Celebrating the centenaries of Verdi, Wagner and Benjamin Britten

At the Salzburg Summer Festival, passion, pride, anger and remorse take center stage.

ACT 1 from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. (photo credit: Courtesy Salzburger Festspiele/Forster)
ACT 1 from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
(photo credit: Courtesy Salzburger Festspiele/Forster)
SALZBURG – During the current six-week Salzburg Summer Festival, there were 11 new operatic productions, seven of which were staged.
Verdi’s epic masterpiece, Don Carlo, adapted from a play by the German dramatist, Friedrich von Schiller, is the longest and most ambitions in his canon. It is a love story set in a background of political intrigue and uncompromising religious fervor. Its 1867 five-act premiere took place in Paris; Verdi subsequently made a shorter Italian version in which he jettisoned the first act and made additional cuts.
The current production used the original French edition sung in Italian. In the first act, Don Carlo encounters by chance Elisabetta, daughter of the king of France, in the forest of Fontainebleau. She had been betrothed to him as part of the peace treaty between Spain and France. Unbeknown to them, Don Carlo’s father, Philip ll, rescinded this and decided to marry Elisabetta himself.
Omitting this first act makes it difficult to understand the evolving love affair between Don Carlo and his adopted mother.
Peter Stein directed this production, which ran for just over five hours. Anja Harteros as Elisabetta is a Verdi soprano of stature, with dramatic acting ability, imposing stage presence and a gleaming voice, equally striking in both the low and high passages. It is not easy to portray Don Carlo’s reckless, vacillating and hysterical personality, but tenor Jonas Kaufman proved to be up to the task and gave a poignant, vocally committed performance.
Both consummate artists complemented each other in their three encounters. Their initial meeting reveals two immature passionate lovers. In the next act, Elisabetta, now queen, rebuffs Don Carlo’s advances. In their final encounter, they realize the futility of their relationship, which evolves into one on a spiritual level.
Veteran bass Matti Salminen as Philip II started somewhat hesitatingly but summoning his vocal reserves, rising to the occasion and giving an outstanding portrayal of this great role. Bass Eric Halfvarson was the uncompromising grand inquisitor, and succeeded in bringing out the malice of the character. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk took on the role of the duplicitous Eboli, who is in love with Don Carlo and when rebuffed, betrays him and the queen. Her singing and acting captured all the dramatic changes in her demeanor, displaying arrogance, pride, anger and remorse as necessary.
The most complex but key character of the opera is Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, which was sung by baritone Thomas Hampson. This character is a creation of Schiller, and has no historical authenticity. Rodrigo is the only true friend and confidant of the king, and is also the bridge of communication between Elisabetta and Don Carlo. It is he who encourages the latter to support the Flemish insurrection against Spain. Hampson’s voice still retains its wonderful mellifluous character, making him one of the world’s foremost baritones.
To me, Act 4 of this opera represents the pinnacle not only of Verdi’s oeuvre but arguably of all opera. It has everything: love, devotion, pity, sacrifice, hate, jealousy, revenge and anger, set in the background of religious and political conflict. It begins with the great soliloquy of “King Philip Ella giammai m’amo” (She never loved me), sung with passion, dignity and sadness by Salminen – when he bemoans the fact that his wife has no affection for him. Then follows the confrontation with Philip and the grand inquisitor, where the former confides that his son has committed treason. The inquisitor agrees to the king’s decision to kill him, but asks in turn for the head of Rodrigo. Philip angrily refuses. This famous duet between the two basses was most convincingly executed.
Then there is the altercation between Philip and Elisabetta, when he mistakenly accuses her of infidelity, and Eboli’s great show-stopping aria, “O Don fatale” (O fatal gift), when she admits that it was she who betrayed the queen. The final scene of this act is set in prison where Rodrigo comes to visit the detained Don Carlo, and is shot on the king’s order. In their final poignant duet, sensitively and beautifully rendered by these two great singers, they expressed their undying devotion – climaxing to the strains of the leitmotif that is heard in their earlier encounters.
Ferdinand Wogerbauer’s sets were sparse, unimaginative and somewhat sterile. The dominant color in the costumes was black. The only nod to the forest in Act 1 was a pile of logs on either side of the giant stage. In the distance, through a passageway, one could discern a multistory building. The staging of Act 3, when Don Carlos mistakenly confuses the disguised Eboli with the queen, consisted of a marquee in the background and what seemed like a turnstile line, with barriers through which the soloists had to negotiate. The great auto-da-fe inquisition scene, occurring later on in this act, was impressively staged.
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Antonio Pappano was in top form and captured all the nuances of this great score. Particularly noteworthy was the outstanding cello obbligato in Philip’s great aria at the beginning of Act 4.
Another great artistic event of the festival featured a concert performance of Verdi’s early opera, Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc), also based on a play by Schiller. The librettist Solera embellished the story of the maid of Orleans, with a complex relationship between Giovanna and her father Giocomo. This is one of the many Verdi operas where a father-daughter liaison is central to the plot, but here it lacks the deep psychological relationship seen in his later operas.
Giocomo believes that his daughter is carrying on an illicit sexual relationship with the French King Charles, and denounces her to the English. Later, when he realizes his mistake, he releases her – but the hapless Joan meets her death on the battlefield. This early Verdi score is replete with rousing patriotic melodies, a fact not lost on the Italians then under foreign domination, who viewed themselves as the embittered French under the English yoke.
A successful performance of this opera requires three great soloists, and Salzburg delivered the required package.
Russian soprano Anna Netrebko took the role of the hapless Giovanna. Her powerful voice, which has of late taken on a darker hue, is a marvel. She easily attained the higher registers and her vocal pyrotechnics were much in evidence. In the fortissimo passages, her soaring soprano was clearly heard above the other soloists and choir. She sang her final aria from high up in the arches of the Felsenreitschule (Riding School Theater). At this stage of her career, she is at her peak vocal prowess.
Placido Domingo recorded the tenor role of this opera over 40 years ago. This time, he took on the baritone role of Giacomo. To hear his burnished, impeccable voice was an extraordinary experience. This artist is truly a phenomenon, considering that he was only discharged from hospital one month ago. Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the evening was the duet between Domingo and Netrebko, when he acknowledges his error in denouncing his daughter.
King Charles was sung by Francesco Meli, who displayed an ardent, ringing tenor and constituted the third competent soloist in this most enjoyable performance.
Already evident in their impassioned portrayal of the opening chorus, the Vienna Philharmonic Choir performed superbly. The Munich Radio Orchestra was competently conducted by Paolo Carignani, who gave generous support to soloists and choir.
Wagner was commemorated with a performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master Singer of Nuremberg).
The plot evolves around a singing competition, the two main contestants being the young knight Walther and the town clerk, Beckmesser. The winner would be awarded the hand of Eva, daughter of one of Nuremberg’s prominent citizens.
I have always been somewhat ambivalent about this Wagnerian opera, which extols German nationalism and has overt anti-Semitic overtones, especially with regard to the character of Beckmesser – who is usually played as a doddering, vindictive and jealous older man. However, in this production, director Stefan Herheim portrayed Beckmesser most sympathetically as a young man, making him a plausible candidate for Eva’s hand. Indeed, there is a suggestion at the end that Beckmesser and Hans Sachs, the well-respected German master singer, poet and shoemaker, may be mirror images of each other.
The innovative sets were designed by Heike Scheele. It opened with a view of the study of Sachs, who was born in Nuremberg and spent much of his life there. At the conclusion of the opening prelude, the camera zoomed in on Sachs’s desk, which becomes progressively larger and evolved into the scene for the first act – which is set in a church. The same technique was applied in the second act, where cabinets in Sachs’s study become larger and larger and are eventually transformed into the street and surrounding buildings. Another imaginative feature was the appearance in the crowd scenes of characters from the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
Unfortunately, much of the vocal cast did not match up to the innovative production. The only real standouts were the two baritones, Markus Werba, who was a sympathetic, compelling and sonorous Beckmesser; and Michael Volle, who took on the role of Sachs. His monologue at the beginning of Act 3 was perhaps the vocal highlight.
To commemorate the centenary of Benjamin Britten, there was a performance of his War Requiem. This monumental work requires the usual symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra, organ, large adult choir, boy’s choir and three soloists. Britten incorporated poems by Wilfred Owen into the usual Latin text.
The two male soloists, American baritone Hampson and English tenor Ian Bostridge, were seated in front of the orchestra, and they competently and effectively rendered Owen’s poems accompanied by the chamber orchestra. Every word sung by Bostridge was clearly enunciated.
Their vocal delivery of the sacrifice of Isaac was an unforgettable moment. Owen integrated his own addition to the timeless story, which diverges from the biblical account: “But the old man would not so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” All the horrors of war were manifestly evident in this dramatic interchange.
Netrebko, dressed in white with a bejeweled headband, was seated in the midst of the adult choir. She gave an impassioned and sonorous performance of the Latin text.
Interestingly, at the premier of this work in the reconsecrated Coventry Cathedral 51 years ago, Soviet authorities refused to allow the scheduled Russian soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya, to participate. How times have changed! The competent Salzburg Festival Children’s choir were behind the stage; the score does require that they be seated some distance from the orchestra. They performed admirably but on occasion, notably in the soft passages, it was difficult to hear them clearly.
Pappano conducted the Orchestra and Choir of Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. I have never heard this orchestra sound better. Particularly striking were the brass and woodwinds. Pappano captured Britten’s shattering indictment on the futility of war, and successfully brought out all the subtleties of this complex score.
In April, the Salzburg Summer Festival was awarded the Festivals Opera of the Year Prize at the International Opera Awards. This “Oscar” of the operatic world is certainly well-deserved.
The author, 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 H. Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field.