Summer in Salzburg

Over 45 days, 270,000 individuals attended 270 events as part of the Salzburg Festival, held in Mozart’s hometown.

September 28, 2014 05:55

ANNA NETREBKO (Leonora) in Verdi’s ‘Il Travotore.’ (. (photo credit: SALZBURGER FESTSPIELE/FORSTER)

What better way to celebrate the summer than enjoying the transcendent performances at the Salzburg Festival? Established in 1920, the music and drama extravaganza takes place for five weeks every July and August in the Austrian birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

One of the highlights of this year’s festival was Verdi’s Il Trovatore, an emotionally charged opera jam-packed with love, hatred, jealousy, revenge and eventual death. The troubadour Manrico, who believes he is the son of the gypsy Azucena, and the aristocrat Count di Luna, commander of the royal troops, both love Leonora, a Spanish noblewoman. However Leonora has been smitten by Manrico and has passionate feelings only for him.

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Latvian director Alvis Hermanis set the production in an art museum stacked with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces.

Except for Manrico, all the other players in the drama conceal past secrets and were employed by the museum as security guards or guides.

As the curtain rises, the count’s officer Ferrando is seen explaining to his group of casually dressed museum visitors about different paintings as he relates the background story of the count’s brother who was abducted soon after birth by Azucena.

Leonora makes her appearance in the blue uniform of a security guard. She appears transfixed by Bronzino’s painting of Grand Duke Cosimo of Tuscany. Hanging immediately adjacent is the same artist’s portrait of Eleonora of Toledo who was the wife of Cosimo. Leonora sees herself as Eleonora and wistfully looks at Cosimo imagining him to be her Manrico. Do the paintings come to life or do the central characters act them out? When the museum closes to the public, Leonora who was waiting for Manrico, sheds her security uniform for a ravishing baroque gown. The count suddenly appears and a duel ensues between the count and Manrico. Titian’s painting of the Spanish King Charles V on horseback serves as the appropriate background.

Azucena, also a museum guide, relates to museum tourists that many years ago, she mistakenly threw her own son into the pyre instead of the abducted count’s brother to avenge her mother who had been burned at the stake at the behest of the count’s father.

When questioned about this by Manrico, she feigns confusion assuring him that she is indeed his mother.

By Act 4, Manrico and Azucena have been imprisoned by the count. When the curtain rises, there is silence; the only sounds audible are those of the museum workers as they remove most of the pictures, leaving only some empty frames, the portrait of Eleonora and two canvases by the Italian artist Giovanni Cariani. The first of these was of two young men (presumably Manrico and di Luna), displayed upside down on the floor, a testament to their macabre relationship. The second was Cariani’s lute player, an illusion to the troubadour Manrico. Leonora lay sleeping, in a trance like state caressing the painting mixing reality with her dreams. Suddenly she woke and donned a glamorous costume for her final encounter with the count.

At the opera’s conclusion, all pictures disappeared.

What remained were the markings and shadows where they had hung. As Azucena recalls her terrible deed, there are faint fleeting images of Madonnas and children.

My major reservation with this staging was the continuous movement of some of the paintings across the stage. This was confusing and distracted from the singers. Nevertheless this thought provoking production was on a par with Hermanis’s monumental interpretation of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten seen at the festival two years previously. This imaginative director is a force to be reckoned with.

As Leonora, soprano Anna Netrebko gave a shattering interpretation with both passionate acting and glorious singing. Once or twice, her voice was a bit weak in the lower registers but hers was nevertheless a brilliant vocal and dramatic portrayal. Nothing was forced. Every note was carefully measured and beautifully executed. When necessary she unleashed her powerful soprano to great effect slicing through the orchestra with her gorgeous sound. Her rendering of the solo arias Tacea la notte placida (The night was still and quiet) in Act 1 and D’amor sull’ali rosee (On the rosy wings of love) from Act 4 were without question the opera’s most glorious moments.

The role of Manrico was taken by Italian tenor Francesco Meli. The Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux sung the role of Azucena and Polish baritone Artur Ruciński was the Count di Luna. All gave creditable performances, but paled when compared to Netrebko’s stratospheric interpretation.

Daniele Gatti led the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a riveting interpretation, successfully drawing out the intricate details of Verdi’s masterly score.

Another impressive staged performance at the festival was Rossini’s La Cenerentola, which is based on the Cinderella fairy tale.

Acknowledged as one of his greatest masterpieces, Rossini is said to have composed the opera in 24 days. Most productions stress the fairy tale aspect of the opera. Director Damiano Michieletto would have none of this. Paolo Fantin staged the initial setting in a run-down, fast-food restaurant owned by the stepfather, Don Magnifico. It began with his two daughters pickpocketing their father to finance a shopping spree. Naturally, Cenerentola (or Angelica as she is called in the opera) was blamed when Don Magnifico discovered that money was missing.

When Alidoro, the prince’s tutor, tells Angelica that her future was about to be transformed, the self-service restaurant setting transformed to the prince’s palace set in a dazzling nightclub. It featured an immense bar as well as luxury sofas that replaced the outdated tables and chairs of the simple restaurant. Intriguingly, this nightclub venue was a mirror image replica of the earlier set.

Angelica was sung by acclaimed mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, a role she virtually owns, having sung it for over 20 years. She still retains her remarkable charismatic stage presence and beauty of tone dispatching her dazzling coloratura runs and trills with great assurance.

Her sound, diction and vocal technique were impeccable. This was especially evident in her final show piece Non piu mesta (No longer sad) that concludes the opera.

Javier Camarena as Prince Don Ramiro, gave a most convincing vocal performance with his golden warm ringing voice. He successfully hit all the high notes although his acting was not too convincing. Bass Enzo Capuano as Cenerentola’s stepfather also pulled off his role with aplomb.

Alidoro was sung by bass Ugo Guagliardo.

He was always present in various guises and contributed much to the success of the performance.

Baritone Nicola Alaimo took on the role of the prince’s valet Dandini who was masquerading as the prince. He gave an impressive interpretation. In the nightclub, a large entourage of paparazzi, signature seekers, enamored young girls and security guards trailed him.

Orchestral accompaniment was supplied by the Ensemble Matheus conducted by Jean-Christophe Spinosi. This period instrument group was selected by Cecilia Bartoli since she maintains that it is more authentic in keeping with orchestras in Rossini’s time. However they were not always clearly audible above the singers. With this scintillating production, the festival chalked up another great success.

Another memorable event was a non-staged concert performance of Donizetti’s La Favorite sung in the original French. As a reward for his bravery in battle, Fernand asks King Alphonse for the hand of Leonor de Guzman in marriage not knowing that she was the monarch’s long time mistress. When Fernand learns the truth, he abandons her, renounces his military career and returns to the monastery.

The hapless Leonor follows him and after a brief reconciliation, dies in his arms.

Four great singers are required to successfully pull this opera off and the Salzburg Festival provided the required goods. Leonor was sung by the captivating Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca whose rich, intense and commanding coloratura voice brought love, pathos and poignancy to the role. There was a sense of intensity, richness and conviction in her noteworthy interpretation.

The role of Fernand was sung by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez. His light lyrical voice is small but extremely agile and he uses his glorious instrument to great effect. Ideal for the Donizetti and Rossini repertoire, he is probably the leading exponent of this genre in the world today.

Also most effective was French baritone Ludovic Tezier as King Alphonse with his rich dynamic sound and noteworthy legato.

Completing the group was Italian bass Carlo Columbara as the monk Balthazar. He possesses a powerful mellifluous voice. This great international quartet of singers gave one of the most satisfying performances at the recent festival. Hopefully, this memorable event will be issued on CD.

A purist might argue that the orchestral accompaniment of the Munich Rundfunk Orchestra under Roberto Abbado was a trifle too heavy. Donizetti requires something lighter.

Another new production was Schubert’s opera Fierrabras. The long drawn-out uninteresting libretto is very confusing. Had Schubert the good fortune of having a librettist of the caliber of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Hugo von Hofmannsthal or Arrigo Boito available, he would be well known today as an operatic composer.

The background of the opera is the Christian- Muslim rivalry in the ninth century when Charlemagne was emperor. His daughter Emma has fallen in love with one of Charlemagne’s lesser known knights, Eginhard.

However, Emma had met Fierrabras, the Muslim ruler’s son in Rome and he became infatuated with her. To complicate matters, the Muslim leader’s daughter, Florinda, is obsessed with Charlemagne’s military leader Roland. At the end, this complex plot sorts itself out with peace between the two warring religious factions and the two pairs of lovers coming together. The only one left out is Fierrabras who joins the Christian knights as one of their soldiers. Would life be all that simple...

This score abounds with beautiful well structured music. As usual Schubert’s debt and hero worship to Beethoven showed through.

The trumpet call in Beethoven’s Fidelio has its counterpart in Fierrabras. Under Ingo Metzmacher, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with its warm strings and woodwinds gave a lucid account of the score bringing out all the subtle details with its rich varying colorings and textures.

The production was directed by Peter Stein and the sets designed by Ferdinand Wögerbauer.

The rather simple unimaginative staging depicted Romanesque structures for the scenes with Christians; characteristic creations dominated the Moorish settings.

Anna Maria Heinrich’s dramatic costumes were white for Christians and black for the Muslims. In this ensemble opera, the singing of all protagonists was of a uniform high standard. Especially noteworthy was the light silvery soprano of Julia Kleiter as Emma and the warm plush voice of Dorothea Röschmann as Florinda.

Mention must also be made of the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Choir that appeared in Il Trovatore, La Cenerentola and Fierrabras. This outstanding body of musicians performed to perfection and contributed much to the operatic successes with their fine balanced sound.

Schubert was also represented in Salzburg with a most authoritative rendering of his fourth symphony by Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as well as in a Schubertiade, a delightful and memorable evening of Schubert lieder with mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, baritone Oliver Widmer and bass Robert Holl among others.

And the most memorable moment of the festival? Not a question with an easy answer. But perhaps this accolade goes to Rudolf Buchbinder and his sublime, spellbinding, magisterial and deeply probing account of the arietta with five variations that concludes Beethoven’s final piano sonata, Opus 111 an event that culminated his seven-concert exploration into all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

The author, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel. He was recently recognized with the Sidney Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field. He may be contacted at

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