FESTIVAL of ST. MARGARETHEN in BURGENLAND (A)

 

On several occasions I have written about our visits to Burgenland in eastern Austria. We had attended there performances of five operas and the Passions’ play in the open-air arena at St. Margarethen. By this year 2005 we concluded our sixth trip and I thought that you may like hear more details and view some stage pictures of these plays. There are some more attached to this 2nd issue of “Acorns”.

 

I found some data in my “Diversities” and “Epistles” and compiled others from various sources referring to the open-air stage at the old Roman Quarry at St. Margarethen. This open-air arena of some 7.000m² is the largest one in Europe. Burgenland is the most eastern County of Austria that borders with Hungary and Slovenia. In Burgenland territory is Neusiedler See that is the largest and shallowest lake in Austria part of which Austria shares with Hungary. At eastern shore of Neusiedler See is sited the National Park "Lange Lache" that is an important transition point for migrating birds offering a large water area with thick reed strips at its rim.

 

The settlement St. Margarethen documentary mentioned in 1232 for the first time. There are a few archaeological sites of the younger Stone Age found in the hilly area 3km west of the Neusiedler See. Also Romans left their traces to be found along the “Amber Road” (“Bernsteinstrasse”). This important road led via Scarbantia (Oedenburg or Sopron in Hungary of now-a-days) and St. Margarethen to the Roman army fort Carnuntum. The Romans opened a quarry on the hill near the village St. Margarethen and cut and extracted a considerable amount of stone from it. The village close to this quarry counted some 45 families in early 20th century only. It had a railway station aka "St. Margarethen-Rust" from that one transported stone blocks to construction sites in Vienna. The stone has been used for the construction of St. Stephan's Dom, Schloss Schoenbrunn and many other great buildings on Vienna's Ring Road.

 

      

             Limestone sculptures at the  Arts’ Park on the hill above the mine

 

The limestone quarry is still in use these days and its walls are about 40m high forming a rather wide amphitheater. On top of the hill knoll at +226m ASL stands the “Rosaline” Chapel from where one has splendid around views on the Neusiedler See at East, the Valley of Wulka at West with hillsides of Schneeberg, Rax, Wechsel and Sopron at South last.

 

The opera of Verdi’s NABUCCO at the Festival at St. Margarethen in August 2000 was the first one we have attended to. A year before we read some magnificent critics about the staging of Mozart’s opera MAGIC FLUTE. The only problem mentioned was the sitting on proffered hard wooden benches. These have been rewardingly replaced with the seat’s rows made of aluminum for the season in 2000. However one advised taking cushions and blankets, warm clothing and rain ponchos when going to sit at this open-air stage. In that amphitheater the nights may get quite cool and sometimes it drizzles too despite that the Festival starts in second half of July and lasts until the last decade of August. At that time summers should be intense and rather hot around the Neusiedler See region though.



A sepia copy of NABUCCO stage painting in 2000

 

Night by night some 4.250 spectators enjoyed spectacular performances and a perfect acoustic on this largest open-air stage of Europe. Over 100.000 visitors are coming year by year to St. Margarethen to see flawless interpretation of operas that are combined with several astonishing stunts, lightning effects and rockets as well as horsemen galloping and war chariot speeding across the wide stage of some 70m width. The opera staging start at 20:30 and end with a large firework short after the midnight . There are two wide parking lots (parking fee is included in the ticket price) that easily accommodate some 60 buses and several hundreds of personal cars. Generally both parking lots empty within say 30 minutes that proves for a well functioning traffic police and firemen assistance.



Ljiljana is posing in front of the NABUCCO's stage at daylight

The following year Festival’s stage manager Wolfgang Werner was freed of his duties. Every fifth year since 1961 one performs the PASSIONS PLAY on this same open-air stage. The “Passionsspiele St. Margarethen” foundation member of EUROPASSION and the first Passions Play was staged in a farm in 1926. Some 450 laymen actors and some more 200 co-workers participate in the play most of them are local inhabitants. In 2001 there were a total of 20 presentations attended by some 70.000 spectators. The play starts at 17 hours and lasts for about 2 hours.



The stage photo prior to the begin of the play


The main actors are all laymen working in various professions locally. The acting is in principle an honor and the actors are being elected by vote every fifth year. The role of Jesus Christ got a local teacher in the year 2001. His performance was rather realistic in all aspects and one saw the real pain on his face during scenes of flogging or trashing. Red stripe marks showed up on actor’s shoulders and barren back and one wonders how he could endure this during the whole production. The performance was rather natural impressing notably the audience. One could get in some way frightened or scared stiff by certain scenes of the play.



A scene from the Passions' play


Even the weather acted with so from a slightly cloudy sky at begin gradually with the wind thick dark clouds gathered as a sign of an oncoming rainstorm. By some miracle one could hear the rumbling of lightning from far during the crucifixion scene making the scene too realistic to be true after all. The spectators were leaving quietly the arena somehow shaken and taken aback when the play ended. The dimmed light by thick clouds made the scenery somehow ghostly looking stage in that almost natural left quarry ground. Miraculously sun came out low art west creating a double (inverted) rainbow on a dark clouded background. We overhead a commentary that this resulted from the presence of two bishops who attended this play on that day.

 

Local people told us that it never rained during the season of Passion’s plays. They said that the management has a “special” concord with the Almighty and both sides adhered to it since long time. However for the year 2002 this accord obviously would not held. We had tickets for Verdi’s opera OTHELLO for Sunday August 11 on the day the great rains started in western provinces of Austria already. The Old City of Salzburg was on the brink to be flooded by the fast rising river Salzach. The river Enns endangered the city of Steyr but the worst hit was the middle section of the valley of river Kamp in Lower Austria. The river caused a real havoc when the dam of hydroelectric power station could not hold back the enormous flood water. The news reaching us in Burgenland were too serious not to be considered regarding the evening performance. Although the skies were totally overcast it did not start to rain yet.

 

On the way back from a day trip to the northeast of Burgenland we got in a rain downpour and we wondered whether one would keep on with the opera later at night. Fortunately the rain stooped at 19:45 so we packed plastic sheets and head-over ponchos, pillows and dressed in warm clothes drove to the Roman quarry in some 20 minutes. The huge parking lots were almost fully packed with several dozens of buses and hundreds of cars but we found a good place for our car and joined the crowd to get down to the auditorium. The performance started punctually at 20:30 and everybody’s hope was that it would not rain. Most of the visitors were equipped for it anyhow taking with them plastic full body covers and plastic covered pillows. However one could buy these items at the booths at entrance area too.

The huge stage showed a mighty castle and a harbor quay at left front


Soon the stage lights were put when the young producer/casting director W. Werner introduced the venerable Marcel Prawy to give his usual introduction speech (to be his last one as he died soon after). He had to cut it short due to a light rain so the orchestra started with the overture to Verdi’s OTELLO instantly. It’s the rule that one gets the ticket price back if it rains more than a half-of-hour. As the music progressed the stage filled with peoples “looking” at the sea where Othello lead his fleet in a sea battle against the Turkish aggressor. The overture music markedly describes an intense storm during the sea battle and is accompanied by some gun shots and artificial lightning cum thunder tune. Suddenly the natural thunder rumble joined in making the whole performance almost realistic. After the “ship” docked at the quay the victorious Othello disembarked and the opera proceeded in its normal theatrical way. Miraculously the drizzle stropped soon after so everybody could take of plastic ponchos little by little.

 

The performance went on in the best way and even stars appeared offstage. Those of you who know Verdi’s OTHELLO may ask how the stage director has put on Desdemona’s sleeping chamber on this very wide dais. Well, one pulled forward almost to the stage center most of a three-mast “ship” some 25m long. A chamber with a large bed and curtains came into view by opening a wide aperture in ship’s right flank. This was a rather interesting solution that worked perfectly giving the necessary intimacy to the last opera’s act. The beautiful fireworks followed afterwards that was somehow out of place with the tragic opera ending. The well organized traffic out of parking lots enabled us to be back to the hotel within an astonishing time of half hour only.

 

The weather improved for the rest of our prolonged stay in Burgenland. We had tickets of August 14 for E. Kalman’s operetta “The Czardas Princess” at Mörbisch on the open-air platform of Neusiedler Lake’s shore. Good news were coming in after the disastrous rains stopped at last and the flood waters started receding in Provinces of Salzburg and Upper Austria. Danube was getting close to the catastrophic level in Province of Lower Austria and it would reach Vienna in due course. As we didn't have any particular plan for that day we decided to have pleasurable drive but the devil is always in the detail so it shouldn't be the way we had in mind! Passing through a village on the main road our car was caught midway on the right side by a Jeep-like car that overlooked a road stop sign. My wife’s right arm was badly bruised but a X-ray examination showed no other serious damage. However the car damage was considerable so I had to replace it in due course later. Our good mood was gone and we attended the operetta with low spirits.


    
The stage left site for TURANDOT and at right the decor for the Kaiser’s palace and the grand staircase

 

Generally we drove to Burgenland the shortest way altering the roads as far possible. We took more on the return voyage and choose different places for an overnight stop. Thus we have been visiting many castles open to the public, several cultural interesting sites and some parks and natural reserves too. On Thursday August 14, 2003 we choose to visit the Roman wide amphitheater near Petronel and nearby CARNUNTUM archaeological site. It was very hot at 37.5ºC in shade so we turned into a nearby pub for quick lunch. Soon after it a storm was approaching fast and heavy clouds forced us to get back to the hotel at speed. The temperature dropped to 20ºC and the sky cleared completely. We duly drove to St. Margarethen to view Puccini’s opera TURANDOT starting at 20:30 as usual. 



The scene showing  the moment of Prince Kalaph's third answer


The opera performance turned into a grand spectacle with many exceptional illumination effects. The singers and co-operating players were clad multi colored costumes so one could just grasp a detail here or fast change of a scene there.
I have tried my digital camera for the first time and pictures came out amazingly good. Thus encouraged I would make new trials possibly the next time. We booked tickets for Verdi’s opera AIDA on Friday August 20, 2004 a year in advance already. We returned home to Anif via southern Burgenland and Styria visiting few new sites and two castles cum museums. Thus we accomplished a round trip to and fro the Festivals in St. Margarethen of about 1.400km as an average driving distance.
 


Swift movements and blaze of lights, Bengal fires and laser splodges all over the wide stage

  

We made side stop at Schallaburg Castle on the way to Burgenland in August 2004. WE went there to view the exhibition “Egyptian Pyramids” but found a few displayed objects of art that were of some interest to us after all. The weather was good and warm so we went to visit the two border towns Valtice and Lednice in Czech Southern Moravia. Under the UNESCO protection is the Pálava Biosphere Reserve and the Lednice-Valtice Area known as “the Garden of Europe”. Lichtenstein’s’ nobility family of acquired Valtice at the 14th century and were awarded the princely status in Austrian Empire in the 17th century. Valtice chateau became family residence until 1938 nut only after 1989 the whole area became demilitarized gradually. Valtice Wine Market is well know a days whereas the chateau and park in Lednice some 5km north is the main tourists’ attraction today.

 

On Friday August 20th we were had tickets for Verdi’s Aida in the evening and thought to go shopping to Sopron (H) in the morning. Unfortunately all shops were closed due to the national holiday – the Millennium of Hungarian Kingdom. Somehow disappointed we shopped in St. Margarethen and reserved tickets for Bizet’s CARMEN in 2005.

  


A scene from the first act: in front is Amneris at right and Aida and Amonasro at left

 

The performance of AIDA was spectacular again particularly the first act. The most attractive of all was the entrance of Radames as the victorious Egyptian army commander leading the rather long procession of war bounty. Horsemen rod along the carriages loaded with goods of bounty and two elephants led a long raw of prisoners. The elephants came from a circus and one of them tore of tree a branch and walked chewing it to the stage. Later the still chewing leading elephant slowly resumed his pace on his own at a certain tune from the orchestra.

 

We started our return voyage later as anticipated as we went for shopping to Sopron (H) first. This time we choose the way back via north regions of Lower Austria and got into a rain downpour driving along the Czech border. At last we found an overnight stay in the former friary’s large corn chamber turned into a hotel at Geras. We got home safely accomplishing again 1.440km tour the next day. Later at home I wasn't too happy with my efforts to record several sequences of AIDA. I have used my new SONY digital camcorder without enough practices. It should be better the next time.

 

Our sixth trip to Burgenland up to date was the shortest one. This year 2005 we had to change our quarters staying in Klingenbach village just across the border to Sopron. The shopping mall there we never have missed to get hold of Hungarian specialties like sausages and red paprika powder. We had the same seats as years before attending Bizet’s opera CARMEN and on Friday August 19. Now I had more experiences to take pictures with my digital camera and camcorder too.

 


The left part of stage representing Sevilla for the opera CARMEN prior to begin

 

Although Bizet’s music cannot be compared to say in Verdi’s grand operas but the stage setup was noteworthy again. Horsemen had many chances to rush to and fro and their procession was spectacular in last act prior of the bull fight in the arena (left at picture as almost exact copy of in Sevilla). A friend commented that he had never seen so many people stroll the street in Sevilla during the lunch time that is the time when the tobacco factory came out for repose in the opera.

 


 

The opera CARMEN spectacle ended with a magnificent firework and a new record of 222.785 visitors in 2005. With a firework picture I am to end my report of our visits to the Festival at St. Margarethen during the past continuous six years.

 


DISCLAIMER : On URL: http://www.cosy.sbg.ac.at/~zzspri/ published pages are originals and authorized by copyright of Zvonko Z. Springer, Salzburg 1999.

Email Zvonko Springer at : zzspri@aon.at