Soaking in the Salzburg Festival

For six weeks every summer, this small Austrian town becomes the music capital of the world.

Evgenia Muraveva (Katerina), Brandon Jovanovich (Sergei), and the Vienna State Opera Chorus in Shostakovich’s 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.' (photo credit: SALZBURGER FESTSPIELE/THOMAS AURIN)
Evgenia Muraveva (Katerina), Brandon Jovanovich (Sergei), and the Vienna State Opera Chorus in Shostakovich’s 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.'
SALZBURG – After 195 performances, the final curtain has rung down on the 2017 Salzburg Festival. More than 260,000 tickets (top prices € 450) were sold, giving an occupancy of 97%. Visitors from 79 nations attended, including more than 640 journalists.
From 1956 until his death in 1989, the festival was controlled by the autocratic conductor Herbert von Karajan, who ruled with an iron hand. His conservative approach appealed to the equally conservative Austrian audience.
With his demise, a new era began with Gerard Mortier, who drastically modernized the repertoire, adding Messiaen, Ligeti as well as other avant-garde composers. When he left in 2001, these innovations were largely abandoned.
Last year, pianist and impresario Markus Hinterhäuser took over the reins and, judging from this year’s programming, he seems intent on reverting to the Mortier era.
The festival featured 11 operatic productions, of which six were fully staged. Markus Hinterhäuser’s new conception of the festival was immediately evident in Mozart’s opera, La Clemenza di Tito. It was produced by American enfant terrible Peter Sellars, a favorite of the Mortier era.
In the late 1980s, Sellars staged the Mozart-De Ponte trilogy in New York, setting them in modern venues: Così in a diner, Figaro in New York’s Trump Tower and Don Giovanni in Harlem.
In the last year of his life, Mozart was asked to compose an opera seria to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II as king of Bohemia. He used a new libretto by the poet Caterino Mazzolà, based on the original by the acclaimed writer Pietro Metastasio.
Unfortunately, Mazzolà was no de Ponte. The plot is weak, which explains why the opera was soon dropped from the repertoire. However, because of its sublime music, it is currently being revived with increasing frequency.
In Mazzolà’s libretto, the Emperor Tito (or Titus as he more generally known) is depicted as being benevolent and compassionate. The real Tito is reviled especially by Jews, for he destroyed their Temple in Jerusalem, annihilated the Jewish state and sent its inhabitants into an exile which lasted almost 2000 years.
In Mazzolà’s complicated plot, Vitellia, the shrewd, devious and cunning daughter of a former emperor, instigates a coup against Tito because Tito fails to make her his wife. The coup is surprisingly led by the weak Sesto, Tito’s lifelong friend who is passionately in love with Vitellia and is prepared to carry out Vitellia’s every whim. Tito survives the coup and when the conspiracy is exposed, he forgives all.
In Sellars modern adaptation, Tito is portrayed as a Mandela-like figure and is the head of a modern state threatened by an influx of refugees.
During the overture, we see Tito selecting Sesto and his sister, Servilia, from the unruly crowd and inviting these two refugees to join his inner circle.
He even announces his intention to marry Servilia. Vitellia urges Sesto to undertake a suicidal terrorist act and assassinate Tito. In Sellar’s version, Tito does not survive and spends Act II in a hospital bed with intravenous life support.
Before dying, he forgives all the conspirators.
In collaboration with the talented Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis, Sellars drastically revised Mozart’s score, jettisoning most of the recitatives and substituting new text. This made some sense, since many of the recitatives were not composed by Mozart but by his pupil, Süssmayr, and are rather boring.
To accompany the recitatives, Sellars also incorporated additional music by Mozart, notably from his great “Mass in C-Minor.” To purists, this was utter heresy.
Personally, I thought this novel approach was fascinating, but what I found unacceptable was the addition of music from Mozart’s “Masonic Funeral Music in C minor” with the death of Tito at the opera’s conclusion. This futile attempt of Sellars to outdo Mozart, the most sophisticated opera composer of all time, fell flat. The opera should end exactly where Mozart laid down his pen.
George Tsypin’s simple and sparse staging comprised a series of plexiglas columns. In Act 2, the staging revealed a memorial with lighted candles, photos and personal mementos of the tragic victims of Sesto’s terrorist act, a scene unfortunately all too familiar in today’s world.
Teodor Currentzis conducted his period-instrument MusicAeterna Orchestra and Chorus from Russia’s Perm Opera. This group of musicians provided excellent accompaniment and gave a most credible performance, although some of the tempi were too drawn out.
This was particularly evident when clarinetist Florian Schuele appeared on stage from behind a column for the famous basset- clarinet obbligato aria “Parto, Parto” sung by Sesto. The two artists appeared to merge and dance together in a novel and fascinating approach.
The “trouser role” of Sesto was sung with extraordinary musicianship by the impressive mezzo Marianne Crebassa. The remainder of the mostly young talented cast all sang with enthusiasm and passion, resulting in a very laudable performance.
They included tenor Russell Thomas in the title role and soprano Golda Schultz as Vitellia. Her acting and singing was commendable, although her lower register was on occasion somewhat strained. The delightful Jeanine De Bique was Sesto’s friend Annio, and the feisty Christina Gansch portrayed Servilia.
Publio, Tito’s military chief, was effectively sung by the imposing veteran bass Willard White.
Love it or hate it, everyone had a definite opinion and this provocative production generated much discussion, which in itself made it a great festival success.
By far the hottest ticket this year was Verdi’s Aida. Casting Anna Netrebko, who has been the reigning queen of Salzburg since 2002, together with Riccardo Muti, a great Verdi exponent, was a sure winner. And vocally it was, without question one of greatest Aidas I have ever heard.
Disappointed opera buffs outside the Festspielhaus were offering up to 6,000 euros for a ticket; some were reported to have sent blank checks to the box office with their ticket requests.
Anna Netrebko has long graduated from the light lyrical roles of the past and over the last few years has been tackling the heavier soprano repertoire with unparalleled success.
Her Aida was a revelation.
She displayed dazzling control of upper, middle and lower vocal ranges. In her fortissimo passages, she easily soared above the orchestra.
Equally impressive were her shimmering pianissimos. All this came together in her unforgettable aria, “O patria mia.”
With her remarkable acting skills, elegant gowns and ornate hairpieces, she dominated every scene. The duet with her father Amonastro in the Nile scene was another great performance highlight.
As Radamès, Francesco Meli displayed a bright, lyric, clarion tenor and was fully up to this challenging role. This opera represents a fiendishly difficult role for the tenor, whose show-stopping aria “Celeste Aida” occurs very early, long before he has fully settled into the role.
Meli did not disappoint.
Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Amneris began rather hesitantly, but her voice became stronger and reached its climax with her dramatic display of anger coupled with anguish, hatred and love in the final act.
The defeated Ethiopia king, , Aida’s father Amonasro, was most competently sung by Luca Salsi.
Basses Dmitry Belosselskiy as the high priest and Roberto Tagliavini as the king completed the great ensemble.
Muti conducting the impressive Vienna Philharmonic gave a glorious account of the score. The orchestra has played under Muti’s baton for several decades and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two, the orchestra understanding his every cue and gesture.
Muti’s insight into Verdi’s score is quite astonishing. He succeeded in revealing subtle passages and details that elude other conductors.
Every marking of the composer was diligently respected. There was also great vocal support from the magnificent Vienna State Opera Chorus under the direction of Ernst Raffelsberger.
However, opera also requires the critical visual component. Muti made it clear that he is against pyramids, obelisks and elephants. Shirin Neshat is an accomplished New York-based Iranian visual artist, known for her photography, video installations and films. Although she had never produced an opera, she was entrusted with this new high-profile production.
Christian Schmidt’s unimaginative abstract sets comprised large revolving polystyrene boxes, onto which were projected video images mainly of refugees, which did not add much. In Act 3, the video accompaniment of the flowing Nile River was repetitive and ultimately became monotonous.
The Act 2 triumphal march scene was a disappointment and certainly not very triumphant. Everyone moved about rather aimlessly. Even the dancers, adorned with animal heads, failed to impress.
There was little interaction among the singers, who were left largely to their own devices. This was most evident in the relationship between Aida and Radamès.
Sadly, the production was static and bland. Vocally one could not find fault, but visually, well that was something else.
Another compelling production this year was Dmitri Shostakovich’s erotic opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. At its premiere, it met with great success, but was almost immediately banned after being severely criticized by Stalin.
It is not difficult to understand why: Shostakovich made a mockery of the corrupt Russian bureaucracy.
In the libretto, by Alexander Preiss and Shostakovich himself, the bored young Katerina dreams of escaping from her stifling environment and searches for love, which she fails to receive from her weak and pathetic husband, Sinowi, son of Boris, a brutal, lecherous, wealthy grain merchant who himself has eyes on Katerina.
The dysfunctional family relationship is best described by Katerina herself in a retort to her fatherin– law: “You’re a rat yourself!” Enter the new laborer, Sergei, a notorious womanizer, and Katerina’s sexual needs are satisfied. She is discovered by Boris, but makes short thrift of him by murdering him with poisoned mushrooms.
Then together with Sergei, they strangle her husband. After the discovery of their crime, Katerina and Sergei are sent to Siberia.
Andreas Kriegenburg directed a most convincing production. Harald B. Thor’s fascinating staging comprised a series of gray and drab concrete buildings characteristic of the Soviet style. Platforms were moved in and out of the wings, showing Katerina’s bedroom, her father-in-law and husband’ office, the police quarters and the women’s jail. The ensemble scenes take place in center stage.
There were minimum set changes in the second half, which depicted Katerina and Sergei’s wedding scene and their march to Siberia.
Notably absent was the river where Katerina commits suicide, taking Sergei’s latest paramour with her.
Instead, effigies of the two victims were thrown over one of the balconies.
By the opera’s end, despite having murdered three people and committed suicide, Katerina is still regarded as a tragic victim and retains the sympathy of the audience, who fully understand her miserable plight.
Evgenia Muraveva, a young soprano from St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, replaced the indisposed Nina Stemme. She was an outstanding Katerina with a radiant lyric voice and sang with passionate fervor.
With her good looks, she was entirely convincing in the opera’s sex scenes opposite her lover, the scheming opportunistic over-sexed Sergei. This role was taken by tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who sang with conviction, his voice boasting an impressive range.
Bass Dmitry Ulyanov was the menacing father-in-law and tenor Maxim Paster the timorous and pathetic Sinovy. Stanislav Trofimov as the priest and Alexey Shishlyaev as the police chief were effective, but at times bordered on the burlesque.
Much success of this overwhelming performance must be given to Mariss Jansons, who conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Great vocal support was provided by the outstanding Vienna State Opera Chorus.
Jansons captured all the nuances of Shostakovich’s masterly but complex score. It was all there, parody, seriousness and eroticism. Especially impressive was Jansons’s dramatic interpretation of the interludes connecting the different scenes.
The Vienna Philharmonic is truly a remarkable annual fixture of the festival. This year they were in the pit for four major operas, and enthralled enthusiastic audiences in five concerts. Since their initial participation in the festival in 1922, this great orchestra has given more than 2,200 opera performances and some 800 concerts. Quite an achievement!