SALZBURG — This season’s Salzburg Festival included a range of operas from the Baroque through the Romantic eras, leaving only Bohuslav Martinů’s The Greek Passion (1957) to suggest that opera continued after Verdi. Orchestral and chamber concerts and recitals paid more attention to the past century or so but featured only half a dozen living composers, with almost no heed paid to diversity of any sort. Wokeness arrived here, instead, in some of the opera productions.
Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s complex production of Verdi’s Macbeth (seen Aug. 19) envisions Lady Macbeth’s inability to bear children as the reason for the couple’s descent into evil — and violence against children as the result. Woe to the innocent operagoer who shows up without preparation. But those who seek an intellectual challenge are rewarded with an unforgettable coup de théâtre and a performance of searing intensity.
Warlikowski brings his signature style to every project, with a tool kit that almost always includes costumes from the 1920s and the silent projection of classic films. For Macbeth, the movies include Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Oedipus Rex, and Salò, and the excerpts suggest Macbeth as Herod, Oedipus, and a torturer of children. Even the freestanding sink, always onstage and useful for burning letters or witches’ prophecies, is a regularly recurring feature in his stage works.
The vast Grosses Festspielhaus stage has been converted into a starkly barren airport waiting area, coldly lit, which morphs intriguingly into the Jeu de Paume hall in Versailles (the indoor tennis court where the Oath was taken that ended the French monarchy), and also into a banquet room featuring rows of movie-theater seats (of course!) for the chorus and other observers. Smaller enclosures slide in from the wings. In addition to the movie excerpts, we sometimes see live video, either to enlarge characters on the stage or to show actions taking place offstage, as when King Duncan, and later Banco, are arriving for their murders.
Lady Macbeth submits to a gynecological examination in the first act. The discovery that she is barren fuels both her death wish and her hatred of children, just as the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s sons will inherit the throne drives Macbeth to madness and murder. Children are often deployed onstage: in distorted masks in Act 1; in elegant little uniforms as pallbearers for King Duncan; and wearing Banquo masks to taunt Macbeth as he descends into madness. And as Lady M does the same, a large group of children arrive, to be seated in the theater seats. She and her helpers give them poisoned food, and their lifeless bodies are slowly arranged in a line at the foot of the stage.
The witches wear sunglasses, indicating blindness, as well as little radioactive warning emblems. They sit together and sing while a group of young girls dance and circle the fire. Macbeth castrates himself.
At the coronation feast, Lady M turns her toast into a cabaret show, with a stage and (muted) microphone, suggesting Imelda Marcos, or possibly Evita. The main course is a gruesome baby, whose image remains on the curtain as the audience heads for intermission to enjoy canapés and Champagne. Bon appétit!
Macbeth is in a wheelchair for the final act. At the end, the royal couple, tortured and tied up, survive. Tyrants never go away: A dark future beckons.
Asmik Grigorian was stunning as Lady Macbeth, a role debut. A versatile actress, she portrayed a range of emotions from greed and hatred to madness and fury. The voice is equally versatile and agile, with perfect coloratura and daunting power.
Vladislav Sulimsky sang the title role. He’s not a typical Verdi baritone with a resonant lower register, but his singing is dramatically potent. You hear the emotion as he falls apart, and you read his moods through his expressive body language. Tareq Nazmi was a bit subdued as Banquo. Jonathan Tetelman was a luminous Macduff.
Franz Welser-Möst had been scheduled to conduct but canceled due to an acute orthopedic problem. Philippe Jordan, music director of the Vienna State Opera, took over for him and led a muscular performance that accentuated the intensity onstage. The audience responded enthusiastically.
A P. G. Wodehouse character, asked why she displayed a particularly bad portrait of an ancestor, responded: “It serves to remind us that there is a darker side to life, and that we are not put on this earth for pleasure only.” I thought of that remark as I experienced Christoph Marthaler’s uniquely inconsonant production of Verdi’s Falstaff (Aug. 23). This is a staging that robs Verdi’s comic masterpiece of its formidable pleasure by turning it into a cumbersome portrait of Orson Welles.
Welles? Well, to succeed here this season, you really must be a cinephile. Welles played Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, his 1966 film version of Falstaff. His final movie, The Other Side of the Wind, released posthumously in 2018, satirically portrayed the final days of an aging movie director. These two movies were the basis for Marthaler’s Falstaff, rendered as an homage to Welles and Hollywood. In this staging, a movie is being made with a Welles character (mute, except at the very beginning and the end) onstage as director and a variety of extra characters as the film crew, all in constant motion with their cameras and equipment.
The wide stage is divided into a triptych: a screening room, a movie set, and a swimming pool next to a mid-century modern house with sliding glass doors. It soon becomes clear that some of the singers we hear are “rehearsing” — these are out of costume, sitting around — others are being filmed, with cameras pointed at them and the director (Welles) gesturing at them. Often several things are going on at once, with Welles reviewing footage in the screening room, for example, while others rehearse by the pool. As the evening progresses, the director morphs into the character of Falstaff, so that at the end he gets dunked together with the Falstaff actor, then shows up in a suit of armor to speak Falstaff’s final lines. Many of the characters are smoking and drinking heavily (an assistant arrives regularly to fill glasses).
The essential problem is that there simply isn’t enough substance in the concept to make it work. Though the staging is always busy (Falstaff already has a lot of characters, and Marthaler has added many more), it just gets boring. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s jokes get sidetracked. For example, all the fat jokes make no sense, as Gerald Finley, who portrayed Falstaff, is relatively slim and doesn’t wear a fat suit. Though one of Marthaler’s jokes is that Falstaff keeps rejecting the suit from the staff until after he is cuckolded in the Oak scene, whereupon Alice Ford forces him to don it over his clothing.
Musically, things went better. Finley was a superb Falstaff, his bass-baritone voice powerful and elegant, with fine phrasing, and his sympathetic characterization showed a certain nobility. Simon Keenlyside was an energetic Ford with an attractive, clear baritone.
Elena Stikhina was a delightful Alice Ford, displaying nice vocal colors and an imperial manner, replacing Welles as director when he transformed into Falstaff. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was a versatile Mrs. Quickly and Cecilia Molinari an agile Meg Page.
Giulia Semenzato made a riveting Nannetta: perky, with a sweet voice and thrilling pianissimo high notes. Her Fenton was Bogdan Volkov, who has a youthful sound and was made up to look dorky. Michael Colvin and Jens Larsen were vocally fine as Bardolfo and Pistola, respectively, though both seemed a bit dramatically subdued in this production. Thomas Ebenstein was an entertaining Dr. Caius, with his belt at chest level.
Ingo Metzmacher, who conducted, has a wealth of experience, especially in new opera, but this was his first Falstaff, and it was a night of contrasts: mostly elegant and even plaintive, but with sudden brassy outbursts from time to time. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra played with its usual precision.
A large contingent of the audience left at intermission, but at the curtain there were cheers and little of the booing that reportedly had been heard on opening night. The latter had taken place during a storm so ferocious that the roof leaked, subjecting some of the audience to a Falstaffian dunking.
I Capuleti e i Montecchi
I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Bellini’s take on Romeo and Juliet, is a work with more introspection than action, so it made sense to perform it here in a concert version. On Aug. 19, Italian conductor Marco Armiliato led the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg and the men of the Philharmonia Chor Wien in the first of two performances of the work.
Bellini’s version of the play eliminates the first-act party and the balcony scene and shrinks the cast to five characters. He focuses on the anger and enmity between the two families, often with a martial sound, and uses the male chorus to good effect. Armiliato, whom Americans know from his extensive work at the Metropolitan Opera, led an idiomatic performance with a range of tempi, mostly on the brisk side.
Aigul Akhmetshina, in her Salzburg debut, was a dynamite Romeo. A native of Russia, she won the 2017 International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition and was accepted into the Covent Garden studio program. She has everything: power, range, smooth legato, a pleasing mezzo-soprano sound, and tons of charisma. Elsa Dreisig portrayed Giulietta, and her light voice with dark coloring meshed nicely with Akhmetshina’s. As the evening went on, her intonation suffered a bit. One peculiarity of Bellini’s version is that Romeo gets an extended death scene, while Giulietta is dispatched quickly.
The opera was performed in the Felsenreitschule, a former riding academy with an interesting history (for example, it was used in the movie version of The Sound of Music). For this concert, the chorus was placed behind the orchestra, with soloists clustered near the podium. The audience responded with a rare standing ovation and especially singled out Akhmetshina.
Martinů’s opera The Greek Passion
On June 14, 2023, at least 600 refugees drowned off the coast of Greece when their ship capsized as the coast guard looked on, failing to take action to rescue them. Less than two months later, Bohuslav Martinů’s opera, The Greek Passion (seen August 22), opened here in the Felsenreitschule. It’s hard to imagine another work from more than 70 years ago with a more direct and startling resonance today.
In the opera, based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, Greek villagers are preparing to put on a Passion Play. As the opera opens, parts are being assigned by the village priest, Grigoris. Manolios, a shepherd, is to portray Christ. Yannakos, a trader the priest reprimands for cheating his customers, will portray Peter. Katarina, the local prostitute, will portray Mary Magdalene. The ceremony is interrupted by the arrival of a large group of immigrants who, in the opera, are Greeks fleeing Turks.
Almost immediately, most of the villagers react with hostility, encouraged by Grigoris. But the villagers begin to assume the roles from the Passion Play. Manolios organizes to help the immigrants and give them land. Katarina becomes his helper. Peter, who initially was tempted to cheat the immigrants, also becomes their champion. In the end, the villagers kill Manolios and the immigrants are driven away, singing of their faith.
A refugee himself, Martinů fled his native Czechoslovakia ahead of the Nazi invasion, and never returned. His musical language is somewhat postmodern and quite varied; it mixes intricate rhythms and folkloric hymns which clearly reference the composer’s Czech and Slovak heritage. Chamber music, dramatic outbursts, and strong choral writing are all part of his compelling tapestry. He was quite prolific, but today his works are rarely performed outside the Czech Republic. The Greek Passion was written, with an English libretto, for Covent Garden in 1957, but the premiere waited until 1961 in Zurich. Salzburg opted for the revised Zurich version of the score.
Simon Stone, the director, is probably best known to American audiences for his inspired Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera last year, updated to a decaying Rust Belt town. Here he updated the opera to modern times. A simple unit set (by Lizzie Clachan) consisted of a large gray box spanning the wide stage, with a walkway visible across the top in back. An elegant fountain, an inflatable Christ figure, and a large illuminated cross are among the few props to appear on stage.
Audiences are never happier than when there are children or animals on stage, and this production featured plenty of children, plus goats and an ultra-cute donkey. In the final act, artists rappel from the wall to paint “Refugees Out” in red paint: a clear reference to modern protests. Mel Page, who designed the costumes, put the all the villagers in drab gray, signifying their conformity, but gave the immigrants lively colorful clothing. As Manolios and his followers rebelled in support of the immigrants – they, too, acquired colorful outfits, including purple overalls for Manolios.
With the Vienna Philharmonic and three different choruses (one for the villagers, another for the refugees, and a children’s chorus), plus a large cast, all spread out across a wide spectrum, Maxime Pascale, a fast-rising young French conductor, certainly has his work cut out for him just in terms of coordination. But it all went swimmingly with a polished sound and plenty of verve.
The cast was superb, led by the finely honed performances of Sebastien Kohlepp as Manolios and Sara Jakubiak as Katerina. Kohlepp displayed a superb heroic tenor voice. Christina Gansch portrayed Lenio, Manolios’ fiancé. Charles Workman was especially impressive as Janakos, the peddler.
This is an opera, and a composer, that deserves to be revived, and it’s likely to be helped by this superb performance.
Arcadi Volodos Recital
Pianists often speak of Arcadi Volodos in reverent terms. Relatively few Americans have heard the Russian-born pianist play: He limits his appearances and rarely crosses the ocean. But his recordings have achieved cult status. When he suddenly arrived on the scene a few decades ago, he favored repertoire that showed off his impressive and sometimes flamboyant virtuosity, especially Scriabin and Liszt, along with his own arrangements. In recent years, he switched gears to concentrate on more poetic repertoire, including Brahms and Schubert.
Salzburg tends to select a few pianists who return regularly for recitals, and Volodos has now moved to the top of the list. At the concert on Aug. 18, he offered a bit of the poetic, with selections from Catalan composer Federico Mompou before returning to his old friends Liszt and Scriabin. The implication is: “I can do both.” And he can. Even with the wealth of astonishingly gifted younger pianists available today, Volodos stands out for his ability to combine dazzling technical ability with interpretive genius.
Volodos dedicated the concert to the late Alicia de Larrocha, born 100 years ago this year, who long championed Mompou. The selection of 12 short works performed here were from Mompou’s Música callada collection, dedicated to de Larrocha. Written between 1959 and 1967, Música callada bespeaks a wide range of influences, including Chopin, Satie, Fauré, Berg, and modern jazz. Volodos, playing from memory, approached each one with a fine sense of color and a refreshing approach to rhythm.
Next came Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B minor, and it was a pretty wild ride. Volodos can come off as a bit of a show-off. But even here there was eloquence. One thing he doesn’t do is dramatic body English: He walks briskly on stage, sits down, and plays, after which he returns to nod with a frozen smile.
His Scriabin was a selection of short preludes, poèmes, and one very fine sonata (Op. 70, No. 10). This last one, a grandiose work that shows off Scriabin’s full range, became a master class in detail and timbre. The set ended with Scriabin’s diabolically difficult Vers la flamme, which Horowitz said was inspired by his eccentric belief that an accumulation of heat would destroy the world. Experiencing the intense heat here the last few days, you have to wonder if he wasn’t onto something.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: Time with Ligeti
Franz Welser-Möst had been scheduled to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in the final installment of “Time with Ligeti,” an 11-concert series combining works by György Ligeti with composers ranging from Purcell to Cage. For the concert on Aug. 21, two Ligeti works were paired with two by Richard Strauss. When Welser-Möst was forced to cancel due to an orthopedic problem, the festival engaged Daniel Harding, who has worked extensively here, to conduct the program without changes.
First up was Ligeti’s Atmospheres, the seminal modernist work that, because it was featured in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, brought Ligeti from obscurity to modest renown. In Atmospheres, long sustained sounds with dense texture slowly change through “extensive inner motion,” according to the composer, as instruments drop out and then reenter. Each string player has a different part. Harding brought an ascetic, delicate approach, with a sound that was just audible enough to follow the perfectly calibrated structure.
Ligeti is said to have been displeased to learn that his music was to appear in a movie together with that of two Strausses, Johann II and Richard. Interestingly, the next piece up was Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen which, like Atmospheres, involves a separate score for each player. In this case, this means everyone on stage. As the work evolves, the players form different clusters, and the complex patterns become mesmerizing. Harding took it slowly, emphasizing the sorrowful aspect of a work seen by some as mourning the destruction of Germany during World War II and the horrors of a Nazi regime (with which Strauss had his own complicated history) that came to an end just as the work was being finished.
After the break came Ligeti’s Lontano, in which the composer uses micro-precision to create tension and, at times, an eerie effect. Ligeti said the piece depicts the “opening and closing of a window on long submerged dream worlds of childhood.” Kubrick used Lontano in The Shining. Harding’s approach was poetic, almost inaudible, with building textures.
For the finale, Harding conducted Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, which moved along briskly, lingering on the strings.