In Review > International

Die Zauberflöte (8/13/12), La Bohème (8/13/12), Carmen (8/14/12), Ariadne auf Naxos (8/15/12)

Salzburg Festival

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Baby talk: Schwarz, Kleiter, Richter and Werba in Salzburg’s Zauberflöte 
© Monika Rittershaus 2012
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Beczala and Netrebko, Rodolfo and Mimì in Salzburg
© Silvia Lelli 2012
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Carmen in Salzburg, with Kaufmann and Kožená
© Luigi Caputo 2012

A fresh wind sweeps though the Salzburg Festival. After two short-lived interregnums, a new artistic director full of daring ideas has taken the reins: Alexander Pereira, who ran the Zurich Opera House for twenty years, has almost doubled the number of productions and extended the festival to more than six weeks. As of 2013, a new opera, commissioned by the festival, will be staged every year; old productions, on the other hand, will no longer be revived. It was even rumored that Pereira had threatened to resign if his far-reaching plans should be watered down on the basis of being too risky. Fortunately, the public gobbled up the 40,000 additional tickets, so Pereira didn't have to prove that he meant what he said.

The general excitement about the dawn of a new era notwithstanding, the four productions I saw during my three-day visit to Salzburg were pretty traditional. The most revolutionary aspect of Die Zauberflöte (seen Aug. 13) was that the old Mozart hand Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducted it for the first time with his period-instrument band, Concentus Musicus Wien, in the pit. The sound effortlessly filled the huge Felsenreitschule. Harnoncourt is known for his often eccentric tempos, mostly on the slow side. In the program, he profusely defended his choices. Whether one agreed with him or not, the result was beguiling.

That's hardly the word one would use to characterize the staging. Jens-Daniel Herzog, the director, and Mathis Neidhardt, the set designer, tried to overcome the notorious difficulties of the giant hall by limiting the action to a small-scale model with many doors — a practical rather than a poetic solution. Papageno appeared in a three-wheeled delivery van labeled "Delicatessen." Sarastro's temple seemed to be a medical school specializing in brain research; the Speaker looked like Dr. Caligari. When Papagena, a remote-controlled doll, finally came to life and was united with Papageno, four baby carriages rolled in, indicating that the gods had answered their prayers to "reward our love with children." It was the funniest idea of an otherwise pedestrian evening. There were only a few laughs.

At the end, Sarastro didn't triumph over the Queen of the Night; they both continued to wrestle on the floor — a hint at Das Labyrinth,the 1798 sequel to Mozart's opera by composer Peter von Winter and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder that the Festival also dug out, and which I did not see.

The singing in Die Zauberflöte was on a decent level. Bernard Richter (Tamino), Julia Kleiter (Pamina) and Markus Werba (Papageno) were all fine. Georg Zeppenfeld was a somewhat lightweight Sarastro. The weak spots were Mandy Fredrich's pale Queen of the Night and Rudolf Schasching's voiceless Monostatos.

In La Bohème (also seen Aug. 13), the tenor was the weak link. Piotr Beczala (Rodolfo), who was indisposed for part of the run (he canceled two of his scheduled seven performances), had trouble with his top notes. Although Anna Netrebko's voice has considerably darkened, she was still a girlish, deeply moving Mimì. Nino Machaidze was an amusing, soubrettish Musetta. To hear the overfamiliar score played by the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Daniele Gatti, was luxury indeed.

That Puccini's opera was staged at all was remarkable enough. Gerard Mortier, who directed the festival from 1992 to 2001, made no secret of his contempt for the most popular opera composer of the twentieth century. The last time Salzburg deigned to mount a Puccini opera was in 2002, when Turandot was offered with a new finale composed by Luciano Berio. Pereira distanced himself from his predecessor. In an interview with the Vienna daily Die Presse,he called Mortier's prejudice "grotesque."

How seriously the director took La Bohème was another question. Damiano Michieletto, who made his name with Rossini buffooneries, jumped at every opportunity to prevent the opera from making its full emotional impact. Rodolfo's gaudily clad friends looked like a bunch of sitcom types. The set (Paolo Fantin) was dominated by an oversize window that dwarfed the singers. The march of the military band at the end of Act II reminded me of the Christmas Spectacular at New York's Radio City Music Hall, complete with several Santa Clauses; only Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, was missing.

Carmen (seen Aug. 14) was a holdover from Salzburg's Easter Festival, at which Simon Rattle had conducted the Berlin Philharmonic — an event that disappointed many critics, who found Rattle's approach with his Berliners heavy-handed and overly symphonic. I had hoped that Rattle's return to Salzburg for Carmen with the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra infinitely more experienced in the pit, would result in a more flexible performance. But no, Rattle stuck to the Cinemascope concept that had annoyed the Beckmessers four months earlier — which was all the more surprising because he had chosen the original edition of the score, written for the intimate Opéra Comique, with spoken dialogues. Bizet assumed, of course, that all the singers spoke French as their native language. That was not the case in Salzburg. What we heard was French delivered with an exotic mix of German, Czech, Lithuanian and American accents, most of it incomprehensible.

Magdalena Kožená, in private life Lady Rattle, has previously sung Zerlina and Dorabella in Salzburg. As Carmen, Kožená did her best to act the man-eating vamp, but her voice simply lacked the necessary weight. At the curtain calls, she was greeted with some boos. Kostas Smoriginas (Escamillo) fared even worse. In the middle of the toreador's song, his voice suddenly gave out — due to an allergic attack, as the audience was later informed. After the intermission, Smoriginas mimed his part, while Massimo Cavalletti, the Marcello of the previous night, provided the singing from the sidelines. Jonas Kaufmann, sounding increasingly baritonal, was a predictably passionate Don José. The best singing came from Genia Kühmeier's radiant Micaela. 

Aletta Collins, the Carmen director, had started her career as a dancer and choreographer. No wonder we were treated to a lot of dancing, even during the interludes. The sets by Miriam Buether were conventional — apart from the puzzling set in Act I, which could have been the service entrance of a hospital or the interior of a slaughterhouse.

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Mosuc, Magee, Eva Liebau (Naiad), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Dryad) and Eleonora Buratto (Echo) in Salzburg’s Ariadne auf Naxos
© Ruth Walz 2012

The most original of the four productions that I saw was Ariadne auf Naxos (seen Aug. 15). The opera, as it is performed today, is not what Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal initially had in mind. At the premiere in 1912, in Stuttgart, it was preceded by a play, Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, adapted by Hofmannsthal. The hybrid was a flop, not least because the King of Württemberg extended the already overlong evening with a reception for the VIPs at intermission. Strauss scrapped the first part and replaced it with the forty-five-minute prologue that we know. The incidental music he had written for the play survived in the form of the suite Der Bürger als Edelmann. 

Sven-Eric Bechtolf, the festival's new director of drama, reverted to the original version, up to a point: he added a backstory with Hofmannsthal and his lady friend Ottonie von Degenfeld-Schonburg, a widow who may or may not have been the model for the mourning Ariadne, as main characters. The Composer, a trouser role in the prologue, was played by an actor. It was a clever idea, and it worked — chiefly thanks to Cornelius Obonya as a wonderfully funny Monsieur Jourdain, the social climber who wants the opera seria and the commedia dell'arte,both commissioned by him, performed at the same time.

The musical side of Ariadne was less impressive. Emily Magee was a powerful but strangely impersonal, virtually unintelligible Ariadne. Elena Mosuc brought the house down with Zerbinetta's showpiece "Grossmächtige Prinzessin," but truth be told, she cut some corners to get through her vocal mountain hike. Roberto Saccà managed Bacchus's no less strenuous tessitura with honors. The Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Daniel Harding, sounded like a chamber ensemble — as it should in this context. spacer 


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