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Salzburg Festival

In Review Lear Salzburg 917
Anna Prohaska (Cordelia), Gerald Finley (Lear) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Goneril) in Simon Stone's production of Aribert Reimann's Lear at the Salzburg Festival
© Salzburger Festspiele/Thomas Aurin
In Review Lear Salzburg lg 917
Prohaska and Finley
© Salzburger Festspiele/Thomas Aurin

SUDDENLY ARIBERT REIMANN is everywhere. During the spring of this year, the eighty-one-year-old composer saw new productions of two of his operas—Medea, from 2010, and Gespenstersonate, from 1984—in his native Berlin. In late August, it was Salzburg’s turn to discover Reimann, with the premiere of a new production of Lear, the composer’s wrenchingly powerful 1978 opera, inspired by Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy (seen Aug. 20).

With eight operas under his belt, and a ninth scheduled for its premiere at Deutsche Oper Berlin in October, Reimann is Germany’s finest living opera composer—which makes it especially hard to believe that Lear was the composer’s first stage work to make it to Salzburg. Salzburg—at least in recent years—is a festival in which conservative audience tastes and progressive artistic agendas are frequently at odds. If Salzburg artistic director Markus Hinterhäuser’s inaugural season is any indication, he is actively working against the festival’s traditionalism. 

Assigning Lear to the Australian stage director Simon Stone—regarded by many as an enfant terrible—was quite possibly Hinterhäuser’s riskiest gamble. Stone, a thirty-three-year-old maverick with a fondness for Ibsen and Chekhov, seemed determined to outdo Reimann’s score in terms of savage cruelty. There were a number of striking images, but little dramatic insight was evident. The magnificent verdant field created on the oblong stage of the Felsenreitschule was trashed during a luridly vulgar bacchanal followed by a lengthy sprinkler demonstration. One of Stone’s laziest inspirations was the climactic final scene, which largely played out in front of a white curtain, with the five combatants rooted to their places as they succumbed to gruesome ends. Then there were the hundreds of extras disguised as festivalgoers seated onstage, who were violently ejected from their seats and dipped in blood. It was little more than a cheap stunt—albeit an expensive one—although still not as idiotic as Mickey Mouse’s perplexing cameo in Act II.

Salzburg assembled an A-List cast for Lear’s massive dramatis personae. Leading the charge was Gerald Finley, whose role debut as the mad king was outstanding—one of the high points of this year’s festival. Conceived for the protean talents of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Lear is as much a theatrical challenge as a vocal one, the king’s music fluctuating between raging monotone outbursts, naïve, folksy arioso and crepuscular incantations that transmit fathomless grief. This was Finley’s second role debut in Austria this year, following his visceral Amfortas in Parsifal in Vienna. Finley captured Lear’s progression from hubris to impotence to madness to bitter surrender with the conviction worthy of a great Shakespearean actor. 

The highly individual performances of the luxurious roster of singers under Stone’s direction made it relatively easy to keep track of all the supporting characters in librettist Claus H. Henneberg’s extreme reduction of the Bard’s five acts into eleven concise scenes. As Lear’s scheming older daughters, Goneril and Regan, German sopranos Evelyn Herlitzius and Gun-Brit Barkmin were incarnations of pure evil. Tenor Charles Workman sang Edmund, the architect of much of the opera’s carnage, with ringing tones that lent his villainy a measure of heroism, while Estonian baritone Lauri Vasar was deeply moving as the duped (and blinded) Gloster. Countertenor Kai Wessel was nimble as Edgar, yet his spoken declamations were weak, in marked contrast to actor Michael Maertens in the scene-chewing role of the Fool. In Lear’s harsh and menacing sonic universe, Anna Prohaska added a small dose of cool lyricism as Cordelia, the king’s banished daughter. 

For all their precision and finesse, Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic were hardly ideal music partners for this bone-gnashing, breathlessly unspooling score. Intricacies were highlighted with filigree-like refinement but little dramatic shock. Most impressive was the clattering percussion section playing from a bandstand at the side of the hall.  —A. J. Goldmann 

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