Opera at the Salzburg Summer Festival

Of the three new productions, one was outstanding, one academic and the third traditional.

Soprano Angela Denoke_311 (photo credit: Walter Mair)
Soprano Angela Denoke_311
(photo credit: Walter Mair)
The 2011 Salzburg Festival featured six full operatic productions. Almost without exception, singers were of the highest standard, which is in keeping with this elitist musical extravaganza. The most satisfying of the new productions was Leos Janácek’s Makropulos Case. The young Emilia Marty had been given an elixir to prolong life by her father and was 337 years old. Now a renowned opera singer, she appears during the conclusion of a century-long inheritance lawsuit. To Emilia, the fate of the inheritance is not important. She only wants the written formula to maintain youth.
The production was directed by Christoph Marthaler with sets and costumes by Anna Viebrock. The center stage functioned as a lawyer’s office, dressing room and finally a courtroom. The arduous role of Emilia Marty was taken by soprano Angela Denoke who gave a stunning, impassioned portrayal of the protagonist’s narcissistic character. Only at the end, in her searing monologue, did she come to terms with her age and let an element of humanism crept in. She decides she has lived enough and offers the elixir formula to an aspiring singer, who nonchalantly burns the document. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen achieved sumptuous, nuanced playing from the Vienna Philharmonic. This was the unquestioned operatic highlight.
Richard Strauss’s The Woman without a Shadow, a fairy tale, involves two couples, one celestial (Emperor and Empress) and the other earthly (the dyer Barak and his wife). The Empress casts no shadow (a metaphor for infertility) and to save her husband she must acquire one. The nurse takes the Empress to the earthly abode of Barak where she engineers a plot with Barak’s wife, promising the latter riches if she will relinquish her shadow. Initially she agrees, but subsequently reneges, and even the Empress refuses to accept it.
Christof Loy presented an academic production. Designer Johannes Leiacker staged this opera in Vienna’s Sofiensäle, the location of many famous recordings. This concept was novel but also controversial. Loy himself pointed out in a program interview, that the Sofiensäle was the site where the Austrian Nazi party met and subsequently “a center for rounding up Jews marked for deportation.”
THERE WAS no question about the brilliant performance of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Christian Thielemann. He really came to terms with the dramatic score and kept the giant orchestral forces under tight control, resulting in glorious sound. Soprano Evelyn Herlitzius portrayed the complex wife most effectively. Anne Schwanewilms was outstanding as the Empress and Michaela Schuster took the role of the sly nurse. Wolfgang Koch, the sonorous baritone, sang the role of the Dyer. Stephen Gould as the Emperor had an imposing ringing tenor.
The hottest ticket in the current festival was Verdi’s early opera, Macbeth, conducted by Riccardo Muti. With Muti at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic, the performance was impeccable. His interpretation was paced slower than his previous forays into the opera.
Peter Stein’s production was classical. Designer Ferdinand Wögerbauer utilized the large passageway between the orchestra pit and front row seats in the Felsenreitschule (Riding School) for King Duncan’s entourage and later for the flight of refugees. Another ingenious effect was to project Banquo’s future descendents, in line with the prophesy, to include images of British royalty (Charles I, Victoria and the current Queen Elizabeth). The three tiers of stone arches were effectively utilized when rebel soldiers covered with branches from Birnam Woods emerged from them, fulfilling the witches’ prophesy.
Baritone Zeljko Lucic was an impressive Macbeth, especially in the banquet scene when accosted by the ghosts of Banquo. Macduff, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, rose to the occasion when mourning his family (their bloody corpses were displayed on stage). Pride of place, however, went to Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan as Lady Macbeth. At no time did she have to force her voice. Her early letter aria was a real tour de force and equally inspiring was her sleepwalking scene. Serjan’s passage across the upper tier of the Riding School attired in a white night gown in the prelude to her final aria was my most cherished memory of this opera and the festival in general.