SALZBURG – Despite it small size (population 150,000), Salzburg has become a
major center for high-quality classical musical festivals.
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.
State Opera, with its charismatic conductor Christian Thielemann, are in the
city over Easter. And then there is the annual spring Whitsun
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.
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
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.
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.
role is acknowledged to be one of the most difficult in the
It requires a flexible voice with great range and dynamics.
Bartoli gave a remarkable performance, and both her singing and acting were
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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!
author, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes reviews and lectures on
medical topics, music, art, history and travel (www.irvingspitz.com). He blogs