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At the Salzburg Festival, riches, retreads and notes of caution


SALZBURG, Austria – The premiere of a new production of Janacek’s opera ‘Kat’a Kabanova’ had just wrapped at the Salzburg Festival here last week. When the lights came back on, Kristina Hammer, the festival’s new president, was wiping tears from her cheeks.

It was hard to blame him for crying. “Kat’a” is a heart-pounding tragedy about a small-town woman trapped in a loveless marriage and driven to suicide after having a brief affair. Janacek’s music crushes her ethereal fantasies with the brutal fist of reality.

Barrie Kosky’s staging was the culmination of a week in Salzburg, classical music’s preeminent annual event, which runs until August 31. Kosky has reduced this stripped-down work even further, to its core of trembling human beings.

The only set is rows of models of eerily realistic people, standing, wearing street clothes and facing us – and away from Kat’a and her pain. (I confess: I was fooled into thinking it was several dozen very still extras.) Behind them rise the stone walls of the Felsenreitschule theatre, whose vast stage has rarely seemed larger or more lonely than when soprano Corinne Winters runs through it, running with nowhere to go.

Nervous and dangling, ecstatic and anxious, Winters has the unsteady presence of a child, and her live voice conveys Kat’a’s wonder and vulnerability. She is the center of the production, but the whole cast is powerful; Winters’ interactions with Jarmila Balazova’s headstrong Varvara make the characters’ years of friendship easy to believe. Conductor Jakub Hrusa confidently paces the work as one bitter, uninterrupted single shot, though the Vienna Philharmonic – the festival’s longtime house band – sounded a little thin and uncertain in what should be a passionate unanimity.

There is a kind of family resemblance between Kat’a and Suor Angelica, the dying young nun at the center of one of Puccini’s three acts in one in “Il Trittico”, conducted here by Christof Loy, with the Philharmonie conducted with a sensual lightness by Franz Welser-Möst. Like Winters, soprano Asmik Grigorian, who stars in all three acts, is an intense actress with a voice of thrilling frankness. (It’s the vocal taste of the moment in Salzburg; the days when Anna Netrebko’s sumptuous tone reigned supreme here seem to be over.)

Spare but detailed, unified by an airy buff-colored space with shifting walls, Loy’s staging rearranges the triptych, beginning rather than ending with the comic “Gianni Schicchi”, which now precedes the sinister tale of adultery. “Il Tabarro”, with Roman Burdenko as a Michele firm.

“Suor Angelica”, the closest, is the reason to see this “Trittico”; it is the only one of the three roles in which Grigorian’s lack of tonal warmth fully works to his advantage. His face-off with veteran soprano Karita Mattila – not an alto, as the role of Angelica’s aunt really demands, but properly imperious – is a flamboyant showdown of painful duels. And Grigorian’s final scene, which deals with the unexpected emotion of her simply changing in front of us from her usual into an elegant black cocktail dress and letting her hair down, is equally heartbreaking.

A woman is also on the verge of depression, but in a much more amusing way, in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”. Now that mezzo-soprano star Cecilia Bartoli leads the Spring Pentecost Festival here, every summer includes a production vehicle for her. But there were snickers when it was announced that Bartoli, 56, was planning to play Rosina, who is usually sung at the start of his career. (Bartoli made his professional stage debut in the role 35 years ago.)

But his voice – and his rapid coloratura – are remarkably well preserved, and his enthusiasm is irresistible. Directed by Rolando Villazón, the show is a love letter to cinema, like “The Purple Rose of Cairo”, which has characters walking on and off screen. Here, the silent era comes to life, with Bartoli as a diva whose experience is a wink in an anthology of his images, from Joan of Arc to pirates, projected during the opening. But the concept isn’t held so tightly that it detracts from the adorably crazy fun.

Ensemble Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco plays with silky wit for Gianluca Capuano, who leads a cast as expertly laid-back as Bartoli – including Alessandro Corbelli, Nicola Alaimo and, as Basilio Nosferatu-esque, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. And the existence of a rarely performed mezzo version of the climactic aria “Cessa di più resistere” allows Bartoli to exchange verses with the nimble young tenor Edgardo Rocha.

The other opera at the relatively intimate Haus für Mozart this summer also draws inspiration from cinema: Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’, framed by director Lydia Steier as ‘The Princess Bride’, with a grandfather telling the story to a young child. — here, three boys. Like when this staging was new, in 2018, it’s a nifty way to super-compress the work’s extensive spoken dialogue.

Four years ago, the production was spread out in the biggest room of the festival; now it has been crushed into its smallest. Steier wisely ditched a whole slew of steampunk circus imagery and focused more on the plot as a parable of the start of World War I, with touches of “Little Nemo”. It’s subtle work because the boys gradually become participants in the action, not just observers. The Philharmonic performed under Joana Mallwitz with an ideal blend of sharpness and roundness.

Not all Salzburg festivals include a revival of a past show; this year there are two. In 2017, Iranian-born photographer and videographer Shirin Neshat’s staging of Verdi’s “Aida” was the summer’s most anticipated offering, a rare full production directed by Verdian giant Riccardo Muti, and the debut by Netrebko in the title role.

Rather in the background was Neshat, her first time doing opera – and a pristine, bland effort. Now, with less starred collaborators, his work has established itself, still decent but deeper. For poetic effect, some of his early hazy, languid videos of crowds moving slowly through the streets and coastlines of the Middle East have been added; his photographs also play a role, and some dancers are covered in Arabic calligraphy, a hallmark of his art.

There are some good ideas, like the eerie and violent renditions of the ballet in Amneris’ bedroom and the triumphal scene. Some bad ones too: Amonasro, Aida’s father, seems here to be a ghost, already dead, at the beginning of Act III, which makes the plot incomprehensible. The Philharmonie’s conducting by Alain Altinoglu is reasonably paced but, compared to the exquisite colors and textures that Muti has elicited, it is otherwise ordinary. (The nocturnal start of the Nile Scene is one of many less evocative passages this year than in 2017.)

The soft-grained Aida by Elena Stikhina and the Amneris worthy of Ève-Maud Hubeaux were impressive, but Piotr Beczala, a resplendent Radamès, was the only truly glamorous singer. And the glamor is, like it or not, part and parcel of the ideal Salzburg experience: an extravaganza of imagination and achievement that surpasses what you can get at the Met or the Vienna State Opera. .

There were grumblings among Salzburg watchers about the two covers and the not-quite-new ‘Barber’, which premiered in June. A budget of nearly $70 million for just three new productions?

This was clearly a warning as the pandemic continues. “I am convinced that this is the right thing from an artistic and economic point of view,” said Markus Hinterhäuser, artistic director of the festival, when announcing the season last year.

But the economic part seems truer than the artistic. “Flute” and “Aida” were improved – the Mozart was tighter, the Verdi more nuanced. The question is whether opera’s most famous and richest summer festival needed rehearsals of two repertoire standards – works that can be seen all over the world during the regular season – in performances which, though solid, weren’t much more ladylike than you’d fit into any big house.

It’s a telling weakness as Salzburg faces renewed competition, particularly from the growing share of France’s Festival d’Aix-en-Provence – and even the Santa Fe Opera, which presented this year’s Tristan und Isolde”, his first Wagner in decades, and a world premiere (“M. Butterfly”). Despite all its resources, Salzburg has recently abandoned large commissions in favor of restoring undervalued modern works.

Aachen and Salzburg went head-to-head this summer, both featuring productions by in-demand author Romeo Castellucci. It was a confrontation that Salzburg largely lost. Aix had a huge, haunting staging of Mahler’s Second Symphony like the exhumation of a mass grave. Here in Austria, however, as Joshua Barone wrote in The Times, Castellucci’s double billing of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and Orff’s “De Temporum Fine Comoedia” was a dark, murky slog, played slowly by the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra under the direction of Teodor Currentzis.

But even a booming Aachen lacks the reach of Salzburg’s concert schedule, which begins with a lengthy mini-festival Ouvert Spirituelle and offers an enviable, layered array of often superb orchestral programs and recitals.

This year, the concerts were not all satisfactory. Pianist Grigory Sokolov’s mellow touch was seductive in Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations and Op. 117 pieces, but slumbered Schumann’s “Kreisleriana”. The voice of tenor Jonas Kaufmann has rarely come to life in a recital, the halves of which have been taken from his last two albums.

But it was moving to see superstar pianist Lang Lang show his respect for Daniel Barenboim by joining this conductor and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain”, not at all a virtuoso centerpiece. And while the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons confused Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Yefim Bronfman, the orchestra sounded sumptuously ripe in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

More memorable was a less elated and less publicized concert: one of the festival’s 11 a.m. weekend Mozart matinees featuring the Mozarteum Orchestra. These matinees often have the happiest and most vibrant renditions at the festival, and last week’s program was no exception, brilliantly led by Adam Fischer.

The Mozart Matinees are well attended and welcomed with pleasure. But they still feel like a Salzburg secret.