Concert review: A musical extravaganza at the Salzburg festival

The innovative 2018 program featured 206 performances of music and drama over six weeks this summer.

ASMIK GRIGORIAN as the title character in Strauss’s ‘Salome' (photo credit: SALZBURGER FESTSPIELE/RUTH WALZ)
ASMIK GRIGORIAN as the title character in Strauss’s ‘Salome'
SALZBURG, Austria – The Salzburg Festival was inaugurated in 1920 and today, even with the vast proliferation of festivals all over the world, it is still recognized as the premier international event of its kind. The innovative 2018 program featured 206 performances of music and drama over six weeks this summer.
Opera is still the mainstay and included are six new staged productions and two given in concert form. Richard Strauss’s Salome was a major highlight. A successful production of Salome depends on the lead character: the teenage princess, Salome, one of the most daunting roles in the entire operatic repertoire. For this task, Salzburg engaged the young Lithuanian soprano, Asmik Grigorian. The unforgettable performance of this charismatic artist was a real tour de force. She unleashed her voice with thrilling power and could easily be heard over Strauss’s huge orchestral forces. She also exhibited a light agile soprano in the softer more lyrical moments. Vocally and visually, her performance must rank as one of the unquestioned highlights of the festival.
She was well supported by the magnificent Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the conductor Franz Welser-Möst, who successfully propelled the drama forward bringing, out all the strident brass and woodwind dissonances of Strauss’s complex, masterful score. English tenor John Daszak as Herodes and Italian mezzo Anna Maria Chiuri as her mother Herodias gave stalwart gripping performances. Hungarian bass-baritone Gábor Bretz as the prophet Jochanaan was initially a little hesitant but then his burnished bass-baritone shone through.
The provocative avant-garde director, Romeo Castellucci, took charge and designed sets, lighting and costumes. Castellucci’s strikingly complex, enigmatic and radical staging included much symbolism. It was a Salome without the famous dance and without the head of Jochanaan. Instead, during the dance scene, Salome was left alone on the stage, almost naked and bound with black tape, bowing her head down on a pedestal in a kneeling position. A giant boulder then descended from above and enveloped her.
It was impossible to comprehend all of Castellucci’s subtle and baffling imagery. This production posed many unanswered questions. Yet, in the final analysis, it was irrelevant. The audience was given much food for thought and vocally, this Salome was an unforgettable experience, a true festival highlight and a performance to remember for years to come.
ANOTHER MASTERFUL operatic treat was a revival of Rossini’s light comic masterpiece, The Italian in Algiers, which premiered two months previously at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. The plot revolves round Mustafa, the Muslim governor in Algeria, who wishes to abandon his wife, Elvira, and replace her with a sexy, exciting Italian – and so orders his servant, Haly, to find one. Luckily, the latter stumbles on Isabella, who had just been shipwrecked. Together with her companion, Taddeo, she had been searching for her fiancé, Lindoro, who had previously been captured by pirates and was currently a slave in the service of Mustafa.
As originally conceived by Rossini, this comedy portrays how scheming Italians outwit simple Muslims. In most productions, this is how the parody is played out. However, in today’s world of ethnic tensions, this is unacceptable. Directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier were largely successful in minimizing this cross-cultural encounter. The striking costumes were designed by Agostino Cavalca. Mustafa strutted around in artificially inflated underwear and Taddeo was dressed in a pink tracksuit and superman underpants.
The entire production revolved around the unrivaled Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. Even after gracing the great opera stages of the world for over 30 years, she still possesses an outstanding vocal instrument, which she uses wisely to great effect. Her upper register has lost some of its sheen but she has retained her lower notes, and her coloratura passages with remarkable trills were unforgettable. She portrayed the seductive Italian woman, who oozes charm and knows exactly how to manipulate men to do her bidding and outmaneuver all who were infatuated with her.
EVIL TRIUMPHS in Monteverdi’s opera, The Coronation of Poppea. This featured the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva as the cunning, evil Poppea. Her seductive demeanor and magnificent voice with chilling top notes certainly fit the part. There was palpable chemistry between her and the American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, who took the role of the depraved Nerone. The dark luster in her singing was notable, although on occasion her voice sounded somewhat strained. Nerone’s spurned wife, Ottavia, was sung by French mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac. Her farewell to Rome in the aria “Addio Roma” was one of the great highlights of the production. The other roles were also excellently rendered.
Jan Lauwers’s rich baroque stage decorations were beautiful, with sprawling masses of intertwined bodies, but was overdone. Throughout the performance, semi-clad dancers took turns rotating and whirling around center stage, which detracted from the main drama. William Christie, seated at the harpsichord, led his Les Arts Florissants Orchestra. Positioned on the stage, they were an intimate part of the action and provided ideal accompaniment.
MENTION MUST also be made of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, a tale of doomed lovers: Hermann, the obsessive gambler, and Lisa, another gambler who foolishly traded the love of an adoring fiancé for Hermann. Both protagonists end up losing big time! The stark production was by Hans Neuenfels, an enfant terrible opera and theater director.
The incomparable Mariss Jansons drew shimmering, incisive and riveting playing from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Soprano Evgenia Muraveva as Lisa, with her focused voice, abundant power and chilling top notes brought real pathos to the role. American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, wielding a potent voice and fierce determination, was an effective Hermann. Veteran German mezzo-soprano Hanna Schwarz, who has performed in opera houses all over the world since 1970, gave a remarkable portrayal of the countess.
The London Symphony Orchestra made two memorable appearances under their new musical director, Simon Rattle. In celebration of the Leonard Bernstein centenary, they gave a magisterial lucid account of Bernstein’s second symphony, The Age of Anxiety. This was a formidable, clear, detailed performance. Pianist Krystian Zimerman with his beguiling and brilliant playing took on the intimidating piano role. Zimerman first performed this work under the composer’s baton on his 70th birthday. Bernstein was so impressed that he asked Zimerman to perform the piece again when he turned 100. This promise was fulfilled!
ONE OF the other interesting guest orchestras was musicAeterna, founded in 2004 by the Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Since 2011, their home base has been in Perm, which was a closed city in the Soviet era and is situated more than a thousand kilometers from Moscow. These young musicians are very dedicated to their charismatic conductor and appear to give him as much rehearsal time as he requires. With the exception of cellos and basses, they stand in their performances like individual soloists. According to Currentzis, this allows them greater freedom of movement. MusicAeterna travels widely in Europe, features in prestigious musical festivals and its recordings have garlanded great praise.
This acclaimed period-instrument ensemble gave lithe, articulate accounts of a full cycle of the Beethoven symphonies, dispatching the music with scintillating crispness. Unlike many performances where woodwinds and brass are drowned out by strings, here they could be clearly heard.
One of the exciting recent innovations in the Salzburg Festival is the Children Opera Camp, a program originally conceived about 10 years ago by Prof. Wolfgang Aulitzky. His aim was to instill a love of opera into youth, who are the next generation of concert goers. Since its inception, the Opera Camps have been co-funded by the American Austrian Foundation and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The Salzburg Music Festival provides substantial support for their performances at the end of each Opera Camp. These camps are hosted at Schloss Arenberg, the American-Austrian Foundation’s headquarters. This year, the foundation sponsored eight young Israeli musicians enabling them to participate in the program.
The opera camps are organized by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s Hanne Muthspiel-Payer and are open to children from all over the world. Three weekly opera seminars are given to children aged 9-17 who are housed at Schloss Arenberg. After six days of instruction by experts in music, voice, dance and set design, each camp in turn produces its shortened version of one of three operas currently running in the festival. Those proficient with a musical instrument participate in the orchestral accompaniment, which is supervised by members of the Vienna Philharmonic. All the children play a role in the final production. These highly innovative and successful opera camps are an integral part of the festival.