Oresteïa, Karlsplatz, Vienna

History and art overlap as the sun sets over Vienna’s Karlskirche. Cassandra sings of bloodbaths in the House of Atrius and flames lick the water of the 19th-century Karlsplatz pond, painting a Henry Moore sculpture orange while the fading light turns the 18th-century church delicate shades of eggshell.

The Wiener Taschenoper’s new production of Iannis Xenakis’s Oresteïa succeeds best for its ironic sense of place. Catalan directors Carlus Padrissa and Roland Olbeter (of anarchic theatre group La Fura dels Baus) tell Aeschylus’s gory tale with gouts of fire, piles of earth and much rolling around in the city pond. Under the emphatic, level-headed direction of Peter Rundel, Xenakis’s dramatic score is brought to hundreds of urban listeners, all drawn into the tale in a way they would not have been in a conventional opera house.

Swallows, ducks and drunken football fans add their voices to the score. Then the amplification cuts out. The performers, who by now include dozens of white-robed children up to their knees in dirty water, soldier on. No matter.

The baritone, swathed in rags atop a pyramid of ropes in the pond, sings himself hoarse as the pyrotechnics continue to keep the watchers absorbed. There are pots, strings and dots of fire, there are stilts and lifts and boats, processions and ritualised massacres.

Oresteïa, a highlight of this year’s Wiener Festwochen, battles technical and acoustic challenges and wins a small victory for the popularisation of contemporary music. Xenakis’s opera, cobbled together and revised between 1965 and 1992, is loud, dramatic, imaginative and moving, but it could never be described as easy listening.

For all the musical compromises entailed in a sprawling outdoor performance of a complex piece of contemporary music theatre, the Wiener Taschenoper’s production does succeed in taking new music out of the ghetto and on to the streets.

The singers of the Webern Chamber Choir from Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts splash, roll, and leap, Carl Rosman does his best with the swoops and hoots of the baritone solo role, Dirk Rothbrust makes light work of the virtuosic percussion solo, the Remix Ensemble Casa da Música play most of the right notes despite being ankle-deep in stagnant water – and the audience stays engrossed until the end.  

The Wiener Festwochen runs until June 19, www.festwochen.at

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