A major artistic triumph in Salzburg

West Side Story was performed in the vast Felsenreitschule, originally built in 1693 as a riding school. It has been converted into one of the main venues for the festival.

Die Liebe Der Danae, Tomasz Konieczny (Jupiter), Ensemble 1601 (photo credit: SALZBURGER FESTSPIELE / FORSTER)
Die Liebe Der Danae, Tomasz Konieczny (Jupiter), Ensemble 1601
VIENNA – Since its inception in 1920, the annual Salzburg Festival has always been the gold standard of music festivals. Nothing can compare to this event which features opera, concerts, chamber music, vocal and solo recitals, theater, master-classes and many other events.
At this summer’s edition, almost 260,000 music lovers from 81 countries attended. A total of 192 performances over 41 days were held in 14 performance venues.
Perhaps the most challenging operatic production this year was Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece West Side Story and its six sold out performances were the hottest ticket to the festival.
Arthur Laurents set his libretto in New York’s Upper West Side in the 1950’s with a theme of racial conflict between two teenage street gangs, the Sharks (recently arrived Puerto Rican immigrants) and the Jets (a white gang who view themselves as authentic Americans).
West Side Story
was performed in the vast Felsenreitschule, originally built in 1693 as a riding school. It has been converted into one of the main venues for the festival.
Its stage is surrounded by three tiers of stone arches carved into the mountain.
George Tsypin’s set used 60 tons of steel and acrylic glass to create a modernist multi-story frame. The vast space was effectively utilized for gang conflicts, dancing or more intimate encounters.
There was a most effective movable graffiti metal covering which closed off the stage and could be opened fully or partially.
When opened, it revealed several levels and included the bridal salon and Maria’s home in the upper level; the lower level had Doc’s drugstore and classical 1950 New York street scenes with the ubiquitous fire escapes.
Director Philip Wm. McKinley introduced a unique touch into this production.
He had two Marias, dubbed “Maria 1” and “Maria 2.” Maria 1 was the old Maria, 20 years after the story’s tragic events unfolded and was played by universally acclaimed mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who was part of the reason there was such interest in the production. She was onstage for most of the performance as a ghost-like figure dressed in black clothes.
She does all the singing but is spared the spoken dialogue and dancing. Maria 2, the young Maria, was played by Michelle Veintimilla who danced and acted the part to great acclaim. In general this concept worked well although in some of the intimate and tender moments, Maria 1 was singing to Tony on one part of the stage while Tony was close up with Maria 2 in an intimate scene someplace else.
All singers used sound amplification.
This had the effect of exaggerating Cecilia Bartoli’s vibrato but being the consummate artist that she is, she utilized this effect to her advantage. Her distinctive, rich voice quivered with feeling. Her “Somewhere” was superbly rendered. As Tony, Norman Reinhardt’s bright penetrating tenor was most impressive, but it was Karen Olivo’s Anita who stole the show. She beautifully blended together both the dancing and singing components of this complex role. It is no wonder that she has already received a Tony Award for the part.
The charismatic Gustavo Dudamel and his Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela were in the pit. Their Latin American roots added much verve and gusto to the overall production and captured all the nuances of the brilliant score conveying the symphonic sweep, turbulence, dissonances and complex rhythms.
They most successfully brought out the fusion of jazz and classics; opera and American musical.
This innovative production was a great triumph for the festival.
ANOTHER MOST memorable performance was Richard Strauss’s penultimate opera Die Liebe der Danae, composed between 1937-1940. Ronny Dietrich in the festival program writes that Strauss himself described this opera as “his final affirmation of Greece and the conclusive union of German music with the Greek soul.”
Somewhat lofty sentiments considering that the opera was composed during the dark days of the Third Reich.
The premiere was scheduled for the 1944 Salzburg Festival but was canceled by the Nazi regime following an unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life. It was however performed in a special dress rehearsal on 16 August for invited guests. At the conclusion of the performance, Strauss addressed the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra players and expressed the hope that someday “perhaps we shall meet again in a better world.”
Die Liebe der Danae received its official world premiere at Salzburg’s 1952 Festival and was performed again there in 2002.
The opera has never achieved mainstream popularity and there have only been few sporadic productions. This may be related to the complex score and orchestration.
According to the critic, Moore Parker, the conductor Clement Krauss had 44 orchestral rehearsals for the single 1944 performance.
The grueling vocal demands and complexity of staging also add to the difficulties.
The current production was directed by Alvis Hermanis whose elaborate and lavish staging was reminiscent of a fairy tale from One Thousand and One Nights. It centered around a pyramid of white boxes.
An art nouveau motif was suggested by the projected images of golden yellow geometric floral patterns on the walls.
Richly colored carpets adorned the floors suggesting an opulent Oriental setting.
Jupiter makes his initial glittering appearance on the back of a life-sized white model elephant.
The elaborate and exotic gold-embroidered costumes with wide, baggy, breeches as well as huge turbans were the work of costume designer, Juozas Statkevicius.
The 12 exotically clothed dancers in gold skin-tight body stockings also suggested the central role that gold plays in the plot.
Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting effects were particularly effective as was Alla Sigalova’s choreography.
Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and brilliantly portrayed the intricacies of this complex score. The shimmering strings, incomparable brass and woodwinds all provided outstanding accompaniment.
Much of the success of this production lay with the outstanding Vienna State Opera Chorus under their director Emst Raffelsberger. With their heavy and bulky costumes, this was not an easy task but they rose to the occasion with their impeccable singing.
ANOTHER MEMORABLE performance that I attended was a concert performance of Massenet’s Thaïs. This opera requires a great soprano, tenor and baritone. The Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, as the doomed courtesan, Thaïs, was entirely up to the part unleashing her dramatic voice to great effect. This powerhouse soprano easily sliced through the orchestra but also demonstrated outstanding voice control in the softer more pianissimo sections.
The tenor Benjamin Bernheim who sang the part of Nicias, the rich playboy from Alexandria, brought plush sound and lyrical singing to the role. The remarkable Placido Domingo, who has sung some 147 roles, more than any other tenor in the annals of opera played the role of the ascetic monk Athanael, and gave a most rewarding and fulfilling performance. The Munich Radio Orchestra was conducted by Patrick Fournillier. Special mention must be made of the beautiful haunting “Méditation,” the leitmotif theme which first occurs in the second act as a solo violin passage. It was most competently played by Felix Froschhammer.
Under the direction of Herbert van Karajan, who died in 1989, the Salzburg festival program was ultra conservative. Beginning with the tenure of the late Gerard Mortier as director, the festival completely re-invented itself. One of the more recent innovations is the Children Opera Camp, now an integral part of the festival, which is hosted at the restored modern Schloss Arenberg. This program, which has now been running for 10 years, is largely sponsored by The American Austrian Foundation which is directed by Prof. Wolfgang Aulitzky.
Music-loving children and teenagers from all over the world meet without their parents in this highly popular program and receive expert supervision under Hanne Muthspiel-Payer and her competent team. Weekly opera seminars are given for children aged 10-16. After six days of work these young artists put on a modified shortened production of one the operas running in the main festival.
They do all the singing, choreography and staging. Some of those who are proficient with a musical instrument participate in the orchestral accompaniment which is supervised by members of the Vienna Philharmonic who also play an important role in instructing the children. The main aim is to inculcate into the youth a love of opera.
A final word. The real backbone of the Festival is the remarkable Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition to their orchestral accompaniment in 26 operatic performances of five operas, they also performed nine concerts under prominent international conductors. This is in addition to several other events and innumerable rehearsals. Without the Vienna Philharmonic, there would be no Salzburg Festival!
The writer, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel (www.irvingspitz.com). He was recently recognized with the Sidney Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field. He may be contacted at [email protected]