SALZBURG – During the current six-week Salzburg Summer Festival, there were 11
new operatic productions, seven of which were staged.
masterpiece, Don Carlo, adapted from a play by the German dramatist, Friedrich
von Schiller, is the longest and most ambitions in his canon. It is a love story
set in a background of political intrigue and uncompromising religious fervor.
Its 1867 five-act premiere took place in Paris; Verdi subsequently made a
shorter Italian version in which he jettisoned the first act and made additional
The current production used the original French edition sung in
Italian. In the first act, Don Carlo encounters by chance Elisabetta, daughter
of the king of France, in the forest of Fontainebleau. She had been betrothed to
him as part of the peace treaty between Spain and France. Unbeknown to them, Don
Carlo’s father, Philip ll, rescinded this and decided to marry Elisabetta
Omitting this first act makes it difficult to understand the
evolving love affair between Don Carlo and his adopted mother.
Stein directed this production, which ran for just over five hours. Anja
Harteros as Elisabetta is a Verdi soprano of stature, with dramatic acting
ability, imposing stage presence and a gleaming voice, equally striking in both
the low and high passages. It is not easy to portray Don Carlo’s reckless,
vacillating and hysterical personality, but tenor Jonas Kaufman proved to be up
to the task and gave a poignant, vocally committed performance.
consummate artists complemented each other in their three encounters. Their
initial meeting reveals two immature passionate lovers. In the next act,
Elisabetta, now queen, rebuffs Don Carlo’s advances. In their final encounter,
they realize the futility of their relationship, which evolves into one on a
Veteran bass Matti Salminen as Philip II started
somewhat hesitatingly but summoning his vocal reserves, rising to the occasion
and giving an outstanding portrayal of this great role. Bass Eric Halfvarson was
the uncompromising grand inquisitor, and succeeded in bringing out the malice of
the character. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk took on the role of the
duplicitous Eboli, who is in love with Don Carlo and when rebuffed, betrays him
and the queen. Her singing and acting captured all the dramatic changes in her
demeanor, displaying arrogance, pride, anger and remorse as
The most complex but key character of the opera is Rodrigo,
Marquis of Posa, which was sung by baritone Thomas Hampson. This character is a
creation of Schiller, and has no historical authenticity. Rodrigo is the only
true friend and confidant of the king, and is also the bridge of communication
between Elisabetta and Don Carlo. It is he who encourages the latter to support
the Flemish insurrection against Spain. Hampson’s voice still retains its
wonderful mellifluous character, making him one of the world’s foremost
To me, Act 4 of this opera represents the pinnacle not only of
Verdi’s oeuvre but arguably of all opera. It has everything: love, devotion,
pity, sacrifice, hate, jealousy, revenge and anger, set in the background of
religious and political conflict. It begins with the great soliloquy of “King
Philip Ella giammai m’amo” (She never loved me), sung with passion, dignity and
sadness by Salminen – when he bemoans the fact that his wife has no affection
for him. Then follows the confrontation with Philip and the grand inquisitor,
where the former confides that his son has committed treason. The inquisitor
agrees to the king’s decision to kill him, but asks in turn for the head of
Rodrigo. Philip angrily refuses. This famous duet between the two basses was
most convincingly executed.
Then there is the altercation between Philip
and Elisabetta, when he mistakenly accuses her of infidelity, and Eboli’s great
show-stopping aria, “O Don fatale” (O fatal gift), when she admits that it was
she who betrayed the queen. The final scene of this act is set in prison where
Rodrigo comes to visit the detained Don Carlo, and is shot on the king’s order.
In their final poignant duet, sensitively and beautifully rendered by these two
great singers, they expressed their undying devotion – climaxing to the strains
of the leitmotif that is heard in their earlier encounters.
Wogerbauer’s sets were sparse, unimaginative and somewhat sterile. The dominant
color in the costumes was black. The only nod to the forest in Act 1 was a pile
of logs on either side of the giant stage. In the distance, through a
passageway, one could discern a multistory building. The staging of Act 3, when
Don Carlos mistakenly confuses the disguised Eboli with the queen, consisted of
a marquee in the background and what seemed like a turnstile line, with barriers
through which the soloists had to negotiate. The great auto-da-fe inquisition
scene, occurring later on in this act, was impressively staged.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Antonio Pappano was in top form and captured
all the nuances of this great score. Particularly noteworthy was the outstanding
cello obbligato in Philip’s great aria at the beginning of Act 4.
great artistic event of the festival featured a concert performance of Verdi’s
early opera, Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc), also based on a play by Schiller.
The librettist Solera embellished the story of the maid of Orleans, with a
complex relationship between Giovanna and her father Giocomo. This is one of the
many Verdi operas where a father-daughter liaison is central to the plot, but
here it lacks the deep psychological relationship seen in his later
Giocomo believes that his daughter is carrying on an illicit
sexual relationship with the French King Charles, and denounces her to the
English. Later, when he realizes his mistake, he releases her – but the hapless
Joan meets her death on the battlefield. This early Verdi score is replete with
rousing patriotic melodies, a fact not lost on the Italians then under foreign
domination, who viewed themselves as the embittered French under the English
A successful performance of this opera requires three great
soloists, and Salzburg delivered the required package.
Anna Netrebko took the role of the hapless Giovanna. Her powerful voice, which
has of late taken on a darker hue, is a marvel. She easily attained the higher
registers and her vocal pyrotechnics were much in evidence. In the fortissimo
passages, her soaring soprano was clearly heard above the other soloists and
choir. She sang her final aria from high up in the arches of the
Felsenreitschule (Riding School Theater). At this stage of her career, she is at
her peak vocal prowess.
Placido Domingo recorded the tenor role of this
opera over 40 years ago. This time, he took on the baritone role of Giacomo. To
hear his burnished, impeccable voice was an extraordinary experience. This
artist is truly a phenomenon, considering that he was only discharged from
hospital one month ago. Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the evening was the
duet between Domingo and Netrebko, when he acknowledges his error in denouncing
King Charles was sung by Francesco Meli, who displayed an
ardent, ringing tenor and constituted the third competent soloist in this most
Already evident in their impassioned portrayal of
the opening chorus, the Vienna Philharmonic Choir performed superbly. The Munich
Radio Orchestra was competently conducted by Paolo Carignani, who gave generous
support to soloists and choir.
Wagner was commemorated with a performance
of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master Singer of Nuremberg).
plot evolves around a singing competition, the two main contestants being the
young knight Walther and the town clerk, Beckmesser. The winner would be awarded
the hand of Eva, daughter of one of Nuremberg’s prominent citizens.
have always been somewhat ambivalent about this Wagnerian opera, which extols
German nationalism and has overt anti-Semitic overtones, especially with regard
to the character of Beckmesser – who is usually played as a doddering,
vindictive and jealous older man. However, in this production, director Stefan
Herheim portrayed Beckmesser most sympathetically as a young man, making him a
plausible candidate for Eva’s hand. Indeed, there is a suggestion at the end
that Beckmesser and Hans Sachs, the well-respected German master singer, poet
and shoemaker, may be mirror images of each other.
The innovative sets
were designed by Heike Scheele. It opened with a view of the study of Sachs, who
was born in Nuremberg and spent much of his life there. At the conclusion of the
opening prelude, the camera zoomed in on Sachs’s desk, which becomes
progressively larger and evolved into the scene for the first act – which is set
in a church. The same technique was applied in the second act, where cabinets in
Sachs’s study become larger and larger and are eventually transformed into the
street and surrounding buildings. Another imaginative feature was the appearance
in the crowd scenes of characters from the Brothers Grimm fairy
Unfortunately, much of the vocal cast did not match up to the
innovative production. The only real standouts were the two baritones, Markus
Werba, who was a sympathetic, compelling and sonorous Beckmesser; and Michael
Volle, who took on the role of Sachs. His monologue at the beginning of Act 3
was perhaps the vocal highlight.
To commemorate the centenary of Benjamin
Britten, there was a performance of his War Requiem. This monumental work
requires the usual symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra, organ, large adult
choir, boy’s choir and three soloists. Britten incorporated poems by Wilfred
Owen into the usual Latin text.
The two male soloists, American baritone
Hampson and English tenor Ian Bostridge, were seated in front of the orchestra,
and they competently and effectively rendered Owen’s poems accompanied by the
chamber orchestra. Every word sung by Bostridge was clearly
Their vocal delivery of the sacrifice of Isaac was an
unforgettable moment. Owen integrated his own addition to the timeless story,
which diverges from the biblical account: “But the old man would not so, but
slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” All the horrors of war
were manifestly evident in this dramatic interchange.
in white with a bejeweled headband, was seated in the midst of the adult choir.
She gave an impassioned and sonorous performance of the Latin
Interestingly, at the premier of this work in the reconsecrated
Coventry Cathedral 51 years ago, Soviet authorities refused to allow the
scheduled Russian soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya, to participate. How times have
changed! The competent Salzburg Festival Children’s choir were behind the stage;
the score does require that they be seated some distance from the orchestra.
They performed admirably but on occasion, notably in the soft passages, it was
difficult to hear them clearly.
Pappano conducted the Orchestra and Choir
of Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. I have never heard this
orchestra sound better. Particularly striking were the brass and woodwinds.
Pappano captured Britten’s shattering indictment on the futility of war, and
successfully brought out all the subtleties of this complex score.
April, the Salzburg Summer Festival was awarded the Festivals Opera of the Year
Prize at the International Opera Awards. This “Oscar” of the operatic world is
The author, an emeritus professor of medicine,
writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel
(www.irvingspitz.com). He was recently recognized with the Sidney H. Ingbar
Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to
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