Salzburg pulls out all stops for arts festival

With sacrifice being the theme, opera, ballet and Stravinsky light up the annual Whitsun Festival.

June 2, 2013 03:36
View of Salzburg

Salzburg, Austria370. (photo credit: Irving Spitz)

SALZBURG – Despite it small size (population 150,000), Salzburg has become a major center for high-quality classical musical festivals.

This is related to the inherent charm of this baroque city, a World Heritage Site, and its exquisite surroundings as well as the comfort and acoustics of the four major venues used for musical events.

Besides the prestigious six-week summer festival, the city celebrates Mozart’s birthday every January with performances by major international artists and ensembles.

The Dresden State Opera, with its charismatic conductor Christian Thielemann, are in the city over Easter. And then there is the annual spring Whitsun Festival.

This is the second year that Cecilia Bartoli has directed Salzburg’s Whitsun festival. She is not only a great mezzo soprano, but is also an esteemed musicologist.

The theme she chose this year was built around sacrifice (opfer in German).

The central piece of the festival featured Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma, which represents the ultimate example of sacrifice. Felice Romani’s libretto relates how the Druid priestess, Norma, daughter of Oroveso, has had a secret love affair with Pollione, the Roman proconsul. Pollione has fathered Norma’s two children but now the philanderer has fallen in love with the young temple virgin, Adalgisa, and intends abandoning Norma. On hearing of Pollione’s betrayal, Norma’s first inclination is to murder and sacrifice her children.

She then changes her mind and considers sacrificing Adalgisa and Pollione, but finally sacrifices herself on the burning pyre – where she is joined by Pollione.

After the performance, Bartoli said that Bellini wrote the title role of Norma specifically for mezzo-soprano Giuditta Pasta. At the same 1831 premiere, the role of Adalgisa was sung by Giulia Grisi, a light soprano. Bartoli mentioned that this current production used a critical new edition of Bellini’s score, which restored many of the composer’s annotations as well as numerous sections that are usually cut.

Over the last few decades, opera aficionados usually associate Norma with dramatic sopranos, notably Maria Callas, who championed the role. Adalgisa is usually sung by a mezzo-soprano. By casting herself as Norma and the light lyrical soprano, Rebeca Olvera, as Adalgisa, Bartoli’s conception of the opera is more in sync with Bellini’s original intentions.

To add to the historical authenticity, the Italian conductor, Giovanni Antonini, directed the Orchestra La Scintilla, the period instrument orchestra of the Zurich Opera. He was most sympathetic to the soloists and the outstanding choir, the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera.

The dual directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, set the plot in occupied France during World War II.

The suppressed Druids were represented as the French Resistance. Much of the background is played out during the overture. Christian Fenouillat, the set designer, housed the initial action in a schoolroom populated with happy children. This abandoned schoolhouse later becomes a hideout for fleeing French refugees, and finally a meeting place for resistance fighters. The Romans, with the exception of Pollione, are depicted in Nazi uniforms but keep to the background and maintain a low profile.

The title role is acknowledged to be one of the most difficult in the repertoire.

It requires a flexible voice with great range and dynamics. Bartoli gave a remarkable performance, and both her singing and acting were beyond reproach.

It is more than 15 years ago that I first heard her at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and although her voice is not large, she remains one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of all time.

Her coloratura agile runs and leaps remain as impressive as ever and she retains her extended upper range. Her opening aria to the moon goddess, “Casta Diva (Chaste Goddess)” was beautifully rendered.

Bartoli’s exceptional acting ability, with facial expressions and fiery sparkling eyes, more than adequately depicted the multiple passions demanded by the role.

These comprised conflict between her public and personal life and her love for Pollione and her children. Additional emotions convincingly portrayed by Bartoli included friendship, anger, jealousy, murderous intent, remorse and finally peace of mind. Throughout, her remarkable musicianship showed through, making this one of the most inspiring performances of this opera that I have ever attended.

As Adalgisa, Olvera was tender and expressive as she effectively floated her pianissimo lines. Pollione was sung stylishly with a very distinctive voice by tenor John Osborn. The sonorous charismatic bass Michele Pertusi as Oroveso also gave an impressive account of his role.

Ballet was also featured in the festival, notably a performance of that ultimate ballet of sacrifice, Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), in which the gods of spring receives a sacrifice of a young virgin who dances herself to death. The world premiere of this work took place in Paris on May 29, 1913, by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, where the unfamiliar modern music and unorthodox choreography created an absolute uproar.

This current performance represented a reconstruction and revival by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer of that 1913 production by Vaslav Nijinsky, with original costumes and sets by Nicholas Roerich. The full program was a triple bill and included Stravinsky’s Le Noce (The Wedding) and L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), also in adaptations of the original choreography by the Ballet Russes. Not surprisingly, all soloists as well as the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky excelled in all three works. These Stravinsky ballet scores are pure Russian in their very heart and soul, and this showed through in the brilliant strident and ferocious performance of Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky orchestra and choir.

Political sacrifice was represented by a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar,” set to the poems of the Russian Yevgeny Yevtushenko. This symphony commemorates the slaughter of some 34,000 Jews at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev. The insightful performance was also led by Gergiev, with the Mariinsky orchestra and male chorus. He convincingly projected the sweep and flow of the symphony, which began with muted horns and trumpets. The voice of the great mellifluous Russian bass, Mikhail Petrenko, towered over chorus and orchestra and added much to the haunting beauty of the performance.

The full striking intensity was made evident when Petrenko and the male chorus slowly intoned the words, “There is no Jewish blood in my blood, but I feel the loathsome hatred of all anti-Semites.” This shattering performance captured the very essence of the music, one of the greatest musical compositions of the 20th century.

That incomparable pianist, Andras Schiff, also explored the theme of sacrifice with piano works composed in the key of C minor. According to the program notes, “this is a tonality frequently used to portray lamenting, anguish and sacrifice.” Schiff is always a powerfully communicative performer and played with his usual sensitivity and technical finesse. The centerpiece of the program was a performance of Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata No. 32, which Schiff executed with consummate skill. The recital also included Mozart’s Fantasia K.475 and Sonata K.457, as well as two ricercares (early-type fugues) from Bach’s The Musical Offering (Das Musikalische Opfer). The choice of the ricercares again dovetailed beautifully with the theme of the festival.

An example of biblical sacrifice was provided by the Neapolitan composer, Niccolò Jommelli. His oratorio Isacco Figura del Redentore (Isaac, Image of the Redeemer), relates to the akeda, or near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. The libretto was by the celebrated Italian poet, Metastasio. This was my introduction to this composer’s work, whose style was very reminiscent of Haydn. Indeed their lives did overlap. The work was well-executed by the period instruments of I Barocchisti under the direction of conductor Diego Fasolis, who led a richly colored and well-paced account of the work, amply aided by excellent soloists and the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera.

The final sacrifice was an incandescent performance of the German Requiem composed by Brahms as a memorial to his mother and the composer Robert Schumann.

For his text, Brahms did not use the usual Latin liturgy; instead he opted for texts from the Lutheran Bible, including several settings and words from the Psalms and prophets of the Old Testament. One of the central motives of the Requiem sung by the soprano solo is from Isaiah, “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.” Indeed, this represents the very spirit of the work, which is a consolation for the living rather than a mass for the dead.

Daniel Barenboim led his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra comprised of Israeli and Arab musicians in an intelligent and sympathetic rendering of the score. Orchestra and choir began softly and tentatively, gradually building up to a glorious crescendo. There was very elegant woodwind and brass playing from the young instrumentalists.

Bass-baritone Rene Pape and Bartoli were the impressive soloists in their limited – but nevertheless memorable – renditions, but the real hero of the performance was the magnificent choir of the Wiener Singverein, which produced a ravishing sound at all times.

Over 13,450 people attended the four days of this well-planned festival. This follows last year’s success, which was devoted to Cleopatra. Next year, the festival is titled “Rossinissimo” and will feature some of Rossini’s great works. Bartoli, who has extended her contract as Whitsun Festival director through the 2016 season, will reprise her signature roles in La Cenerentola and in Otello; the latter production has recently been released on DVD. Also featured will be Rossini’s religious works, as well as an all-star gala.

Welcome to Salzburg!

The author, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel ( He blogs at

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