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Mozart in jeans

Onstage twists, offstage intrigue at Salzburg Fest

Tuesday, August 07, 2001

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

SALZBURG, Austria -- It's festival time, and, bustling with tourists, this beautiful old city may look much as it always has, but there's no doubt that the times are a-changin'.

Salzburg Festival is arguably the most prestigious of all classical music events. Ticket prices are -- by design -- sky high, but tuxedos and gowns are now in the minority. Jeans and T-shirts may even be spotted among the younger members of the audience. Moreover, although Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born here in 1756, still dominates the repertory -- in spirit, at least -- his two-century-old operas are subjected to irreverently modern interpretations and performed side by side with masterpieces of the century just ended: Janacek's "Jenufa," Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mzensk," Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos." Premieres of 21st-century operas are imminent.

A major change will occur in the festival's administration when artistic director Gerard Mortier, whose innovative ideas have changed the face of Salzburg Festival over the past decade, concedes his position to German composer Peter Ruzicka. The transfer of power has not been a peaceful one. The two men will not speak or appear in public together, and the Mortier faction is quick to predict that Ruzicka -- though a successful composer with advanced musical ideas -- will cater to popular tastes.

To understand the situation, it is necessary to know some history along with a formidable cast of characters. Salzburg is a town of 140,000 that goes back to Roman times. In Mozart's day, it was still an independent state -- not yet annexed to Austria -- and a place that Mozart hated for its provinciality as well as for the actions of a particularly vindictive prince-archbishop. The young composer moved to Vienna as soon as he could get away.

Salzburg's annual summer festival began in 1920. Centered on Mozart, it was dominated from 1956-89 by conductor Herbert von Karajan, whose tastes were traditional and methods autocratic. Since Karajan's death, the artistic director has been the iconoclastic Belgian-born Mortier, who brought adventurous repertory and contemporary theatrical values -- allaying criticism that the festival was mired in the past, but creating dissension and a roster of enemies that Mortier seemed to thrive on. Ruzicka is seen by many as the man of compromise.

Augmenting the picture are two additional strong figures: Helga Rabl-Stadler, a former member of Parliament whose contract as president of the festival has been renewed through 2006; and donor Alberto Vilar, acknowledged in the program as "the most generous patron in the history of the Salzburg Festival." In conversation with a group from the Music Critics Association of North America last week, Rabl-Stadler emphasized stability and continuity; Vilar, however, is a supporter of Mortier and recently withdrew support from San Francisco Opera when Mortier was not chosen as that company's new director. Still another fly in the ointment is right-wing politician Jorg Haider -- whose presence in government could signify less support for the arts -- although Haider's popularity is said to be diminishing.

How this will play out remains to be seen. The 2001 festival, which continues through Aug. 31, is still very much the handiwork of Mortier. This was most obvious in Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" -- updated by Swiss director Christoph Marthaler into a world of miniskirts, jeans and T-shirts, and a rock musician (Jurg Kienberger) who accompanies the recitatives on stage with a synthesizer at his fingertips and a small wooden chair attached to his rump. Count Almaviva (Peter Mattei) dances the tango while attempting to seduce Susanna (Christiane Oelze) in "Crudel, perche finora"; Marcellina (Helene Schneiderman) steals the show when she has the audience clapping in rhythm during her usually omitted last-act aria.

The singing was excellent, regardless of the antics these artists were required to perform -- from Lorenzo Regazzo's virile Figaro to Christine Schafer's prototypical teen-ager Cherubino and Angela Denoke's sexually-charged Countess -- the last suffering from a throat infection but singing with luscious tone until she broke down and lost her high notes at the end of "Dove sono."

This was not a "Figaro" for eternity, but it was eminently engaging, illuminating dimensions we never thought this classic contained.

Unfortunately, conductor Sylvain Cambreling had little command over his instrumentalists (Camerata Salzburg) and even less over his singers in the intricate ensembles. He was deservedly booed (though perhaps some of this was meant for the absent stage director) at the end.

In contrast, amid the mostly traditional staging of Brit Declan Donnelan, Lorin Maazel won maximum musical points with the Vienna Philharmonic in a quite magnificent rendition of Verdi's "Falstaff" -- this despite a cast in which only Bryn Terfel's capital portrayal of the fat knight rose above the mediocre. Ensemble was well-nigh perfect, the orchestral part bringing out every detail, the entire atmosphere one of humor, humanity and joy.

A night earlier, the venerable Vienna orchestra (under Valery Gergiev) sounded taxed and out of sorts in a consistently loud, overwrought production of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth" (which, by the way, has nothing to do with Shakespeare). This tale of infidelity and murder, banned by the Stalinist regime at its premiere in 1932 (in part because of alleged obscenity in a graphic interlude describing offstage sex), has come back into favor among today's big opera houses. Personally, I find the work unconvincing, and Gergiev's pound-you-over-the-head approach pretty hard to take over a four-hour period. The all-Russian cast had big voices in various states of control.

Ultimately most satisfying was Janacek's "Jenufa," with the Czech Philharmonic led by John Eliot Gardiner in the Felsenreitschule. Designer Ferdinand Wogerbauer turned this "riding school theater" into a veritable city in itself, while American Bob Swain directed with realistic simplicity.

Karita Mattila, looking almost too gorgeous for this peasant heroine, poured out sumptuous sounds as if it were the easiest, most natural thing for her, putting her difficult lines to the highest emotional effect. Veteran Hildegard Behrens has almost no tone left in her worn voice, but she has presence enough to take focus as the evil grandmother who murders Jenufa's out-of-wedlock baby. And while the two tenor rivals for Jenufa's affection (Jerry Hadley and David Kuebler) had to scream a bit to get through music just too large for their vocal endowments, each presented a persuasive character that furthered the highly charged drama.

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