“That was the hour when it all began,” Adolf Hitler told Winifred Wagner in 1939. He was recalling the first time he heard Wagner’s Rienzi at Linz’s Landestheater, an event described in detail by his childhood friend August Kubizek. Hitler dreamed of Linz as a cultural capital, and wanted to build a substantial new opera house next to the main station.
Last weekend, Linz’s brand new opera house next to the main station opened its doors, titling its maiden events The Beginning. The allusion was presumably unintentional. For 100 years, Linz has wanted a new theatre; Hitler was only a bit player in a long parade of people fighting for the building. Work had already begun on the planned Theater im Burg in 2000 when the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) intervened with a referendum to halt the project.
It was the determination of state governor Joseph Pühringer that drove the new project, despite repeated setbacks, to last weekend’s successful opening. Architect Terry Pawson’s winning design required the shifting of a major road, yet the whole project was completed on schedule and to budget over three years – a rare thing anywhere.
Linz’s new Musiktheater cost just under €180m. The glazed loggia of the unpretentious façade opens directly on to the Volkspark, until recently a seedy patch of grass surrounded by dubious shops and avoided at night by the sensible. Pawson describes the building as “a living-room for the city”. Its spacious foyers are open to the public during the day, and offer restaurants, interactive sound installations and information displays to augment the offerings of the 1,200-seat auditorium and a subterranean “black box” performance space.
Pawson has devised a functional structure that is crisp yet gentle, and that feels both inviting and egalitarian. Both Landestheater intendant Rainer Mennicken and the responsible politicians seem united in a determination to prove to the citizens of Linz that the new house will be a place for everyone, not an elitist ivory tower. This thinking clearly guided the programme of the opening weekend, of which the highlight was the world premiere of a new opera by Philip Glass, with a libretto based on Austrian playwright Peter Handke’s play Spuren der Verirrten (The Lost).
From a distance, both choices seem odd. For a start, there are a great many living Austrian composers whose music is vastly more interesting than that of Glass. Second, Handke’s deconstructive end-of-the-world theatre piece, poetic but lacking both coherence and narrative, makes a startlingly pessimistic opening statement and is spectacularly ill-suited to Glass’s brand of hypnotic minimalism.
Handke’s text is a series of disconnected vignettes which deal with loneliness, defeat, war, love, loss, hate and the end of the world. For the occasion, Glass has added alphorns, zither and electric guitar to a full symphony orchestra, chorus, childrens’ chorus and large cast. All play or sing the ascending and descending scales, arpeggios and rhythmic patterns that have characterised his music since the 1970s. Has Glass remained true to himself or simply not evolved? The score’s most interesting moments are when the orchestra is pared down to small chamber ensembles; the whole is pervaded by an aura of weary melancholy at odds with the dramatic utterances of the text.
Dennis Russell Davies kept a tight grip on Linz’s Bruckner Orchestra and held a fine cast well together. Stage director David Pountney, choreographer Amir Hosseinpour and their design team threw every conceivable device at the piece in a worthy but doomed struggle to lend it interest and substance. Yes, the costumes were colourful, the dance was expressive, the double revolving stage was impressive, the ensemble was competent, and the whole vast effort worked like clockwork. But none of these things made it a good piece.
Outside, anarchistic Catalan street theatre company La Fura dels Baus’s no-expense-spared hour-long pyrotechnic take on Parzival mesmerised a vast and eclectic crowd of Linz citizens. A glib account of John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe’s harmlessly entertaining Witches of Eastwick musical further demonstrated to the local populace that they can go to the new building without fear of being confronted by anything too uncomfortably cutting-edge.
But it was up the road at the old Landestheater, in the chamber hall adjacent to the theatre where Hitler was inspired to raise his sights from architecture to world domination, that the weekend’s most interesting offering was to be found.
Gerhard Willert’s play Land der Lämmer (Land of Sheep), “a dramatic kaleidoscope about 12 March 1938”, marks the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss, and takes a hard look at matters glossed over in most of the speeches celebrating the new house’s opening. It is a bold, gripping examination of the fact that Austria welcomed Hitler with open arms, and of the peril of denial.