L’heure exquise: “Isoldes Abendbrot” with von Otter

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[Dinnertime, or a fangirling Festwochen event: “Isoldes Abendbrot” at Wiener Festwochen, June 4th 2016]

“Isoldes Abendbrot” (Isolde’s Dinner), the Marthaler-staged tribute to the art of Anne Sofie von Otter, will make you laugh and think a lot about dying at the same time.

The evening starts gently, unobtrusively, with the repeat slapstick gimmick of sheet music sliding off the piano: it tiptoes into its own effect, taking its time. Perhaps that is one of its biggest gifts (one often found in Marthaler, in my opinion): the evening unsettles time, slows it down, makes us be more appreciative of it. In its best moments, it appears as if time moves backwards or bends on itself: at one – late – point, von Otter is singing the same song twice, sitting symmetrically opposed the bar for the second take. At other – much rarer – instances, time seems to upend itself in stuttering forward. It is too slow or too fast, never once in balance with itself.

Marthaler slows down the movements of his protagonists, doubles them, has them still to the point of tripping them, then again talk at length to others in attempts at dialog that are actually monologues: talking until people bare themselves in talking too much and listening too little. This dinner scratches away at the frail patina of our poise, but the gaze it offers – much as von Otters bartending Isolde looks through her microscope – at the pathetic struggle for control that is human life is surprisingly tender.

It is an evening of nuance, and von Otter at the bar and the trio of men – Raphael Clamer,  Ueli Jäggi and Graham F. Valentine, plus pianist Bendix Dethleffsen – circling around her (quite literally) come through on that somewhere between Loriot and Chaplin.

There is no overall narrative – von Otter sings some favorites while she tends to the bar and poisons her three colleagues, and we are happy to listen in. The broad array of composers and styles ranges from Baroque to the Southlanders. The first song of the evening is Beethoven’s “In questa tomba oscura”, a piece that deals with a former female love interest –  and von Otter sovereignly, as she always has, moves past stifling gender limits in her art – and the text excerpts even contain some Hélène Cixous, so it’s an evening any self-respecting white shirt should  enjoy even beyond the lead singer.

But oh, the lead singer.

We are sitting in a bar and von Otter sings. Of course her voice has aged, but the way she handles her material is one bottomless display of intelligent artistry. Her top register has thinned out, it takes audibly more work to call it up, but she stlill can call upon it, though she treads carefully there. The vibrato has gotten a little broader, but that signature middle-range core is still there and in remarkable shape.

She easily changes between song and chansons, between pieces with a hand mic and without, adapting seamlessly to the challenges. She never feels like an operatic crossover artist, her presentation of French chansons never is of that awkward appropriating that “entertainment” programs by operatic voices often have.

von Otter, in that bar, made me think about dying.

She herself has passed 60 now, and I have listened to her – perhaps more than to any other singer – for nearly 25 years. Her recordings are a constant presence for me; the day before I went to hear current-day von Otter  this weekend, my wife was blasting the 1990s “Rosenkavalier” under  Haitink while cooking, I just had my annual “Haugtussa” listening… And I was sitting at the concert thinking very marschallinesque: but how can her voice grow older, and show it, and yet be still be the same? How come I hear her now, and how come when I hear her, I return to that point where I first heard her as a teenager?

I have heard and learned so much since then, yet this is still the same: listening to her voice, in a way, is home. The simple, continued existence of von Otter’s voice and the joy of being able to listen to her to how she tells stories and takes stances with that voice, still means that something is right with the world, or at least that it could be.

The whole “Abendbrot” evening is about the frailty of the human self-performance, but in the center of this flailing above the abyss remains a promise of balance: because apart from a hilariously dog-wailed “Boléro” for  four hands and five people, what we hear is still von Otter, still that perfectly tempered voice at the intersection of coolness and warmth, seemingly so effortlessly in sync. The bar stool carousel revolves around it on this evening, and so do we. And if we have to go out: if we can go out listening to von Otter, to the  hope and the beauty that her singing – because it is not just her voice, it is how she employs it –  unpretentiously contains: then it is good.

The evening contains an array of numbers rife with subtle hilarity. There is a priceless hummed Liebestod, during which von Otters Isolde cooks up a potion, gloves snapped on, to then poison the nonverbal choir with a snicker. And of course this Liebestod is interrupted prematurely: there is no final release, and we struggle on, suspended above the end like the Roadrunner’s cartoon self.

And then there are, in the second part of the night,  moments of unerring poetic certainty that manage to stop the clocks in the boudoir of Marie-Theres’. They happen inwardly, with von Otter singing towards the back of the stage: a quiet “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” by Mahler without any great tragic gesture. Or, and much stronger than on the “For the Stars” recording, a rendition of Costello’s “I want to vanish” that anticipates the final disappearance.

Balancing these moments are  gems of absurd fun like the Southlanders’ “I am a mole and I live in a hole” for a 3-voice male choir.

A poignant moment I did not want to put first because that is not the lens through which the evening should be taken, is von Otter singing Barbara’s “Deshabillez-moi” in, yes, that red dress and a luscious wig. She walked out on stage in that outfit and one man in the audience audibly said “Wow.”

And, yes, she does cut a striking figure (and makes fun of that staging in her own goofy backstage photos, in case you follow her on FB), but that is not where the sensual appeal of the moment stems from. That, truly, lies in her singing.

I listened to von Otter before the question of “Do I want to be that or do I want to do that?” was relevant for my life. And in the divide of “Am I more identifying with this? Or am I more attracted to this? (Or both)?”, von Otter has always been linked more closely to identity for me.

But this singing Barbara? Hot damn.

And, really, nevermind the dress, it was all about the stance of her singing and her phrasing, of interacting with the subject/object line the song paints, while in the background, Jäggi and Valentine disrobe awkwardly, compare the length of their belts and get lost in the openings of their sweater vests.

Her material may be frailer today than ten years ago, but how she works with it has never been as masterful. I found myself wishing  for another decade or two of chanson by her, of her being the next Dietrich (with the difference of von Otter actually having a voice, but the parallel really lies in the stance towards the material, both of repertory and of vocal disposition). She does have a chanson recital lined up for Paris early next year, so the stars may have aligned in that regard.

Her French is, in that difficult place of delivery, impeccable beyond mere diction. Her English, sparsely employed here, is fabulously haughty, and her German is a flawless as ever, as she brings the same dedication to Barbara as to a late-romantic Korngold or a pure, poised Beethoven. In the end, one walks out into a balmy Viennese night, simply  grateful for two hours in the company of this much class, artistry and style, without any of these elements ever feeling larmoyant or put-on.  L’heure exquise, indeed.

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