Vienna is a smile in your face and a knife in your back. Vienna is a leering dance with death. Think sugary Strauss waltzes to the smell of rotting flesh. Ödön von Horváth’s 1931 play Tales from the Vienna Woods takes a twisted view of Johann Strauss Jr’s 1868 waltz of the same title. During his lifetime, he considered teaming up with Kurt Weil to make an opera of the work.
Three-quarters of a century later, the Bregenzer Festspiele has finished what Horváth began, handing the compositional task to the consummately Viennese HK Gruber.
What would Weil have made of Strauss’s saccharine zither? Gruber hands it to Horváth’s baby-killing grandmother. She strums the instrument while manipulating her son Alfred into abandoning the mother of his child. Anja Silja is deliciously vicious in the role, savage and ineluctable, Kostelnicka and Herodias rolled into one.
Gruber, who turned 71 this year, is the focus of this year’s Festival in Bregenz, the last under David Pountney’s leadership. His Tales was originally scheduled for 2012, but he needed more time to finish the piece.
At Wednesday’s premiere, you could see why. Tales from the Vienna Woods is not the slapstick ebullience of Gruber’s famous Frankenstein. This is the opposite of Verdi’s Falstaff, a serious work at the end of a long career of hilarity. Michael Sturminger’s libretto follows Horváth’s work closely. Gruber describes himself as a member of the “third Viennese school”, ostensibly a subversion of the more earnest work of his forebears. But beneath the satire there has always been a layer of genuine respect for his compositional elders. Gruber’s debt to the second Viennese school has never been more audible than it is here. Tales from the Vienna Woods leans closely on Alban Berg’s Lulu and Wozzeck, and Gruber makes liberal use of quotes and references.
With Gruber himself on the podium and stage direction by the librettist, Wednesday’s premiere was certain to be close to the intentions of the work’s creators. Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser’s sets and video projections provided a necessary element of irony, with grim depictions of today’s Donau and suburban Vienna. A superb cast gave meticulous polish to Gruber’s vocal lines, which closely followed the rhythms of Horváth’s words, sat well, and hovered between tonality and fragmentation. Ilse Eerens well captured the innocence, willfulness and desperation of the fallen Marianne; Daniel Schmutzhard was smooth and creepy as the playboy Alfred; Jörg Schneider kept the part of Oskar, the butcher to whom Marianne is betrothed, just this side of sinister, while Angelika Kirchschlager exuded humanity and vivacity as Valerie.
Good as the singers were, it was ultimately Gruber’s deft orchestration that most impressed. Solid playing from the Wiener Symphoniker gave full scope for his clever colours, his droll references, and his fine sense of balance.
Tales from the Vienna Woods is a well-crafted, weighty, and wordy. Horváth’s tale is a timeless satire of gossipy hypocrisy, and Gruber is a worthy substitute for Weil. Even so, the evening dragged. Will the work have a future? Only time will tell.