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In Review > International

Wozzeck, Ariodante, La Clemenza di Tito, Lear, Lady Macbeth of Mstensk, Aida 

Salzburg Festival

In Review Salzburg Wozzeck lg 1117
Matthias Goerne and Asmik Grigorian in William Kentridge’s Wozzeck in Salzburg
© Salzburger Festspiele/Ruth Walz

AFTER HIS STUNNING Lulu bowed at the Met in 2015, it seemed a safe bet that sooner or later William Kentridge would tackle Alban Berg’s other opera. Two seasons later, the South African artist unveiled his grim, pitiless vision for Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival (seen Aug. 17). A coproduction with Canadian Opera Company, Opera Australia and the Met, where it will arrive in 2019–20, the new Wozzeck is part of Markus Hinterhäuser’s first season as the festival’s new artistic director. Hinterhäuser devised an ambitious, eclectic program that included four twentieth-century operas in a total of six productions—with just a single Mozart work and absolutely nothing by Richard Strauss.

The singers in the Wozzeck cast were outstanding, providing sharp focus and psychological depth. As Wozzeck, Matthias Goerne sang with hulking, brutish majesty. Asmik Grigorian made a shattering Salzburg debut as a defiant Marie. With her piercing, well-rounded voice, the Latvian soprano—a gripping Tatiana at the Komische Oper Berlin—anchored the evening emotionally with her appetite and anguish. Both individually and together, Gerhard Siegel and Jens Larsen were splendidly malicious as Wozzeck’s bullies, the Captain and the Doctor. John Daszak’s Drum Major and Mauro Peter’s Andres invested their top notes with mock heroism or skittishness, as required.   

Kentridge is one of the world’s most admired artists; his Wozzeck opened here at the Haus für Mozart to almost universal acclaim. I wish I could share the enthusiasm, but for me the cluttered, hyperdetailed and restless Kentridge style that boldly inhabited the expansive worlds of Lulu and Shostakovich’s Nose—Kentridge’s first production for the Met, in 2010—wreaked havoc on Berg’s tightly focused, clinically precise portrait of dehumanization and cruelty. Wozzeck works best in a chamber presentation. A minimalist treatment also helps, such as the Mark Lamos–Robert Israel production that was a Met mainstay between 1997 and 2014, or Andrea Breth’s hallucinogenic staging for the Berlin Staatsoper in 2011. 

As reproduced in the festival program, Kentridge’s charcoal drawings were beautifully desolate, disturbing and strange. Projected onto the stage, they smothered the wooden set—Sabine Theunissen’s preciously stacked assemblage of mismatched planks, strewn with crates, chairs and other noisy objects—with murky intensity; only during the second tavern scene, amid a burst of color from a background video, did I realize just how vibrant Greta Goiris’s costumes were. A variety of animated and live-action films were beamed onto multiple surfaces, with Wozzeck himself often cranking the projector. The result was formidable yet dizzying.

Kentridge’s theatrical activity over the past four decades is the focus of an excellent show at Salzburg’s Museum der Moderne (on view until November). Among the models, designs and installations are drawings from a certain Woyzeck on the Highvelt,a South African version of Büchner from 1992, for which Kentridge collaborated with the Handspring Puppet Company. This earlier iteration might have inspired one of the Salzburg production’s most effectively disturbing details—the wooden puppet wearing a gas mask that stood in for Wozzeck and Marie’s son. The production could have used more of this sort of dramaturgical distillation.

The Vienna Philharmonic, which is celebrating its 175th birthday this year, has Berg’s music in its collective bones. The playing was exacting, virtuoso and frequently terrifying. The intense Russian maestro Vladimir Jurowski was prone to extremes, making the music describing Wozzeck’s torment as savage as possible while underscoring Marie’s supplications with something approaching saccharine bombast. Perhaps Jurowski was trying to match this sputtering, fragmented production in kind. But the score’s dark, glowing elegance sadly went missing in his reading.

In REview Salzburg Ariodante lg 1117 
Cecilia Bartoli in Salzburg’s Ariodante
© Salzburger Festspiele/Monika Rittershaus

ON NEW YEARS' DAY 1735, London’s newspapers announced Handel’s Ariodante, a new opera thought to contain scenes that would “excel any Thing of the Kind that has yet appear’d.” Nearly 300 years later, that clickbait-ish language could easily be applied to Christof Loy’s production (seen Aug. 18), which had its premiere in June at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival and returned for five performances during the main summertime festival at the Haus für Mozart. 

Who would ever have expected to see a bearded Cecilia Bartoli, her hair long and wild, wearing a black brocade dress and wielding a massive sword? The image, which featured on festival posters around town and drew many perplexed stares, brought to mind one of Conchita Wurst’s ancestors. Bartoli is artistic director of Whitsun, and Ariodante marked her first-ever trouser role in Salzburg. This fact clearly hadn’t been lost on Loy, who milked the opera’s gender bending with a production that took its cue not from Orlando Furioso (the opera’s direct source material) but from Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando,another work that tipped its hat to Ariosto.

In Loy’s retelling, the eponymous paladin, tricked by his rival into believing that his betrothed had been unfaithful, gradually transitioned from male to female. Recordings of Bartoli reciting passages from Orlando hammered home the Woolf connection superfluously and awkwardly. Loy is a cerebral director whose productions tend to be hit-or-miss. With Ariodante, he was keen to observe the struggle between Baroque and Enlightenment themes in the opera—hence the hodgepodge of period costumes and modern dress—but he provided a mannered, static staging that barely sufficed to tell the story. A particular sore point was the device of eight outstanding dancers forced into courtly dances or dressed like the Backstreet Boys during a “Ballet of Good and Bad Dreams,” during which a gang rape seemed to evolve into an orgy. Luckily, such moments were rare: for the most part, the minimal set—a white interior with painted backdrops, based on a French Baroque painting—let the music speak for itself. 

This was the fifty-year-old Bartoli’s show, in more ways than one. Her richly distinctive voice sounded magnificently well rounded, thick and at times even smoky. With her deep expressivity, impeccable diction and captivating sensitivity to every nuance of the music and the text, she made each recitative as much an event as each aria. She was also shockingly convincing in her fully male Act I getup, sporting a long stubble beard, short unkempt hair and a quasi-Renaissance outfit. Bartoli brought in her luxury period-instrument ensembleLes Musiciens du Prince, which she cofounded last year with Prince Albert of Monaco. The musicians, handpicked by Bartoli, played with brilliance and insight for the dynamic Italian maestro Gianluca Capuano.

Unlike Norma, which was seen at the 2015 summer festival with Bartoli heading a uniformly brilliant cast,the star mezzo-soprano was in a different league from her colleagues in Ariodante. The best male performance came from the fiercely dramatic countertenor Christophe Dumaux, as the villainous Polinesso. Canadian bass-baritone Nathan Berg lent some burnished grandeur to the King of Scotland, but he started out hesitant and unfocused. As the King’s daughter, Ginevra, Kathryn Lewek harnessed her powerful, seemingly indefatigable voice for her impassioned, defiant arias. In Act III, however, Lewek worked her way through a sequence of sad songs with pallor and undifferentiated forlornness. Sandrine Piau, a Salzburg veteran, was a wrenching Dalinda, although her physically restive performance seemed to add a measure of instability to her singing. Tenor Rolando Villazón looked and sounded haunted as Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio, but he sang without any distinction. His presence in the opera was more mystifying than anything else Loy threw at us.

In Review Salzburg Clemenza lg 1117 
Marianne Crebassa and Russell Thomas in La Clemenza di Tito in

© Salzburger Festspiele/Ruth Walz

H OW DID MOZART'S often-neglected final opera, La Clemenza di Tito (seen Aug. 19), become the sensation of this year’s Salzburg Festival? 

For starters, the performances marked the festival debut of Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis and his ensemble MusicAeterna, the in-house orchestra of Perm Opera in central Russia. The maestro and his musicians have achieved near-cult status with their fresh-faced, idiosyncratic recent recordings of the Mozart–da Ponte trilogy for Sony. Second, Peter Sellars’s long-awaited return to Salzburg (after a sixteen-year absence) was a timely production that was never heavy-handed. This sparse, uncluttered staging (a coproduction with Deutsche Oper Berlin and Dutch National Opera) bore the influence of the director’s recent “ritualizations”—of the Bach Passions, among others—and helped create intimacy in the cavernous Felsenreitschule. Add to the contributions of Currentzis and Sellars a superb cast of singers for whom cooperation and engagement were more important than individual bravura, and Mozart’s opera seria sounded anything but retrograde. Conductor and director were on the same page, boldly retrofitting movements from the C-minor Mass and other Mozart works into Tito; purists might decry the tactic as sacrilegious, but it lent the piece further spiritual weight. (The program notes made a compelling argument for the interpolated material, reminding us that our own fetishism for “authentic” scores didn’t exist in Mozart’s age.) The most daring of these additions was the Masonic Funeral Music, performed for the dead emperor at the very end of the evening. This, Sellars’s most significant departure from the Metastasio libretto, was supported by history: after his eighteen clemency-filled months as emperor—the ruthless sack of Jerusalem predated his coronation—Titus died suddenly. 

With remarkable lightness, Sellars delivered an urgently contemporary production that held up truth and reconciliation as solutions to racial, political and religious strife. Tito became a Nelson Mandela-like figure willing to work together with those who had tried to kill him. By casting black singers as many of the leading Romans (Sesto and Servilia are two refugees welcomed at court by Tito personally), Sellars inverted power dynamics to stress a message of radical forgiveness and love. Despite contemporary touches—such as riot police, suicide bombers and an impromptu shrine of flowers, candles and framed pictures—there was nothing overdone or forced about the production. This was due to the careful interactions between the soloists and the radiant MusicAeterna Chorus, and to the lack of onstage clutter. George Tsypin’s dazzling abstract light sculptures were sleek and unobtrusive. Better by far than anything in Salzburg’s most recent Mozart–da Ponte cycle (directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf), this Tito was firm in its convictions but wore them lightly. 

Honesty and directness were common features of the accomplished vocal performances. Russell Thomas sang Tito with hulking grandeur, his robust tenor channeling the emperor’s deep humanity. South African soprano Golda Schultz sang a powerfully spiteful Vitellia, a perfect foil to the conflicted Sesto of Marianne Crebassa. The sumptuously full-voiced French mezzo nearly stole the show with her emotion-filled “Parto, parto,” here performed as a surpassingly beautiful pas de deux with the clarinetist who played the aria’s magnificent obbligato. Jeanine De Bique and Christina Gansch were well matched as Annio and Servilia, and both sang exquisite solos for the C-minor Mass movements. Rounding out the cast was Willard White as a commanding Publio.     

Aided by an unusual—and unusually active—continuo that contained a Baroque guitar and lute, Currentzis conducted like a heavy-metal drummer while coaxing a brilliantly transparent, fresh and exciting performance from his musicians.

Anna Prohaska and Gerald Finley, Cordelia and Lear in Salzburg
© Salzburger Festspiele/Thomas Aurin

SUDDENLY ARIBERT REIMANN is everywhere. During the spring of this year, the eighty-one-year-old composer saw new productions of two of his operas—Medea, from 2010, and Gespenstersonate, from 1984—in his native Berlin. In late August, it was Salzburg’s turn to discover Reimann, with the premiere of a new production of Lear, the composer’s wrenching 1978 opera, inspired by Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy (seen Aug. 20).

With eight operas under his belt, and a ninth scheduled for its premiere at Deutsche Oper Berlin in October, Reimann is Germany’s finest living opera composer—which makes it especially hard to believe that Lear was the composer’s first stage work to make it to Salzburg. At least in recent years, Salzburg has been a festival in which conservative audience tastes and progressive artistic agendas are frequently at odds. If Salzburg artistic director Markus Hinterhäuser’s inaugural season is any indication, he is working against the festival’s traditionalism. 

Assigning Lear to the Australian stage director Simon Stone—regarded by many as an enfant terrible—was quite possibly Hinterhäuser’s riskiest gamble. Stone, a thirty-three-year-old maverick with a fondness for Ibsen and Chekhov, seemed determined to outdo Reimann’s score in terms of savage cruelty. There were a number of striking images, but little dramatic insight was evident. The magnificent verdant field created on the oblong stage of the Felsenreitschule was trashed during a luridly vulgar bacchanal followed by a lengthy sprinkler demonstration. One of Stone’s laziest inspirations was the climactic final scene, which largely played out in front of a white curtain, with the five combatants rooted to their places as they succumbed to gruesome ends. Then there were the hundreds of extras disguised as festivalgoers seated onstage, who were violently ejected from their seats and dipped in blood. It was little more than a stunt—albeit an expensive one—although still not so idiotic as Mickey Mouse’s perplexing cameo in Act II.

Salzburg assembled an A-list cast for Lear’s massive dramatis personae. Gerald Finley’s role debut as the mad king was outstanding—one of the high points of this year’s festival. Conceived for the protean talents of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Lear is as much a theatrical challenge as a vocal one, the king’s music fluctuating between raging monotone outbursts, naïve, folksy arioso and crepuscular incantations that transmit fathomless grief. This was Finley’s second role debut in Austria this year, following his visceral Amfortas in Parsifal in Vienna. Finley captured Lear’s progression from hubris to impotence to madness to bitter surrender with the conviction of a great Shakespearean actor. 

The highly individual performances of the luxurious roster of singers under Stone’s direction made it relatively easy to keep track of all the supporting characters in librettist Claus H. Henneberg’s extreme reduction of the Bard’s five acts into eleven concise scenes. As Lear’s scheming older daughters, Goneril and Regan, German sopranos Evelyn Herlitzius and Gun-Brit Barkmin were incarnations of pure evil. Tenor Charles Workman sang Edmund, the architect of much of the opera’s carnage, with ringing tones that lent his villainy a measure of heroism, while Estonian baritone Lauri Vasar was deeply moving as the duped (and blinded) Gloster. Countertenor Kai Wessel was nimble as Edgar, yet his spoken declamations were weak, in marked contrast to actor Michael Maertens in the scene-chewing role of the Fool. In Lear’s harsh and menacing sonic universe, Anna Prohaska added a small dose of cool lyricism as Cordelia, the king’s banished daughter. 

For all their precision and finesse, Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic were hardly ideal music partners for this bone-gnashing, breathlessly unspooling score. Intricacies were highlighted with filigree-like refinement, but there was little dramatic shock. Most impressive was the clattering percussion section playing from a bandstand at the side of the hall.

In Review Salzburg lady Macbeth hdl 1117 
Evgenia Muraveva and Brandon Jovanovich in Salzburg’s Lady Macbeth
© Salzburger Festspiele/Thomas Aurin

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH may not be a name one readily associates with the Salzburg Festival. While his music has proliferated on concert programs here over the past decade, including a complete cycle of his fifteen string quartets in 2011, the festival has programmed one of the composer’s operas only once before, in 2001, when Valery Gergiev paced Angela Denoke in Peter Mussbach’s expressionistic production of Lady Macbeth of Mstensk

That work returned to Salzburg this summer in an intelligent, somber staging by the protean theater and opera director Andreas Kriegenburg (seen Aug. 21). The most successful of the festival’s three new stagings of twentieth-century works, Kriegenburg’s scaled-back Lady Macbeth trusted the music’s power to convey drama. Katerina Ismailova’s sleek, sterile bedroom jutted out from an oppressive concrete apartment complex where her workers lived. Later, that set transformed into the women’s prison, emphasizing how Katerina had traded her gilded cage for a literal one. With realistically staged violence and few whimsical touches, the production was appropriately grim without being oppressive.   

Salzburg can get rather wet and chilly, even in summer. A persistent cold prevented Nina Stemme, the run’s intended Katerina Ismailova, from singing after the second performance on August 5. Replacing her for the final three evenings of the run was Evgenia Muraveva, an impassioned, full-voiced Russian soprano who looked and sounded remarkably secure in this wide-ranging role. The complexity of Muraveva’s Katerina was enhanced by her pointed vocal attack; the darker shadings of her voice expressed eroticism and evoked symphony. 

The brawny American tenor Brandon Jovanovich sang Sergei, Katerina’s lover, with a mix of arrogance and cruelty. The thunderous bass Dmitry Ulyanov was resplendently vulgar as the sadistic Boris Ismailov; tenor Maxim Paster looked and sounded panic-stricken as his son (and Katerina’s husband) Zinovy. Andrei Popov, a character tenor at the Mariinsky, sang his heart out with tragicomic relish as the Shabby Peasant. 

Mariss Jansons is one of the best Shostakovich interpreters around. The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic was richly detailed, and Jansons highlighted the potpourri of influences (and parodies) with which the young Shostakovich peppered the work. But the climactically perverse moments lacked vigor and savagery. Too often, things just got very loud, and this sarcastic, terrifying and often grotesque score sounded generally harmless.

Certainly, contemporary audiences hear the piece with different ears than Stalin did in 1936, yet a truly great performance of Lady Macbeth—such as Jansons’s 2006 reading in Amsterdam, or Donald Runnicles’s at Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2015—should jolt and discomfit the audience with raw, dangerous energy. The Salzburg performance certainly didn’t convey any of the shock that led the Soviets to condemn and ban Shostakovich’s opera.

The day after the final performance of Lady Macbeth, news broke in Russia about the house arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov, the director of Moscow’s avant-garde Gogol Center, who will be tried on embezzlement charges that his supporters say are politically motivated. Conductor Teodor Currentzis, who led Salzburg’s Clemenza di Tito this season, was one of many artists who issued a strongly worded defense of Serebrennikov. “The future of Russian contemporary art is at stake,” the conductor wrote. It is sad and troubling to realize that the type of artistic intolerance that Shostakovich would recognize still plagues Russia today.

In Review Salzburg aida lg 1117 
Vittoria Yeo and Ekaterina Semenchuk, Aida and Amneris in

© Salzburger Festspiele/Monika Rittershaus

WHILE THE DARK, demanding music of Berg, Shostakovich and Reimann rubbed shoulders on this year’s Salzburg roster, Hinterhäuser also knew he had to give this well-heeled, hard-to-impress audience exactly what it wanted—a high-profile new staging of a blockbuster. And so it went when Anna Netrebko made her role debut as Aidaon the vast stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus in early August, with Riccardo Muti pacing the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg’s first Aidas since 1980. Netrebko sang the first five performances of the run, as scheduled; for the final two Aida performances, the Russian superstar and her Radamès, Francesco Meli, made way for Vittoria Yeo and Yusif Eyvazov (seen Aug. 22). 

Yeo, a thirty-six-year-old South Korean soprano, has a career largely based in Italy, where she seems to be a well-kept secret; she made her Salzburg debut in 2015, as Elvira in a star-studded concert performance of Ernani under Muti’s baton. If Yeo was nervous about filling Netrebko’s shoes, she certainly didn’t show it. From her first note to her last, she sang with poise and grace. Her voice is somewhat slender, but her technique is highly developed, with an easy, somewhat cool upper register and a warm middle range. She grew in dramatic conviction as the evening progressed, and her Act III duet with Amonasro (the gripping Luca Salsi) was a spellbinding study of love and duty under duress.  

In his best moments, Eyvazov (who is Netrebko’s husband) showed off his ringing high notes, his brilliant timbre recalling the young Pavarotti. But otherwise his performance was unpolished; too often, Eyvazov blustered through entrances and recitatives in a hotheaded way that seemed out of place for his noble character. Roberto Tagliavini’s Egyptian King and Dmitry Belosselskiy’s Ramfis sang with considerably greater dignity.  

Ekaterina Semenchuk, an ensemble member at the Mariinsky, was magnificently unhinged as Amneris, her fury a sharply effective contrast to Yeo’s refinement. Benedetta Torre, a twenty-three-year-old Genovese soprano who is a former student of the Riccardo Muti Opera Academy, was also impressive as the High Priestess.    

Shirin Neshat’s production was inert and plodding. This often-provocative Iranian visual artist served up a concoction of rotating white sets, vaguely historical costumes and superfluous video projections. 

Under Muti’s exacting baton, the Vienna Philharmonic sounded richer, better balanced and more in their element than they had for either Lear or Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Vienna State Opera’s concert chorus provided a spine-tingling complement. Throughout the evening, the music throbbed with drama and tension, as if Muti and his musicians had uncovered the beating heart of Verdi’s mighty score. Stripped of sentimentality and artifice, the familiar music felt fresh.     —A. J. Goldmann 

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