At The Salzburg Fest, Inspired Concerts And Two Tormented Operas

Sebastian Kohlhepp, center, as Manolios in the Salzburg Festival production of Martinů s ‘The Greek Passion’ (Photo by Monika Rittershaus)

SALZBURG — Can any single festival claim to be the world’s leading stage? Probably not. But it can present a vast range of repertoire in first-class performances and provoke thought about historical cross connections or social issues.

New productions of operas by Martinů and Mozart at the Salzburg Festival have ostensibly set out to do so but are not in service of the respective librettos. Ultimately, the concert line-up may be more fulfilling — although certain programs could also be heard in such locations as Vienna, Berlin, or Lucerne.

Martinů’s The Greek Passion, seen at the Aug. 13 premiere, was performed here for the first time, fulfilling the obligation for a modern opera. The festival opted for the second, revised version written for the Zurich Opera and premiered in 1961, two years after the composer’s death. The revision tightens and smooths out the drama. In fact, the expansive stage of the Felsenreitschule and the edgy theatrical aesthetic of the Salzburg Festival would have left plenty of room for the original score, which was created for Covent Garden in 1957 but not performed until 1999 in Bregenz.

A scene from the Salzburg Festival production of Martinů ‘s ‘The Greek Passion’ (Photo by Monika Rittershaus)

Nevertheless, the production is musically sound: The talented young conductor Maxime Pascal led the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance both expansive and transparent, with playful woodwinds that vividly captured the Greek Orthodox influences Martinů wove into the score. Every character in the composer’s self-penned English libretto sprang to life under the direction of Simon Stone (stand-outs included the American tenor Charles Workman as the peddler Yannakos). And the double chorus of villagers and refugees — the house ensemble of the Vienna State Opera — was well rehearsed by Huw Rhys James.

But sets by Lizzie Clachan are trite. Explicitly Christian symbolism, such as a brightly lit cross, comes across as tongue-in-cheek — not at all capturing the theme of personal faith versus institutional doctrine the writer Nikos Kazantzakis explored in his novel Christ Recrucified, upon which Martinů based his libretto.

Costumes by Mel Page cast the people of Lycovrissi in all gray, while the refugees arrive in colorful, modern dress. In the final act, the words “REFUGEES OUT” are painted in orange against the set’s drab walls, evoking recent crises in Europe in which the locals of a given country become antagonistic toward asylum seekers.

Adriana González (La Contessa di Almaviva), Lea Desandre (Cherubino), Sabine Devieilhe (Susanna) in ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ (Photo by Matthias Horn)

The opera, however, is about the altercation of Greeks with arrivals from another Greek town under Turkish occupation — a storyline that had personal meaning for the composer, a Czech native who emigrated and was unable to return to his native country for political reasons. The staging is at its most banal and tasteless at the ending, when the shepherd Manolios (Sebastian Kohlhepp) lies in a giant pool of blood after being stabbed by his fellow villagers.

Is it necessary in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro to place Susanna and Marcellina in bathroom stalls for the duet “Via resti servita”? Why does Basilio, dressed as a priest, beat Cherubino’s face against the glass? Whom has the Count shot in the first act, and why?

Blood is also prominent in the new Figaro in the Haus für Mozart, seen at the fifth performance Aug. 15. The director Martin Kušej sets out to tell the story against the backdrop of gang warfare and urban excess, with opulent sets recreating everything from a bar to a techno club (designs by Raimund Orfeo Voigt). But the result is a string of gags that can barely elicit a laugh and, most of all, have no direct connection to the story.

The final act, at least, takes a turn for the better, representing the garden where Susanna and the Countess exchange identities with naturalistic, tall grass (why not occasionally recreate indications in the libretto?). Individual numbers such as “Voi che sapete” do Mozart justice; the mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre received extensive applause as Cherubino. As Susanna, Sabine Devieilhe also brings charm and a bell-like timbre. But the characters are rarely drawn with any clarity.

Conductor Raphael Pichon, leading the Philharmonic, shows his chops in the tight, racing overture and finale, but his tempos are generally too erratic, creating awkward transitions between slow and fast passages. The singers’ melodies are also inflected with interpolated notes that do nothing to augment the beauty of the score. A booing spell from the audience was certainly warranted.

Riccardo Muti led the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. (Photo by Marco Borrelli)

The opposite took place for a concert that morning with the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Muti, when he was showered with bravos before he began conducting. Two numbers from Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri were polished and packed with drama on the orchestra’s part, but the chorus of the Vienna State Opera could have been better prepared.

Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was the highlight of the program. Muti brought out gentle lines from the orchestra but also great intensity, creating suspense as he built toward the climax of each movement. This was an exciting performance worthy of a festival that is sometimes billed as the Mount Olympus of classical music.

Excitement also was the case in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra‘s concert under Daniel Barenboim in the Festspielhaus on Aug. 17. In Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, the ensemble’s stylistic authenticity and technical precision recalled the conductor’s early recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic — so distinctive is his approach to the composer and his ability to shape an orchestra.

Igor Levit was soloist in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra led by Daniel Barenboim. (Photo by Marco Borrelli)

Igor Levit, jumping in last-minute for Martha Argerich, entered into playful dialogue, bringing flawless pearly runs and the occasional piercing touch that is his trademark. His interpretation, perhaps not coincidentally, strongly called to mind Barenboim’s own performance of the work as a pianist — yet Levit was so in sync with the orchestra that this could be forgiven.

Brahms’ Second Symphony was also satisfying in its heft and smooth phrasing. The winds could have at times been rounder but were clean and on point in the final movement. The music’s triumphant quality was particularly uplifting in the context of the orchestra’s mission to overcome the political divide in the Middle East. And why not enjoy the moment in Salzburg?