Summer symphonies in Salzburg

After 99 years, the Salzburg Festival, held in the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, continues to excel and surprise.

MOZART’S ‘IDOMENEO’ with Ying Fang as Ilia (photo credit: RUTH WALZ)
MOZART’S ‘IDOMENEO’ with Ying Fang as Ilia
(photo credit: RUTH WALZ)
The Salzburg Festival is 99 years old and still going strong.
Held every summer in the Austrian town of Salzburg, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the festival continues to excel and surprise.
This year, Verdi’s opera Simon Boccanegra was a festival highlight. The dark, gloomy plot related to convoluted family feuds and power struggles in Genoa between the various political factions. Simon Boccanegra a respected popular corsair, was elected doge of Genoa. His personal life was in turmoil. He was in love with Maria, the mother of his adopted daughter. Maria’s father, the patrician Jacopo Fiesco, refused to sanction their marriage. Boccanegra believed that by becoming doge, Fiesco would relent. This was not to be and the two men remained sworn enemies. Fate then dealt Boccanegra additional blows. Maria died and his daughter was kidnapped.
Subsequent events in the opera play out 25 years later. The doge located his daughter, Amelia, only to learn that she was in love with Gabriele Adorno, one of the ringleaders of a plot to assassinate him. Boccanegra was poisoned but before his death, there was reconciliation between the two old adversaries, Boccanegra and Fiesco. Adorno married Amelia and was proclaimed doge by the dying Boccanegra.
The staging by director Andreas Kriegenburg and set designer Harald Thor was sparse. A giant white curtain stretched across the stage in the prologue to reveal suspicious figures on their mobile phones and tablets.  Their tweets were projected onto this curtain. One read Forza Italia, a reference to contemporary Italian politics, and another stated with remarkable resonance to today’s political and cultural constellation, “Make Genoa Great Again.”
The curtain vanished after the prologue to reveal a stage divided into two. On the right was a modern circular revolving structure reminiscent of the style of Giorgio de Chirico. The left was a space largely empty except for some trees, a grand piano and two windows. This minimalistic, stark staging reflected the mood of the lonely Boccanegra. Adorno made his appearance sitting at the piano serenading the young Amelia. In the dramatic scene where Boccanegra recognized his long lost daughter, there was little emotion between the two. A bit more passion in this pivotal encounter would not have been out of place.
As Boccanegra, Italian baritone Luca Salsi gave a brilliantly purposeful and vocally commanding performance. His archenemy, Jacopo Fiesco, was sung by the German René Pape, a sonorous and mellifluous bass who brought power and authority to his voice. Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka sang with passionate zeal and enthusiasm. American tenor Charles Castronovo portrayed Gabriele Adorno with a rich smooth voice and gave a vocally satisfying performance. One could not find fault with the remaining cast.
VALERY GERGIEV, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, brought out the subtleties and nuances of the gloomy score. As usual, the Vienna State Opera Choir acquitted themselves admirably.
Greek mythology was the common theme of the remaining five staged operas. Idomeneo, composed by Mozart, relates to the aftermath of the Trojan War. Idomeneo, king of Crete, was shipwrecked on his return home from victory. He made a pact with the sea god Neptune that if he survived he would sacrifice the first person who met him on the shore. This turned out to be his son, Idamante. Much of the opera revolves round Idomeneo’s reaction to his oath. In the end, Neptune relented, instructed Idomeneo to abdicate and proclaimed Idamante king.  
Peter Sellars directed an intriguing production. He juxtaposed three important current issues: the refugee problem, global warming and the craving of today’s youth to overturn the established order. This was an innovative concept, typical of Sellars, and much but not all of it worked.
During the overture, streams of refugees were seen in front of a hostile immigration court waiting to be admitted to Crete. These included Ilia, daughter of the defeated king of Troy, now a prisoner of war who is in love with Idamante. Her rival is Electra, daughter of Agamemnon from the winning side. Ilia pleads for the release of the Trojan prisoners, and in a magnanimous act, Idamante opened the gates and welcomed them to Crete. In the end, it was Ilia who won the hand of Idamante, and Electra died in a fit of rage.
Sellars has built much of his career on contemporary interpretations of classical operas. Most of Mozart’s recitatives were cut, which was fine. Sellars inexplicably added music from one of Mozart’s earlier operas. Then there was the ballet interlude at the opera’s conclusion. Mozart did compose ballet music for Idomeneo but this is usually omitted. The Samoan-born Lemi Ponifasio choreographed a ceremonial dance sequence by two performers, one of whom hailed from a Pacific island threatened by rising sea levels. This ballet interlude was out of place and received both boos and cheers from the audience. Juxtaposing different cultures in a plea for universal peace and reconciliation may be a noble idea. If only it was that simple! 
The opera was staged in the glorious 17th-century converted riding school (felsenreitschule) which is carved into the rock. George Trypsin’s bare sets comprised inanimate discarded bubble-like plastic objects of different shapes. For some mysterious reason, Robby Duiverman’s costumes had the Trojans and the Cretans dressed in different colored pajamas. Idomeneo’s army uniform was replete with an array of numerous medals, reminiscent of the attire worn by other tyrants.    
Teodor Currentzis drew vigorous playing and shimmering sound from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and the musicAeterna Choir of Perm Opera. Most outstanding among the singers was Chinese soprano Ying Fang, who reprised the role of Ilia which she sang with lyricism and tenderness. The American mezzo Nicole Chevalier excelled as the doomed Electra. Especially impressive was her memorable rendition of the final show-stopper aria.
THE OPERA Médée by Luigi Cherubini, a contemporary of Beethoven, was rarely performed until its revival by Maria Callas. Médée, daughter of the king of Colchis, married Jason and they had two children. Jason abandoned her to marry Dircé, daughter of Créon, king of Crete. The vengeful Médée tried unsuccessfully to win him back. In the gruesome upshot, she murdered Dircé, Créon and her two children.
With the help of sophisticated video and film clips, director Simon Stone set the opera in contemporary times. Voice mail recordings replaced Cherubini’s spoken dialogue. In this radical revision of the plot, the movie sequence portrayed Jason as a wealthy Salzburg citizen, whereas Médée was an immigrant from Georgia. Médée found Jason in bed with Dircé, which lead to their divorce, and Médée was repatriated home.
The distraught Médée returned to Salzburg but was stopped at the airport by immigration authorities. Créon, the minister of immigration, allowed her temporary entry to see her children. Médée gate-crashed the wedding reception, stabbed Dircé and Créon, kidnapped her children and escaped by car, landing up at a gas station on the highway. There she drenched herself, her children and the car with gasoline and set everything on fire. A bit far-fetched but entertaining nevertheless.
Bob Cousins’s sets utilized the huge stage with numerous scene changes, often shown simultaneously. One revealed Dircé choosing her wedding attire in a boutique accompanied by her friends taking selfies. Back in Georgia, Médée was depicted in a shabby Internet café, trying desperately to communicate with Jason. She was seen arriving at the airport and interrogated by immigrant police. There was the luxurious hotel with guests checking in on one side and the wedding reception on the other, and finally, the immolation at the gas station.
Most notable in the strong cast was Russian soprano Elena Stikhina, who displayed considerable vocal and acting skills and gave a memorable performance of this demanding role with her sumptuous voice and charisma. Her nemesis, Dircé, was competently sung by Italian soprano Rosa Feola. Thomas Hengelbrock conducting the outstanding Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra gave an inspired, incisive account delivered with insight and intensity. They were amply aided by the Vienna State Opera Choir.
In addition to the opera performances, there were many other events. Space limitation does not permit reviewing them all but some unforgettable events deserve mention.
One was an ethereal recital by that great Japanese pianist Mitsuko Ushida as she traversed through the last three piano sonatas of Schubert, among the greatest works in the piano repertoire. Her playing was consistently commanding, full of breadth and elegance. The final Piano Sonata D.960 was rendered to absolute perfection. She brought uncommon breadth to the glorious first movement.
And then, there was a majestic, incandescent account of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with Kiril Petrenko, who has just commenced his tenure as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The slow adagio movement with its lush strings and outstanding woodwind and brass accompaniment was an unforgettable moment of pure joy.
This festival still maintains its position as the premier international music event and this year was one of the best ever.