While the central focus for the majority of festival goers is the spectacular reprisal of last year's Tosca presented on the famous Bregenz Floating Stage, the production playing the indoor Festival Opera House provides a unique opportunity for true opera aficionados. "Rarely-performed" is perhaps an understatement when describing Karl V. "Almost-never-performed" may be a more accurate summation.
The piece was originally commissioned by the Vienna State Opera in 1930 for a scheduled debut in 1934. The still-developing work gained great notoriety when Austrian composer Krenek - having been targeted for what was considered controversial journalistic and musical work - was exiled by the Nazi government and the premiere canceled.
In a clever workaround, portions of the score were adapted and performed in 1936 as a concert suite for soprano entitled Fragmente aus dem B‹hnenwerk Karl V. The opera in its entirety would not receive a full production until 1938 in Prague. By this point Krenek had safely fled to the United States, where he would live (becoming a citizen in 1945) and teach music at various universities until his death in 1991. His students during that time include George Perle, Robert Erickson, Halim El-Dabh, Will Ogdon, and Richard Maxfield.
To date, Karl V has only been staged professionally a handful of times, primarily in Austrian and German cities such as Essen, Duesseldorf, Zurich, Munich, Vienna and Salzburg.
Of great musical significance, the three-hour work is considered to be the first full-length "twelve-tone" opera. This technique devised by Arnold Schoenberg is a way of ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are utilized as often as one another, avoiding the emphasis of any single note. In so doing, all 12 notes are given similar importance and the composition does not fall into a particular key.
The story centers around the life of Emperor Karl V (aka Charles I of Spain and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). Uniquely structured, the plot is told "in the form of flashbacks. On his deathbed, Charles makes his confession to a young monk, explaining his actions, his motives and effects, in an attempt to obtain absolution."
In this particular production German director Uwe Eric Laufenberg has set the entire opera as a history lesson in a school classroom, presenting the emperor as the teacher and the monks as his pupils.
Renowned German baritone Dietrich Henschel takes on the grueling central role. Having made his 1997 international professional debut singing the title role in Busoni's Dr. Faustus at the Opera National de Lyon, other notable credits in his extensive repertoire include Papageno in Die Zauberfl‹te, both the Count and Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro, Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus, Wolfram in Tannh‹user, and title roles in Bocaccio, Don Giovanni and Wozzek.
Also featured in the large-cast ensemble are Chariklia Mavropoulou as Juana, Nicola Beller Carbone as Eleonore, Hubert Francis as Ferdinand, Cassandra Lee McConnell as Isabella, Moritz F‹hrmann as Juan de Regla, Christoph Homberger as Francisco Borgia, Matthias Klink as Franz I, Alexander Mayr as Frangipiani and Thomas Johannes Mayer as Luther/Sultan Soliman. Stefanie Krahnenfeld, Katia Velletaz, Chariklia Mavropoulou, and Katrin Wundsam play the Four Ghosts.
Lothar Koenigs conducts the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, with Anna Szostak leading the Singers' Group of the Katowice City, which serves as the production choir. The design team is comprised of Gisbert J‹kel (sets), Antje Sternberg (costumes) and Wolfgang G‹bbel (lighting).
Having premiered July 23, Karl V will receive two additional performances: July 31 at 7:30 PM and an 11 AM matinee on August 3. Tickets are priced at 40-100 EURO.
The Bregenz Festival 2008 runs from 23 July to 23 August 2008 off the shores of Austria's Lake Constance. For tickets and information in English visit the Bregenz Festival Homepage.
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All photos by Karl Forster for the Bregenz Festival.