Disembarking in the opera festival town of Bregenz I realised that this was the seventh year in a row I’d been here – the previous years were working trips, but now I was a carefree visitor. In fact, even my working memories of Bregenz are carefree – whatever the problems, there’s always the lake to meditate on for a few minutes, everyone bicycles to work ( occasionally you can ski to work in the winter) and with miles of accessible shoreline, there’s every excuse for a quick dip.
Above all there has been the inspiring leadership of festival director David Poutney, always ready to give you a hearing, to offer practical advice and straightforward criticism while radiating his own mighty artistic consciousness. In a weighty tome published to celebrate his eleven years of Bregenz Festivals (he retires this summer) he says “Art is a jewel, it’s wealth which must be made available to a wide public”.
His bold attitude – in particular, commissioning large-scale new operas and presenting them in a full-size opera house – was fully vindicated by a sold-out run of Tales from the Vienna Woods by HK Gruber. Together with everyone sitting near me, I loved this new piece, based on the 1931 play by Ödön von Horváth. Setting a play to music, even with extensive cuts, is always a mammoth task for the composer, and this performance lasted nearly three hours; but even that didn’t frighten me off, so skilful and idiomatic was the vocal writing. The orchestral writing too was gorgeous. Gruber (understandably) said in a programme interview that he didn’t wish to appear as a professsional Viennese-r; but in the best possible way, I thought this was the most Viennese thing I’d ever heard. No-one but he could have mashed up so many familiar elements with such elan and flow – but there was also a sensitivity and beauty which I haven’t up to now associated with his work, even though I’m a longtime fan. Above all, the drama exudes humanity and recognisable characterisation, which so often seems to be against the law nowadays.