Glorious reminiscences from the past and present at the Salzburg Festival

Since experiencing his first magical, musical experience 48 years ago, Irving Spitz has been a regular at the Salzburg Festival.

THE BEAUTIFUL production of Strauss’s opera ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (photo credit: SALZBURGER FESTSPIELE/MONIKA RITTERSHAUS)
THE BEAUTIFUL production of Strauss’s opera ‘Der Rosenkavalier’
My first attendance at the famed Salzburg Festival was in 1967 and I have returned many times. Initially the visits were related to my career in science and I always arranged meetings and lectures to coincide with the festival. Over the last decade, however, I have been coming to Salzburg specifically to review this festival.
It has been my privilege to hear glorious music over last half a century, and have absorbed some unique experiences. I vividly remember the first recital I attended in 1967 with pianist Sviatoslav Richter.
At that time, this consummate artist, one of the foremost of his generation, played only infrequently outside his mother Russia.
Box office tickets were impossible to obtain. Hundreds of people waited for returns; none were available and the disappointed crowd gradually dissipated. I remained alone and struck up a conversation with a young man who turned out to be the son of one of the festival organizers.
He invited me to accompany him to the recital. I was enthralled by the most memorable performance of Debussy’s second book of preludes, an event which remains indelibly impressed as one of my most formative musical experiences.
Fast forward to 2015 and the solo recital I attended was by the great Japanese pianist, Mitsuko Uchida. The main part of her program was devoted to the Diabelli variations. The genesis of this extraordinary composition is fascinating. Diabelli sent his waltz to some 50 composers asking them to contribute a variation. Beethoven responded by sending a set of 33 variations which together with Bach’s Goldberg variations are regarded today as the greatest examples of this oeuvre. Beethoven even included a variation from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and paid homage to the Goldberg variations in his composition. Uchida gave a masterful and commanding account of this technically daunting masterpiece displaying magisterial elegance, articulation and phrasing.
In 1967, I heard the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Böhm with Daniel Barenboim as soloist in a program devoted to Brahms. That was certainly a concert of contrasts. There was Böhm who remained active at the Festival during the dark days of the Third Reich playing with the young Israeli Jewish wunderkind.
The most memorable concert that I attended this year, in which some 33 orchestras and ensembles participated, featured the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Riccardo Muti with Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist in a performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Mutter gave a highly expressive, emotionally charged performance which was lush and beautiful.
She was awarded a well-deserved standing ovation by the enthusiastic audience, a rare event in Salzburg. As an encore she gave a deeply probing account of the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita no 2. Muti devoted the second half of the concert to an inspired, incisive and profoundly deep rendition of Brahms’s second symphony.
Opera still retains its position as one of the most important aspects of the festival.
The performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro that I attended in 1967 was presided over by the same conductor Karl Böhm mentioned earlier. Times have changed and at this year’s festival which featured 10 operas, it was exciting to see the young Israeli Dan Ettinger on the podium for the current production. He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in an enthusiastic, energy driven and exhilarating performance drawing out generous phrases, while also accompanying the recitatives on the piano-forte.
To give the discerning Salzburg audience something new in such a popular war horse as the The Marriage of Figaro, represents a real challenge to the directing team. However Sven-Eric Bechtolf, the current festival interim artistic director and his team were up to the task. The action was set in the 1920s between the two world wars at a time when the aristocracy was adjusting to new realities. Stage designer, Alex Eales’s multilayered sets allowed for unrelated actions to be shown in different rooms, permitting several plot lines events to be developed simultaneously.
The Marriage of Figaro is a real ensemble opera and there was not one weak link in the outstanding cast. Special mention must be made of Luca Pisaroni’s portrayal of Count Almaviva. This bass-baritone has a charismatic stage presence with matching vocal abilities. His commanding Act 3 aria, “Hai già vinta la causa” (You've won the case already) was perhaps the vocal highlight of the evening.
Anett Fritsch excelled as the Countess.
She demonstrated both dignity as well as vulnerability in her poignant arias Porgi amor which opens Act 2 and then later in Dove sono where she longs for her husband’s lost love. Adam Plachetka was an impetuous and forceful Figaro. Margarita Gritskova as the page Cherubino, who loves not one but all women, sang with creamy elegance and aplomb. The role of Susanna was taken by Martina Janková who possessed all the required vocal colorings and shadings. She drew on her ample vocal reserves to allow the character to grow progressively. After all, it is Susanna who has the key role in the opera, mediating between master and servant whilst holding all the threads in her hands.
Another new production was Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio. Almost 20 years ago, I heard this masterpiece under the great conductor Georg Solti in an exciting production by Herbert Wernicke. Fidelio has an utopian political message of freedom and brotherhood. In the plot, Leonore's husband, Florestan, has been unjustly imprisoned by Don Pizarro, the ruthless prison governor. Leonore disguises herself as a male guard called Fidelio and gains the confidence of the jailer, Rocco. Her aim is to release her husband. Ultimately, Florestan is saved, Pizarro is vanquished, and husband and wife are reunited. Simple - yes, but not in the hands of director, Claus Guth, and set and costume designer, Christian Schmidt.
One redeeming upshot of the production was Olaf Freese’s lighting effects and each character projected a dark shadow.
The interaction between these shadows was often more effective than between the singers on stage. This contrast of dark and light symbolized good versus evil which is the essence of the opera.
The abstract settings consisted of a large rotating black cube. Other than this, the stage was completely bare. In Act 2, the cube rose leaving in its place the grave destined for the hapless Florestan. In the final scene the cube transformed into a large hanging chandelier in a bright room.
Darkness had finally been dispelled.
Fidelio is a classical singspiel, where spoken dialogue is interspersed with songs.
This dialog is also fundamental to the understanding of the plot. Guth however dispensed with the spoken dialog and sound designer, Torsten Ottersberg, substituted in its place disconcerting extraneous amplified rumbling, creaking, breathing and moaning sounds.
Guth also added two mute doppelganger characters for Leonore and Don Pizarro played by Nadia Kichler and dancer Paul Lorenger respectively. These shadows accompanied the two singers throughout, presumably to convey their inner feelings.
The program notes stated that the production team were motivated by Freud’s concept of a “salon for the unconscious.” Guth clearly likes the idea of a doppelganger; he introduced a similar shadow figure for Cherubino in his production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in 2006.
The triumphant chorus usually takes center stage at the end of the opera. Guth kept them offstage and out of sight. Surprisingly, after Florestan is saved by Leonore, the couple do not reunite. Florestan has become mentally deranged as a result of his incarceration and rejects both Leonore and his friend the governor Don Fernando.
He runs around wildly finally dropping down, apparently dead. Meanwhile Leonore’s doppelganger gesticulates at center stage in what appears to be sign language for the hearing impaired. I admit that I was mystified by all this.
Vocally, pride of place goes to tenor, Jonas Kaufman, who shone out among the soloists with his extraordinary portrayal of Florestan.
He brought poignancy, anguish and vocal depth to the role. This was especially evident in his great aria at the beginning of Act 2, “Gott! welch ein Dunkel hier” (Alas! what darkness dense). This was the highlight of the performance if not of the whole festival.
Bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, as the tyrant Don Pizarro, was dressed in black suit with black sunglasses, as was his doppelganger and gang of cronies. He successfully brought out all the malevolence of the role. Hans-Peter König, portrayed as a butler with silver-topped cane did a very credible job as the weak willed Rocco. As Fidelio, soprano Adrianne Pieczonka proved to be a charismatic and communicative singer.
Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in a majestic enthusiastic and energetic account of Beethoven’s score.
Conductor and orchestra were accorded full accolades by the audience. Not surprisingly, the production team were met with cat-calls.
Another great performance was Strauss’s ever-favorite opera, Der Rosenkavalier. My first exposure to this opera in Salzburg was over 30 years ago. I left my medical meeting early and joined the many people outside the Grosses Festpielhaus waiting for return tickets. I had almost given up hope when lo and behold I was approached by a young music student who presented me with a ticket and refused payment. “Just enjoy” she said and I certainly did. The conductor was van Karajan, who directed a magical performance with an illustrious cast.
In the current production, director Harry Kupfer and set designer Hans Schavernoch staged the opera in Vienna in the early part of the 20th century. In Acts 2 and 3 there were wonderful and captivating photo montages and tableaus of Viennese monuments, buildings and museums. The Act 3 rendezvous of Ochs and Octavian occurred in a tavern set in a corner of Vienna’s Prater with its famous Ferris wheel. The final soprano trio and duet took place on two benches with a backdrop of tall trees.
At the end, the countess drove off with Sophie’s father, Faninal, in a chauffeurdriven white open car. This represented a final touch to a beautiful production.
With regard to the singing, most noteworthy was the Baron Ochs of bass Günther Groissböck. Usually Ochs is portrayed as an elderly lecherous buffoon; here he was depicted more sympathetically as a young, ardent but somewhat uncouth suitor.
Krassimira Stoyanova, as the Marschallin was especially impressive in Act 1 when she reflects on the process of growing old and on the transience of life. Golda Schultz, the young South African soprano, was an endearing and effective Sophie. The role of Octavian was sung by Sophie Koch who also featured in Salzburg’s 2004 production.
Her voice has lost some of its sheen, but she nevertheless gave a convincing portrayal of the naive young count, as well as the servant girl Mariandel.
Much of the success of these operatic productions lay with the outstanding Vienna State Opera Chorus under their director Emst Raffelsberger.
Over the years I have been fortunate in meeting many people at Salzburg who have become life long friends. First there is Ulla Kalchmair, director of the Press Office and public relations of the festival and her outstanding, helpful and efficient staff. Then there is Wolfgang Aulitzky and his charming wife, Katharine. Wolfgang heads the American-Austria Foundation (AAF). This was initially founded over two decades ago to train physicians from the former Soviet republics. The instructors came from US academic centers. It was in this capacity that I became a member of the teaching faculty. The AAF has also been involved in the arts and sponsor programs for young conductors and artists.
Their headquarters are in Schloss Arenberg, a beautifully restored modern facility which is my home away from home. Here I have met many fascinating people including members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, several of whom stay at the Schloss during the summer festival. One of these is Clemens Hellsberg, violinist and former chairman of the Orchestra who has published on the orchestra’s history during the Third Reich.
The conductor Herbert von Karajan dominated the festival for over three decades.
Under him, contemporary music was virtually taboo. This changed with the appointment of the late Gerard Mortier who introduced the 20th-century repertoire, a practice that has been maintained by his successors.
The writer, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel ( 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