Beyond The Galop, Dancing Horses Sashay To Mozart

Davide penitente  (Matthias Baus)
Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule saw equestrian theater choreographed to Mozart’s ‘Davide penitente.’ (Matthias Baus)
By Rebecca Schmid

SALZBURG — An evening of horses dancing to Mozart may seem primitive in today’s world of multi-media spectacle. In 17th-century Austria, however, equestrian theater was a noble event. The four-legged creatures were accorded the best care and stables, and monuments bearing their image can be seen across Salzburg, from the Mirabell Gardens to a fountain just outside the Felsenreitschule, itself a converted riding school.

The genre’s heyday was over by the time Mozart wrote Davide penitente, a cantata that, with the exception of two arias and some 30 measures of the last chorus, repurposed his unfinished C minor MassK. 427, for a 1785 commission. Neither the original score nor the adapted version lends itself easily to dance, either, despite sumptuous vocal writing that broke with church music conventions.

Mozart's Davide (Matthias Baus)
Riders let go of the reins to do arabesque gestures. (Matthias Baus)

But Salzburg is known as the “Mozart City” with good reason, and a production setting Davide penitente, K. 469, and other late works to choreography by French equestrian impresario Bartabas and his Académie équestre de Versailles proved a lavish pretext to revisit this rarely performed work. As seen at the Jan. 22 premiere, the proscenium of the Felsenreitschule was rounded into the shape of a small ring where the horses pranced in the sand.

The conductor Mark Minkowski stood in a corner upstage, where he could coordinate both the riders and his period ensemble, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, who lined the terraces of the back wall facing the audience. Lighting by Bertrand Couderc emphasized the musicians while casting the stage in shadow for most of the evening, adding a touch of mystery.

The sight of the horses stepping to the music was at times mesmerizing, as in the aria “Lungi le cure ingrate,” in which the timing was particularly honed. But the movements were often uninspiring, lacking dramatic orientation. While Bartabas set out to mirror the singers, for example by introducing three mares who intertwine in the trio “Tutte le mie speranze,” or using a single rider for solo numbers, the effect grew monotonous, perhaps because the music did not provide enough dance rhythms.

French impresario Bartabas staged the equestrian ballet. (A. Poupel)

The strongest number emerged in the chorus “Cantiam le glorie” when six members of the Académie performed a signature circle dance in which they let go of the reins and opened their arms in arabesque gestures. Strong moments also emerged in Bartabas’ solo performances to the “March of the Priests” from The Magic Flute and the Masonic Funeral Music, written in the same year as Davide penitente. His stallion extended its front legs as if he could point his hooves, melding with the graceful phrases of Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble.

Minkowski conducted without pause into the opening of Davide penitente, creating such an extended rubato that the ensemble had trouble staying together (perhaps it would have been easier onstage or in an orchestra pit), but the effect was nevertheless dramatic. Throughout the evening, his tempos were measured but fluid, allowing the music to breathe while maintaining crisp rhythms.

The young mezzo Marianne Crébassa rendered the arias originally conceived for Mozart’s future wife, Constanze (“Alzai le flebili,” originally the opening Kyrie of the C minor Mass, and “Lungi le cure ingrate,” the original Laudamus te), with a rich, creamy timbre while dispatching florid ornamentation in flexible lines. Her sultry approach contrasted with the more intimate singing of soprano Christiane Karg, but the two nevertheless proved a delightful pair in the duet “Sorgi, o Signore, e spargi.”

Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s tenor is likely a big voice in the making, and he was a charming presence in “A te, fra tanti affani” — one of the two original arias in the cantata — but his tone at times lacked focus. The Salzburger Bachchor gave a polished performance, with the women’s voices sounding particularly rich. In the chorus “Se vuoi, puniscimi” (the Qui tollis of the C minor Mass), they were joined in an antiphonal exchange with riders from the Académie.

When the lights came up in the final chorus “Chi in Dio sol spera,” it was impossible to resist the spiritual power of the music. The horses circled in a majestic march, Bartabas’ protégées astride in black halter-tops and long skirts.

Following the audience’s enthusiastic applause, the riders returned to perform a circle dance around Minkowski, Bartabas, and the soloists. A particularly stubborn white stallion lunged uncomfortably close to Crebassa, who clutched her bouquet with a stoic expression. Perhaps the worlds of opera and the stable don’t mix so easily after all.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide and other publications.

Equestrian theater (Matthias Baus)
Soloists, chorus and period ensemble performed from the terraces as horses pranced on the sand. (Matthias Baus)