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Strong women, hot opera

Matthias Goerne and Christiane Karg in The Magic Flute. Photo: Ruth Walz

Matthias Goerne and Christiane Karg in The Magic Flute. Photo: Ruth Walz

As the Salzburg Summer Festival comes to an end in five days’ time, Andreas Weitzer rounds up some of the performances that have left most of a mark on audiences.

The Salzburger Festspiele, taking place in Mozart’s city of birth every summer since 1920, is for many the world’s most prestigious opera, concert and drama festival. Expectations are high and visitors are usually hard to please; I have seen productions where protesters disrupted performances with boos and whistling. This year, festival president Helga Rabl-Stadler and artistic director Markus Hinterhaeuser had no reason to worry: singers, conductors and directors did anything but disappoint.

Salzburg’s programme is rolled out from July 20 to August 30, with first nights evenly distributed over this period. Performances are on for a handful of days only, to then make place for the next show. The venues Felsenreitschule, Grosses Festspielhaus and Haus fuer Mozart do not operate simultaneously. It is, therefore, almost impossible to see all important productions without staying the full 40 days.

My week started with Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The opera’s fantastical plot has certainly served Mozart’s musical flights of fancy well, but has proven problematic for most directors.

The Three dragon-slaying Ladies, the Three angelic Boys far wiser than their age, Sarastro’s temple district, the star-spangled Queen of the Night, the birdman Papageno enamoured with magi­cal bells – what to make of this in a secular world void of magic and spirituality?

As a child in the 1970s I have seen productions so unintentionally comical that I felt cheated. Papier-mâché dragons felled by elderly ladies with plastic spears; lovers well into the age of grandpa and grandma; the Queen a hysterical monster dangerously balancing on a wooden moon hanging from the ceiling… how daft was that? Then, 20 years ago in Salzburg, Achim Freyer, German director and stage designer, put a fairy tale on stage so otherworldly beautiful and captivating that everyone in the audience turned into a believer.

US director Lydia Steirer decided to explain Schikaneder’s  libretto; she introduces Grandpa, reading the Magic Flute as a bed-time story to the Three Boys. Their toys are the templates for the personae and props; their parents are Sarastro and the Queen, the maids the Three Ladies, the butcher bringing game to the kitchen Papageno, and so forth.

The boys enact the opera, under the spell of ‘grandpa’ Klaus Maria Brandauer, Austria’s most popular drama actor, with a voice so seducing that the evening had to try hard to keep up with him.

The searing heat of Salzburg’s summer was not much of a deterrent for opera aficionados

Steier’s is a compelling concept though: against the backdrop of a fin-de-siècle Vienna, the battles of 20th century ideologies are waged and the horrors of World War II are flickering menacingly over the walls of the nursery.

Sarastro’s temple district has metamorphosed into Barnum’s show circus, with giants on stilts, evil dwarfs and freaks far more outrageous than someone with sober, Viennese taste would wish for.

It’s a lot of fun and a lot to see, at times a cornucopia of beauty even, but far too outrageous for the modest ideas of conductor Constantinos Carydis and the modest capabilities of most of the singers. Matthias Goerne as Mr Barnum, alias Sarastro, stays inaudible throughout the performance, struggling in vain with the low notes of his part.

This year’s festival was themed around strong women, and Dutch director Johan Simons took the battle of the sexes quite literally, no prisoners taken. His version of Kleist’s Penthesilea transformed the irreconcilable love between the archetypical ‘hero’ Achilles and the unbowed queen of the Amazons into a two-personae-only drama, battling over the fault lines of human relations.

The cruelty, pain and beauty exercised in this marathon performance of Sandra Hueller (Penthesilea) and Jens Harzer (Achilles) was more reminiscent of the late German playwright Heiner Mueller than the tragedies of 19th century Romanticism. Yet, Jens Harzer was irritatingly older than Sandra Hueller. Whether on purpose or by default, his absentminded, lisping play ate constantly away on the Arrabal-esque, stern and unconditional affection offered by Hueller’s Penthesilea, making her pure vision of love look tragically out of place.

Another super woman this year was, of course, Cecilia Bartoli, as the Italian Girl Isabella in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. All her bravura and art as the world’s pre-eminent coloratura mezzo-soprano and stage enfant terrible came to play under Jean-Christophe Spinosi’s conducting the Ensemble Matheus, while a marvellously strong cast around her made sure that she never went overboard.

The world of opera has chang­ed; modern opera is a three-dimensional experience blending music, acting and design. Case in point was the production of Richard Strauss’s Salome in the Felsenreitschule – a brave undertaking, which may have stumbled in many details, quite often lacking aesthetical finesse and stringency of thought. Yet, what a profound experience! There is no coming back to the old ways after this Salome.

Italian director Romeo Castellucci closed the arcades hewn into the castle rock of Salzburg with a composite material deceptively similar to the original rock, and transformed the stage – empty but for a few deeply symbolic props – into a cold, dark dungeon which is his Herod’s kingdom of Palestine.

The protagonists and extras wore blood-red masks; men­strua­tion blood stained Salome’s white dress of innocence irreparably; darkness eclipsed an even darker moon; Jochanaan was a tenebrous, blackened saint crowned with a pagan, black-feathered headdress; a raven-black stallion reared its head as the troubling, enigmatic force of sexual desire; blackness was drooling as a ballooning mass from high up over the cast and so on.

It was a lot of symbolism, which often went into overdrive without apparent reason. Yet, on stage it all seemed to make perfect sense. Franz Welser-Moest, one of the most important conductors of our time, persuaded the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to build a sound edifice that dwarfed the rocks of Salzburg with sounds of such grandiose brilliance and beauty that all the blackly symbols, too heavy in meaning and clumsy, became irrelevant.

The singers joined with ease into Welser-Moest’s grand undertaking. John Daszak (a lecherous Herod), Anna Maria Chiuri (vengeful Herodia), Julian Pregardien (doomed Narraboth); Gabor Bretz as John the Baptist was a powerful bass tenor, convincing  as a prophet, doomed pri­soner, terrible admonisher and object of adolescent desire.

And Salome? Asmik Grigorian, the Latvian soprano of Georgian origin, sang about the travails of a frail, troubled teenager.

When we saw her meeting death in the form of the beheaded body of St John, and love in form of the severed head of the beautiful stallion, and meeting her end as the ultimate victor over oppression from the hands of a male-dominated society, we trusted her and we fell over heels in love with her heavenly soprano.

Modern opera is a three-dimensional experience blending music, acting and design

The strong woman in Tchai­kovsky’s Queen of Spades was, of course, the old countess herself, taking revenge on male betrayal and violence beyond the grave. Hanna Schwarz, Bayreuth’s grand dame, enacted Pique Dame sinister, haughty – full of wisdom and old-age eroticism. Her fans were enraptured, and quite rightly so.

What we saw in the Grosses Festspielhaus is not what most patrons would have expected though. Directing enfant terrible Hans Neuenfels was threatened with expulsion from Salzburg before, but his Queen of Spades now was rather uneventful, to put it politely.

This was in crass contrast to the Russia evoked by conductor Mariss Jansons, showing us around in Tchaikovsky’s magical rural landscapes, making us listen to his folk tales, peeping into high-society ball rooms, gambling dens, gin mills and societal vistas gaily coloured like Russian lacquer boxes.

Thankfully, the singers sided with Jansons rather than Neuenfels – all of them Russian-speaking, with the exception of US tenor Brandon Jovanovich as desperate Hermann, whose accent made him even more clearly the outsider he was in Pushkin’s fateful tale of doomed 19th century love.

The festival power girl of the evening was Evgenia Muraveva as Lisa, who chose the rogue Hermann over societal rank and economic safety. She did so with a clean, poetic soprano, displaying a nuanced spectrum of emotions.

Most performances in Salzburg were sold out very early. The searing heat of Salzburg’s summer was not much of a deterrent for opera aficionados.

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