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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, August 10, 2000
 Subsidy Slashing Scares Salzburg
SALZBURG SPIRE & FORTRESS--St. Peter's Abbey steeple and medieval fortified castle. Photo: ©Glenn Loney 2000/The Everett Collection.
 Edinburgh Festival Footnote on Austrian Arts Crisis
 Mozart's Three Funny Frogs in "Così"
 Iphigenia & Orestes as Abused Children
 Berlioz' "Trojans" Seen Through a Slit
 All Aboard with Tristan & Isolde!
 Ravishing Gertrude and "Hamlet"
 Williams' "Streetcar" Off the Tracks
 Carl Nielsen's "Saul & David"
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For a selection of Glenn Loney's previous columns, click here.
SALZBURG FESTIVAL 2000:
Subsidy Slashing Scares Salzburg!
In July, at the opening of the Bregenz Festival, local political and artistic leaders were deploring the recent and proposed slashes in subsidies for the arts. They sounded as if Bregenz were being singled out by powers in far distant Vienna.
THE OFFICIAL SALZBURG FESTIVAL LOGO. Photo: ©Glenn Loney 2000/The Everett Collection.
I certainly sympathized with them, for their festival is one of Austria's most successful, both from its artistic achievements and its big success with the general public. It is a major tourist magnet in Austria's western-most state and city.
Now, at the much more heavily subsidized—and internationally famed—Salzburg Festival, the cuts from Vienna are already drawing blood as well. Bregenz this year celebrates its 54th anniversary, while Salzburg's fest is much older, founded in 1926 by Max Reinhardt and colleagues.
But both these remarkable opera, drama, and music festivals are among Austria's Crown Jewels of the performing arts. They may not be perceived that extravagantly in Vienna, for Salzburg, after all, is also far from Vienna, right on the Bavarian border.
MAX REINHARDT SQUARE--Plaque honoring Salzburg Festival founder. Photo: ©Glenn Loney 2000/The Everett Collection.
Apparently, the new federal government coalition in Vienna—which has raised such fears in New York, and in the European Union, with its inclusion of electedrepresentatives of far-right rabble-rousers—is playing the Anti-Arts Card.
Politicians who appeal to a populist working-class voter-base have always found the arts easy to target as elitist entertainments for which the rich should pay themselves. This is an on-going political scam in the United States, where it is easy to dismiss the arts as having no relation to education or to daily life.
Leaving the Kleines Festspielhaus on my first evening in Salzburg, I was given a complimentary copy of Austria's theatre-magazine, Die Bühne [The Stage]—for which I once wrote, decades ago.
PEGASUS TAKES OFF!--Famous Flying Horse in Salzburg's Mirabell Gardens. Photo: ©Glenn Loney 2000/The Everett Collection
To my great surprise—and horror—the subsidy slashes extend to Vienna's greatest cultural monuments as well. The cost-cutting, tax-reducing politicos are not targeting only distant regional theatres.
The world-famous Vienna State Opera and the Burg-Theater are now also at risk. As is the delightful Volksoper, home of great productions of operetta and musicals. These three important and historic theatres are among Vienna's biggest tourist draws.
But drama and opera stagings of the quality shown on the major stages of Vienna, Bregenz, and Salzburg cannot be sustained by box-office sales alone. Unlike the Met, the New York City Opera, the San Francisco Opera, or the Chicago Lyric Opera, Austria's great stages are not privately subsidized by donations from the very rich, who want good seats in return. Or even to have some seats named for them!
The Performing Arts—especially at their highest levels—are like museums, galleries, and libraries. They provide not only rewarding entertainment, but they also make possible what Americans are fond of calling Lifelong Learning.
Years ago, when the great Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, became Intendant of the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre—Dramaten—he naively thought the same. That an evening at the theatre—or an afternoon for school-kids—was just as educational as two hours at the museum or in the local library. Maybe even more so!
Bergman thought theatre-tickets should be as cheap as cinema-seats. Or even free! He soon found out that was a mistake, for many of the public thought a free show probably wasn't very good.
The current funding crisis for the Arts in Austria ought to worry her European Union neighbors as well, for it sets an unfortunate example of political vote-getting gimmicks which will ultimately prove harmful to both culture and country.
Slashing the already pathetic government aid to the arts in America does the same. And it is always an appeal to the lowest-common-denominator, the lowest populist base. As well as an open or implicit attack on Elitism, Secular Humanism, Intellectuals, the Rich, and everyone who thinks he or she is better than we are.
A specific case of Subsidy-Politics has just reared its ugly head in Villach. Near Jörg Haider's power-base in Southern Austria, the Villach Studio-Bühne announced plans to stage the Haider-Monologue, by Elfriede Jelenik , one of Austria's most interesting and satiric playwrights.
Copying Mayor Rudy Giuliani's attempt to cut all funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art—and even throw it and its collections out of the building, onto Eastern Parkway—Haider has cut all government funding for the theatre. Giuliani—who did not see the art show he condemned, on behalf of all New York Catholics—was playing cheap sectarian politics.
Haider, on the other hand, knows very well what to expect. Even without reading the biting satire of Jelinek, reworking his public speeches, he surely should know what to expect from the content and style of his own rants.
But its not only the Arts that are in danger from sudden cost-cutting frenzies. Federal cuts are being made in many areas.
Even oldsters are going to be hard-hit—a voting-base it may not be wise to savage, as there are more of them every day. Retirement age, as in the US, is being pushed upward, and benefits may soon be moving downward.
Meanwhile, back in Vienna, Max Reinhardt's historic Theater in der Josefstadt—long the home of fine productions of great Austrian dramas—is in serious financial trouble. A report suggests turning it into a boulevard-theatre, firing a hundred of its staff, doing plays with two or three characters, and abandoning repertory, playing long runs, Broadway-style, instead.
Years ago, soon after the American director, Tom O'Horgan, had a big success staging Hair and Lenny on Broadway, he was invited to the Wiener Staatsoper to mount Berlioz's epic opera, Les Troyens. It was stunning.
After his weeks of working in one of Vienna's cultural monuments, he told me: "The Vienna State Opera and torturing white horses are Austria's Space Program!"
Will it require more European Union sanctions—or a worldwide outcry—to prevent further damage to Austria's proudest contributions to World Culture?
An Edinburgh Festival Footnote:Österreich Über Alles! The climactic concert of the Edinburgh Festival's rich program of musical offerings was certainly that of the London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO was magisterially conducted by Pierre Boulez, the longtime champion of new composers and new musical experiences.
Formerly chief of the New York Philharmonic, Boulez used to upset traditionalists by suggesting that all opera-houses should be burnt down. This unfortunately has happened to some notable houses—Teatro Fenice in Venice, for example. But the arson was probably not caused by lovers of New Music.
Unfortunately, there are other Brandstifter—or firebugs—at work now. As in the time of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, they want to destroy modern movements in music and art.
The Nazis branded the music of Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg, for example, as "Degenerate Music."
So it was entirely appropriate in a major protest concert in Vienna—on 4 February, when the new ultra-conservative government was sworn in—that both Mahler and Berg were programmed.
For Edinburgh, Pierre Boulez chose the same composers and same works. He included as well the Festival's co-commissioned new work of Olga Neuwirth—who not so incidentally attacked the Austrian government's actions against the arts at a mass-meeting before the Vienna State Opera on 19 February.
Alban Berg's Drei Orchesterstücke, Op. 6, was cutting-edge New Music in its day, but it sounds almost conventional now. That is, compared with Olga Neuwirth's challenging Clinamen/Nodus. Boulez and the LSO gave both works dynamic readings
Even though both Berg and Mahler now belong to the Ages, Mahler's 1906 Symphony No. 6 in A minor still has the power to surprise and astonish. As it certainly did in its own time.
Speaking of surprises, Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth struck a blow for artistic freedom in a passionate speech this past February in front of the Wiener Staatsoper. As she is an uncompromising modernist, she was an obvious local target of neo-fascist politician Jörg Haider's attack on "Weltkatzenmusik."
Reminding many of the cultural judgments of his idol, Adolf Hitler, regarding so-called "Degenerate Music," Haider took the occasion of his 50th birthday in the Austrian Alps to denounce "the caterwaul of world music."
Even the title of Neuwirth's new work, Clinamen/Nodus should be enough to enrage the Minister-President of Austrian Carinthia and Klagenfurt's leading music-critic, Herr Haider. "Clinamen" is Freud's word for "the unforseeable and the momentum of catastrophe." It suggests the modern "unpredictability of the musical process."
"Nodus" is a knot or a knotty problem. In Neuwirth's baffling piece—as noted in the program—it "refers in a figurative sense to a moment of bewilderment in which everything is gridlocked." Haider might have apoplexy just reading the program-notes—even without hearing the puzzling composition:
Nonetheless, in a nominally free country—Austria—Neuwirth should have every right not only to say what she thinks, compose what her inspiration prompts her to, and to hear it performed by the best musicians.
In fact, this new work was jointly commissioned by the LSO, the Cologne Symphony, the Brussels Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, the Vienna Concert House, the Salzburg Festival, the Edinburgh Festival, the Lucerne Music Festival, and Brussels 2000.
Obviously, Olga Neuwirth has a lot of prestigious admirers and defenders! She may need them after Haider's frontal attack on modern music.
After the coalition of the Austrian People's Party—the ÖVP—and Haider's smaller party brought them to power recently, the arts were at the top of the list of government subsidy slashes.
At the mass protest-meeting in front of the Vienna State Opera in February, Neuwirth said in part:
"I'm standing up here as an artist representing a younger generation, and one who has been doubly affronted: there is no longer a Ministry for Women, or a Ministry of Arts. Both of these ministries which were fought for ferociously in the 1970s have been abolished overnight. That probably shows how little these two domains mean to the political ruling class.
"As a composer, can I really protest on my own ground, with music? Be that as it may, where such things happen, I won't be silent. In an era that rejects art and artists, that regards them as useless, as a curiosity, artists do what they must…"
"This is the only kind of reaction that is left to them in moments of crisis, chaos, the abuse of human rights, intolerance, and in uncertain times. Showing that they can thrill, excite, consciously apply principles of expression and construction, create awareness of the creative act: that's the only reactive option artists have."
"For me as a composer, the meaning of music can't be a matter of soothing people and making them compliant by promising a communal spirit that crosses all frontiers. I can't make reality any better than it is.
"I would like my listeners to be people who consciously think things over, who think for themselves, who regard music and art as a whole as a mirror of human searching, of people who want to grasp how things are, to cast off impositions and to leap into the unknown and thus become more open and tolerant towards their surroundings.
"I'm not out to preach to anyone, but I want my music to convey ideas about the pain and tenderness that pervade the world, the obvious ambivalence and sense of human futility that surrounds us. I know art can't change anything, but art can point to things that have become petrified, and make visible the desolate state of society and politics.
"I will not let myself be yodelled out of existence, just because 'the caterwaul of world music' is not welcome…"
In Bayreuth, of all places, I recently read a news item about Jörg Haider's big success with his public, singing a popular folk-song. A CD of his non-degenerate songs will soon be on the market.
No doubt with arm-bands included!
Hans Neuenfels' Unique Vision of Così fan tutte—
Lorenzo & Wolfgang, You Wouldn't Know Your Own ShowIf you are a Conservative in both Politics and the Arts, it would certainly be understandable that you'd want to cut Salzburg Festival subsidies after seeing the new staging of Mozart's Così fan tutte.
If you did not already know Lorenzo Da Ponte's comedic plot of two young officers disguising themselves as exotic foreigners to test the fidelity of their sweethearts, you would not be able to figure it out visually from this production.
Of course, if you understand Italian—especially when sung, though not necessarily by Italian singers—you could follow the real story with all its soaring Mozartian passions and hilarious Da Ponte high-jinx.
Salzburg is an international festival, and super-titles are used on occasion, as with The Rake's Progress. But not for Così. This must mean director Hans Neuenfels believes all the elegant audience either understands Italian or knows the libretto by heart.
I still don't understand spoken Italian all that well, but I do know what's supposed to be going on in Così. And I have to admit that, bizarre as most of Neuenfels' stage-images, side-shows, and symbols were, some of them were brilliant visualizations of sub-textual psychologies and confused emotions.
Some continental Pop Culture symbols, or even conventional European images, have no North American counterparts. So one is occasionally baffled on seeing a costume, character, or action which is clearly supposed to establish Contemporary Relevance for European Union audiences.
In one scene of Neuenfels' new Così, the male chorus were all dressed like great pompous roosters, with immense head-masks. They constantly flopped fistfuls of long limp blades around—a distraction from the actor/singer.
At first, I thought these blades represented swamp-reeds in an Italian barnyard. Then I remembered a production of The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, in which that sex-starved lady produced a limp, wilted saber, an obvious symbol of her lover's erectile failure.
Were the roosters sexually spent? Was that the symbolic intent? Suddenly, I realized all this irritating, distracting motion was nothing more than their wing-feathers fluttering!
The women of the chorus were harder to decipher. They wore long black see-through hoop-skirts. But on their heads were wide flat red disks, dotted with spots. As the German cliché-image for a mushroom is a red cap with white dots, I wondered if they represented deadly mushrooms—which might finish off the roosters.
But their hats also looked like enormous Poisoned Pizzas!
On their first appearance, the men of the chorus were dressed like soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars. They opened their tunics to reveal bloody, shattered guts, thus illustrating the Horrors of War. The chorus-women—ostensibly their wives—were already dressed as black-veiled widows, with the black hoop-skirts also seen later on.
When the men exposed their bloody innards, the widows raised their veils to reveal death's heads. War really is destructive and dealy, but that's not exactly what Da Ponte was satirizing in this comic opera.
Near the close, when a fake wedding is to take place, the chorus turned up in ragged clothes with shabby suitcases. They looked like a Brechtian Alienation Effect: like the cast of Saint Joan of the Stockyards. Or the Dregs of Eastern Europe.
Each offered the wedding couples a spoon, fork, or knife. Then they all stood there with their mouths and suitcases hanging open.
Before I get any deeper into my own Catalogue-Aria—that's from Don Giovanni, of course—of visual astonishments, I must praise the singers. And the resourceful conductor, Lothar Zagrosek, who had to sustain the principals, maintain a strong musical line, celebrate the magnificent vocal set-pieces, and allow for all the side-shows, without slackening the pace or losing focus entirely.
Karita Mattila was a radiant—and wonderfully comic—Fiordiligi. Her arias are challenging enough, without all the hilarious or simply mysterious by-play. Vesselina Kasarova was a beautiful match for her as Dorabella.
In fact, all the principals were outstanding vocally and as farceurs or tragi-comic dupes. I admired both the voice and comic talents of Maria Bayo as Despina, but a colleague sighed: "She's not really a soubrette, you know."
Rainer Trost was a frantic Ferrando, and Simon Keenlyside was a frustrated Guglielmo. In a silent panto during the overture, it was difficult to tell who was who, however.
All four of the lovers appeared alike, in white masks, white space-cadet suits, and white corsets. This Unisex Image—of interchangeable, almost look-alike lovers—was the inspiration of set & costume designer Reinhard von der Thannen.
After performing as dancing cadets, the two men appeared upstage in an inner proscenium, divided into two glowing white boxes. Each of these had angled walls of blue & white kitchen tiles. Each man was frying something in a pan. In addition to the corsets—which they wore throughout, as did the women—they wore pretty flowered aprons.
Above each box was a number: 1 and 2. In between was the number 13, which obviously stood for Don Alfonso—Franz Hawlata—who proves so unlucky for the lovers.
At the close, many tables were rushed on stage for the mock-wedding. Only one had 13 on it—the Don's table, of course. All the others had little stands with 1 or 2 on them. So you see, even the smallest visual comment can return to haunt you!
When the Don got the boys to step out of the boxes and take off their aprons, each took down a bird-cage from his kitchen. I thought perhaps I was in the wrong opera-staging—and that they were twin Papagenos.
They let the birds out to fly free, but both were already dead. This surely meant something. That caged birds don't sing? But they do! Not if they're dead, of course.
Suddenly a life-sized golden bird—with a sexy female body, in a golden see-through hoop-skirt—appeared in the boxes to introduce the two girls. She appeared again only near the close, and I cannot imagine what she represented. Or why she was there at all. Still, she was a beautiful image.
When the girls were first alone, discussing the quality of their love—and of their lovers—their marvelous duet was entirely, literally, and figuratively upstaged by a giant golden picture-frame.
As they sang about love and passion, a gawky young man and a lovely young woman walked beside a greenery-shrouded brook on the large cinema-screen behind them.
These two silent lovers gazed pensively at each other. They sat down to eat. They each donned a top hat.
The young man cut an apple with a knife. It was suddenly crawling with worms. Not earthworms, not maggots, but those worms people eat on TV and in Horror Shows. Don't ask!
The last shot of this nostalgic home-video showed the lovers, head-to-head, with a trickle of blood coming from each mouth. This seemed to disturb Fiordiligi and Dorabella, as well it might.
Either they were thinking about the possible tragic outcome of True Love. Or they were wishing they were in a different production: One in which they didn't have to compete with a completely irrelevant video.
This multi-media enrichment never returned for the rest of the evening. And when it was concluded, a huge golden section was removed from the bottom of the frame to permit the boys to enter.
They were still wearing their corsets, but now they were also dressed in muscle-molded white plastic torso-armor, studded with long-stemmed roses. Each gave one perfect rose to his beloved. So the girls each gave her inamorato an arrow, which the boys stuck into a hole in their respective breast-plates.
This encounter was briefly lit by live torches, held by black-clothed jesters—wearing those funny medieval caps with long floppy horns. Don Alfonso dismissed them before we had a chance to distinguish them clearly in the dim light.
Considering the economy which Da Ponte and Mozart worked out the cast for this anti-feminist spoof—five principals and small chorus—Neuenfels seemed determined to give work to many more players. To say nothing of the extra costumes and props!
When Despina was ready to serve chocolate to the girls, they were rolled in on white lounge-recliners. A blackboard was also wheeled on, so Despina could lecture them about men.
Although there were no German supertitles for the Itaslian libretto, the quote written on the blackboard—attributed to Da Ponte himself—was in German! Why not in Italian, like everything else?
It would surely have sounded more eloquent. Exact translation: "Women must know where the Devil's dick is." As Da Ponte ended up teaching Italian in New York City at Columbia College, it's good the Dean never found out about his pornographic bent. Mayor Giuliani would have fired him in an instant.
There was briefly a kind of super-title, but it was in German, not Italian. It precipitated the mock marriage at the close of the opera. It was a big blue neon sign which read: GET MARRIED!
At one point, I thought the girls had strayed into Klingsor's Magic Garden. The black-box main-stage and the upstage inner proscenium were overflowing with giant flowers. Malignant blooms which made Audrey, in Little Shop of Horrors, look like the tamest of house-plants.
Some of the most ominous flowers were obviously carniverous vaginal blooms. Meat-eating vaginas don't need any explanation, but you don't really find anything like this in Mozart's score.
Two immense Venus Flytraps, hanging down from vines, looked more like giant used condoms. Neuenfels and Von der Thannen obviously have their own visual agenda, and they seem to have found sexual sub-texts Da Ponte may have only had wet dreams about.
The main-stage had rounded Art Deco corners and accepted shadowy projections, as well as reflecting the shadows of players, moving on a central disk. The disk could be elevated. As it rose, it disclosed two immense insects trapped in amber in a geometric radial grid, suggestive of a spider-web. Symbolism to spare!
We never got to see the boys disguised as Turks, Albanians, or what-have-you. When they first appeared as the handsome, romantic foreigners, they entered in their customary costumes, each carrying a Lucite box in front of his face. On the front panel of each box was an extravagant moustache. To signify their alien disguises…
These moustache-boxes appeared again only at the end, when the boys explained their deception to the girls. Otherwise, all four looked the same throughout, with an extra coat or a smock here and there.
If you hadn't read the synopsis before—or didn't know the plot—you'd be absolutely baffled about the girls' switch of partners, as reported in their arias and duets.
When the boys—supposedly in disguise—faked death by poison, to make the girls fall in love with their new identities, Despina revived them, not with a giant magnet, but with what looked like a large industrial vacuum-cleaner, with two hoses and pipes.
Despina wore a smart three-piece suit throughout. She didn't have to assume male disguise for her mock-doctor or lawyer; she was already in it. She does don a smock for Doc and a gown for the notary. As a singer, she also didn't have to do funny voices for these impersonations. Her visual comedy and her interpretation were quite enough.
A young boy was constantly rushing in and out with scores of props of all kinds. Don Alfonso—who looked like a seedy Italian dealer in stolen goods—cuffed him now and then.
There were a number of silent players who upstaged the singers with actions that distracted and did nothing to illuminate the sung texts. Sometimes, they did highlight sub-texts in hilarious or cruel ways.
In one scene, a blind man was abused and robbed by Suits with attaché-cases. Fiordiligi then took his dark glasses and put them on. Did that mean she now understood how blind she has been about love? Whatever…
At one point, three huge frogs performed a semi-dance and scattered leaves just behind the reclining girls. When this peculiar diversion—and the real scene—were over, one of the frogs returned in the next scene in a half-light to pick up all the leaves they dropped.
SERENADING THE LOVELY LADIES--First there were The Three Tenors: Now, at the Salzburg Festival, they have Three Funny Frogs in Mozart's "Così." Photo: ©Matthias Horn/Salzburg Festival 2000.
Yes, well… Then there were the two white-winged angels in white silk trunks, red Keds, and red boxing-gloves. Don't ask!
At another point, Fiordiligi entered with two jackals straining at their leashes. When they came closer, they looked more like Pig-Dogs. They were wearing SM harnesses, and they were obviously man-eaters.
Later, the boys were frying foods again. They put bratwurst on their plates, but the dogs sat down to eat. Wisely, the boys had put poison on the food, so the dogs died downstage in horrible agonies. Such innovations in a production of a Mozart opera make Peter Sellars' wildest flights of imagist fantasy seem as tame as MGM's Wizard of Oz.
This is a fascinating, if frustrating, production. But it is really unfortunate that all the visual enhancements—some stunning, some provocative—really distract and detract from marvelous sung performances. Both the girls and the boys are passionate in arias and duets—which can hardly be savored with all the circus going on around them.
It's even more remarkable how good they are in their major set-pieces, considering how much effort they have to expend on the various actions they are required to perform in the side-shows.
Would it be such a terribly old-fashioned idea to have a brand new production of Così, set in the period of its composition, to give wonderful young actor-singers the opportunity to create the characters and their conflicting emotions with truth and power? Relying only on the genius of Mozart's score and the ingenious stage-craft of Da Ponte. Without having to update the opera to the Civil War? Or playing it in a Wal-Mart?
Iphigenia & Orestes, the Abused Children!
Gluck in Luck with Guth's Modernist Vision
I'M RIGHT BEHIND YOU!--Iphigenia and her Alter-Ego in Salzburg's "Iphigénia en Tauride." Photo: ©Monika Rittershaus/Salzburg Festival 2000.
Classic & Neo-Classic Intersect
With Bread & Puppet Theatre and Grand Guignol In Chevalier Gluck's 1774 reworking of the ancient Greek myth of the Curse of the House of Atreus, the music-theatre had one of the first Psychodramas ever. Although no one at that time would have recognized the name or the concept. They also had no concept of music-theatre either.
The new and very impressive Salzburg Festival production of Iphigénie en Tauride ought to be widely seen on major opera stages. Not only because of its remarkable cast, but also because of its elegantly simple staging and design.
Instead of being crammed with ingenious images and clever, contorted physical actions for their own sakes—or to draw unmerited attention to both director & designer—almost everything seen on stage in the new mounting of this historic opera is true to the deeper meanings of the libretto and certainly to Gluck's powerful score.
That is no small achievement these days, especially on Central European opera stages.
At a Conversation with Thomas Hampson—sponsored by the American Friends of Salzburg—this very intelligent and engaging artist, who interprets Orestes, admitted that there were some symbolic elements in the production that weren't entirely clear to him. His suggestions about their possible meaning, however, proved to be quite sound once I viewed the production.
It was also clear—as he noted in the Conversation—that he, Susan Graham [Iphigenia], Paul Groves [Pylades], and Philippe Rouillon [King Thoas] were entirely in accord with the thrust of the production, not fighting it to keep their own integrity as artists and interpreters.
Director Claus Guth, in his elegant, almost ritualistic staging, obviously wanted to give his principals the freedom to create the characters from inside, inspired by both the poetic text and the soaring music.
With a brief aside about his enjoyment of the three jumping frogs in the new Salzburg Così production, Hampson suggested that there was not much in that staging that related to Da Ponte's libretto or to Mozart's score. So, he said, he tries to avoid directors—and potential productions—which work against the operas.
What Hampson creates on the opera stage comes from deep inside—not only physically, but also emotionally and intellectually.
All four of the artists central to this production were superb in that regard. They were strongly assisted by conductor Ivor Bolton, with the Mozarteum Orchestra in the pit of the improvised stage. This was set up in the courtyard of the Salzburg Prince-Archbishops' Residenz palace.
Susan Graham can be magisterial, but as Iphigenia she was more than that. As the High Priestess of Diana, she was clearly conscious of the significance of her office, but, at the same time, she was severely troubled by memories of the horror of her father's deceit, betrayal, and attempted ritual murder of his daughter.
Nor did she relish her role in Tauris, where she is required to kill every stranger who lands on its shores. Her arias were, as a result, both thrilling and chilling, suffused with deeply felt emotions.
Hampson, himself a noble figure and a handsome man, makes a good match—and brother—for Graham's Iphigenia. His pure, rich baritone, throbbing with strong emotions, made Orestes' agonies all the more affecting.
The occasional intuitions that each reminds the other of a dead mother or a brother were wonderfully suggested. They were revealed in a searching study of the other's face, or a brief and potent pause—acting, not just singing.
The major source of dramatic suspense, of course, is: Will she actually sacrifice her own brother, not knowing who he really is? This delay in mutual recognition is also one of the dramatic powers of those various plays which deal with the reunion of Orestes and his sister, Electra.
Paul Groves was stalwart and pugnacious in his defense of his friend, Orestes. And unafraid of the blood-thirsty Scythians. Both Orestes and Pylades, after their capture, looked like ordinary workers, in black trousers and white shirt-sleeves.
So Groves' muscular, defiant performance added to the dramatic tensions. Not only was he more than willing to die in place of Orestes as Diana's ordained sacrifice, but he finally freed them all from the tyranny of mad Thoas by stabbing the king.
The irony in the libretto and Gluck's music is that Orestes has reached that point of utter hopelessness—pursued by the relentless Furies, and bereft of family—that he is more than willing to die. He thinks he deserves death—he has earned it!
Philippe Rouillon—a mainstay of the Bregenz Festival, with outstanding interpretations in Le Roi Arthus, Francesca da Rimini, and La Damnation de Faust, among other operas—was brilliantly wild and distracted as King Thoas. But the director did not ask him to do all that much physically to show it. Gluck's arias do that for him. But at one point, he did hide under Iphigenia's bed.
A Modern Vision—But Not Modernist
Without dressing the cast and chorus in Greek gowns and chitons—or decking them out in 18th century baroque versions of classic costumes—set & costume-designer Christian Schmidt has been able to update the opera's "period" visually without being untrue to the spirit of the work.
A classic Greek setting and costumes—not to mention baroque—now has the quality of a Brechtian Alienation Effect. Such remote periods of style must necessarily have a distancing effect for contemporary audiences: It all happened long ago, in a place not like this one, to heroic figures who are not at all like us.
Director Claus Guth and his designer have chosen a chastely restrained 19th century look, to bring the characters and their passions closer to modern spectators. Without suggesting that Iphigenia is making human ritual sacrifices either at Wal-Mart or the First Methodist Church.
Considering the bizarrely updated sets, costumes, and stage-action currently on view in other Salzburg stagings—as well as at the Munich and Bayreuth Festivals—this is a model of a Werk-Treu modernization.
Guth has staged with psychological insight and resourceful respect for both the eloquently spare libretto and the strikingly simple score.
Christoph Willibald Gluck's great reform of 18th century opera—influenced by the Enlightenment—was to strip away all the vocal ornamentation and orchestral flourishes which previously prevented both singers and audiences from connecting on a human level with human passions.
Mythical Backgrounder—The Happy Family Is a Myth!
Discounting Adam & Eve and their problem-child, Cain, the Atride couple of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra, with their children—Iphigenia, Orestes, Electra, and Chrysthosemis—must surely be the first and most famous of Dysfunctional Families.
They are so famous, in fact, that there are now literally scores of plays, operas, and even ballets, all offering various versions of the ancient myth of the sacrificial killing, royal murder, and matricidal revenge in the House of Atreus.
In Homer's Iliad, the Greek fleet is on its way to retrieve the stolen wife of King Menelaus [now known as Helen of Troy] and punish the Trojans for her theft. But the ships have been endlessly becalmed in harbor in Aulis and cannot sail to Troy.
The wily priest Calchas [a Trojan renegade] tells the Greek leader, King Agamemnon, that no winds will fill the Greek sails until he makes a ritual sacrifice of his beloved eldest daughter, Iphigenia.
Of course he hates to do this, but he has to think of The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number. So he sends a message to his wife, Clytemnestra, that the great hero Achilles wants to marry their daughter. She should immediately bring Iphigenia north for the wedding.
In this ancient epic, when the young girl arrives, she is ritually sacrificed on the altar, and the ships are ready to sail. When the war is won, and all of Troy is burned to the ground, its men and boys murdered, and its women enslaved, Agamemnon returns home, expecting a hero's welcome.
The still grieving and vengeful Clytemnestra traps him inside the royal palace and hacks him to bloody death. Iphigenia's sister, Electra, fearing further violence from their mother—who has taken a lover and put him on the throne beside her—sends the rightful heir to the crown, her very young brother, Orestes, away to save his life.
In young maturity, he returns and kills his mother and her paramour. The vengeful and horrifying Furies pursue him for this matricide—even though he was honor-bound to do it, to avenge his father's murder.
To view all these children as victims of Child-Abuse is putting matters mildly. They need clinical help—especially Orestes.
He has tried to escape the Furies by fleeing with his devoted friend, Pylades, to the savage barbarian Kingdom of the Scythians. Unfortunately, this is not a Tourist Destination. And neither of the young men has a visa.
All foreigners are put to death. King Thoas, a paranoid ruler in the classic mold, is terrified some alien will kill him and take his throne.
Unlike the Mikado, he has no Lord High Executioner. Instead, the High Priestess of the Goddess Diana—whose most sacred cult-image is here in Tauris—performs the ritual human sacrifices.
This powerful woman is none other than Orestes' sister, Iphigenia.
Everyone believes she was ritually killed by her own father in Aulis. But Diana magically replaced Iphigenia with a deer sacred to her cult.
And no one could perceive the switch, as the sails were filling with wind, and all the Greeks could hardly wait to get to Troy and become heroes by slaughtering Trojans.
To get free of the Furies, Orestes has been told he must retrieve Diana's sacred image from Tauris and bring it to Athens. The Scythians in Tauris, of course, guard it jealously.
The Gluckian Version of the Myth—
Gluck's opera opens with Iphigenia having a terrible dream in which she sees her mother killing her father. She really has no knowledge of anything that has transpired, other than that her sister, Electra, is still alive in Mykene.
But she does have a foreboding from the dream that something more terrible is about to happen. She doesn't know she will have to kill her own brother—without even knowing it is he.
Gluck and his librettist do not decorate this simple, powerful story with any flourishes or extraneous decorations. It would still have tremendous dramatic impact—through the musical expression of the profoundest of emotions—even if it were only performed in concert.
As with most modern German directors, Claus Guth is trendy enough to want to make a distinctive mark on his production of Iphigénie. Unlike many, however, his new vision is Work-True. It doesn't undermine the score—or the singers.
And it has the distinct advantage of illuminating both the libretto and the music visually in a surprising new way that deepens meanings. While also making them clearer for modern audiences who may not know the Iliad. Not to mention those who do—and still simply cannot understand all these murders.
The Family That Slays Together Stays Together—
In the Salzburg staging of Iphigénie, Diana's priestess is having her nightmare in what looks very much like a hospital bed. This prop suggests she may be having a short stay at a clinic.
Michael Bauer's fiercely bright pure white light on the set makes the entire production look somewhat clinical. Colored light has no place here—except at the close, with a huge transparency of roiling waves and a sunset, into which the long-suffering Greeks will set forth.
To make her dream visible to the audience, Guth and Schmidt have borrowed both the techniques of the Bread & Puppet Theatre and the now extinct Parisian Théâtre du Grand Guignol. The Guignol used to show the most ghastly murders and tortures on stage, in full view of the audience, who came only to see such horrors, not to enjoy a good play.
Four cursed members of the House of Atreus appear in this production as mute puppets—giant heads on actors' bodies. This seems a direct borrowing from Peter Schumann's Bread & Puppet Theatre, which is now having an extended run at Expo 2000 in Hannover.
Only two of these puppet-characters are actually in Gluck's opera.
Iphigenia makes her entrance—moving like a zombie toward the white metal bed, stage-center—wearing one of the giant heads. On the bed, she breaks open the head to reveal her own troubled face.
Advancing toward the bed from the opposite side of the stage is the puppet-head figure of her father, King Agamemnon. On the bed, he stabs her in the heart.
Her large entourage of white-clad priestesses—with impassive upper-face masks—in this moment also receive stab-wounds over their hearts. All the women, as Iphigenia, are clad in long white Victorian dresses—high necks, long sleeves, severely styled enough for Shaker women.
Instead of the ballets so loved by Gluck's Paris audiences, Helga Letonja has devised stylized movements for the women's and men's choruses which actually heighten the power of the emotions generated by the principals.
Both Iphigenia and Orestes have their puppet-doubles. Clearly, Guth intends these as alter-egos, for they pantomime emotions and intended actions which are only thought about—not carried out—by the siblings.
It would be more exact to call these strange, sometimes menacing figures Ids, rather than alter-egos, for they seem to call up deep elemental passions beyond reason or imagination.
In Iphigenia's dream and fantasy, however, she sees the Agamemnon puppet killed—stabbed in the heart—by the Clytemnestra puppet. Who, in turn, is stabbed through the heart by the Orestes puppet.
In the action of the music-drama, Orestes' puppet-double has a bloodied right hand—a symbol of his matricide. Later, an immense bloody hand is paraded upstage on the inner-stage, held high on poles.
There is also an upstage parade of child-sized royal puppets. It recalls Shakespeare's Masque of Kings in Macbeth. Each puppet-figure is dragging a lifeless puppet of itself—Orestes' doll-self is also stabbed through the heart, like his sister, father, and mother.
This never happens, of course: not in the myth, nor in Gluck's opera. But it represents the later horror that Iphigenia will be forced to stab Orestes in the sacred sacrificial ritual.
The Last Supper in the House of Atreus—
In the first of this production's two sections—while Iphigenia is still reliving the horror of the family murders—a long table with linen cloth and four gold chairs appears as the red brocaded walls slide open upstage.
This moves silently down center-stage, where the Atride Family slowly advances from the sides and upstage to take their seats at the dinner-table. They nod respectfully to each other.
Then, King Agamemnon rises to stab Iphigenia in the heart. Clytemnestra then leans over Agamemnon and stabs him. Then Orestes stabs her.
This pantomime repeats itself two more times, each time faster. This eloquently takes the place of a ballet.
To break the spell of this memory, Iphigenia rallies her priestesses to gather real driftwood at the front of the stage—representing the sea-coast of Tauris—where Orestes and Pylades will shortly be cast ashore.
The women pile these dead limbs on the dead puppets and around the table for a funeral pyre. From inside the clothed table comes a bright white light.
As Clear as Black & White—
The chorus of Scythian men are not garbed as savages, or even as warriors. Instead, in contrast to the white-clad chorus of Diana's votaries and priestesses, they are all in formal black, with long tail-coats.
At one point, they sport bloody handkerchiefs, followed by elegantly pulling on white gloves in unison.
In another formation, in line across the red brocaded back-wall, they deftly cross their left legs over their rigid right legs again and again—a kind of ballet-in-place.
But they live, even in this soup-and-fish court-dress, under a King who is not only paranoid, but who behaves like a madman.
In the second section, where it is now clear that Iphigenia must kill both of the male strangers, she and all her women are now in black dresses, copies of the white gowns in the first section. Their sense of foreboding and mourning—even before the ordained deaths—is made as strong visually as it is in the music and text.
Iphigenia dares to violate sacred custom by ordaining that only one of the men shall die. Both are eager to die for the other dearest friend. Whoever chooses to go free, however, must take a letter to Electra.
Onstage, it appears as a very large envelope, bearing Electra's name, but not her street address. When Orestes is given it, it's odd that he doesn't make a connection between Diana's High Priestess and his sister Electra. Who else would be writing home to Mykene?
When Orestes and Iphigenia finally recognize each other—as she is about to drive the dagger into his heart—his puppet alter-ego falls dead on the other side of the great tree trunk against which he was fixed. Orestes is thus seen to be free of his past and the curse of Atreus.
A masterfully sung and played production. If this cannot be widely shown live—all the principals have very full performance schedules for the next several years—it certainly should be made available in video.
Iphigenia Had To Die on the Altar—
So Hector Berlioz Could Create Les Troyens
Unlike most of the innovative Central European stage-geniuses, no one can accuse director-designer Herbert Wernike of asking his singers to use up their energy in a lot of frenetic stage-activity.
YOU EXPECT ME TO ROW TO CARTHAGE?--Tense moment in Herbert Wernicke's Salzburg staging of Berlioz' "Les Troyens." Photo: ©David Baltzer/Salzburg Festival 2000.
Wernike disdains this self-referential movement, which calls attention to itself while it distracts and detracts from what the characters are actually singing and—with any luck—feeling. In some of his most celebrated productions, his principals often do not move much, leaving any massive surges of movement about the stage to the chorus.
That is certainly the case with his new Salzburg production of Hector Berlioz' Les Troyens, in which major figures—most of them majestic to begin with—stand statuesquely or move slowly with great grace and deliberation. No strain is put on the quality of their voice-production by excessive stage-movement.
Every Wernike opera production I have seen—until Les Troyens—has been an amazing experience, a new discovery of an often too-familiar classic. His Elektra in Munich was, for example, a stunning vision: An immense stage-filling red door, pivoting, not on its side, but on diagonal points, to reveal a solitary but very grand high staircase as the Palace of Clytemnestra.
It is right to refer to Wernike's various opera achievements as productions, rather than stagings, because he does it all—except the singing, dancing, and conducting. As director, he is also his own set, costume, and lighting designer. So he has no one to blame but himself if a new staging miscarries.
Either Wernike has run out of powerful visual ideas for opera-stagings, or the new Troyens is another victim of arts subsidy-cuts from Vienna. It was obviously not cheap to mount, but it looks like cost-cutting production-economies just the same.
Other Wernike productions for Salzburg—not to mention his stunning stagings in Munich—have been distinguished by highly original and wonderfully symbolic visual concepts, like his Boris and his Rosenkavalier. With inventive new uses of established theatre-technologies and unusual technical innovations.
But for Les Troyens, however, he has provided only one basic set for all the varied scenes, both in Troy and in Carthage. Not only is it visually over-exposed—boring, even—after three or four scenes, but it is also so glaringly white that some spectators go snow-blind in 30 minutes.
The Grosses Festspielhaus stage that Wernike has to fill is extremely wide. That of course doesn't prevent a designer from inserting smaller sets—or set-props—for scenic variety inside a larger stage environment.
But he doesn't do this for Les Troyens, and it looks like he's either trying to save the festival some money. Or he cannot think of a more interesting way to visualize Berlioz' epic opera. Can this ingenious director-designer be losing it?
The stage-milieu is an enormous empty half-cylinder. The stage-floor is a dead white semi-circle, with a jagged crack running from downstage right on a diagonal toward upstage left. This divides the stage into two uneven sections.
Both these sections can be lowered—not at the same time—to create two acting levels. Or to suggest a dangerous chasm. They move with hydraulic pistons.
The walls of the inside of this empty cylinder are of rough-cast plaster—which defracts some of the intense whiteness of the stage-light. But not enough, so the surface rapidly becomes very difficult to look at. And, as the main characters are frequently leaning against it, or moving slowly along its curvature, it isn't possible to look away very often.
It also presents an unexpected problem for voices. Although it suggests the famous permanent plaster cyclorama—developed in Germany between the wars—and should therefore help to blend orchestral sound and singers' voices, instead it creates some spots on the stage where a singer suddenly sounds too loud, in relation to other voices. At other points, near the downstage sides, some of the minor characters even seemed hushed.
More frustrating is Wernike's "cute" idea for scenic differentiation. Upstage, at the center of the cylinder—which rises high in the flies, beyond audience view—there is a narrow vertical gash or slit in the brickwork underneath the plaster.
This works well enough to suggest the breach in the Walls of Troy, which the foolish Trojans made themselves. They fatally damaged their own defenses to bring in that immense Wooden Horse the Greeks left behind, when they [seemingly] sailed away.
But the rupture is already there in the Wall before the Trojans discover the Horse. And it remains there all through the production—even in Carthage, where it makes no symbolic or literal sense at all.
Its "cuteness" resides in the fact that Wernike can show part of a set-prop, or suggest a new locale, by revealing only a hint of the new object or place. At the opening—with the Siege of Troy apparently broken—what looks like a giant exploded trigger-mechanism slants across the gash.
Wernicke did not choose this device merely—or entirely—to cut costs. He obviously likes the effect itself.
He could have saved some money, for instance, by only showing the Trojan Horse's head in the narrow gash. The spectators would have instantly understood what the object was supposed to be: Who has not heard of the Trojan Horse?
Or: "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!" Temeo Grecos et donae ferentes—or something like that…
When the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, revived Berlioz' reviled, neglected, forgotten masterpiece in 1964, Nicholas Georgiades designed four towering wooden legs—which disappeared up into the flies. The audience didn't need to see the rest of the hardwood stallion.
But Wernike has had the Salzburg shops construct an entire giant Wooden Horse, which couldn't have been cheap.
But it is not brought on stage and is only seen, a little bit at a time, as it passes behind the gash upstage. Without seeing the head pass by, dozing spectators might well be baffled on seeing only the tail of the beast.
The Trojan Temple where Cassandra and the noble women of Troy commit suicide—rather than become the whores and slaves of the conquering Greek soldiers—is simply suggested with one immense fluted Doric column, which fills the gash.
When Troy is destroyed, it falls out of sight, to permit a section of flaming city walls also to sink from sight in the gash.
When Aeneas and his men reach Carthage, the gash reveals endlessly rolling long cylinders—in the fashion of the baroque theatre—which suggest ocean waves. A clever visual quote from theatre-history, but only for a moment.
These prop waves soon become tiresome to watch, as they never stop rolling throughout the entire Carthaginian second half of the opera. No matter what is going on downstage. Unless Wernike hits them with brilliant white light—when they suddenly appear silver—they suggest that the Mediterranean Sea was already a greasy gray mass of pollution several thousand years ago.
Moving the Masses—Onstage and in the Audience—
Berlioz was a genius in composing for choruses, and in this, his masterwork, the male and female choruses have major mass-roles, as the people and army of Troy and of Carthage. These talented vocal forces are provided by the Vienna State Opera chorus and that of the Slovakian Philharmonic.
But, as with the principals and minor characters, they all have to get on and off stage through that confining gash. In physics—Bernouli's Law, or something like that—liquids flow faster through constrictions in their conduits. Not so on stage.
It's good that Berlioz has provided enough orchestral ambiance to permit the choruses push their way through the gash, without running out of music. But that is another problem with Wernike's unified scenic solution.
The Trojans wear long black coats over uniforms—much like Soviet soldiers—or long black gowns for the women. They make an undistinguished mass on stage, unless they are ranked around the circumference of the cylinder.
Everyone, however, wears red gloves. Red on the hands—a symbol of their bloody siege, perhaps?—is the only important color accent. Can this be another "cute" idea?
Caught "red-handed," the Trojans warriors are fighting a losing battle with the Greeks, even though they are equipped with automatic rifles and sub-machine guns. So this is a clear updating from the epics of Homer and Vergil. Only Aeneas' son, Ascanio/Ascagne, is outfitted with a legendary bow. This because he was sometimes seen as a symbol of Cupid.
In Carthage, "on the other hand," everyone wears long electric-blue gloves. The Carthaginian's costumes look rather like 1930s Smart Set Parisian fashions. Could this be a concealed salute to the House of Dior?
It's just an idea, but the production was mounted with a generous subsidy from Pierre Bergé, who manages the Yves St. Laurent fashion empire. Didn't Yves begin with Dior, after all?
As with the Trojans, the Carthaginians' costumes are all completely black. Celebrating their prosperity and saluting their queen, these stylish socialites could be at pre-war Manhattan cocktail party. Before World War II, that is.
But they may already be in symbolic mourning for their beloved Queen Dido, who will commit suicide when Aeneas/Énée leaves her, as he must, to found Rome.
It's interesting that Pierre Bergé's financial support was given as an "Hommage à Gerard Mortier," who is the Artistic Director of the Salzburg Festival. Is he thanking Mortier—whose tenure is coming to an end—for his support of French musical culture? Or especially for reviving interest in Les Troyens?
Because Paris—or at least its past music-critics and opera-directors—have so long neglected or mistreated this epic work of Berlioz, this Salzburg production may be the corner-stone of an entirely new, though posthumous, career for the composer and his noble opera in the City of Light and in France.
That is also suggested by the fact that the pit-orchestra—for the first time at the Salzburg Festival—was the admired Orchestre de Paris, conducted with great delicacy and attention to detail by the also admired French man of music, Sylvain Cambreling.
It shouldn't be difficult to reassemble the Salzburg cast, but the production will falter without its unquestioned star, Deborah Polaski. She is affecting and commanding—but quite different—in both major female roles, Cassandra and Dido.
There are American opera-buffs who sniff at the mention of her name. But I have been privileged, not only to interview her, but to follow her career since her Bayreuth debut as Brünnhilde. Since then, she has steadily grown and matured as a singer and an actress.
Berlioz always wanted the rather different roles of Cassandra/Cassandre and Dido/Didon performed by the same singer. They are noble women, in rather different situations, but both lose the man they love, and both commit suicide, rather than face certain disaster. The disbelieved prophetess, Cassandra—that was Apollo's gift and curse for refusing his attentions: that she would see the future, but no one would believe her—knows death is preferable to what will befall all the Trojan women.
Dido is consumed by an ecstasy of grief, rage, and loss, abandoned by Aeneas. But she also prophesies the founding and pre-eminence of Rome. And the total destruction that it will bring to Carthage.
She, like Cassandra, would also rather die. She does, however, foresee an African avenger on Rome: Hannibal!
There are a number of parallels—just as there are contrasts—between Troy and Carthage. And Berlioz structured them into his libretto and score.
Troy, of course, is in the process of destruction and total oblivion. But Aeneas is able to flee with his father and his son, with a divine mandate to found a new and greater city in Italy: Rome.
Queen Dido and her loyal people have also had to flee—somewhat like the Trojans—from an oppressive tyrant in their homeland of Tyre. She has already founded a new and great city, as Aeneas will soon do himself.
And then, completing the cycle, Carthage will be destroyed by Rome. And its ruins will be sewn with salt so that nothing will ever grow in that soil again.
on Villars was a stalwart Aeneas, properly heroic and vocally powerful. As Aeneas, his greatest longing is to die the foretold hero's death in Italy, not to be a great lover.
Berlioz was a lifelong student and admirer of the great latin poet Vergil and of his epic Aeneid. So his characterization of the Trojan hero—Berlioz created his own libretto—was certainly deeply influenced by Vergil's opening salute: "Arms and the Man I sing!"
Still, the great love which bursts into metaphoric flame after the Royal Hunt and Storm could have been represented in more convincing ways. For that famous music, by the way, the gash was filled with tree-trunks, to suggest the forest of the hunt.
In Queen Dido's palace—with Wernicke's ocean continually churning upstage in the gash—opulence was suggested with huge royal blue pillows bordered with gold fringe. An immense Moorish lamp overhead, pierced with scores of patterned holes, cast interesting patterns on the white cylinder walls.
Lounging on the huge pillows—almost engulfed by them—Dido and Aeneas seemed on the verge of dozing, having had rather too much to drink. Dido's sister Anna also looked unfit to drive.
The Great :Lovers were drunken perhaps, but they certainly didn't have a drunken orgy on the plump pillows. The expression of their great love is in the words and music, to which they did vocal justice. But something was lacking visually to suggest the dynamism of the amorous chemistry Berlioz envisioned.
Other impressive voices—Wernicke didn't require much in the way of persuasive acting—were Yvone Naef as Anna, Robert Lloyd as Narbal, and Toby Spence as Hylas, the home-sick sailor.
Gaële Le Roi was interesting as Aeneas' son, Ascagne, the future hope of the Trojan line in Italy. But Wernicke directed her into a frenzy of boyish—not to say kittenish—activity: rushing around, perkily reacting everything around him/her, and scampering off with Dido's wedding-ring.
It was too much, and eventually annoying. Ascagne had enough physical movement in this production to make up for the general stasis of most of the rest of the cast.
Why Did It Take So Long To Recognize the Powers of Les Troyens?
Berlioz never got to see his great opera performed entire in his lifetime. In any case, it was regarded by some as unperformable.
Or it was thought so long that its two sections—the Trojan and the Carthaginian—would have to be presented on two consecutive evenings. This has always been a big no-no in repertory houses.But it's not as difficult to do as Wagner's four-evening Ring cycle.
Berlioz was only able to see an unsatisfactory and truncated version of the tragic love of Dido and Aeneas. So the great work was generally dismissed, until it received productions at Covent Garden in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Still, despite the length of the score and the apparent complexity of the scenic demands, a production need not take two evenings. And it can be performed in four hours or less.
The Salzburg staging began at 5 pm and ended a bit after 10 pm. But it also had two intermissions, one of them an hour long. Essentially, it ran about three hours and a half.
All of the ballets were cut, so we did not get to see the Dances of Egyptian, Nubian, and other slaves in Dido's court. Frankly, one could cut Hylas' lament and Iopas' song—which doesn't even please Dido—although Berlioz obviously thought they were essential to his vision of the unfolding of the ancient story.
So a really sea-worthy Les Troyens could be launched on stage at a length less than that of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, Parsifal, Siegfried, or Götterdämmerung. None of which requires two evenings to perform.
The 1964 Royal Opera staging was memorable—and manageable. And not just because of the ingenious settings. Berlioz' opera provides a variety of musical forms for various singers, and its choral writing is especially demanding of large vocal forces. Covent Garden did Berlioz proud!
It was my good fortune to see this production on the historic evening when Sir David Webster, the General Manager of the Royal Opera, came before the curtain with an announcement. These are always bad news—a severe cold, a missed plane, a cancellation. So a great disappointed "Ooooh" rose from the orchestra stalls to the Gods high above.
Sir David was clearly disappointed himself, and he profusely apologized to the sold-out house that Josephine Veasey was "indisposed" and would not be singing that evening. Instead, her role would be covered by a soprano from the English National Opera, a low-rent London competitor which Covent Garden could then barely acknowledge.
The singer was, of course, Janet Baker, later Dame Janet. And the rest is history.
Subsequently, I've been able to see and hear outstanding productions of Les Troyens at the Met and even in Vienna, where it was staged by New York's one-time enfant terrible, Tom O'Horgan, of Hair fame.
Even with Herbert Wernicke's confining and limiting unit-setting, the Salzburg Les Troyens was a memorable experience. It would be a great addition to the repertory of Paris' Opéra Bastille.
To complete the Salzburg Festival summer trio of music-theatre works inspired by the Iliad and other accounts of the Trojan War, Herbert Wernike also staged Offenbach's La Belle Hélène. This is of course an operetta, but, after the deep seriousness of both Iphigénie and Les Troyens, it was time to look at the more comic-ironic side of the story.
Unfortunately, it was not on view during my short stay, but the photos of Wernike's glittering production promised much. In interviews, he noted that he saw this work as a strong contrast to Les Troyens, so his staging and design reflected this much lighter mood.
All Aboard for Tristan und Isolde!
As the operas of Richard Wagner remain favorites with at least a cultivated, discriminating public, attention-hungry stage-directors and designers—at least in Central Europe—continue ever more desperately to search for unusual new ways to visualize them.
THIS SHIP GIVES ME A SINKING FEELING!--Will Isolde & Tristan make it all the way to King Mark's Cornwall in this Salzburg skeleton ship? Photo: ©Ruth Walz/Salzburg Festival 2000.
The recent Munich Opera production of Tristan und Isolde presented the doomed lovers on a sleek white modern cruise-ship. Not quite the Good Ship Lollypop, but almost…
Tristan, wearing an armor breast-plate, shaved with a razor in the captain's cabin. Out on the poop-deck, Isolde and Brangäne relaxed in deck-chairs, sipping exotic drinks with tiny parasols in them.
For the new Salzburg Festival production, designer Eduardo Arroyo, in a Deconstructivist mode, stripped the ship down to its bare outlines. It was represented with gleaming silvery rods, suggesting the structure of the vessel, but revealing all who sailed in it in silhouette. Not to overlook the outlines of a life-boat and an anchor.
Waltraud Meier's power as both singer and actress in Wagnerian roles is by now legendary. So it was something of a disappointment that her initial appearance on deck—as the fated but unwilling wife of the ageing King of Cornwall—lacked the emotional urgency it could have revealed.
Isolde, after all, has effectually been betrayed by her lover Tristan—whom she has cured of a poisonous wound—when he offers her to his uncle, King Mark. Rather like Siegfried giving his just discovered love, Brünnhilde, to his new-found friend, Günther Gibichung.
Siegfried at least has the excuse that he's been given a forgetfulness potion. Isolde is thinking about a different kind of potion: one as fatal as the poison she put on the sword which wounded Tristan.
But her fearful handmaiden, Brangäne, gives her a love potion instead. It sweeps away her fury, sense of abandonment and loss, her desire for revenge, replacing them with the love she felt for Tristan before. It also reminds Tristan of his forgotten passion for her.
Because this production was staged by the admired theatre-director Klaus Michael Grüber, something special was expected in terms of the acting performances. But, except for Brangäne, it was not forthcoming.
Fortunately, Meier's singing as Isolde was so powerful, so transcendent, that she didn't need to do much in the way of facial expression, gesture, or stage-movement, high up on the foredeck of Tristan's ship.
But her handmaiden, Brangäne, the admirable Marjana Lipovsek, was a marvel to observe. She reacted subtly to every word and breath of Isolde, often anticipating her changes of mood.
Unlike most of the cast, who were trapped in dignified stasis or routine movements, her slightest movement was potent because so humanly true.
This did not detract from the vocal splendors of Isolde or Tristan. Rather it heightened their effects, because her attention and foreboding lent them even more significance for the audience. An outstanding acting and singing performance!
Grüber's usual skills with Personnen-regie—helping actors and singers develop their characters through body and voice—perhaps miscarried with Mme. Meier. At that time, she was also embroiled in a bitter feud with Wolfgang Wagner in Bayreuth.
A late replacement for Tristan, the American tenor Jon Fredric West, at least had the excuse that he lacked the time to work on the character. That is, as an acting-role, rather than a singer's marathon.
On Arroyo's silvery phantom of a ship, Tristan and the steersman were aft, with a great gleaming steering-wheel. Until Tristan's encounter with Isolde—and the fateful potion—he had only to pose. He generally continued in this mode.
On deck and in the bowels of the ship—seen only in silhouette and shadow—were the chorus/crew. No acting required, or encouraged, in these quarters.
Occasionally light struck only the sides of the ship, At others, the foredeck was highlighted. Sometimes the great steering-wheel glinted; then it was in shadow again. The lighting in the first act was stylized, possibly symbolic, and certainly quixotic.
In the second, darkness reigned, for it is, after all, a night scene. But the ground around the two great trees dominating the stage was sprinkled with little fairy-lights, totally out of keeping with the mystery and the forbidden passions of the scene.
Although West can be described as "stocky," he is trim compared with Big Ben Heppner. And Meier is certainly handsomely slender. So they did not have to be reduced to silhouettes as was recently the case at the Met and in Chicago, with Heppner and Jane Eaglen as the doomed duo.
Two enormous tree-trunks shared the stage in Act II, their sinister espaliered branches looking more like a net of menacing roots. The two great ancient trees, solid and secure, provided a metaphoric visual contrast for the very brief moment of love shared by Isolde and Tristan.
In the third act, the lighting was haphazard, clumsy, and ugly. The stage was filled with what appeared to be an East German Legoland build-your-own-castle kit.
A huge darkly dooming shadow suddenly loomed over the castle-setting. And just as soon was gone. No subtlty at all.
In this act, Tristan's Burg Careol in Brittany had obviously been breached by cannon balls. Its long perimeter wall was exceptionally ugly, matched by a round watchtower of the same Lego-like blocks of stone.
Tristan always takes a long time dying in this act, usually propping himself up on his death-bed and slumping back again for the next gasp of energy.
West was heroic in meeting death—and waiting for Isolde. He was often off the bed, on his feet, arms thrust out passionately—as if defying death. And he was vocally very impressive. He seems to be making Tristan his own now—not just manfully singing his way through the role.
Matti Salminen was a sorrowful King Mark, with Falk Struckmann as a stalwart Kurwenal.
This Tristan premiered at the Salzburg Easter Festival, and was revived for the summer fest. West replaced Ben Heppner, who withdrew. Something about backstage politics, or the withdrawal of the original conductor. Or both. Lorin Maazel was in the pit for the revival.
This same production was also seen at the Maggio Musicale in Florence.
Mozart's Idomeneo—mounted later in the spring for Salzburg's Whitsun/Pentecost mini-festival—was also revived in August. I was not able to see it, alas.
In the meantime though, the sets & costumes had been trucked to Baden-Baden, where it was to be shown as a co-production. Both the Salzburg and Baden-Baden Festivals are now being generously subsidized by the American investor, Alberto Vilar.
The Baden-Baden Festival is programmed in a new theatre, built into a 19th century railroad-station. But, unfortunately for the mishap-plagued fest, when the sets were all in place, the sprinkler system was somehow tripped. The stage, sets, machines, and even the lighting-equipment were drenched.
Local hairdressers—as reported in reliable newspapers—brought dryers from their shops to restore the electrical equipment to working-order.
This production is to go off to the San Francisco Opera after its August stint in Salzburg. Here's hoping it doesn't mildew on the way!
Ravishing Gertrude—and Hamlet as Well!
The Bard's Bad Day at the Hallein Salt-Mines
Hamlet's dying words are: "The election rests on Fortinbras." Meaning the Prince of Norway should now fill the vacant throne of Denmark. But that's in the version of Hamlet written by William Shakespeare.
GERTRUDE IS REALLY ANGRY!--White-sidewalled Queen of Denmark flings drowned Ophelia's soaking-wet gown at Laertes in Salzburg "Hamlet." Photo: ©Hans Jörg Michel/Salzburg Festival 2000.
In the Salzburg/Stuttgart Hamlet version, what rests on the pretty blonde Fortinbras at the close of the drama is a lot of blood. As she is wearing a sleek black bathing-suit—just returned from slaughtering a lot of Poles—she towels the wet blood off and lies down in white drifts of styrofoam pellets.
Even high-school students know that Shakespeare's Fortinbras is a man. But not for cutting-edge director Martin Kusej. He sees Fortinbras as the Black Queen, as in a game of chess.
His Hamlet—mounted as a co-production of the Salzburg Festival and the Stuttgart State Theatre—opens in fact with Fortinbras [Judith Engel], and not with the soldiers on the platform, seeing the Ghost of King Hamlet.
The production is not played in Salzburg, but in nearby Hallein, center of salt-mining and Salzburg's wealth for centuries. And Hamlet is not actually in the mines, but in a great salt-drying hall, no longer in use.
Aside from the fact that Shakespeare's original speeches are cut, chopped, transposed, and occasionally put into the mouths of quite different characters than the Bard obviously intended, this new version is not based on the original English text.
Instead, it is reduced and reworked from a Heiner Müller English version. Müller, of course, is the late East German playwright. He made a name for himself in the West with another reduction, called The Hamlet Machine.
The new production does open with soldiers, a lot of them, but not the Night Watch up on the castle walls of Elsinore.
What appears to be a glass-and-steel industrial warehouse is guarded by a score of soldiers in heavy medieval armor. An unknown knight appears and tries unsuccessfully to break through their lines.
Then the knight disarms and reveals herself as Fortinbras, a charming blonde, with a lightweight voice.
This cordon of Danish knights is seen again only once. They appear later—when Hamlet is to set sail for England—outside the walls of the warehouse in long white robes with cowls. Each carries a bri
OH, THAT THIS TOO, TOO SOLID BANANA!--Hamlet plays "Second Banana" in grotesque Salzburg Festival staging of Shakespeare's Bio-drama. Photo: ©Hans Jörg Michel/Salzburg Festival 2000.