Once a punk, always a punk. This is the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s description of herself, growing up “in a charming but xenophobic region near the Slovenian border”. An angry teenager, she rebelled, finding inspiration and solace in Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, John Waters’s movie Hairspray and Spitting Image. Soon, too, her talent as a composer was recognised by Pierre Boulez, one of the most important musical brains of the late 20th century.
All these preoccupations, and an encyclopaedic array of others, from the atom bomb to flower power, the women’s movement, sexual abuse and climate change, burst to expansive, sprawling life in Neuwirth’s Orlando – the first full-length, main-stage work by a woman in the Vienna State Opera’s 150-year history – which had its world premiere last weekend.
The capacity audience engaged attentively – as far as anyone can judge – with few walkouts and a solid 10 minutes of cheering at the end, especially for Kate Lindsey, the UK-based American mezzo-soprano who sang, outstandingly, the marathon of a title role. A predictable handful of booers waited until Neuwirth herself took a bow to voice their discontent.
Few operas get everything right first off. This three-hour work, in a prologue and 19 scenes, has a glaring but not irreparable weakness – of which more shortly – but its ambitious weaving of music in every style, from opera to cabaret to rock, with live electronics, literature, video and fashion, stands apart in its bracing disregard for convention.
Conducted by Matthias Pintscher and staged by the British director Polly Graham, the new artistic director of Longborough Festival Opera who took over the project at short notice seven weeks ago, it had remarkable coherence given its wholesale diversity. Costume designs by Comme des Garçons used padding and ruffs, tartan, lace and feathers to create a bizarre and beautiful wardrobe. With sets by Roy Spahn and dazzling, skilfully integrated video by Will Duke, it was a feast for ears and eyes.
Neuwirth (b1968) calls it “a fairytale full of mysteries and parables”. It’s certainly that. Based on Virginia Woolf’s mock-memoir of 1928, the opera tells the story of an aristocratic young poet, born male, who becomes a woman and lives for 300 years. It was sung in English and, even with the text available in several languages (via back-of-seat subtitles), much of the irony may have been missed. I was often laughing alone. A narrator (Anna Clementi) adds her spoken text to the many sonic textures. The huge orchestra in and out of the pit, plus drumkit and guitar, with some instruments “detuned” – second violins were tuned below normal pitch – were joined by male and female choirs and a children’s chorus from the Vienna State Opera. Among the large cast, Leigh Melrose, Constance Hayman and Agneta Eichenholz stood out.
The opera, like the book, opens in 1598. Neuwirth crosses styles freely. Elizabethan lute song and Tudor polyphony echoed in the music. Lindsey at first sings at a low register, befitting her male status, her dark timbre offset by the ethereal countertenor voice of Eric Jurenas as Guardian Angel. When Orlando becomes a woman, breeches replaced by sensuous crimson skirts like a carrion flower, so her vocal line rises, with soaring coloratura. Frenetic, detailed orchestral interludes mark the passage of time between scenes, shown by a video of a spinning dreidel. As the action gallops through the decades, Rossini and Stravinsky make darting aural appearances. So, too, do Ring-a-Ring-o’-Roses and the dire Thank You for Every New Good Morning (if you don’t remember it as a hymn or a Petula Clark song, you might certainly remember the ratcheting up of keys with each verse, which Neuwirth handled with nice irony).
The composer and her librettist, the French-American writer Catherine Filloux, have added their own appendix to Woolf. This works well initially, if uncomfortably. The second world war breaks out. Silence falls, blackness descends, and we hear the slow movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto (from the 1928 recording by Arnold Rosé and Alma Rosé), as names of Holocaust victims are projected. All falls apart when this epic tapestry of European history and culture – Britain’s especially – reaches the present, represented by mass consumerism, social media and gender freedom (but no Brexit). Orlando’s child, sung by trans cabaret star Justin Vivian Bond – no opera natural but a great stage presence – declaims: “Isn’t it awfully nice to be a they?”, with a backup chorus singing the praises, variously, of having a “ding” or a “vong”.
I didn’t object to the shouty slogans, or the calls for “being who you were born to be”, or the children’s chorus demanding a say in the future of the planet. You only have to look at the world to see they are not platitudes. The problem was the music, which, having been rich, grew thin and pallid, as if finished in haste. At a certain point, around 20 minutes from the final curtain, we reach the present – 8 December 2019 is announced – and contemplate the future. That was the perfect ending… and still could be.
• Orlando is at the Vienna State Opera until 20 December