Gawain (7/29/13), Falstaff (8/4/13)
Dystopia unlimited:Aikin and Maltman in Salzburg's Gawain
© Ruth Walz 2013
Salzburg's Falstaff merrymakers Cedolins, Maestri and Stephanie Houtzeel (Meg Page)
© Silvia Lelli 2013
When composer György Kurtág was unable to finish his commission for a new stage work in time for this season's festival, artistic director Alexander Pereira arranged for the Salzburg premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain. Birtwistle's third opera, a setting of the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, had its world premiere at Covent Garden in 1991. (Birtwistle's revision of the piece was first heard in 1994, also at Covent Garden.) In Gawain, the title character overcomes fear of death by beheading the immortal Green Knight; the opera's linear narrative structure and brooding, primordial orchestration foreshadow later Birtwistle works such as The Second Mrs. Kong (1994) and The Minotaur (2008). While Gawain's Arthurian mise-en-scène and epic scope have elicited comparisons to Parsifal, the score's raw textures and spiraling geometric patterns speak just as easily to anti-Wagnerians.
Director Alvis Hermanis's new Gawain production in the Felsenreitschule (seen July 29) explores the spiritual conflict of the piece by setting the story in a futuristic dystopia where a natural disaster has reduced the human race to a cannibalistic lot. The Green Knight (the stentorian John Tomlinson) and the oracle Morgan le Fay (the inexhaustible coloratura Laura Aikin) are left overgrown with moss; the court of the wheelchair-ridden King Arthur (a stoic Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) is populated by post-modern cavemen. Hermanis — responsible for last season's brilliant realization of Die Soldaten at Salzburg — detracted from his own concept here by mixing the Gawain narrative with tableaux vivants evoking the life and work of Joseph Beuys (1921–86), the German performance artist. Gawain (the boyishly brave, smooth-toned baritone Christopher Maltman) lurked onstage in a signature felt cloak, and a giant portrait of Beuys took centerstage for the knight's heroic return to the court. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher presided over the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra with seemingly effortless authority.
The opening weeks of the festival also featured a new staging of Falstaff by Damiano Michieletto in the Haus für Mozart (seen Aug. 4). The young Italian director, whose career is rapidly growing on the continent, cast the entire story in Milan's Casa Verdi, the retirement home for musicians founded by the composer. In Michieletto's staging, the characters of the opera appear like nineteenth-century phantoms to a sleeping Falstaff (the towering, booming master of buffo Ambrogio Maestri). Mistress Quickly (in an untypically youthful, seductive performance by mezzo Elisabeth Kulman) delivers her iconic number "Reverenza!" as a white-uniformed food server, duping the gluttonous knight with a false display of deference, and the dreamy exchanges of the young lovers Nannetta (the sweet-voiced Eleonora Buratto) and Fenton (in a polished, visceral delivery by tenor Javier Camarena) are juxtaposed with scenes of a couple in the cozy years of old age.
Michieletto fleshes out his characters with unusually deep affection and psychological depth while respecting the ironic self-awareness of Verdi's last opera. The ensemble numbers were expertly delivered by a cast that also included Fiorenza Cedolins as Alice Ford (singing with expert shading and messa di voice) and Massimo Cavalletti as her husband, Ford. The Vienna Philharmonic, under the baton of Zubin Mehta, at times overflowed with excessive volume from the pit but brought irreproachable lyricism to the taut brass and woodwind writing of Act III.
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