A short sojourn in Vienna

From the magical realm of Dvorak to the real world of Bruegel.

The Sucide of Saul by Pieter Brugel  (photo credit: KHM - MUSEUMSVERBAND)
The Sucide of Saul by Pieter Brugel
(photo credit: KHM - MUSEUMSVERBAND)
VIENNA – A recent visit to Vienna afforded two magical moments – the Vienna State Opera’s revival of Dvorak’s fairy tale operatic masterpiece Rusalka and a visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum to view a blockbuster exhibition commemorating the 450th anniversary of the death of the Flemish master, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
The libretto in Rusalka relates how the water nymph, Rusalka, falls in love with a prince and desires to assume a human form. With the help of the water goblin and the witch Jezibaba, she gains her wish but sacrifices her ability to speak. Initially the prince is enchanted by Rusalka, but unable to communicate with her, he rejects her and transfers his affections to a foreign princess. By betraying Rusalka, the prince dooms both of them. Filled with remorse, the prince begs for a final kiss. Although Rusalka warns him that her embrace will cost him his life, he insists. He dies in her arms, and Rusalka sinks back into the lake.
Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production initially premiered in 2014. Rolf Glittenberg’s elegant sets cleverly divided the stage into two levels to separate the mythical water world of nymphs, a goblin and witch from the real world of the prince and his entourage. The upper level utilized plexiglass doors, where many of the central characters could often be seen in silhouette. The lower level featured three twisted, largely leafless trees. In keeping with the surreal world, all characters kept discretely to themselves and had little contact with each other.
Danish soprano Camilla Nylund took on the challenging role of Rusalka. When required, she unleashed with shattering force her gleaming powerful upper register and chilling top notes. She rendered her great aria, the “Song to the Moon” with ardor and tenderness, and this was unquestionably one of the major highlights of the evening. Her dramatic acting and singing were most moving in the opera’s closing moments when her kiss condemned the prince to death. However, on occasion, her lower register was somewhat strained and often could not be heard above the orchestra.
Brandon Jovanovich was the prince with whom Rusalka falls in love. The clarion tenor of this gifted American singer shone through and he gave a formidable, accomplished and impeccable performance. The South Korean bass Jongmin Park portrayed the water goblin. He possesses a deep mellifluous, sonorous bass voice with a vast dynamic range and rich colorings.
Slovenian mezzo, Monika Bohinec, as the witch Jezibaba, was dressed in a black feathered costume. She has a rich and dark voice, but was also a consummate actress, which was evident with her tormenting of Rusalka when she thrust ravens into her arms in preparation of her spell, and later on when she murders the kitchen boy. The Bulgarian mezzo, Nadia Krasteva, sang the role of the foreign princess with a cool, focused voice. The other minor roles were also most competently sung.
Norwegian conductor, Eivind Gullberg Jensen, drew vigorous as well as sensuous playing from the outstanding Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and provided clear, sensitive and ideal accompaniment with Dvorák’s masterful and vibrant score. The shimmering sound of the exquisite string section of the orchestra was especially impressive.
Without question, the vocal and orchestral forces of the State Opera gave a most memorable performance of the fairyland world of Dvorak.
VIENNA’S KUNSTHISTORISCHES Museum is but a short walk along the circular grand Ring Boulevard from the Opera House. Here another world awaited the fortunate visitor. Currently on show was a blockbuster exhibition commemorating the 450th anniversary of the death of the Flemish master, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Thanks to Austria’s Habsburg rulers, many of whom were avid art collectors, this museum has amassed in its collection 12 of Bruegel’s 40 extant paintings, certainly the largest trove in the world. This was supplemented by another 15 loans of his surviving paintings from various international institutions. Many of these paintings have never traveled previously. His two versions of the Tower of Babel, one from Rotterdam and the other from the museum’s own collection, have been reunited for the first time.
Bruegel usually painted on wooden panels and the exhibition documented his working methods, the tools and drawing techniques he used and demonstrated how these panels were constructed. A web tool, www.insidebruegel.net, has been developed enabling the viewer to access the paintings and zoom in on specific details.
Little is known about Bruegel’s life. He was born between 1525 and 1530 and apprenticed to the studio of Pieter Coecke van Aelst. Bruegel subsequently married van Aelst’s daughter. Most of his life was spent in Antwerp and Brussels, although he did travel to Italy making his way as far south as Sicily. This trip was documented in the exhibition by several works including his great painting, View of the Bay of Naples, which shows the city, its harbor and Mount Vesuvius. The foreground is taken up by different sailing ships. Bruegel died when he was in his early 40s. After his death, numerous copies of his works were produced by other artists including his sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder.
Unlike the heroic paintings that characterize the Italian Renaissance, this Flemish artist’s work is more down to earth. His landscapes, Biblical scenes and representations of peasant life are well known. Perhaps his most famous series is the six-part cycle of the seasons that he painted for an Antwerp merchant. Three of them are on permanent display in Vienna and were joined by Haymaking, from Prague. Unfortunately, The Harvesters from New York was too fragile to travel and the final painting of the series has been lost. Nevertheless, the exhibition represented the most complete showing of the cycle in over 350 years. These landscape paintings, each with a different dominant color, show farmers, peasants, villagers, herdsmen and even children skating and represent the high point of Bruegel’s creative ability. Many consider them the first great landscape paintings in Western art.
The Battle between Carnival and Lent is divided into two contrasting sectors. The town square and inn on the left is full of happy revelers, pleasure seekers and actors and represents carnival. Lent, on the right, has a church and a mass of people including nuns, beggars, cripples, the blind and dying. The obese figure personifying carnival sits on a barrel with a skewer laden with meat and is ready to battle with Lent, depicted by the thin emaciated woman wielding a long wooden spade with two fish. Infrared and X-ray technology developed by the Kunsthistorisches Museum, show that in the original version, a cross was present and later substituted by the fish. The same technology revealed that the original painting included a corpse which is absent from the final version.
In the Suicide of Saul, most of the painting is dominated by a sea of Israelite and Philistine armies and their spears. Bruegel’s inspiration for this painting may have been Albrecht Aldorfer’s Battle of Issus, painted more than 30 years earlier. The Israelites have lost and the suicide of the unfortunate Saul and his standard-bearer is relegated to a rocky outcrop on the extreme left. In several of his other paintings, such as The Conversion of Saul and Christ carrying the Cross, it is often difficult to identify the central characters, since they are surrounded by large crowds of spectators who often show little interest in the main event which is unfolding.
IN CHILDREN’S GAMES, some 230 children are playing more than 90 recognizable games, many of which are still in vogue today. Among many other activities, they jump, skip, blow bubbles, stand on their heads and balance on barrels. But are they really children? Many of then have adult faces.
Bruegel was much influenced by the other great Flemish master, Hieronymus Bosch, who died a decade before Bruegel was born. Devils, fiends, demons, monsters and other Boschian characters populate the landscapes of his two great masterpieces, Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) and The Triumph of Death, paintings that were specially restored for this exhibition. In Dulle Griet, the large figure of Meg, at the head of a cohort of plundering and looting female warriors, is dressed in armor. She is brandishing a knife and sword and approaches the wide-open mouth of hell through a landscape populated by Boschian monsters. But Bruegel’s sense of humor is still evident. Meg is holding a frying pan, maybe the ultimate weapon! The precise meaning of this painting is unknown but it certainly has resonance in our current #MeToo era. In The Triumph of Death, skeletons are clearly in absolute control. One even holds up an empty hourglass. The message is clear. Time is up! The skeletons drive a mass of people inexorably forward into a large death trap.
The exhibition also featured 26 drawings and 33 prints, which represent half of Bruegel’s oeuvre in this field. Big Fish Eat Little Fish show a fisherman with a knife slicing open a giant fish with its stomach full of small fish. Bruegel signed this drawing, but in the resulting print, Bruegel’s name was replaced with that of the more famous Bosch. This was done specifically for commercial considerations, apparently with the approval of Bruegel, since both the artist and the publisher, Hieronymus Cock, realized that Bosch was the much better-known artist at that time and his name would increase sales.
During Bruegel’s life, Europe was beset with violent warfare, pitting Catholics against Protestants. Little is known of Bruegel’s political and religious views. Some inkling may be obtained from his Massacre of the Innocents (a copy but not the original is shown in the current exhibition) which depicts the slaughter of children in Bethlehem and mounted soldiers one of whom may be the Duke of Alba, commander of the Spanish army. This has been interpreted as subtle criticism of the Spanish Inquisition. The Triumph of Death may well portray the stark reality of the religious wars that characterized the 16th century.
Bruegel left the painting, The Magpie on the Gallows, to his wife. According to one of his earlier biographers, to Bruegel, the magpie signified “gossiping tongues, which he committed to the gallows.” On his deathbed, Bruegel advised his wife to burn several of his works that reflected his views on contemporary events. This could prevent possible difficulties with the Spanish authorities.
This once-in-a-lifetime artistic extravaganza in Vienna’s Kunshistorische Museum is on show until January 13.
The author would like to express his gratitude to Ms Bettina Jamy-Stowasser, from the Media Relations, Vienna Tourist Board for her help and guidance.