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Salzburg Diary 2001

By Glenn Loney, August 18, 2001

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Moder Theatre: Art or Life?
Adam's Memory & The Invisible College
Jewish Religious Music in Jesuit Collegial Church
Visconti's "The Damned" as Action-Drama
Modernising the Bard for the Mindless
"Schlachten"—Salzburg Trashes Shakespeare
"Hamlet" Horrors
EuroTrash Salt-Mine "Macbeth"
"Jenufa" Paired with "Lady Macbeth von Mzensk"
Salzburg "Figaro" & "Ariadne" in Tacky Public Spaces
Wernicke's Sharply Pointed "Don Carlo"
Fatty Batty "Fledermaus"

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The Decline of the [Theatre] West—

SITTING IN THE SALT--Scene from "The Invisible College" at Salzburg's StadtKino.
Photo: ©Salzburg Festival/Sebastian Hoppe/2001.
Does Contemporary Theatre—the avant-garde experimental kind, not commercial long-running musicals—foreshadow Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West?

Are we doomed? Is what remains of our Culture now Meaningless?

Or are we merely currently Culturally Challenged—waiting, not for Godot, but a new Peter Brook or Peter Sellars?

Or was Ozzie, like Nietzsche, just another one of those Germanic Fuss-Budgets?

But can it be that the chaos, dysfunction, & hopelessness which seem to infect many pieces of avant-garde theatre—both in their texts, if any, and productions—is actually a reflection of the artists' perceptions of the world in which they are living? Or at least the society immediately at hand?

Or are these only metaphors?

Or is this once again Art Imitating Life? Only Chaos Theory Experts may have the answers.

If the visions of Modern Life in its various aspects offered on TV are any guide, however, it would seem that for many, Life Imitates Art. Or at least it imitates Popular Culture—as commercially manipulated, manufactured, and distributed.

Not as a truly Popular Culture which grows out of real lives, customs, and spontaneous expressions. Popular, after all, refers to the People, not to Trendiness in the Arts.

Now, however, Popular Culture seems to imply copying the clothes, the lifestyles, the songs & slogans you tune in on TV. Then, as in the Seventies, Tune Out! Do your own thing!

During his tenure as Artistic Director at the Salzburg Festival, Gerard Mortier not only tried to make Gluck and Mozart Trendy & Relevant, but he also engaged directors & designers who clearly did not even trust the vision & talent of modern authors & composers.

The recent Salzburg updating of Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire was a lively—even amusing—example of this trend. But Blanche Dubois is hardly Eurydike or Countess Almaviva.

All right, it is half a century since Tennessee's Times, but human-beings haven't changed so much that they have to behave like EuroTrash for European Young Audiences to understand Blanche, Stella, and Stanley.

This, again, is in effect patronizing the audience. It implies they aren't intelligent enough to understand plays or operas on the works' own terms.

Instead, they have to be produced in what is assumed to be the Audiences' Own Terms, though it is questionable whether such directors & designers have any idea of the audience, aside from their own trendy tastes and preferences.

Not-well-known Independent Film-Maker Hal Hartley's Salzburg Soon was not soon enough. But—despite an imposing and handsome Festival production—it did not follow up this impressive [visually, not textually] premiere by sweeping across avant-garde America. Not even New York…

Not Quite The Illuminati!

SAVAGING SHAKESPEARE--The History Plays Revised as "Schlachten" for Salzburg in 1999 Photo: ©Salzburg Festival/Matthias Horn/1999.

Marc von Henning/primitive science
Invent & Present The Invisible College

Every morning in Salzburg, I walk up the Linzergasse to St. Sebastian's Church. On the street-side there is a richly carved marble oval with the nearly naked saint—his body pierced by several artfully placed arrows—in a Baroque Orgiastic Ecstasy of Holy Martyrdom.

In the cloistered cemetery adjoining the church is the grave of Mozart's widow, Constanze. But, most interesting of all, is the obelisk-outlined monument on the steps leading from cemetery to sanctuary.

This is the memorial of the great Natural Healer, Paracelsus. Actually, Theophrastus von Hohenheim—genannt Paracelsus.

How fitting then that primitive science—they like the modesty of lower case letters—should invoke Paracelsus himself in their new work, The Invisible College, created especially for the Salzburg Festival in the devastated Empty Space of the disused StadtKino.

This staging and this venue seemed another harbinger of the avant-garde productions Gerard Mortier intends to develop for the Ruhr Triennale.

The once handsome Art Deco cinema is now a Post-Industrial ruin, so the show seemed right at home where once Romy Schneider & Lex Barker stalked across the silver-screen. Not in the same films, of course…

Actually, the Paracelsus figure did not appear until near the close of the 90-minute performance. But when he did—setting in motion a mechanical hand which frantically kept writing—he fulfilled all the promise implicit in the aura of this famous Renaissance Magus & Alchemist.

Paracelsus effected miraculous healings with herbs & simples. But some said he used Black Magic, not just foxglove & willow-bark.

Paracelsus' name is invoked for this Invisible College collage by the Borges tale, The Rose of Paracelsus. Other Borges texts are also infused.

But it's the image of the strange and magical gift of Adam's Memory which informs the often bizarre and mysterious actions of this theatre-piece.

Although not explicitly stated, the College appears to refer to those individuals down the long corridors of History who have been passed the gift of the First Man's Memory. Don't ask…

The unusual program for the show is a series of cards, ostensibly taken from the files of the father of the very clerical Rev. Roderick Maude-Roxby. In his clericals, he read from his father's journal as a photo of his father and a woman was projected on a curtain of falling salt.

The filing-cards identify those, after Paracelsus, to whom the Memory passed. Including Christopher Marlowe's presumed murderer, Ingram Frizer, Frederick, the Winter King, and Napoleon's Empress Josephine.

This is very intriguing information for anyone interested in the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, or the Rosicrucians

But not much was revealed in the actual production—which will be reworked for London's Royal National Theatre in 2002.

primitive science is a mystery in itself. The group prefers to develop new works in spaces which appeal to them—with no intention of having a "run" or a repertory.

In London, their one-of-a-kind performances are often announced to the select few with unusual invitations. Rather like their very unusual Salzburg program-cards.

The connection of Paracelsus with Salzburg—not to mention Salzburg's connection with Salt, which made it and its Prince-Archbishops rich—made The Invisible College a very site-specific production.

After a Grotowski-like wait, the audience was permitted to enter the gutted cinema and push around for good views from the tiered seats.

Every seat was good, for snowdrifts of salt cascaded from inside the proscenium down into the auditorium. One flow was glacier-like. Into it, at one point, Xmas trees dropped down like pointed-arrow poles into the snow/salt.

The snow-image was initially established with the salt as a man dragged a sled across a level patch, towing some sort of commode. He later made snow-houses here and there. Which were later kicked apart by a laughing young couple.

A woman dug in a snowbank and uncovered another woman. At the close, she was again buried.

A blind woman won at Bingo. Then she got to put blindfolds on the others, so they could play Blind Man's Bluff.

She found a radio buried in the snow. Some Borges texts emerged.

David Benke's music accompanied some of the more haunting—or gently amusing—images & actions. His music was often charming, without audially upstaging the images.

But, considering the Anglican Divine's Lecture and the other texts, it is surprising that several Austrian critics reported this show as largely silent!

Some also saw the salt variously as salt, snow, and desert sand. This seemed On Target.

But The Invisible College will have to come to LaMaMa or BAM before you can judge this for yourself. If it does, that will undercut the original premise of site-specific non-repertory stagings…

The Ensemble: Andrew Bailey, Nick Chambers, Alit Kreiz, Illona Linthwaite, Alison Seddon, and the cleric, Roddy Maud-Roxby.

Other Credits: Marc von Henning/director, Boz Temple-Morris/dramaturg, Dick Bird/sets, Susan Grange-Bennett/costumes, Simon Macer-Wright/Lighting, David Benke/Music.

Jewish Music in a Jesuit Church!

QUEEN GERTRUDE WITH MARINE-HAIRCUT--Salzburg's Deconstructed "Hamlet" in 2000. Photo: ©Salzburg Festival/Hans Jörg Michel/2000.
On a Minor Wagnerian Note—one thinks of his problematic essay, "Jews in Music"—had I not been scheduled to see some recycled Visconti Wagneriana on my last night in Salzburg, I could have attended a concert of Masterworks of Jewish Liturgical Music of the 19th century: Die Stimme der Synagoge.

This was performed in the baroque Jesuit Kollegienkirche, presented by the University Mozarteum Salzburg. The Cantor-solo was performed by Senior Cantor Moshe Schulhofof Miami!

Among composers represented were Louis Lewandowski, Salomon Sulzer, and Samuel Naumbourg. Three choirs joined forces, from Lyon, Hamburg, and the Heidelberg High-School for Jewish Studies.

The conductor was Prof. Andor Izsák, Director of the European Center for Jewish Music at the High School for Music & Theatre in Hannover.

This concentration on Jewish Musical Culture and its restoration—especially in a part of Europe from which it almost vanished—is interesting indeed. For it is occurring in Germany at the University level, the Germanic Hochschule being the equivalent of a special technical college.

From Film To Stage:

Lucino Visconti's La Caduta degli Dei
Verdeutsched as Der Fall der Götter

LEISURE-TIME FOR THE MACBETHS--Scots Royalty in Salzburg: "A little water clears us of this deed." Photo: ©Salzburg Festival/Sebastian Hoppe/2001.
It's a far cry—the word is apt—from Bayreuth's Post-Modernist ötterdämmerung to Der Fall der Götter at the Salzburg Festival. But the latter means the Fall of the Gods; it doesn't also include their lingering Twilight.

And the drama does not deal with Wotan, Fricka, Erda, and Wotan's numerous extra-marital progeny. Instead, it borrows the Wagnerian Epic Theme to satirize the Krupp Dynastyf German Munitions-Makers.

You may already know this harrowing narrative from its original cinematic treatment by Lucino Visconti. The English title of the film is The Damned.

As shown in the Hallein Salt-Drying Hall, the Zuidelijk Toneel Hollandia's version of Visconti's disturbing film generates its own fascination in its trendy Benelux production-style. I saw the Bayreuth and the Salzburg productions virtually a week apart.

Fortunately, the Scottish Opera doesn't have its new Ring complete yet, so I will only see its new Walküre in Edinburgh next week. How many Declines & Falls can one endure, especially when Bigger Egos are involved?

Frankly, Visconti's film is much superior, for many reasons, to the Dutch Live Treatment. Nonetheless, this production—which can be easily toured, as it requires only a few set-props—does make exciting theatre.

It could, for example, be imported to BAM—not only because it doesn't have a lot of set-pieces, props, and costumes to pack—but also because its talented principal performers play multiple roles.

This does, however, create complications for the viewer. Brilliant as Jeroen Willems is as Baron Joachim von Essenbeck, Baron Martin von Essenbeck, and Friedrich Bruckmann, it takes more than a change of coats, hats, voices, and body-language to keep the action clearly in focus.

That's also the case with the glamorous Elsie de Brauw, who plays two quite different Von Essenbeck women. One is a virtuous, devoted wife; the other an intriguing slut. She looks striking in either persona—and her acting does much to suggest the differences.

But the character-changes often occur so rapidly that it is difficult to sort out who is who from one moment to the next.

Especially when the entire Von Essenbeck Family is at the formal dinner-table, and two of the men have to change coats several times. Fedja van Huét has to do this a lot, and his character-changes are not entirely convincing.

This production gives new meaning to the word "Turncoat." For that is exactly what the Von Essenbeck Dynasty effectually does, in caving in to Hitler and his plans for Conquest of Europe.

It's interesting that another talented acting-ensemble—South of the Dutch Border in Flemish Antwerp—is also currently touring a Minimalist production, in which only four actors play many roles.

This is their two-part adaptation of a trilogy of novels by Hungarian expatriate Agosta Kristof. The linked dramas are: The Notebook & The Proof. Also good candidates for a BAM Next Wave Series of Post-Modernist European Stagings!

The Dutch acting-version of Visconti's film is played in German in Salzburg, but it's certain that these actors can also do it in English. Just as the Flemish troupe performs in perfect English in Edinburgh.

Staged by Johan Simons & Paul Koek, Fall der Götter is full of Sound & Fury, Sex & Violence, and trendy running-commentary to fill-in non-acted bits of the plot. It features music by, among others, Heiner Goebbels, who has his own touring show, Hashirigaki, on view in Edinburgh.

The Dutch production provides an ideal demonstration of avant-garde theatre which can easily be performed in any old abandoned factory, gas-works, or even a dis-used Krupp Steel Works.

Just as Salzburg's retiring Artistic Director, Gerard Mortier, now plans to do in Essen, in the Ruhrgebiet, where once the name Krupp was a symbol of Wealth, Power, and Death.

For the Sins of his Father, in the wake of World War II, Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und zu Halbach was sent to prison for the Krupp Family's complicity in the Nazi War Machine and the use of slave-laborers in their factories.

Some of the victims of Nazi Carnage in Eastern & Western Europe were angry that he was not hanged at Nuremberg.

But then neither was the architect of Hitler's entire War Armaments Program—also the architect of the Nuremberg Party Rallies—Prof. Dr. Albert Speer. He sat for a while in Spandau Prison and then was released. Unlike Rudolf Hess, who died in Spandau.

Had Krupp been a rocket-scientist like Wernher von Braun, he would not have gone to prison at all. But to Huntsville, Alabama—and end up on an American stamp!

This unsettling production of Der Fall der Götter must have been programmed as a pendant to the current Salzburg Macbeth, since it certainly has strong resonances of "The Scottish Play."

The Bard Revisited & Revised—

MOST FATALITIES HAPPEN IN THE HOME--Lady Macduff is strangled with her own ironing-cord in trendy Salzburg "Macbeth." Photo: ©Salzburg Festival/Sebastian Hoppe/2001

Three Salzburg Summers:

After Schlachten & Hamlet,
Now Macbeth Bites the Dust!

For the past three summers, Festival Director Gerard Mortier has presided over three unusual and militantly Post-Post-Post-Modernist productions of plays originally by William Shakespeare.

This is eminently in line with his over-arching policy of introducing the Newest of the New in Opera & Theatre to the supposedly reactionary Salzburg Festival audience. This means not only premiering dubious new music, operas, and dramas, but also giving the Classics a thorough-going Renovation—at least visually.

In effect, for some cultivated and gold-plated Festival Regulars, this has also been a metaphoric ritual of Driving the Wooden Stake through the Heart of the late Herbert von Karajan, whose often glamorous, sumptuous stagings of Mozart, Strauss, and even Verdi may well have concealed or even ignored their Deeper Meanings.

When Peter Stein was in charge of the Theatre Programs, however, Mortier enjoyed some considerable successes—especially with Shakespeare—which were both visually impressive and emotionally and intellectually innovative & challenging.

But two monumental Egos such as Stein & Mortier could not long endure each other, just as Caesar Augustus & Antony could not rule the Roman Empire together.

For the record—and for background to the report on this past summer's incredible Macbeth staging—herewith are re-cycled reductions of previous reviews of Schlachten—effectually The Wars of the Roses—and last summer's astonishing Hamlet.

[These might still be somewhere in the New York Theatre-Wire Archive on-line, but I cannot find them. They are here pulled from my own files.]

Schlachten: Slaughtering Shakespeare?

SALZBURG'S SECOND LADY MACBETH--Monumental scene from Shoshtakovitch's "Lady Macbeth of Mzensk."
Photo: ©Salzburg Festival/Monica Rittershaus/2001.

A New German Word: Modderfocker!

With the premiere of Schlachten—a German version of a Belgian condensation of all Shakespeare's History Plays into a mere twelve-hours—Gerard Mortier's figurative fat was in the now sputtering fire of the on-going controversy about his conduct of the Festival.

Initially, Salzburg youths were banned from performances.

Not only were there gallons of blood and other body-fluids—not to mention cross-dressing and gross sexual pantomimes—but the text frequently substituted Bardic verbal elegance for Belgian variations of American slang.

King Richard III was identified as "Dirty Rich Modderfocker." Among other truly gratuitous explorations of gutter garrulousness.

The outcry in major newspapers and on television rapidly rescinded the official attempt to censor "artistic expression," however.

Twelve Hours of Dynastic Schlachten

This past summer, both Belgian meat and chicken were removed from store-shelves because of contamination with dioxin. They weren't the only tainted Belgian products.

Flemings Luc Perceval [staging] and Tom Lanoye [text] had the unoriginal idea to boil down all Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays to their essentials. Eliminating all of the poetry, most of the philosophy, and the distinctive characterizations, they were able to reduce the History Plays to two parts totaling 12 hours.

Had they followed the example of America's Reduced Shakespeare Company—or RSC—they could have brought their played text in at about 30 minutes. It takes only 90 minutes to perform The Complete Works of Shakespeare (slightly abridged) .

Of course that popular entertainment—which is being played all over Europe in major state and city-theatres, by leading classical actors—is an hilarious spoof. Schlachten is of course not without its laughable moments, but some of them appear unintentional.

Lanoye and Perceval are reported to have had a great success with this work in Belgium. For Salzburg, it was translated into German—though some of the text contains direct quotes from Shakespeare, as well as American vulgarisms.

They certainly had a Salzburg Festival precedent. Some years ago, when Milan's ingenious director Giorgio Strehler was being groomed by Maestro Herbert Von Karajan to head the theatre-program—as Peter Stein did recently—he imported his own distillation of the History Plays.

His Italian epic, Il Gioco dei Potenti, was transformed into Spiel der Mächtigen—or The Play of the Powerful.

Just before the two-evening premiere, Max Reinhardt's widow, the actress Helene Thimig—who was staging her husband's seminal Jedermann in the Cathedral Square—told me she considered Maestro Strehler the worthy successor to Reinhardt in Salzburg.

In the event, Strehler didn't even get the second evening properly rehearsed. But the initial section was disastrous enough.

The image which remains with me is of frantic actors racing around a football-field-arena with a cardboard suitcase. Periodically, it would fall open, spilling out paper crowns.

What spills out in Schlachten are coils of bloody guts, like yards of spaghetti with meat-sauce. The obvious visual goal is to be even more gorily Gothickally shocking than Paris' notorious Théâtre du Grand Guignol.

After the full 12 hours, the clear message is that Power-Hungry People will stop at nothing—and stoop ever lower—to achieve dominion over others. As well as have a lot of explicit sex, intrigue, and violence along the road to the top.

Even in far-off Berlin, Detlef Friedrich's review in the i>Berliner Zeitung was headed, in English: Fucking Shakespeare.

Before sharing a few production details, it's only fair to note that the actors involved in this project are clearly all very talented.

What's more, they obviously threw themselves into their many demanding roles with tremendous energy and commitment. Even in their most degrading moments—and these were legion—they did not betray the slightest hint of: "I'm only acting this—it's not the way I really am."

On those days when both parts were played—in a salt-drying hall at the Hallein Salt Mines—audiences were blinded by a strong spotlight on stage pointed directly into their eyes at 11 am. This ball of incandescent white marked all breaks as well. The evening ground to a close at 11 pm.

The expensive program—weighing several pounds—contained the complete text, essays, and many photos of the production. When we finally left the hall, there were a number of these program-books left behind.

Perceval and Lanoye divided their epic into five sections: Richard Deuxième, Heinrich 4 und Der fünfte Heinrich, Margaretha di Napoli, Eddy the King, and Dirty Rich Modderfocker der Dritte.

In the space of a few hours, I heard more "Motherfuckers" than I hear in a week on the streets of New York. As for the realistic representation of Oral Sex, Kenneth Starr's multi-million-dollar revelations had already prepared me for that shock.

Designer Katrin Brack created a basic wooden stage-platform before the tiered seating. Sections of this slid back and forth, were raised, skewed, or even employed to suggest portals. At one point, a section was hoisted out to reveal a pool into which actors jumped, were pushed, or left for dead.

Ilse Vandenbussche's costumes ran the gamut from total nudity to Elizabethan.

Prince Hal didn't waste his time with Falstaff in the stews of London. In this version, he is enjoying the favors of a transvestite in a slinky red gown and no undies—who is later an Archbishop in very smart red silk shoes.

Some powerful moments in the original plays are not neglected—nor parodied, notably Richard II's sorrowful soliloquy in prison. But Richard III's endless blatherings make the final section much too long, with steadily dwindling interest, even in attempted outrages.

The Siege of Harfleur is brilliantly evoked, with the wanton smashing of chairs and tables, even a Battleship Potemkin baby-carriage, and body-parts and doll-heads flung here and there. Some flew into the audience—and were promptly tossed back at the actors.

The Chorus of Henry V, dressed in a tux, relaxed in an easy-chair as he cooed into a mike the progress of events for his listeners.

Henry V's Crispin Crispian oration was impressive. But then he dropped his pants and mooned the French. Like Mel Gibson's Scots in Braveheart.

This was clearly designed as a teenage crowd-pleaser—but the Salzburg censors wanted to prevent them from seeing it.

There were few props, but lots of blood—and masses of pearls. Also Cocaine for Kings.

A charming production note—or notes—was provided by an angel with a 'cello,

accompanying the action. I won't recycle more of my copious notes on the production. If you asked me, I could write a book… But this brief quotation from the text will give some idea of the odd mixture of German and English, poesie and vulgarity:

"O, ich bereue! I live for just one cause:/'Do the right thing!' Wenn nicht, so let me be/Verdammt… So Gott und Schicksal crush my nuts!"

And here's Richard Crookback cursing his Queen, the unfortunate Elizabeth:

"You Modderfocking silly stupid cow;/Beschissne blasted bloody buggered bitch."

But you get the idea: A Long Way Off From Shakespeare.

And Now, Let's Hear It for the Salzburg Hamlet!

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 ostensibly written by an Englishman, William Shakespeare.

In the Salzburg/Stuttgart Hamlet version, what rests on the pretty young blonde Fortinbras at the close of the drama is not an Election, but 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 great wealth for centuries. And this 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 really 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 armored 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 brightly colored plastic kayak. Perhaps they are planning to paddle off to England, accompanying Hamlet's ship?

Some actually break through the walls with their small boats. The translucent panels between the metal ribs of the building are actually soft plastic.

At the close, some kind of solvent drips down over these panels, and they all begin to melt, as the Danish Court is Dissolving in Death. It appears to be what they call a Visual Metaphor.

In the first of the three sections of this production, the front folding-panels of the warehouse slide open to reveal a stage-filling thicket of leafy green stalks. Hamlet [Samuel Weiss] pulls up many of them in the center rear and then hacks his way forward with a sword.

This image made a number of critics believe the play was set in a green-house, or a tree-nursery. Not so.

As members of the Danish Court are soon shooting clay-pigeons—with a real trap-shooting machine and double-barreled shotguns—in the clearing just created by Hamlet, this must be an exterior scene. It is merely sited in the warehouse. Only set-designer Martin Zehetgruber knows for sure.

In the second and third sections, the room is stocked with very large cardboard shipping cartons. Not a tree—or even Birnham Wood in sight.

Some of the boxes are filled with white styrofoam packing-pellets. Cascades of the pellets overwhelm the stage at the close. The body of Polonius [Bernhard Baier] is stashed in a pile of pellets in one of the cartons.

At midpoint, when pretty little Fortinbras has stopped by to ask for permission to pass over Denmark on the way to an idiotic Polish war, she and Hamlet are on a movable bridge-crane above the warehouse's floor—sections of which have now been removed.

Hamlet and Fortinbras get on so well that Hamlet puts his head in Fortinbras' lap. He also does this bit with Ophelia [Johanna Wokalek] and his mum, the Queen.

After Hamlet has slashed his way through the thicket, at the top of the show, he's revealed in a black T-shirt—which does not conceal his penis.

Later, he puts his trousers on, but he stands mute and immovable, back to the audience, during the initial court pleasantries.

When he confronts Rosencrantz & Guildenstern [Karl Friedrich Seraphim & Hüseyin Cirpici] about their complicity with the King, instead of using a wooden recorder to mock their attempts to "play upon him," he pulls out his penis and offers it to them to play on. Unlike Bill Clinton's Monica, they wisely refuse.

On the voyage to England, Hamlet is not freed by pirates. As R & G enjoy a ciggie and a banana, Hamlet steals their automatic and shoots both of them dead. Then he finishes the banana.

The climactic duel, however, is fought with real swords and daggers and is fairly exciting.

Horatio is called Yorick in the Kusej version of Hamlet. He's dressed all in white and is clearly Hamlet's alter-ego, so close are they and so often.

Horatio/Yorick is also Hamlet's Father's Ghost. He carries a vintage portable radio to provide popular musical accompaniment.

For the Mousetrap Scene, Yorick/Horatio plays the entire pantomime himself—both King and Queen—but lip-synching to snippets of pop movies and TV dialogue. This is hilarious and a virtuoso turn. Werner Wölbern gets a big hand for this tour-de-farce.

Just before the Mousetrap scene begins, the entire court is perched on packing-cartons and on the edges of the warehouse's storage rooms below. All hold flashlights beneath their faces for a ghostly effect—just like Boy Scouts' Stunt Night!.

In the Grave-Digger Scene, Horatio/Yorick appears and asks the unseen grave-digger Hamlet's opening question about whose grave it is. When the digger appears above the edge of one of those cardboard packing cartons, it is of course Hamlet himself!

Hamlet then pulls Yorick/Horatio into the grave and leaps out himself. He grabs his alter-ego's living head as if it were a free-floating skull and utters his famous riff about Yorick's talents as a Popular Entertainer.

Queen Gertrude—played with a wary dignity by Renate Jett—has a Marine white-sidewall haircut, so her crown fits very snugly. She is the only one at court who dresses grandly, with several changes of elegant gowns, one with a long train. And smart red shoes!

Ophelia, first seen, looks like a 1960s sorority girl: fluffy powder-blue sweater and sleek short sequined dress.

By the time her Mad Scene arrives, she is considerably more bedraggled. She even whacks Gertrude with some of her gathered greenery, knocking the poor queen flat.

When Ophelia begins passing out sprigs of rosemary and rue soon after, everyone shrugs off the clippings as though they were poison-oak.

Laertes [Andreas Schlager], just back from France, is so horrified that he slaps her repeatedly and then knocks her down into the cellarage of the warehouse.

He jumps in after her, and some of my colleagues were sure he must have been raping her.

Whatever happened, Gertrude almost immediately pulled a long and very wet gown out of the depths. Perhaps Laertes drowned her to expunge the Shame to his Family Name?

Afterward, when the King [Marcus Calvin] makes his futile and desperate prayer to God—having been confronted with his crime in the pantomime—instead of praying in secret, he seems to be confiding in Hamlet.

In any case, the emotional rush so inflames him that he pushes Gertrude flat on her face, pulls up her dress, and yanks down her undies. Then he tears open his fly and proceeds to perform violent sodomy on her as she screams.

This is definitely not Joe Papp's Shakespeare in the Schools!

Although some scenes are played with real passion—most of the actors are very good—the total effect is of a sub-textual parody of Shakespeare's tragedy.

Instead of heightening the tragic effect with clearly modern visual references, the clash between the classic and the trendy is often laughable.

Fortunately for Shakespeare's continued good repute in English-Speaking lands, this production is a Modern German Theatre-Staging for Modern German-Speaking Audiences.

These serious Central European spectators are notoriously respectful of Shakespeare and other literary greats. But they are often either dim—or afraid to laugh at something really pretentious or ridiculous.

So there were very few laughs or giggles—except when I was trying to stifle mine, to avoid disapproving glances around me.

Director Martin Kusej surely did not intend this production to look like the Marx Brothers in "A Night at the Globe Theatre."

His high-minded essays in the program-book—although his philosophical rhetoric is almost impenetrable—are not in the least parodic. Or amusing.

Is This a Dagger I See Before Me?

Or Is It a Copy of Macbeth
Which I Should Study Before Staging?

I Clutch Thee, Sacred Shakespeare Text, Yet I Have Thee Not! In case you have been bothered by the nagging sense that Lady Macbeth should have a first name, the new Salzburg staging of Macbeth—or the violent, vulgar, gross parodistic production which carries that title—has solved the riddle!

Her name is Monica! Monica Macbeth. Or, if you prefer Scots Titles: Lady Monica, Countess of Cawdor. At least Monica is what King Duncan calls her as he rubs his genital area against hers, celebrating the Scots' victory in the field against damnèd traitors.

But the first words spoken on the wide Hallein Salt-Hall stage are those which have been giving English schoolboys the giggles for ages: "What bloody man is this?"

They are, of course, spoken in German, in Frank Günther's pedestrian translation—which includes some unusual innovations as well. But they are not addressed to a blood-stained hero, fresh from the field.

Instead, they are directed at a lounge-lizard in a shiny lizard-green jacket and matching accouterments. He seems to be drinking Johnny Walker Scotch, though there's also a bottle of Jack Daniels and plenty of champagne and potato-chips on hand.

Before reporting some of the more unusual features of this militantly non-traditional production, it must be noted that all of the adult performers are artists of real talent and obviously strong technical capabilities.

That they were willing to give this staging their considerable All—with three of the male actors actually wounded onstage in the first week!—says a great deal about their dedication to the theatre, as well as to Innovative Experiments.

The children, on the other hand, did not seem to be fugitives from any known acting-school for tots. Totally untalented, they noisily romped about the stage from virtually the first moment.

Not only did Banquo's son & heir, Fleance, seem to be permanently at Court, but also the four kids of the Macduffs. Fleance also had one of those fold-up chrome scooters, presumably so he could flee Macbeth's murderers.

After the first fifteen minutes of the romping kiddies—complete with bouncing balls and plastic machine-guns—one could have wished Shakespeare had placed their murder very early in the play.

No Jury Would Have Convicted!

But the children finally got what was coming to them: one was strangled, two were drowned in their blue plastic wading-pond, and Macduff's son & heir was bludgeoned to death with a large plastic bottle of Coca-Cola™.

This was seized from a handy rolling drinks-cabinet, usually upstage, in front of an idyllic tropical scene.

In fact, the production began with a crew of Scots dragging in a huge painting—with a gift-ribbon on it—featuring some palm trees and an island beach. I saw something very like this last summer at the Hannover State Theatre, in an avant-garde satire celebrating both EXPO 2000 and Post-Post-Modernist Theatre.


As this was—like Hamlet & Schlacten—an ardently non-conventional production, only non-traditional phrases can adequately characterize it. In Essence: EUROTRASH MAFIA spewing brew & crunchies, plus blood & guts, all over the wide, wide Salt-Hall stage, filling it with EUROGARBAGE!

To fill the vast expanse of stage, designer Barbara Ehnes set three Conversation-Pits of overstuffed white plastic sofas & tables left, right & center.

There was also a large aquarium, but I couldn't discover if the goldfish was live or a stuffed prop. I watched it a lot, but it didn't move.

The actors, unfortunately, did move. Often and noisily, and frequently with no visual dramatic purpose. But they did move violently. That's why three of the men were in splints or Ace-bandages.

Considering how variously splendid & stunning,—or vulgar & awkward—European Modern Design can be, it was not easy for me to discern whether the stage furnishings represented the Appalling Taste of Nouveaux Riches, or a really High Class Modern Interior.

But, as Mercé Paloma's deliberately garish & tacky costumes also expressed the prevailing fashions in the Scottish Court, I must opt for visual satire, at least on the level of the sets & costumes, if not of the actual staging.

Although she had been initially presented as a brainless Teeny-Bopper, Lady Macduff's death was particularly garish & unpleasant. Like Lady Macbeth, she "should have died hereafter."

She was ironing the wash, while puffing away on cigarettes. Her killer first threw boiling-hot coffee in her face—she had greeted the guest with a "cuppa"—before he strangled her with her own ironing-cord.

But, to be philosophical in the midst of such carnage: Smoking that much, she would have died of lung-cancer anyway.

When she finally lay still, the killer fondled her body, pinched her nipples, shoved up her dress, and mimed inserting a finger, which he manipulated, but not in the manner of a certified gynecologist.

I had been warned by someone who had already seen the production that he in fact raped the corpse. Either this had been changed—in response to thunderous walk-outs or stinging reviews—or the initial viewers were so shocked by the entire production that they were at last not watching really carefully.

Of course, shocking the Stuffy Old Bourgeois Audience has been a Hallmark of Innovative Avant-Garde Experimental Theatre since the time of Aristophanes.

Not only was Monica Macbeth [Anne Tismer] free & easy with her King and her own Lord, she was sexily attired in a very short leather skirt—12 inches long, maximum—and bizarrely pointed & heeled booties.

No wonder Macbeth [Andreas Grothgar] kept trying to have anal sex when he unbuttoned & pulled her onto his lap.

This didn't succeed, however, so he later pulled down her panties and dove in. If the production weren't pitched to such a gratuitously low level of physical grossness, it would perhaps be proper to describe this as cunnilingus.

But, as mimed, it could more grossly be described as "eating pussy" or "licking cunt," which is surely what The Catalan Wonder—director Calixto Bieito—had in mind.

Barcelona's Boy-Wonder: Calixto Bieito

Living in Antonio Gaudi's Barcelona—and surrounded by the bizarrely wonderful architectural phantasms of Catalonian Modernisme—it's hardly surprising that he and his Catalan Colleagues are so wild & unfettered in their visual & dramatic imaginations.

In order to have something for everyone, Bieito also made one of the courtiers excessively swish. Another stripling male courtier got a vigorously mimed ass-fucking, which was rewarded with a shower of money.

Indeed, at one point, a randy guest at the Macbeth's Banquet fucked a small palm-tree to death. They must have had a large stock of replacement palms backstage, as the tree was living before it was sexually assaulted.

That famous Banquet, by the way, in this production turned out to be the ever popular German Grill-Abend, with hot-dogs & cutlets on the grill. There were paper-plates and ketchup & mustard on hand as well.

The meats smelled very good, and one woman in the first row was served a Schnitzel. But then she had been a good sport and taken a point-and-shoot photo of Macbeth & Banquo in a comradely embrace, as they had requested from the stage.

Most of the audience-actor interaction, however, consisted of spectators noisily walking out on the wooden bleachers and audibly excoriating the production.

There was only one witch—not the traditional trio—and she made the famous Prophecy while holding two sparklers.

Later, the Final Divination was in the form of a palm-reading. She also did double- and triple-duty as a courtier, lady-in-waiting, and general party-guest.

When Lady Macbeth lay dead, she couldn't wait to try on the dead queen's finest gown and shoes.

Sadly holding his dead queen, Andreas Grothgar's Macbeth was at last very moving in the "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" soliloquy. Despite all the devastation of broken furniture, smashed bottles, and general carnage around him, he evoked real pathos.

And, as things turned out, she wasn't really dead anyway. After Macbeth had been killed, he revived to sing "You Never Really Die"—or some such Dylanesque lyric—soon joined by Monica Macbeth, Lady Macduff, the witch, and the entire cast, few of whom had very good singing voices.

Early on, from the upper level, Banquo seemed to be running some kind of bistro, featuring him on mandolin, with what sounded like Italian Hip-Hop.

There was a lot of music & dancing, but then what good is a Royal Court if they can't have a Good Time now and then, in between the rapes, druggings, and murders?

As Macbeth falsely mourned the death of King Duncan, he fondled the dead man's dislodged red toupée, remarking on the King's "silver-locks," as in Shakespeare's text.

It is a puzzle why Bieito would even want to bother with a fairly accurate translation—aside from the innovations—when he was so intent on parodising the drama and its characters. Why not make the playing-text an hysterical parody as well?

Incidentally, if this production—like many of Gerard Mortier's attempts to give the stodgy old classics an entirely New Look—was meant to discredit totally the traditional methods of playing Shakespeare in German Theatres, it broke no new ground in terms of the delivery. Only in the playing and staging was it bizarre beyond belief.

The tradition of playing Shakespeare on German-speaking stages—at least in my experience, from the mid-1950s onward—has been to enunciate every word very clearly, regardless of its importance in a sentence, and to deliver the Bard's lines, phrase by phrase, with a stentorian, even bellowing, energy. With little regard to the subtleties of the lines…

These players outdid even those legendary Shakespearean actors, Gustav Gründgens & Fritz Kortner. Never have I heard Shakespeare's speeches—even in German—shouted and shrieked with such ferocity on stage.

But, alas, to so little effect: Full of Sound & Fury, signifying [almost] nothing…

American readers may be amused or appalled at this report. They may falsely believe they are safe from such excesses. New Yorkers have certainly survived even more ghastly productions in the distant & recent past—but with far less able actors—at Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival.

But productions like this one—and directors like Calixto Bieito—have become favored fare of avant-garde theatre programs at major international festivals. Brian McMaster, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh Festival, seems besotted with Bieito and Catalan stagings, for example.

And Bieito's production of Calderon's Life Is a Dream proved a nightmare—for me, at least—at both the Edinburgh Festival and at Brooklyn's BAM, where it was speedily imported from Europe.

In Theatre, as in Life, nothing succeeds like Excess!

What is disquieting, however, is the fact that the current Salzburg Shakespeare productions—as well as other more arcane, trendy Modernities—are the apparent choices of Frank Baumbauer, who in effect replaced Peter Stein as chief of theatre programs. [Ivan Nagel's brief tenure hardly counts.]

In fact, the program credits Munich's Kammerspiele workshops, where one assumes, the set-pieces & costumes were made. As Baumbauer is the new Intendant of the famed Kammerspiele City-Theatre, does this mean Munich audiences can now expect—not only this production—but more of the same as well?

Dieter Dorn, the directorial genius who has made the Kammerspiele a by-word for brilliant modern productions—has just taken over the Intendancy of Munich's Bavarian State Theatre, the historic Residenz-Theater. This, under Baumbauer's direction not so long ago, was a dramatic Disaster-Area. His successor turned it into a good place for a night's rest…

Perhaps the responsibilities of supervising the Kammerspiele—newly renovated, with new adjacent facilities—will require all of Baumbauer's attention in Munich?

Then it might be possible to lure Peter Stein or Luc Bondy back to the Salzburg Festival—at least for the summers?

Opera Innovations & Diversions:

There was a time when I was always given press-tickets for Opening Week in Bayreuth, Munich, and Salzburg. Munich is still no problem, and the Bregenz Festival never was.

But I have not been able to get such favored seats at either Salzburg or Bayreuth for some time now. This is not really a problem at Bayreuth—unless I need to interview designers & directors, who disappear after the premieres—for the opera-productions repeat in three or more cycles.

At Salzburg, however, new productions, as well as revivals, are not spread over the five-week performance-period. Their stars, apparently, have immediate engagements elsewhere as well.

Lady Macbeth Linked with Jenufa

Thus I was not able to see film-maker Bob Swaim's controversial staging of Janacek's Jenufa, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. But I do know the great mill-wheel set-piece, designed by Ferdinand Wögerbauer. It was reproduced in full-color on large scale in several leading newspapers.

Nor did I get to see and hear Lady Macbeth von Mzensk, conducted by Valery Gergiev and staged by the very innovative Peter Mussbach. Photos of Klaus Kretschmer's monumental setting, however, suggest the bleakness of a Socialist State.

The Salzburg Festival—as do other major festivals—now has its own website/homepage. Not only is there abundant information available, but there are also copies of impressive production photos free of charge to the media.

You might check this out at http://www.salzburgfestival.at/pr-ues.htm

SO SUE ME, ALREADY!--EuroTrash in Action: Salzburg's updating of Richard Strauss's "Ariadne." Photo: ©Salzburg Festival/Sebastian Hoppe/2001.

Mozart's Figaro & Strauss' Ariadne
Staged in Somewhat Similar Settings

If Salzburg's current Macbeth production had any set-walls, it could be mistaken for the rather similar contemporary stagings of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro and Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos.

As staged by Christopher Marthaler and designed by Anna Viebrock, Figaro and Susanna seem to be getting married at the City Hall, with a large boxy shop-window at one side, with white gowns on forms.

The set-walls look deliberately shop-worn, and the tacky wedding-gowns would not be out of place in a shop in the poorer districts of modern Munich.

Apparently the showcase is supposed to suggest some kind of cut-rate tailor-shop or bridal outfitter's.

So I'm now eager to see this production—if it survives in next summer's repertory—to see if Figaro is still measuring for his & Suzanna's marriage-bed. Or if he is in fact measuring for a bridal gown?

A production-photo of this Figaro, in a Berlin newspaper, showed Cherubino kissing the Countess' toes. Or perhaps the oversexed lad—played paradoxically by a woman—was performing an Act of Fusspflege on Count Almaviva's neglected wife?

Ariadne was co-staged by Jossi Weiler & Sergio Morabito, but—from the photos, at least—it might just as well have been staged by the Wizard of Barcelona, Macbeth's Calixto Bieito. Certainly the varied strung-out stage-groupings looked very much again like EuroTrash at work & play.
SO GO FIGHT CITY HALL!--Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" modernised in shabby municipal offices. Photo: ©Salzburg Festival/Ruth Walz/2001.

The huge Art Deco room in which the action took place could have been a foyer in Rockefeller Center. There were also some glass display-cases.

A critic colleague, who had seen the staging, explained that the idea had been to make a comment on the Festival itself. And the demand of the Von Karajan Old-Guard for handsome productions which would be entertaining, without any redeeming Social Significance.

Just as Richard Strauss's nouveau riche patron in Ariadne insists on mixing Opera Seria with Commedia dell'Arte

So the photos show what is supposed to be a foyer of the Festspielhaus, with the busts of famous composers & conductors turned to the wall.

And the Ariadne, as Deborah Polaski had been directed to play her—was an alcoholic prima-donna, past her best.

The design-resonances between this Ariadne and the Figaro may be unintentional. But they looked rather similar. But perhaps this is only the result of the same designer—Anna Viebrock—being overworked before the premieres?

Hans Neuenfels' bizarrely conceived Così fan tutte—even more fantastically designed by Reinhard von der Thannen—returned from last season. But even that production was Mozart Modern.

There were no press-photos of the Falstaff left in the Press-Office files, so you may have to check out the website. Or the CD box…

But this Salzburg Easter Festival Falstaff production has been designed by Nick Ormerod and staged by Declan Donnellan, of Cheek by Jowl. So it wants to be both seen & heard!

Herbert Wernicke's Don Carlo

BUT WHERE'S THE BAT?--Cast & Chorus of Salzburg "Fledermaus" strung out across vast stage of Felsenreitschule. Photo: ©Salzburg Festival/2001
Seeing Herbert Wernicke's brilliantly conceived Don Carlo was my first experience of this slightly shop-worn staging. But—although I had not been permitted to see it in previous seasons—I knew & admired it at least in part from the photos I had previously purchased of the production.

This viewing experience was made even more eventful as this was the first time I have ever had a press-seat high up in the balcony of the Grosses Festspielhaus.

It is rather like riding in Delta Economy, with the back of the seat in front of you hitting your knees. But at least the ushers don't hand you a tiny paper carry-bag with a soggy sandwich and bitter apple, in lieu of an in-flight meal.

The acoustic is adequate up there, and you are able to see every stage-scratch and set-marking quite clearly. In Von Karajan's time, the stage-surfaces always gleamed.

Nonetheless, the elevation gives spectators a far better in-depth view of the action, as well as of the Grand Processional for the Auto-da-Fé in front of the Cathedral of Valladolid.

This scene reminded us—hardly lost in Super-Catholic Salzburg—that for hundreds of years, long before Saturday Matinées, the Catholic Church knew how to put on a good show for the market-weekend: Throw another Jew or Heretic on the fire!

Wernicke is a genius in making huge and very wide stages work for him. As the main-stage of the Salzburg Festival seems as long as two football fields end-to-end, this can be a real hazard for most directors.

But Wernicke—like the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle—is also his own set, costume, & lighting designer. If the set is not playable, he has no one to blame but himself.

His Post-Modernist Salzburg Boris settings were among the most striking, innovative, exciting, relevant, and eminently playable of any festival opera production in recent years.

But then you can see both the best and the worst of modern stage-design in the same season at Salzburg! Often only a day or two apart…

For this version of Verdi's Don Carlo, Wernicke didn't have to worry about the Fontainebleau Scene. The action was confined entirely to the grim Spain of the Inquisition and the iron rule of Philipp II.

Instead of closing in the stage with inner portals, Wernicke extended his basic set-units far into the offstage wings on both sides, making a superwide scenic panorama. But the basic units were bright white, a series of non-arched arcades, with no decoration or coloration.

Instead of arches, the openings were post-&-lintel rectangular, adding a visual sense of the rigidity of Philipp's anal-retentive Court. These units were variously deployed: fanned outward, leaning, folded over, at right-angles to form enclosures.

For the Auto-da-Fé, they were joined in a wide semi-circle, rather like a bull-ring, or the Corrales of the Spanish Theatre of the Siglo d'Oro.

Thus the response of the King's horrified subjects to his summary order to burn the Brabant Protestants could easily be seen and understood.

This open set worked very well for the several larger scenes, but most of the opera is revealed in more intimate encounters. In these strong moments, Wernicke either centered the action or highlighted the center section.

The visual "point" of the confrontation between Carlo and his father—as well as the visual emphasis on the threat of Eboli's treachery and the power of the Inquisition—was made extremely strong by two immense steel points moving in from either side—or withdrawing. Six silvery points stood vertically in a scene in which some characters could have well been walking on knives.

Neither the set nor the costumes suggested a period production. King Philipp's soldiers, in fact, seemed to be modern Black Berets.

Wernicke did not peg this production to Generalissimo Franco's time either: no shiny black oilcloth Guardia Civil hats.

The Spanish people wore contemporary clothes. The petitioners from Brabant looked like 1920s office-workers. And the principals wore either formal or modern-romantic garb.

This kind of "timeless modernity" actually works fairly well for Don Carlo, even though neither King Juan Carlos nor the Spanish Catholic Hierarchy is able to burn heretics at the stake anymore… Franco came close to it, however.

But, given the deliberate chastity—even sterility—of the white architectural elements, Wernicke was also fortunate in having a cast of actor-singers with very strong presences, able to hold the stage forcefully alone or in duos or trios.

Thomas Hampson was especially stalwart—and entirely human—as Posa. His entire body and his gestures were animated by the passions of the music and text. And it was a stunning vocal interpretation as well.

Neil Shicoff's Carlo was also powerful, even though the Infante is obviously a weak, even indecisive character. But he neither played nor sang him as a spoiled Royal or a pathetic wimp.

Both Olga Borodina and Marina Mescheriavkova were excellent as the rather strongly contrasting Eboli and Queen Elisabetta.

Eboli's sudden recognition that Carlo does not love her—thinking her the queen instead—was arresting. Even though she is Verdi's villainess, thanks to his music and Borodina's vocal and visual powers, the pathos of this spurned and disgraced woman was almost painful to see.

Ferrucio Furlanetto's cold, bitter, lonely, fearful Filippo should have been enough to discourage Carlo and Posa from demanding anything more than ringside seats at the bullfight. Or at the Auto-da-Fé.

But asking the King for mercy and tolerance for the Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands proved a Death Warrant. To demand religious & political freedom for Flanders & Brabant was obvious folly with such a murderous monarch.

[It would have been different with George W. Bush, as he probably doesn't even know where Flanders & Brabant are located. Not many Americans do nowadays.]

As the ancient, blind, ferocious Grand Inquisitor, Anatoli Kotscherga, was even more terrifying. Not only because of what he sang and how he sang it. But also because Wernicke gave him very little movement, so he became a kind of small stubby icon, radiating murderous powers.

Lorin Maazel—long ago the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic—put this admired orchestra through the paces of the score with vigor and subtlety.

Fatty Batty Fledermaus !

BATTY "FLEDERMAUS"--Cocaine-sniffing Prince Orlovsky spreads his wings in controversial new Salzburg staging.
Photo: ©Salzburg Festival/Mara Eggert/2001.
Virtually on the day of the premiere of the new Salzburg Die Fledermaus, in Vienna the Sophiensaal was gutted by fire. This historic assembly hall was the scene of many a glittering ball and Viennese social triumph over the decades.

Firemen were unable to save anything but the still-smoking walls. Photos in the newspapers showed the ranks of handsome loges intact, however.

The apparent cause of the devastating blaze was repairs on the roof. But—after seeing Reinhard von der Thannen's new Fledermaus setting in the Felsenreitschule—I had a nasty suspicion that there might have been dirty-work at hand.

Did the Sophiensaal have to burn in order to give the appalling Salzburg Fledermaus scenic- environment more visual and topical/historical Resonance? Arson in the Cause of Art?

The ballroom in which Prince Orlovsky gave his lavish party looked rather like the Sophiensaal after the fire. Not before.

The great stone arcades—carved into the living stone of the Mönchsberg, to form the Salzburg Prince-Archbishops' Spanish Riding School—had been filled with smashed windows.

Or was this visual effect intended, instead, to evoke Gerard Mortier's forthcoming Ruhr Triennale, for which disused rusting factories will be employed as performance-venues? To give Salzburg audiences a preview of what they can expect in the old Thyssen Steel Works?

The visual echoes of the Sophiensaal disaster were heightened—not diminished—when Orlovsky's formal ballroom loges—constructed in front of the arcades—burst into flames. For no apparent reason…

But this Fledermaus was a disaster of another order entirely.

Hans Neuenfels' staging of Johann Strauss Jr's classic operetta is not going to be seen on Broadway any time soon. And certainly not at the Met. Not even at Glimmerglass!

Seldom have I seen a production deliberately designed & staged to be so Ugly & Unpleasant.

With so little reason or need, considering the many charms of the score and the farcical hi-jinx of the original libretto.

Die Fledermaus is not exactly Social Protest Theatre.

And it is certainly not Mother Courage either! Though it certainly looked like a Brechtian Agit-Prop indictment of Capitalist Excess.

Will Re-Writing & Updating Save Operetta?

Many lovers of the songs & scores of seldom performed operettas believe that new, updated librettos could make these musical gems live again. Festival Director Mortier even believes Mozart's operas need this kind of Modern Revisionism.

If Neuenfels' own rewriting of this period libretto is any indication, more of the same—whether in Salzburg or the Ruhr—will kill off operetta definitively.

For reasons which cannot be fathomed—as the original libretto unfolds very effectively already—Neuenfels introduced a kind of female Master of Ceremonies.

She appeared in several smart versions of "white-tie & tails" formal-dress. She had a number of "rants" and seemed also to be a kind of traffic-director on stage.

Some of her tirades were lifted from the celebrated Viennese cultural-scold, Karl Kraus.

As things developed, however, she was not completely extraneous to the production. In the prison scene, she played the role of Frosch, the drunken jailer. Because his name means "frog," she drilled some prisoners to hop about like frogs.

And why not? The show began with butterflies and bats anyway. During the overture, dancers pantomimed the winged creatures!

And isn't the entire operetta about the sexual mix-ups that occur because Dr. Eisenstein long ago played a nasty trick on his former friend, Dr. Falke?

When he—costumed as a butterfly—left his drunken friend Falke asleep, still dressed as a bat. So that Falke was jeered on his morning return home

Falke's revenge—acted out at Prince Orlovsky's ball—is to compromise Eisenstein, trying to seduce his own wife, who's disguised as a Hungarian countess.

But well before this was set in motion in the Neuenfels Version, nameless, lineless characters swarmed over the extremely wide stage, reacting to intimate domestic scenes, even interfering in them.

This is a disturbing trend in some recent avant-garde stagings.

It is most often apparent on very wide or very deep stages, in intimate scenes which might look naked without scores of extras being busy on the fringes of the real action.

With principals who are not strong enough to hold a large stage by themselves—or as a duo or trio—desperate directors will try anything to keep the scene from looking vast and virtually deserted. Even unnecessary set-props are thrown onto the stage.

The solution employed in the Salzburg Fledermaus was similar to that used by co-directors Richard Jones & Antony McDonald in the current Bregenz Festival Bohème. They have enlisted the services—not of mere dancers—but of a "Movement Group," to add some realistic semi-action on stage.

Unfortunately, both in Bregenz and in Salzburg, much of this action is distracting, even at odds with the central focus.

In the Salzburg Fledermaus—while some of this activity was obviously choreographed—much of it looked like random, even spontaneous, jerking about. The effect was rather like a very expensive Amateur Theatre Production.

An initial group in the Fledermaus looked like undernourished street-urchins, and why they had access to the Eisenstein villa is a mystery.

My guess is that Neuenfels and his designer wanted to make a Social Comment: to contrast the luxury of Vienna's Haute Bourgeoisie with the poverty of its Underclass.

This was made even more apparent as the immense chorus streamed through the arcades and down across the stage. We were obviously not in fin de siècle Vienna, but in the desperate years after World War I.

The chorus and dancers were initially all wearing shabby Workers' clothes.

Brecht Returns To Salzburg!

They looked very much like refugees from a Berliner Ensemble production of Bertolt Brecht's St. Joan of the Stockyards.

As Brecht actually was—in the wake of World War II—supposed to become Theatre Chief at the Salzburg Festival, this could have lent an odd Historic Resonance to Neuenfels' production.

But who now remembers that odd circumstance?

In the event, having secured for himself an Austrian Passport—and a Swiss bank-account—Brecht took himself, his dramas, and his women to East Berlin. Where he was culturally Lionised—and his theatre was richly subsidised by the DDR Kultur Ministry.

Neunfels may have been attempting a Pseudo-Brechtian Updating of Fledermaus, but why freeze it in the 1920s? There is no especial Resonance in that for the Modern Audiences Gerard Mortier seeks to engage..

Brecht, by now, is Old Hat, even in Berlin!

But there were several aspects of Neuenfels' new text and staging which owed much to Brecht, including the lady MC, who offered running commentary.

Brecht thought it necessary to explain what his plays meant to audiences of Workers. Otherwise, he feared, they could not be trusted to understand what they were seeing & hearing.

Also, he did not want them to fall into the trap of believing they were experiencing something real. Breaking into a powerful scene with a commentary—or a song—ensured that they wouldn't forget they were seeing a Play. Not Life.

This is the famous Brechtian Alienation Effect.

But at the Salzburg Festival, the ticket-prices are so steep, no one can forget he is at a play.

And, with the visualizations in the current Mortier Era productions—even though they strive to look like scenes from Contemporary Life—few spectators can identify with what they see.

But the Fledermaus Workers did not oppress the spectators with their poverty, social anger, and shabby clothes very long.

As this is an operetta with strong sexual over- and undertones, most of the women were soon stripped to their undies. And some of the men shucked their shirts, keeping trousers up with suspenders. Some even dropped their pants.

This updating, however, didn't achieve much in the way of the Contemporary Relevance Gerard Mortier so admires.

Fledermaus as a Metaphor for Rise of Hitler?

It would have made a much more relevant point to have Austria's Radical Rightist Jörg Haider lead some Neo-Nazis across the stage.

Although it's not worked-through in the production, the contrasts between the desperate Working-Classes—who often had no work at all in the 1920s—and the socially privileged & frivolous could be viewed as an explanation for The Rise of Adolf Hitler.

Certainly the portly Eisenstein—dressed for the ball in a white uniform with medals—bore a resemblance to Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. He also looked a bit like the New York Times' John Rockwell—who was at the festival.

But his character must have been conceived as Goering, because there was a photo of this formidable Nazi in the lively program. Also in this photo-gallery, however, were Truman Capote, Aldous Huxley, Janice Joplin, Kurt Cobain, & John Belushi.

Shove This Up Your Nose, Salzburg!

The reason for this two-page spread was made abundantly clear on stage. The fatty, sloppy, messy Prince Orlovsky—nothing elegant, or even Russian about him—was a bigtime Cocaine Sniffer.

He got Eisenstein high on some lines, so the entire evening could be explained, at the end, as a Drug-Dream. This might possibly be viewed as Relevant & Contemporary. Orlovsky even looked like John Belushi on a Bad-Hair Day.

Aside from the visual degradation—no smart uniform or precise movements—Orlovsky was also prone to screaming-fits. He sang—or grunted—his songs, often sliding into a high and very unpleasant falsetto.

Many in the audience were obviously not amused to hear the music distorted in this way. And some were clearly annoyed at the silver trays of lines of coke distributed to the by-now virtually disrobed Workers.

What they were doing at Orlovsky's ball was not immediately clear. But, as Orlovsky was desperate for titillation—sexual and otherwise—why not have some Rough Trade in for the evening?

Dr. Freud, Meet Your Next Patients!

Even Vienna's most famous Alienist would not have known how to deal with all the sexual kinks on stage.

Speaking of that, both Eisenstein and Frank, the prison-governor, made their ballroom entrances in ribbed cylindrical costume-props which made them look like small wedding-cakes or puffy Viennese pastries.

If this seemed a bit effete, they soon conceived a passion for each other. And Eisenstein got a bridal-veil for the ceremony joining them.

This was an obvious reference to the subject of Homo-Ehe—Gay Marriage—which is now legal in Germany. But is still not allowed in those states—like Bavaria—where the Catholic Church—or at least the Catholic Politicians—holds sway.

Before the mock-marriage, Eisenstein had been busy miming bum-fucking of dance & chorus personnel of all sexes.

This has lost its shock-value long ago.

But it still seems standard in Salzburg Shakespeare productions, no matter who stages them.

Can it be that all Mortier's favorite directors find Anal-Intercourse a fascinating act to show on stage? If so, why? How does it help Richard III—or Johann Strauss Jr?

For that matter, some of the dancers appeared in various presumably erotic S&M costumes and choreographies.

In one Amateur Night routine, several male dancers viciously beat & kicked their female partners. Was this perhaps intended as a Social Comment on the brutal sexual suggestion involved the traditional Parisian Apache Dance, often performed for rich people slumming?

At one point, Rosalinda stood atop a broken-down fiacre to sing a once charming song. As she stood there, however, her clothes were ripped off by soldiers.

At another juncture, she was closely observed by a shabby man with the battered, bloody body of a woman sticking out of his suitcase.

Even when she was entertaining her ex-lover, Alfred, the tenor, he graphically showed the audience the reason he had returned to see her: He thrust his hand between her legs at crotch-level.

Wow! That's Love at its most Elemental!

Johann Strauss—Senior or Junior—would definitely not have had a good time at this Salzburg Ball.

Love & Marriage/Sex & Violence!

To prove he really is who he says he is at the prison, Eisenstein disguised himself as his blind lawyer, Dr. Blind.

But to do this, he had to force Dr. Blind under his cupcake cylinder, scalp him, and leave him for dead. Earlier, he shot a soldier who was just standing by the broken fiacre.

By the way, there were three fiacres on stage. One of them was functional. The other two were missing their front-wheels. And one way over upstage right had a dead horse collapsed in front of it.

Did this illustrate the Indifference of Prosperous fin-de-siècle Viennese to Animal Rights?

Neuenfels left out nothing but the kitchen-sink. And that may have been onstage, but obscured, when Rosalinda received Alfred after Eisenstein had departed.

No Eisenstein children appear in the original libretto. But Neuenfels made up for that Straussian Oversight.

In this production—perhaps distressed by their parents' philanderings and all the poverty-stricken street-kids who were invading their home—they committed suicide.

Or did the boy murder his sister before killing himself? There was so much activity on stage, it was difficult to sort out who was doing what to whom…

Alive With the Sound of Music?

Oh, and how was the singing—what there was of it?

When major numbers weren't being sabotaged by manic and meaningless stage-movement by the chorus, all the principals but Orlovsky were generally good.

He was obviously directed to act like an hysteric, behave like a sloppy mess, and caterwaul like a scalded cat. But it seemed perfectly natural to this performer.

Considering that all the main actors had to perform the conceptions of an extremely quixotic & neurotic director, it was unfair that they were roundly booed.

Fortunately, some of the spectators who remained after the intermission were able to separate the talents from the performances and give the singers their due.

Christoph Homberger had his moments as Eisenstein, but he was often strained. Small wonder with the frenetic and bizarre stage-movements he was given.

Elzbieta Szmytka, as Rosalinda, was excellent, and Marlin Hartelius, as Adele, was both courageous and able in the role. Even when she had to behave like her mistress' slave and kiss her feet!

Olof Bär was a rather stylish Falke, more like a falcon than a batty Fledermaus.

Because Eisenstein had been constantly cheating on Rosalinda—almost incomprehensible in this production because he is fat and unattractive—he lost her at the close to her old flame, Alfred.

Nicely sung & played by Matthias Klink, Alfred exited his prison-cell in a natty Falangist Officer's uniform. He looked good enough to eat, which Rosalinda seemed to be attempting.

Conductor Mark Minkowskiwas roundly booed. But could it have been his idea to intrude some non-Straussian musical-quotations into the score? Their intended points seemed both obvious and juvenile.

One of them was hardly relevant to Mortier's Young & Modern Audiences. It was the phrase from a Liszt Prelude that was always played in Germany during World War II. Before another Nazi Victory…

Spectators would have had at least to have been born in the 1930s for that music to make any sense as a comment on the stage-action.

From the annoyed reactions around me, some of the Salzburg Old-Timers obviously were Survivors of the Anschluss.

But what did that gratuitous, extraneous music have to do with a story unfolding, apparently, before Hitler had come to power?

Will new Intendant Peter Ruzicka scrap this new staging?

Can he afford to?

The various costly costume changes for the chorus and dancers alone suggest that more use must be made of them. Maybe they could be recycled for a satirical staging of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron?

Considering what this rubble-strewn production must have cost to mount, it seems ridiculous to continue attacking Von Karajan's Salzburg stagings for their luxury and extravagance.

At least the festival audiences got what they paid for in those long lost days!


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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2001. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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