January 16, 2012 5:38 pm

Tannhäuser/Così fan tutte, Lisbon

Performances of Wagner and Mozart illustrate the contrasting fortunes of state- and privately funded opera at a time of austerity

When Guglielmo and Ferrando sing their second-act duet, they accompany themselves at the hotel lobby’s piano. Fistfuls of glitter flutter past the frosted-glass windows. We know that the idyll is fake, but for a moment, it seems possible to suspend disbelief.

Guy Joosten’s Così fan tutte, at Lisbon’s Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, moves Mozart’s action to a hotel that crosses Death in Venice with Fawlty Towers. The men are naval officers whose disguise consists of shiny suits and sunglasses; the women cannot have been fooled for long, but maybe that’s the point.

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“Hey, let’s get really drunk and swap partners!” seems to be the guiding premise. Joosten’s production, new in Antwerp 15 years ago, is showing its age – which is unsurprising. The big surprise here is that the curtain went up on this Lisbon premiere at all.

Portugal’s austerity cut of 20 per cent on all public services has hit the country’s only opera house with full force. The amount cut corresponds exactly to the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos’s operating budget, leaving only enough to cover the salaries of staff on contract. Artistic director Martin André did the only thing he could: he cancelled the entire season, starting again from scratch.

Built in 1794, Lisbon’s opera house has weathered several storms already. It was forced to close its doors in 1812 and 1912. Andre prefers to ignore theories of a “12th-year” curse, and has dubbed 2012 a “year of administrative reform and re-thinking”. For now, that means more orchestral concerts, more co-productions and partnerships, fewer guests and more Portuguese singers – none of these necessarily bad things. With hospitals and schools facing identical cuts, the opera cannot be seen to make too much of a fuss.

When he took over his current post last year, André inherited a house left in lamentable shape by his predecessor, Christoph Dammann. Under his leadership, subscriptions fell by 75 per cent. Così, however, drew a full house on opening night; the audience is clearly willing to be loyal in times of trouble. André has assembled a cast that, from Eduarda Melo’s fiery Despina and João Merino’s wiry, winning Gugliemo to Jorge Vaz de Carvalho’s plodding Don Alfonso, ranges from fine to average. Erik Nielsen keeps tempi crisp and maintains a coherent sense of style throughout.

For the kind of singing that keeps you on the edge of your seat, it is necessary to take the blue Metro line six stops north to the Gulbenkian Foundation’s concert hall. There, last weekend, a top-drawer cast sang Wagner’s Tannhäuser in two concert performances.

When Johan Botha sings, listening ceases to be an act of free will. The voice draws you in, and you are carried on the long, emotional phrases. Melanie Diener’s Elisabeth and Manuela Uhl’s Venus are less extraordinary, but both are robust, considered and sometimes moving; Falk Struckmann’s Landgraf is exemplary. The smaller roles, too, are well-cast. Job Anrantes Tomé’s Wolfram sounds overwhelmed at first, but the voice unfolds as the evening progresses, showing a surprising capacity to express both tenderness and vulnerability; and Ana Maria Pinto’s brief moment as the shepherd is strikingly sensual.

Bertrand de Billy drives the pace forwards and holds the reins short. His is a well-crafted Tannhäuser with occasional flashes of wit but little poetry. He directs an orchestra in good shape, and a superb choir. The Gulbenkian Foundation, running on money bequeathed by the entrepreneurial Armenian Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955), is not subject to the vagaries of public funding and can proceed with its lavish programming largely untroubled by the crisis troubling its homeland.

Now halfway through his first five-year term, the Gulbenkian’s head of music, Risto Niemenen, continues to revitalise an institution that was always on a solid footing. New music, cinema, world music, jazz and chamber music are grouped around main themes (this season’s is Wagner); Niemenen also encourages partnerships, including exchanges with the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos.

Despite the crisis, ticket sales in both houses have remained constant. The citizens of Lisbon clearly feel that music is not an area where they can afford to save. When creativity and determination from the opera meet generosity and vision from the Gulbenkian Foundation, there is cause to hope. Neighbouring countries should watch with interest; they will soon be in the same boat.

2 stars

www.saocarlos.pt

4 stars

www.musica.gulbenkian.pt

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