:

    It sounds a truly awful performance. But if you really think there’s only one tune in Chenier, you need to get to know the opera a lot better! Its flow of melody is one of the reasons that recordings of the work remain so popular. When performed by great singers in a convincing production, the opera really can work

  • Fritz Grantler says:

    You do not like the opera – so don`t go….

  • Liz says:

    Preumably Mr Lash has not seen the Royal Opera production, which featured Kaufmann in sovereign voice, and which persuaded us that ‘Andrea Chenier’ is in fact a very fine opera?