Salzburg Festival, Lacking a Rudder, Drifts Into Future

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'Gawain' by Harrison Birtwhistle directed by Alvis Hermanis at Salzburg Festival 2013 (©Ruth Walz)
‘Gawain,’ at Salzburg Festival 2013, was the first large-scale Birtwhistle opera staged outside of Britain. (© Ruth Walz)
By John Rockwell

SALZBURG, Austria — Spending a week this August in Salzburg, observing its plush glamour and fretting over its underlying indirection, leads me to the contemplation of its future and, more deeply, its mission. Both seem foggy at best.

I bring a certain level of experience to this contemplation. I’ve been going to the festival, off and on, for 54 years. I wrote my college honors thesis on Arabella, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal being two of the festival’s founders in 1919-20. (There is to be a Harry Kupfer/Zubin Mehta Rosenkavalier next summer, but apparently the only other nods to Strauss in a Strauss year will be orchestral concerts.) I have travelled often to Europe, was European Cultural Correspondent for the New York Times, have lectured on festivals at the festival, and was the first director of the Lincoln Center Festival, leading to more brooding on the very nature and purpose of festivals. After my stint at Lincoln Center I was even flirted with (preliminarily! obliquely!) as a possible director of the Salzburg Festival and the Ruhr Triennale, both because of my friendly and admiring relationship with Gerard Mortier.

So:

Salzburg Festival (© Fritz Haseke)
Salzburg Festival (© Fritz Haseke)

After Herbert von Karajan’s 33-year tenure at Salzburg, Mortier lasted a decade there, until 2001,* but fought constantly with the board and both local and national Austrian politicians and Karajan loyalists. He was scorned as a “Belgian louse” (an actual sign in a Salzburg shop window), but his partial transformation of the festival into not just a showcase for classical-music gold-star excellence but also as a site for innovation has lingered.

Since 2002,* however, the artistic directorship has been wobbly. The composer Peter Ruzicka endured a single five-year term, followed by the stage director Jürgen Flimm, who abandoned ship early and turned things over on a one-year interim basis to Markus Hinterhäuser, a pianist and new-music specialist. Then came Alexander Pereira from the Zurich Opera, but he has now quit after two short, acrimonious years to take over La Scala, although the 2014 festival will naturally reflect his planning (it will not be formally announced until November). For the next two years another interim director will run things, in the person of Sven-Eric Bechtolf, who has headed the spoken-theater wing of the festival (important to German speakers but ignored by the music-loving international public). A possible heir apparent is Hinterhäuser, who has since taken over the spring Vienna Festival and could not switch back to Salzburg until 2017.*

Pereira’s brief tenure has been applauded by the Vienna Philharmonic, which considers itself the soul of the festival and felt sidelined in recent years, especially by Mortier. All too typically the Philharmonic is whining again, threatening to decamp for Asia or South America (as if!) unless its centricity is not certified, including having a determinant say in the selection of the new director. Regietheater enthusiasts despise Pereira, who made no secret in Zurich and Salzburg of his distaste for directorial extremes. He also infuriated his board and the politicians by his flirtations with La Scala and overrunning his $80 million Salzburg budget, which he claimed was at least partially redressed by higher-than-expected ticket sales.

John Tomlinson as the Green Knight in 'Gawain' (© Ruth Walz)
John Tomlinson, the Green Knight in ‘Gawain’ (© Ruth Walz)

(That figure is for the summer festival only; it does not include the proliferating off-season Salzburg festivals, chief among them Karajan’s Easter Festival, which has undergone its own recent travails with the decampment of the Berlin Philharmonic to Baden-Baden.)

Not that a single week’s sampling this summer could fairly pigeonhole Pereira as an arch-conservative. There was his laudable plan for a newly commissioned opera each summer, frustrated this year by György Kurtág’s not exactly surprising failure to complete his opera on time (it won’t be ready now until at least 2015; Marc-André Dalbavie has the 2014 commission). The replacement was nearly as bold, though: Harrison Birtwistle’s moody, growling Gawain, the first large-scale Birtwistle opera staged outside of Britain. Its production was powerfully weird, if rather tangential to Birtwistle’s intentions, but hardly conservative. Its director was the Latvian Alvis Hermanis, who did Die Soldaten in 2012 and is on board in 2014 for Il Trovatore with Anna Netrebko, Francesco Meli and Placido Domingo (stars of this summer’s concert Giovanna d’Arco), conducted by Daniele Gatti.

'Die Meistersinger' is Met bound (Forster, Salzburg Festival)
Stefan Herheim’s ‘Meistersinger’ is Met bound. (Forster, Salzburg Festival)

Then there was the current Regietheater darling Stefan Herheim, Norwegian born and German based, who stuck it to Bayreuth in this Wagner year by staging Die Meistersinger at Salzburg (which has its own Meistersinger tradition dating back to Arturo Toscanini in the 1930’s). The dig at Bayreuth was to counter Katharina Wagner’s own rather nutsy Meistersinger, since Katharina had given every sign of trying to underplay Herheim’s Parsifal, widely regarded as his own best work and the finest Bayreuth production in recent years. Herheim’s Meistersinger was less radical than his Parsifal, although ingenious and charming; it should be a hit at the Metropolitan Opera in a few years, especially when it is more strongly cast and conducted than it was in Salzburg, by Gatti (who also did Herheim’s Parsifal.)

Anja Harteros as Elisabetta, Matti Salminen as Filippo II in 'Don Carlos' (© Monika Rittershaus)
Anja Harteros as Elisabetta, Matti Salminen as Filippo II in ‘Don Carlos’
(© Monika Rittershaus)

The strongest case for labeling Pereira a conservative came from his choice of Peter Stein to direct Don Carlo, Salzburg’s major contribution to the Verdi year. Stein’s glory days as an innovative theater director in Berlin are long behind him, and he has morphed into a grumpy champion of traditional, not to say dowdy, productions. (His 18-hour uncut Goethe Faust some years ago was fun to have experienced as a completist marathon, but weighed down by dull, flaccid stretches.) Don Carlo was (mostly) decent musically but scenically barebones to the point of risibility and offered few insights into the work beyond the most basic handling of the actors, or Personenregie.

Unaccountably, Stein will reportedly be back next summer with Schubert’s Fierrabras, as will Christoph Eschenbach, booed at this summer’s Cosi fan tutte, conducting Don Giovanni directed by Bechtolf.

'Norma' with Cecilia Bartoli (© Hans Jörg Michel)
Cecelia Bartoli’s ‘Norma.’ (© Hans Jörg Michel)

Otherwise this summer, for the record, I saw a wonderful Christian Thielemann performance of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, which may whine but plays fabulously when it wants to. And a German-language production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Mendelssohn music decently played but not a very strong advertisement for Bechtolf’s vision as head of Salzburg theater. And a concert performance of Rienzi, loud (150 instrumentalists! 150 choristers!) but heavily cut. And a stirring Verdi Requiem with Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonic (one congratulates Elina Garanca on her fecundity but regrets her cancelling her Met schedule this season, since she sang so beautifully). And Cecilia Bartoli’s Norma, which was intelligent musically and decently if unimaginatively set during the Second World War. Bartoli almost made up in intensity what she lacked in vocal beauty.

In short, nothing that week was thrilling, except maybe the Thielemann Bruckner (there will be a complete Bruckner cycle next summer, but Thielemann is not involved in that). Which leads us back to the initial problem. Perhaps Salzburg’s rudderlessness has to do with the worldwide economy. Perhaps it reflects a lack of leadership from the one constant through all of this, the Festival President Helga Rabl-Stadler, who has been in power since 1995 and has now graciously extended her contract to 2017. Perhaps it’s squabbling, narrowly ambitious artists and institutions, each with their own agendas. Perhaps, as Mortier used to complain, it’s the provincial (or worse) Austrian politicians.

Most likely it’s because no one has yet figured out just what the Salzburg Festival is supposed to be in this modern age, so far distant from not yet a century ago, when it came into being. It was conceived as an aesthetic affirmation of the Austrian cosmopolitan ideal in the wake of the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. After the triumphs of the ’30s and trials of the ’40s, it became under Karajan an often musically munificent but increasingly high-gloss showcase for a rich, preening public (top ticket prices this year approached $750). Mortier favored modern opera and production ideas, and made a good-faith effort to open performances to a younger, livelier audience.

Now, is it the artistic director who is to be the shaper of the festival’s vision, or is the real leadership in the unsure hands of the administrators and politicians, the stars and orchestras and even still the record companies, with the artistic director as their pawn? With its grand tradition, diverse and modern theaters and gorgeous setting, it would be wonderful if the Salzburg Festival could sort itself out soon. Wonderful for Salzburg, and for the world of music.

*Update: On September 25, the festival announced that Hinterhäuser will assume the artistic directorship on July 1, 2016, on a five-year appointment.

John Rockwell is based in Manhattan.

*Updated 10/5 in response to suggestions from a reader.