By Rebecca Schmid
SALZBURG – As Alexander Pereira prepares to exit from a truncated stint as intendant of the summer festival here, his main challenge is to justify the increased number of new opera productions and an expanded concert series that have left the classical-music world’s Mount Olympus with a small deficit.
As John Rockwell wrote for Classical Voice North America last year, a lack of constant leadership and an unstable worldwide economy have made it difficult for the Salzburg Festival to maintain a sense of direction. I would add that in today’s climate of fierce global competition – where audience members can see what is happening all over the world from their computer screens – an institution such as Salzburg must prove that its offerings are not only a cut above the rest in artistic quality but available nowhere else.
A new production of Schubert’s opera Fierrabras fills these criteria. The libretto by Josef Kupelwieser – which merges a German medieval tale with a French romance into a two-tracked love story set among warring Franks and Moors – has obvious flaws, but Schubert’s score demands revisiting. The master of Lied, the symphony, and the mass also had a firm grasp on writing for the stage.
The veteran director Peter Stein takes a charming period-style approach, with medieval garb for the Franks, Ottoman-style fare for the Moors, and highly detailed cloth scenery to recreate the castles of Charlemagne and the Moorish prince Boland (sets by Ferdinand Wögerbauer and costumes by Annamaria Heinreich). His masterful characterizations succeed at having the audience empathize with the Mooress Florinda’s longing for the noble Roland as well as the suffering of the title character, a hopelessly smitten Moor whose virtuous dealings grant him initiation into the order of the Frankish knights (a Romantic answer to both Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte).
Tenor Michael Schade made an affecting Fierrabras, while the bass Georg Zeppenfeld was an authoritative but benevolent King. The soprano Julia Kleiter, with her pure tone and virtuous presence, seems born to the role of Charlemagne’s daughter Emma, who is granted her knight Eginhard (Benjamin Bernheim), and Dorothea Röschmann’s warm but slightly strident tone was suited to that of Florinda, who plots for peace and wins Roland (Markus Werba).
The Vienna Philharmonic, in the pit of the acoustically spectacular Haus für Mozart, was in top form under Ingo Metzmacher, etching Schubert’s symphonic writing with a mix of passionate intensity and careful detail, but never drowning out the singers.
A new production of Don Giovanni, the second installment in a Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy by festival theater intendant Sven-Eric Bechtolf, has bigger shoes to fill, given Salzburg’s longstanding Mozart tradition. But Bechtolf manages to cast a philosophical glance on the mythic womanizer and outsider, staying faithful to Da Ponte’s anti-bourgeois but God-fearing text while confronting the audience with the excess and hypocrisy of our own time.
The entire story takes place in a hotel cum haunted madhouse where Leporello puffs on a cigar in postmodern boredom while Don Giovanni chases after maids (among them Zerlina), even after being conquered by a chorus of devils with the return of the Commendatore. As Don Giovanni, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo returned to what is now a signature role, easily transforming into a bestial predator with the seasoned Leporello of Luca Pisaroni at his side. The young soprano Anett Fritsch made an impressive Salzburg debut as Donna Elvira, and it was an interesting move to cast the sultry-voiced Valentina Nafornita as the promiscuous Zerlina (normally a soubrette role), even if there were technical quibbles.
There is much to criticize about the muscular conducting of Christoph Eschenbach – who was whisked in to replace Vienna State Opera general music director and vocal Pereira critic Franz Welser-Möst. But he brought out Mozart’s dynamic contrasts with a firm hand and created an excellent balance with the singers (the Donna Anna of Lenneke Ruiten, who also jumped in for a mostly Mozart matinee with the Mozarteum Orchestra under Mark Minkowski, was the one exception).
Much as with Don Giovanni, the bar for Harry Kupfer’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier is high, given the 150th anniversary celebrations of Richard Strauss. The staging is not without its charming moments, but it is not particularly memorable, either.
Projected images of opulent Viennese architecture are juxtaposed with sleek modern touches on the wide stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus (sets by Hans Schavernoch), recreating the mix of nostalgia and futuristic orientation of Hofmannsthal’s libretto. Yet the distanced aesthetic fails to engage the viewer in the characters’ intimate exchanges.
Kupfer’s expert ability to choreograph ensemble scenes was on full display in the ruse against the predatory Baron von Ochs of the third act, but the image of Octavian and Sophie sitting on a bench in the final scene seemed lost against the multimedia projection of the Prater Park. Perhaps this explains why the Vienna Philharmonic, under Welser-Möst, was eager to steal the show.
Nevertheless, Krassimira Stoyanova brought her sumptuous tone to the role of the Marschallin, a serene presence as she and Faninal drove off in an early twentieth-century convertible. The mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch provided a finely sung if predictable Octavian. As Sophie, Mojca Erdmann – one of today’s leading sopranos in contemporary repertoire – was not well matched to Strauss’ swooping lines. Günther Groissböck managed to give a gripping performance as Ochs, despite fighting against a cold, which was audible in his muffled tone.
This year’s new production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore builds itself around its stars, Anna Netrebko and Placido Domingo,* who – diminishing the excitement – made their role debuts as Leonora and Count di Luna at the Berlin State Opera last fall.
If the director is making a statement about opera by setting the entire plot in a museum, the effect runs dry.
Most problematic are the awkward transitions between the characters’ appearances as museum employees and figures who inexplicably jump out of the Renaissance paintings hanging on the walls. Hermanis attempts to deconstruct the undertaking when Netrebko changes costume before our eyes but, as with the entire production, he sheds no new light on Verdi’s opera about a tragic love triangle.
Netrebko endows numbers such as “Tacea la notte” with sumptuous layers of color and brings a sense of dramatic pathos, but her bel canto technique cries out for refinement. Domingo remains a force of nature, even if his now baritonal voice has a raspy quality. The tenor Francesco Meli, as Leonora’s lover Manrico, is stylistically irreproachable but lacks dramatic presence. Daniele Gatti did his best to tame the Vienna Philharmonic while using beautiful rubato and turns of phrase to support to singers.
(Due to illness, Domingo cancelled his appearance in the performances of Trovatore on Aug. 18, 21, and 24. His replacement is Polish baritone Artur Ruciński.)
The most daring production of the year is Marc-André Dalbavie’s opera Charlotte Salomon, based on the painted novella Leben? Oder Theater?.
The score, libretto (Barbara Honigmann) and staging (Luc Bondy) emerge as a montage that strives to stay as close as possible to the original work’s mix of life and theater, casting an actress (Johanna Wokalek) as Charlotte Salomon alongside her fictional self, Charlotte Kann (the talented young mezzo Marianne Crebassa).
A master of atmospheric drama, Dalbavie would surely have been able to develop the musical side further with more time (he stepped in when György Kurtag had not finished his commission from the festival and was presented with a new libretto mid-way).
On Aug. 9, an elegant concert performance of Dalbavie’s Sonnets de Louise Labé by the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Cornelius Meister revealed the composer’s fertile powers of imagination in timbre and text setting. (Sample the music here.)
The evening maintained a level of excitement that one associates with the Salzburg Festival until it ended with an uninspired performance of Bruckner’s First Symphony, part of a complete cycle this summer. The program pointed to a challenge that confronts not just the Salzburg Festival but the classical-music world at large, namely, how to introduce cutting-edge ideas without alienating a core audience base. New productions and expanded concert offerings would seem to keep an institution ahead of the game, but there must be an uncompromising artistic vision.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to publications such as Gramophone, MusicalAmerica.com, Opernwelt, and The New York Times.