In Review > International

Così Fan Tutte (8/23/13), Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (8/24/13), Norma (8/24/13), Don Carlo (8/25/13)

Salzburg Festival

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Hartelius, Mitterrutzner, Janková, Finley, Chappuis and Pisaroni in Così
© Michael Poehn 2013

The new era at the Salzburg Festival that dawned last year is already over. Alexander Pereira, the new artistic director, will leave in 2014 to become sovrintendente at La Scala in Milan. His short reign was tumultuous: not only did he squabble with the supervisory board over the budget; he also fell out with Franz Welser-Möst, who was to conduct the new production of Così Fan Tutte. Welser-Möst withdrew and was replaced by Christoph Eschenbach. On August 15, at the height of the festival, one of the leaders of the Vienna Philharmonic, Salzburg's house orchestra, indicated in an interview that the renewal of the orchestra's contract after 2016 was by no means certain: the musicians, he said, had plenty of tempting offers to spend the summer elsewhere. Before a new artistic director arrives in 2017, Helga Rabl-Stadler and Sven-Eric Bechtolf, the festival's president and director of theater, will manage the affairs.

Bechtolf's uncut production of Così Fan Tutte (seen Aug. 23) was nice to watch but not funny enough and, in the end, boring. The set by Rolf Glittenberg, a huge greenhouse full of potted palms, looked promising, and the first scene — Fiordiligi and Dorabella, both splashing in a whirlpool — whetted the appetite. But after that, the director seemed to run out of ideas. I certainly preferred his Così to the festival's last production, in which a living room gradually morphed into a forest. Tired routines, however, are not the only alternative to the excesses of German Regietheater. The only moment of directorial originality came at the very end: the triumphant Don Alfonso suddenly died of a poisonous drink. Suicide? Murder? We'll never know.

Had the singing been better, the conventional staging could easily have been overlooked. Alas, only two of the six protagonists, the two schemers, were top-notch. Martina Janková was a radiant, wonderfully lively Despina, Gerald Finley a suitably mordant Alfonso. Malin Hartelius and Marie-Claude Chappuis have lovely voices, yet in "Come scoglio" and "Smanie implacabili," Fiordiligi's and Dorabella's big showpieces, they touched the limits of their technique. Martin Mitterrutzner was an undernourished Ferrando, Luca Pisaroni a robust though faceless Guglielmo. Così Fan Tutte has always been a Salzburg specialty, and the Vienna Philharmonic used to be in top form, particularly when Karl Böhm was conducting. Under Eschenbach, they sounded businesslike and cold, sometimes even bordering on the harshness of "historically informed" bands.

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Herheim's Meistersinger staging at Salzburg, with Saccà, Gabler, Volle, Monika Bohinec and Sonn
© Salzburger Festspiele/Forster 2013

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (seen Aug. 24) — Salzburg's birthday present to Richard Wagner, who was born 200 years ago — was better. There are two gimmicks modern directors are fond of — updating the opera or presenting it as the fantasy of one of the characters. Stefan Herheim made use of both. Before the overture started, we saw Hans Sachs (Michael Volle) in a nightshirt and a cap at his desk imagining the work we were going to watch. After the overture, the desk grew into the church (sets: Heike Scheele) in which Walther (Roberto Saccà) and Eva (Anna Gabler), the lovers, have their first meaningful conversation. The costumes (Gesine Völlm) suggested not the sixteenth but the early nineteenth century, the Biedermeier period. Likewise, the Nuremberg street in Act II was a magnified version of the furniture in Sachs's household. Herheim had obviously been inspired by Tchaikovsky's ballet in which a nutcracker suddenly comes to life and leads an army of toy soldiers against an army of mice. As a matter of fact, the Mouse King appeared with Snow White and other fairy-tale characters, giving us to understand that what we were watching was a nostalgic dream. Wagner would have been amazed, but it was picturesque and charming.

Only the Festwiese, the final apotheosis, fell flat. Anxious to avoid any chauvinist pomp, Herheim reduced it to a chaotic fairground complete with steam engine and dancing dolls. The German Masters Sachs urged his countrymen to honor were three busts — Goethe, Wagner and Beethoven. At the very end, he was joined by a Doppelgänger in nightshirt and cap: Beckmesser (Markus Werba) had understood that Sachs was not his enemy but a fellow sufferer hopelessly in love with Eva. A nice touch.

That odd couple also provided the best vocalism of the day. Volle, a lyric rather than a dramatic baritone, was taxed to the limit by his final speech. But overall, he offered a rounded, endearing portrait of the old cobbler. Werba was a serious, though fidgety, contender for Eva's heart, not the usual caricature. The lovers, unfortunately, were not up to snuff: Saccà sounded strained, and Gabler was hardly audible. Peter Sonn was a pleasant David, Georg Zeppenfeld a lightweight Pogner. The Vienna Philharmonic was in no mood to help the singers. Conducted by Daniele Gatti, they seemed more interested in volume than in subtlety.

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Bartoli: Norma in the style of Magnani
© Hans Jörg Michel 2013

Norma (also seen Aug. 24) was a holdover from Salzburg's Whitsun Festival, whose artistic director, Cecilia Bartoli, also sang the title role. Accompanied by a recording and a well-oiled PR campaign, it had been hailed as "the opera production of the year." To me, it looked more like the ego trip of a diva who misjudged her talent. The problem was not that Bartoli is a mezzo, whereas Norma is usually sung by sopranos: Carmen, Octavian and other roles have been sung by both. The snag is that Bartoli's forte is the brilliant flexibility of her fioritura, not the seamless legato and simple expressiveness required by the challenging role of Bellini's priestess. With her quick vibrato, much of what she sang sounded odd and mannered. To be sure, there were beautiful moments, particularly the duets with her rival Adalgisa (Rebeca Olvera). The combination of a more mature mezzo and a very young, light soprano also made dramatic sense. That didn't alter the basic fact that Norma is simply not Bartoli's fach. The same went for John Osborn's Pollione and Michele Pertusi's Oroveso: the sounds they produced had nothing to do with bel canto.

In Moshe Leiser's and Patrice Caurier's production, Oroveso was not a priest but a resistance fighter, and the place was not Gaul under Roman occupation but Rome under German occupation. We were in the world of Roberto Rossellini's 1945 movie Roma, Città Aperta; Bartoli, wild-eyed and entirely in black, did her best to look like Anna Magnani. Why twentieth-century underground fighters would be in awe of a priestess who prays to the moon, and why, in the end, instead of shooting the traitress, they would burn her at the stake, remained the secret of the directors.  Giovanni Antonini conducted La Scintilla, the period-instrument orchestra of the Zurich Opera House favored by Bartoli.

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Harteros and Kaufmann, Elisabetta and Don Carlo at Salzburg
© Monika Rittershaus 2013

The best show I saw was Don Carlo, the festival's homage to the other composer who was born 200 years ago (seen Aug. 25). Not that it was without fault: Ferdinand Wögerbauer's spartan sets reminded me of Ikea, the Swedish chain of furniture stores, rather than the Spanish court. And was it really necessary to revive the five-act French grand opéra with all its longueurs instead of the more concise Italian version, particularly since the work was sung in Italian anyway? The only thing we had been spared, when we staggered home after more than five hours, was the ballet.

That said, Peter Stein's production was straightforward, faithful to the text and gripping. He had a brilliant cast at his disposal. Jonas Kaufmann in the title role proved again that nobody beats him in the department of desperate lovers. Matti Salminen, as his father, the king, and Thomas Hampson, as his friend Posa, may have lost some of their vocal sheen, but both were still deeply satisfying. There was a soupçon of stridency in Anja Harteros's voice, but she was a lovely queen. The best singing came from Ekaterina Semenchuk's sumptuous Eboli. Eric Halfvarson was an authoritative Grand Inquisitor.

The hero of the evening, though, was the conductor. After the two previous disappointments from other maestros at this year's festival, Antonio Pappano proved that a perfect balance between stage and pit is possible and that the Vienna Philharmonic, in the right hands, is the best opera orchestra of the world. spacer


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