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Ensemble

Disturbingly insinuating

DAVID WILKINS attends the première of
Friedrich Cerha's 'Der Riese vom Steinfeld'
(Vienna Staatsoper, 15 June 2002),
and speaks to the principal singer,
Thomas Hampson, about the opera

 

Thomas Hampson talks about his character in Der Riese vom Steinfeld ('The Giant of Stonefield') as being 'over-dimensioned' but other aspects of the outsized also came into play with this première. It was, first and foremost, a giant opportunity for composer, Friedrich Cerha, to achieve success in that holiest of operatic holies -- the principal house of his home city with a musical pedigree second to none. It was, likewise, a major commitment on the part of the house's Intendant, Ioan Holender, both to his faith in Cerha's music in particular and to the general need for major players in the operatic world to keep largely unadventurous audiences challenged by significant contemporary works. To say that the intentions were commendable might be to flirt with the patronising but to say that they were mightily fulfilled would be an act of profligate generosity. This is a fascinating work on many levels that will need the good fortune of other productions before better 'bedded' responses can be made. It surely deserves a future but gives enough cause for doubt that any thoughts of a new and abiding masterpiece need to be put on hold.

Thomas Hampson as The Giant of Steinfeld and Heinz Zednik as Kaiser Wilhelm II. Photo: Axel Zeininger
Thomas Hampson as The Giant of Steinfeld and Heinz Zednik as Kaiser Wilhelm II. Photo: Axel Zeininger

The text by Austrian playwright, Peter Turrini, was inspired by the true story of a boy chorister who just grew and grew until he was deprived of his musical outlet, his friendships and chances of human warmth and was, eventually, taken up by a scheming exploiter who touted him around the freak-shows of Europe. In his continuous fourteen-scene treatment, Turrini adds an ambiguous mother who lets her so-dependent son leave home with a pretty obvious crook, a waif of a girl who becomes besotted with the Giant and a number of increasingly eccentric encounters with the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm and Queen Victoria. A Jewish boy has aspirations to become Director of the Vienna Opera (a Gustav Mahler in-joke that didn't seem to register with most of the audience) and the obliteration of Europe's Jewish communities is foreseen. Meantime, the Giant accepts his exploitation in the innocent belief that money is being sent home for his mother to buy a field. Our knowledge of his 'impresario's' self-serving depravity, let alone the name of the Giant's village, leaves the dramatic irony a touch heavy-handed.

Diana Damrau as Imelda and Thomas Hampson as The Giant. Photo: Axel Zeininger
Diana Damrau as Imelda and Thomas Hampson as The Giant. Photo: Axel Zeininger

 

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Copyright © 1 September 2002 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, Sussex, UK

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VIENNA STATE OPERA

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