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By Glenn Loney, August 15, 2002

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
[01] New Festival Director for Salzburg
[02] New Finale for "Turandot"
[03] Unfinished Opera "Kandaules" Completed
[04] Lorenzo Da Ponte in Santa Fe
[05] Undies and "Don Giovanni"
[06] "Magic Flute" Circus
[07] Revising "Jedermann"
[08] Young Directors in Salzburg
[09] American-Austrian Initiatives
[10] Farewell To Herbert Wernicke

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A New Era for the Salzburg Festival!

New Artistic Director Peter Ruzicka
Is Neither Mortier nor Von Karajan—

In the first days of this past summer's Salzburg Festival season, journalists were almost foaming at their laptops to sing the praises of the new Artistic Director, the admirable Dr. Peter Ruzicka.

While they echoed his assurances that he had no intention of turning the clock back to the time of the Intendancy of the late Herbert von Karajan, they were curiously silent about the name of the man who had filled this position for the past decade.

In some accounts, it seemed that there had been a kind of silent regency between the two regimes: Von Karajan's seniority and Ruzicka's ascendancy. But why did most writers refrain from naming the Intendant between—who was seldom silent and certainly regal in his opinions and pronouncements?

Possibly because Dr. Gerard Mortier—now the Intendant of the Ruhr Triennale—had been so famously opinionated and confrontational? Even to the point of openly insulting in the press the Festival's President, the very capable Dr. Helga Rabl-Stadler.

This summer she certainly looked pleased to have Dr. Ruzicka taking over the Festival. It is, after all, Salzburg's major tourist-magnet and one of its several claims to fame.

There are, of course, Festival Old-Timers who would like nothing better than a return to the lavishly produced and glamorously cast Von Karajan opera stagings.

Ruzicka made it quite clear that he saw no reason to go into reverse when the world—especially in the arts—is constantly moving forward. But he noted that while he was no admirer of Deconstruction in opera production—or Historicism—the festival had to find new paths:

"Naturally, the most important subjects in the history of opera and drama will be told in a new way, whereby aesthetic ideals will move away from the current trend of deconstructionism and post-modern fun culture and aim to achieve an integral theatre experience affecting the spirit and the senses."

Professor Dr. Ruzicka is not only an admired modern composer—his opera Celine recently had an important production—but he's also an able arts-administrator. He has had legal training as well—which could be useful in contract talks with sopranos.

He was chief of the Hamburg State Opera, and, before coming to Salzburg, Head of Munich's Academy of Theatre.

In panels and seminars during the first week of the festival, he seemed confident, relaxed, and reserved. Content to make cogent statements, then sit back and listen carefully to what others had to say.

Quite a contrast to Dr. Mortier, who often seemed be to ready to pick a quarrel with his own panel-guests, and especially nosey journalists. He once pre-empted a Peter Stein press-conference—about theatre projects—with other festival concerns to such a length that Stein pretended to fall asleep at the head-table.

Ruzicka initially articulated a production program of five columns, or pillars, on which future festival seasons will rest. Mozart obviously is one, given his ties to Salzburg and the fact that 2006 will be his 250th Anniversary. Also, his operas are sure box-office draws…

Although Ruzicka's predecessor was no friend of Puccini, the new director intends to give him his due on stage at last. No Puccini operas were staged in any Salzburg venue during the Mortier Decade!

But this new attention doesn't mean a Puccini Pillar. Rather, the great operas of the 19th century—Italian, German, French—will be given a new look and hearing.

The operas and musical compositions of Richard Strauss will be another pillar.

As will be unknown or forgotten works of Austrian composers who were forced by the Nazis to leave their homeland and Europe. Or to die in Concentration Camps.

This recognition in performance began this season with Alexander Zemlinsky's König Kandaules. Works by Egon Wellesz, Franz Schreker, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold are promised.

Korngold's Die tote Stadt has already found a place in opera repertories. New York City Opera has a haunting production. So those critics who call his compositions more corn than gold must be referring to his Hollywood film-scores.

New Music will be the fifth and final festival pillar. It can hardly be ignored, especially by an Intendant who is himself a modern composer.

In addition to these five areas of musical concern, Ruzicka also plans a new programmatic focus on Dance Theatre.

As well as the revitalization of Jedermann, more attention will be given to Austrian drama, old and new, and to the development of new young voices and talents in theatre.

And, of course, the distinguished programs of orchestral, choral, and solo concerts will be continued and improved.

All in all—along with local cultural fence-mending—this is a major mandate for Salzburg's new festival chief.

Salzburg Offers Efforts To Complete the Incomplete—

Should incipient Masterworks—left unfinished owing to the demise of their Creators—be performed as written or composed? Or should someone be commissioned to complete the works, especially if there are surviving notes and sketches?

This past summer's Salzburg Festival offered two such unfinished works—newly completed. One of which had already been finished by another hand over three generations ago…

On the evidence of performance, the jury is still out. Only time, as they say, will tell whether Luciano Berio's new Third Act for Puccini's Turandot will replace Alfano's version.

And, as for King Candaules—based on Alexander Zemlinsky's skeletal score-outline and notes—Antony Beaumont's fleshed-out version will have to stand or fall on its own musical and dramatic merits with opera audiences of the future.

Machine-Age Pountney/Puccini Turandot
With New Ending Devised by Luciano Berio!

The most amazing and astonishing production at the Salzburg Festival was the Puccini/Berio Turandot. Even more astonishing is the fact that I liked it so very much, even though I was denied a press-ticket.

On those rare occasions when critics actually have to buy their own tickets, their judgments are apt to be more stringent—even harsh—than if they'd been given an excellent seat absolutely free.

Friends from Vienna have written me here in Manhattan to say they'd heard me [in German] on ORF/Austrian Radio during the festival. They were impressed that I'd admired the David Pountney Turandot production so very much. My enthusiastic comments even made them sorry they'd not come to Salzburg for this event.

As I had to pay $230 for my balcony ticket—not at all an ideal vantage point—it does say a lot for this stunning staging that I enjoyed it so much!

But my impromptu impressions of the production were recorded for rebroadcast during intermission. Before I'd seen the third act, which features a problematic new conclusion by Signor Berio.

The great stage of Salzburg's Grosses Festspielhaus—wider than a football field is long, it seems—is notoriously difficult to dress with scenery which does not detract from the arias, duets, and choruses which help advance the plot, illuminate character, and activate conflicts.

Pountney and his designers—Johan Engels for sets; Marie-Jeanne Lecca for costumes—have devised a striking, stage-filling visual metaphor for the Peking over which Turandot tyrannizes so completely.

On both sides of the broad stage, extending to center-stage are two immense metal balconies with three levels of platforms on which robot-like Chinese Workers frantically carry out repetitive tasks. The precision of their mindless movements is almost hypnotic. That they can also sing gloriously is certainly a plus.

Illuminated from the front, they are almost frightening in their numbers and intensity of movement. But, backlit in silhouette, they are even more terrifying. The silhouetting also makes the great cog-wheels whirling behind them much more intimidating.

Who could not be crushed by such fearsome machines? Who would dare to throw a wrench into such sophisticated gear-trains?

The handsomely illustrated program points out the designers' debts to Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.

But Pountney and his team have avoided any overt suggestion—until the final act—that this old fable is set anywhere in modern times. Fortunately, not in a slave-labor factory in Maoist China—which would now be passé.

In fact, the robot-soldiers and workers look almost archaic. Indeed, when the two sides of the great balconies open to reveal an immense golden head, this mysterious face is flanked by ranks of those terra cotta soldiers found buried in the Emperor's Tomb in Xian.

Prince Calaf, however, is not dressed á la Chinoise. Johan Botha—who gives a powerful performance—is also a powerfully built, even bulky, man. A barrel-chested giant. So a mid-Victorian suit with vest and long frock-coat help minimize his stockiness. And they provide a visual prelude to the contemporaneity of the final act.

When the great golden head opens to reveal Princess Turandot—an imperious Gabriele Schnaut—she is high above everyone, with a great golden robe cascading downward some thirty feet. It is an overwhelming image, enough to intimidate anyone but Calaf.

Or, of course, those foolish princes who preceded him. There is even a silent parade across the wide, wide stage of illuminated crystal caskets and severed heads to remind any possible suitors of the certain dangers which await them, should they seek the hand of Turandot. Instead, she will have a princely head.

At one point, severed heads on the factory-balconies revolve in sync with the great wheels. And, yes, when Turandot comes down to earth from her high perch inside the golden head, it is also filled with cog-wheels.

As Turandot dominates stage-center, the Emperor and the Mandarin are at either side of the stage on raised platforms. The costumed singers are in the laps of giant Bunraku puppets in the same costumes—only larger. These figures are manipulated with long poles by black-clad handlers.

All these elements make an absolutely fantastic, constantly changing, mechanistic stage-picture which makes the music and the drama even more potent, even chilling.

I suspect that Puccini—after an initial shock—would find this production a masterful visual metaphor for the Turandot/Calaf conflict at the center of his unfinished masterpiece.

What he would think of the Third Act, as now scored by Berio and visually developed by Pountney, is more problematic.

A major difficulty in Alfano's two versions of a completed third act is the almost perfunctory thawing of the previously glacial Turandot, immediately replaced with a radiant love for Calaf.

Supposedly, the sacrificial death of the slave-girl Liù—who dies for love, rather than betray Calaf's name—melts the Ice Princess's heart. There is really no time allowed for this transition to develop believably.

In the new version—based by Berio on more of Puccini's surviving sketches than used by Alfano—Pountney has Liù's body placed on a hospital gurney. Seated at either side, Turandot and Calaf contemplate the poor girl and the meaning of her death.

This slowly thaws Turandot and brings them together. They join hands over her inert corpse. Dramatically and musically, this is finally a most effective, even touching, resolution.

But there is an associated visual/dramatic problem with this shift from Ancient China to modern-day Beijing. Suddenly, all the robots are freed from their mechanistic routines and terrifying taboos.

So, at the close, the stage is filled with casually dressed Post-Maoist Socialist-Capitalist Citizens. Supposedly feeling real human emotions and maybe even using their mobile-phones…

But this vision and the unfocused stage-movement which is animated by it is not very interesting. And certainly not a powerful background to the great new love blooming in front of them.

Turandot's subjects were much more dramatic and interesting as robots.

Even though Ping, Pang, and Pong also behaved like puppets with handlers, they retained some of the humanity which is in the libretto, as they recalled their far-off homes. In this intermezzo, panels of peonies descended to fill the stage.

Cristina Gallardo-Domas was an affecting Liù.

It is often said that you cannot step into the same river twice. Puccini's Yangtze River flowed way downstream decades ago. Alfano was near enough in time to at least put his toe in the muddy waters.

But Berio?

It would have made more sense had the Alban Berg Estate asked him to complete Lulu, although Professor F. Cerha's version has proved eminently effective, musically and dramatically. Berio seems much closer to Berg than to Puccini.

If Riccordi—or the world's major opera-houses—wanted a better Turandot finale than Alfano's, instead of that aged avant-gardist Berio, why didn't they commission the Master of the Musical Pastiche: Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber?

In the program notes, Berio points out his previous efforts in completing unfinished works, including Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. He also emphasizes his efforts to be true to the spirit of the work itself and draw inspiration from any surviving notes or sketches.

He has obviously done this in the early moments of Act Three. "Nessun Dorma" survives intact, and echoes of Wagner and Debussy—both influences on Puccini—are certainly heard.

But then the modernist Berio bombast begins to take over: Trumpets, Drums, Xylophones. This sounds quite alien to the Puccini of Acts I and II.

But it is much too early to predict how this new finale will fare in future Turandot productions.

Pountney's gradual union of the passionate Prince and the melting Princess over Liù's body is, however, certainly worth preserving. It provides a logical/dramaturgical and emotional closure which was previously lacking.

Valery Gergiev conducted magisterially, as he had at the Baden-Baden Festival, a co-producer. [Where I surely would have received a press-ticket!]

Nonetheless, I would still pay real money to see this Turandot again. Perhaps $25 up in the Met's Family Circle, but certainly not $230. Salzburg's ticket-prices are nothing if not Elitist…

Were this not such a complex and large-cast production, it would be wonderful to be able to see it at BAM. Or even at the Met. But it would cost too much to import.

Unless, of course, Alberto Vilar—who has been most generous to the Met, Gergiev, and the Salzburg Festival—would make this possible. After all, Vilar did sponsor Gergiev's Kirov Opera production of War and Peace at the Met!

Zemlinsky's König Kandaules
Fleshed Out by Antony Beaumont!

For some collectors of Music-Trivia, the most interesting thing about the Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky is his relationship with his sometime music-student, Alma Schindler. She was the inspiration for Tom Lehrer's comic song, "Alma." For she became muse to a number of important 20th century talents. And wife to some: Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, and Franz Werfel. With an OK excursion with Oskar Kokoshka on the side…

Zemlinsky had to flee Europe—not only because Hitler had annexed Austria and he was Jewish—but also because his music was judged to be "Degenerate." So he—like such émigrés as Erich Wolfgang Korngold—sought refuge in the United States.

He died not long after his arrival, so he never had the opportunity to complete his major work, the opera King Candaules. Nor see it performed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, as was his fond hope.

In recent years, well-intentioned efforts have been made to revive his reputation and give his minor works performances and stagings. His Oscar Wilde one-act operas, such as The Birthday of the Infanta, suggest the promise he was unable to fulfill.

Whether König Kandaules—as completed from Zemlinsky's particel by Antony Beaumont—will find a place in contemporary opera repertories is open to question. As a score, it is certainly an interesting compendium of late Romantic and modern idioms.

But as a stage-drama on which to construct a score, Kandaules is not very dramatic. Or compelling—which is something a powerful score might be able to overcome, as this one does not.

The tale of King Candaules and Gyges' Ring is very ancient. Even Plato recycled it. But Zemlinsky based his own libretto on the play by André Gide—which is itself now almost forgotten as well.

In brief, Candaules is a fabulously wealthy and powerful ruler. Midas couldn't touch him. He also has a fabulously beautiful wife. But he is elementally insecure, longing to be liked, admired, loved by his courtiers and subjects.

Thus, he is a generous king and an open-handed party-giver. He even wants his court to see how lovely his reclusive queen is.

But she doesn't want to be paraded around the court like another of his treasures. She believes her beauty should be only for his eyes. Indeed, she thinks he's behaving like a fool.

His undoing is set in motion when a simple fisherman, Gyges, catches a great fish with a mysterious ring in its digestive tract. Such are the powers of this ring that it can render its wearer invisible.

Gyges brings the ring to the king—who immediately adopts the fisherman as a friend and confidant. He even arranges for Gyges to enjoy his wife as he looks on—using the magic of invisibility.

Unfortunately for this Royal Voyeur, his queen has the best night in bed she's ever experienced. The king cannot hope to top Gyges' performance.

Conscience-stricken, Gyges tells the queen what has really happened. She demands that he kill Candaules, who has so thoughtlessly betrayed her.

Gyges does as he is told. He becomes King and consort to the dominatrix Queen.

The dramaturgical problem—as it appears in the opera libretto—is that Candaules is not a very interesting character, even as a psychological study. Instead, he has all the appeal of a professional party-giver.

Nor are Gyges or the Queen developed sufficiently to be more than figures in a kind of Reverse Morality Play.

The admired director Christine Mielitz unfortunately had the uninspired idea of setting the action in some amorphous modern kingdom. She also invoked cutting-edge trendiness by having Act I occur on the forestage of the Kleines Festspielhaus and in the actual auditorium, effectually co-opting the audience.

Pert maids and tuxedoed waiters passed round trays of champagne as Candaules and his court reveled before the curtain. Glimpsed darkly in a box-frame in the curtain, Gyges was seen naked in a drenching rain, raising high an immense fish.

The costumes and outfitting of the playing-space were the work of designer Christian Floeren. But the major visual signature of this production was created by Austria's celebrated sculptor/painter Alfred Hrdlicka.

When the curtain finally rose—and revealed conductor Kent Nagano and the orchestra playing on the stage—a great abstract sculpture by Hrdlicka slanted across a facade of windows as an upstage backdrop.

For a moment, the audience was deliberately blinded by fiercely bright lights in the windows. This is a popular Post-Modernist European stage-lighting effect which is meant to have some sort of unexplained dramatic impact. What it actually does is damage the retinas of the audience.

Action in the proscenium was highlighted by a glowing white frame. A track of fire ran across the stage to suggest the burning of Gyges' humble home. After he had killed—or was this before?—his unfaithful wife. As this was not a major scene, it was not easy to keep such events in focus.

Hrdlicka's further visual contribution to suggesting mood, atmosphere, and environment for König Kandaules consisted of two rear-illuminated panels mounted at either side of the proscenium at balcony-level.

These roughly outlined vicious, cruel acts of sexual violence and depravity such as used to be scrawled on the walls of public lavatories. There was an even larger canvas in the foyer graphically relating the horrors of war to bestial sexual conquest and subjugation.

Actually, on stage Gyges and the Queen seemed to have a very satisfying encounter. Nothing like Hrdlicka's George Grosz-like caricatures of sexual violence.

Hrdlicka is perhaps best-known in Austria for his controversial—but very powerful—Holocaust Memorial in Vienna. But this production demonstrates yet again that famous painters and sculptors are not necessarily capable stage-designers.

While a great deal of Zemlinsky's libretto requires a declamatory mode, there were also some powerful arias and duets. All the principals were outstanding vocally, even if the stage direction didn't do wonders for their characterizations. Notable: Robert Brubaker as Candaules, Wolfgang Schöne as Gyges, Mel Ulrich as Phedros, and Nina Stemme as Queen Nyssia.

Conducting his Berlin Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, Kent Nagano gave the score a close, nuanced reading—focusing on small rich moments which might have been otherwise overlooked, engulfed, or lost.


Don Giovanni in a Wild West Saloon!
Peter Turrini's Da Ponte in Santa Fe

Along with the Pountney/Gergiev Turandot, Turrini's Da Ponte in Santa Fe was the other Absolutely Must See on my press-ticket request-list for Salzburg 2002.

Unfortunately, I also had to pay for this ticket. Some $90 in Euros, which I wouldn't even pay for a new play on Broadway. My mistake was to arrive in Salzburg at the opening of the festival when the limited press-ticket allocation must go to major European reviewers.

But, as Secretary of the Outer Critics Circle—and a member of the Drama Desk—of course I'd have the press-privilege if any Peter Turrini script were to be produced on the Great White Way. That is, however, highly unlikely. Especially his new Da Ponte comedic effort.

For that matter, New Yorkers are also unlikely to see any time soon a Broadway production of dramas by such living Austrian playwrights as Peter Handke and Elfriede Jelinek. But these authors are much admired in Mittel-Europa: Jelinek is even something of a social scourge.

The late Thomas Bernhard remains Austria's greatest contemporary playwright. Yet even his mordant social satires are not on view at Manhattan Theatre Club or New York Theatre Workshop.

For Austrian poetic dramas by the late Hugo von Hofmannsthal, you need to go to the Met for Rosenkavalier or Frau ohne Schatten.

The closest you will come to Johann Nestroy's beloved Viennese music-theatre shows is Hello, Dolly!

As for Grillparzer—well, he is not Johann Wolfgang Goethe.

Nonetheless, owing to its piquant title—which was what hooked me—Da Ponte in Santa Fe is sure to be translated into English and soon staged in the Great American Southwest.

In Salzburg's handsome Neo-Baroque Fellner & Helmer Landestheater, the open stage disclosed a shabby Wild West bar-room. It looked promising—even though the idea of the play did not.

Behind me, a German-speaker hissed to his wife: "That's the Birdcage Theatre in Tombstone!"

I had just had the same thought, having photographed this historic Arizona theatre only weeks before going to Salzburg. Its showgirl-whores a century ago were displayed over the audience in cages. Hence the song: "Only a bird in a gilded cage." Or so they insist at the Birdcage, which is now a Listed Site.

Unfortunately, Turrini never lets his audience inside to see the stage or the cages. All the action takes place in the bar-room, as an ambitious proprietor tries to re-launch his saloon as an opera-house.

Tonight, the premiere is Mozart's Don Giovanni. And Wolfgang's librettist—a ruined, shattered Lorenzo Da Ponte—is selling brandy in the bar-room

The locals have no idea who wrote the libretto, let alone who Mozart might be. Da Ponte cannot even get inside the auditorium to hear his own words sung for the first time in the American West.

Actually, Da Ponte never made it out to Santa Fe. And he would already have been long dead at the time of this imaginary event.

Turrini must have made the obligatory Central European pilgrimage to Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Tombstone, and Santa Fe to have got the idea of placing the historical Da Ponte in a western saloon. Every summer, I hear more German than English spoken in these places.

But why send Da Ponte west to New Mexico? It's crowded enough already with East German tourists…

Da Ponte's own story—after he fled Europe and came to the American East Coast—is far more interesting than any of the often cruel, smarmy, and sophomoric hi-jinx Turrini has devised to torment Da Ponte.

Truly, the script is on the level of what we at UC/Berkeley used to know as The Sophomore Farce. When I directed this way back in 1948—in the William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre—I staged Alonzo Delano's A Live Woman in the Mines, dating from 1850.

Far more imaginative and interesting than anything Turrini invented for Da Ponte in Santa Fe. Turrini's vision of the Old West and its saloons and showgirls seems derived from viewing Grade B Hollywood Westerns.

In fact, Austrian and German colleagues were almost unanimous in panning this pathetic new play. So my thumbs-down is not just an American opinion.

Just imagine: Da Ponte was the first instructor of Italian at what would become Columbia University! Think about the thrill of learning to order pasta from the genius who wrote the libretto for Don Giovanni and Figaro!

Da Ponte didn't have to travel to Santa Fe to hear and see his and Mozart's operas on the American stage.

In fact, he helped bring Manuel Garcia's troupe to New York to do just that. With Garcia's two brilliant daughters—who would later become famous as Pauline Viardot and Maria Malibran! But Manhattan wasn't ready for opera or Mozart.

Turrini's big running-gag involves Da Ponte's desperate efforts, even in old age, to function as the lover he once was. Not only has he invented copper-teeth, but he has also devised a copper contraption which will guarantee an erection when he strikes his heart passionately.

It doesn't work when he most wishes to dazzle. But when he's shot point-blank in the chest, it saves him. And gives him an instant erection: a long copper penis bobbing on a spring!

Talk about Austrian wit and sophistication!

This dramatic disaster—and World Premiere—was a co-production with the once admired Berliner Ensemble, which has fallen on dark days indeed. Brecht would be furious.

It was also blusteringly staged by the BE's current Intendant, Claus Peymann, once chief of Vienna's celebrated Burg-Theater. Considering Peymann's on-going arrogance as a Great Director and Man of Theatre, this production is a major embarrassment: Coarse Acting and Amateur Theatre!

Nonetheless, that admirable thespian, Jörg Gudzuhn, was often genuinely pathetic and sympathetic as the much-abused Da Ponte. And Annika Kuhl, as Dolly Delors—who dreams of musical stardom but is abruptly raped in the Mayor's box—was sweetly sad and rueful, especially looking back on a long life in prostitution.

Calling Santa Fe Little Theatre: Are you quite sure you want to produce this play for Pioneer Days?

Don Giovanni in a Mode-Salon!
Thomas Hampson Among the Undies—

The new Salzburg Don Giovanni is an improvement over two during Gerard Mortier's reign. But then Mortier didn't even like Mozart very much. Music of the Past…

The Patrice Chereau/Richard Peduzzi Giovanni—unlike their 1976 Bayreuth RING—was so dark hardly any of the Post-Modernist Minimalist settings could be seen. Their excuse for this stygian gloom was that most of the opera takes place at night.

But not all of the scenes are explicitly outside. And even in 18th century Seville, they did have lanterns, torches, and candles, after all.

Lucca Ronconi translated his succeeding Salzburg production of Don Giovanni from the past to Art Deco Fascist Italy. Complete with a railway-station and a Pullman-car for the Don's many doxies. There were also a lot of clocks—to suggest that time was running out for the Don?

The new Festival Director, Peter Ruzicka, has promised that Deconstruction of opera classics will no longer be a major festival focus. If so, then director Martin Kusej's new Don certainly must have been in the works when Mortier was still calling the shots.

Instead of sexual insatiability, women's vulnerability, codes of honor, the war between the sexes, the gap between social classes—all or any of which could have provided apt thematic reference-points—the new production seems to be about All-White Post-Modernist Minimalist Rotating Interiors. Architectural design as a showcase for a lingerie battle between Prada and H & M.

Munich's new Rake's Progress, with women's virtually bare buttocks pushed out at the audience—well, they are wearing red thongs, true—is restrained, compared with Salzburg's Don Giovanni.

A forecurtain projection shows five virtually nude models with their backsides pointed at the spectators. A Wanker's Christmas Calendar image!

True, they are not completely naked. Some are wearing very sheer long hose. As Palmer's is a sponsor, this may be a visual tie-in. Palmer's is famous for its stockings.

These pretty women are only images. But the Don is soon to find himself attended by Proserpina's Sisters—ladies from Hades—costumed in white bras, panties or thongs, and long white hose.

You won't find these 19 women anywhere in Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto. Casting such a crew of beauties would have made the Prague premiere too costly, if the Archbishop had not already condemned the concept and forbidden the production.

When it's finally time for the Don to pay for his social and sexual misdeeds—and for taunting the Commendatore—the handmaidens of the Queen of the Underworld change their white undies for black!

The problem may be that both the director and his designer, Martin Zehetgruber, are what's known as Ass-men. There are certainly a lot of buttocks on display. One could almost say that this Don Giovanni is really a bum show.

Nonetheless, the white-themed architectural display—and its revolving, flying, and vanishing elements—are a brilliantly lit show in themselves. Here again is the blazing, blinding white light so loved on Central European opera-stages.

The central structural elements are double-revolves of pillars and panels which stand on a translucent floor with light coming up from below. Overhead, there is a matching circle of glowing white translucence.

As Leporello sings the Catalogue Aria—flipping through and discarding lists—Donna Elvira is required to stroll from white chamber to white chamber, attached to the endlessly revolving central core. In each room, she is forced to look upon the Don's Conquests.

These include a ten-year-old girl skipping rope, a gaggle of cleaning-ladies doing the floors, and, for some odd reason, an entire American football team in the middle of a scrum.

Some critics have in fact speculated that the Don's endless sexual adventures suggest he is really a repressed homosexual. That may be the reason for the football team.

When the Commendatore speaks to the Don, from beyond the grave, it is via video on a large upstage screen. This cute & trendy multi-media device is now very popular in Munich as well.

The Prada and H &M images are reinforced by Heide Kastler's smart modern costumes. Thomas Hampson is indeed a fashion-plate.

The obvious problem with updating Don Giovanni is that so much of the conflict and plot development depends of rigid codes of honor and religious & social customs which mean less than nothing today.

Add to that the frequent dialogue references to the obvious gaps between Master and Servant—as well as Nobles and Peasants—and the libretto really makes no sense as a "relevant" modern story.

Today, Don Giovanni would be Hollywood producer Robert Evans. And he'd be a celebrity, a Talk-Show regular, and a best-selling tell-all memoir-author.

What does seem very "today" is the often rough, even semi-violent way the Don treats his women. In the context of 18th century Seville, he deceived them and abandoned them. But he didn't brutalize them. He saved his blows for Masetto and Leporello—base creatures both.

It could be argued that the blazing white lights on antiseptic white floors and walls are a metaphor of sorts: A Clinical Look At Love & Death, perhaps?

At the opening of the opera, the audience is confronted with an arc of white doors. These and the walls in which they are set stand on the circumference of the inner white-revolves.

At first glance, this could be the set for a French sex-farce. That's what so many doors are usually used for, after all. But no, the seducer Don suddenly darts out one of the doors, as the Commendatore dashes forward from another, only to be slain. There is blood all over the walls. The red looks very effective on the stark white.

There is also an interesting costume-prop which has several uses. It looks like a simple black neckerchief, but it's also a blindfold for the Don. And, at one point, he looks as though he'd like to garrote Donna Elvira with it.

Considering all these Production Values—especially the ever-changing, ever-rotating scenery—it's a wonder Hampson and company don't get dizzy trying to keep up with the set.

Despite the social and textual discrepancies which Updating and Deconstructing this Don Giovanni create, the excellent cast not only sang with passion and power. But they also played their roles and made their moves—as the director must have required—without suggesting for an instant that what they were doing didn't come from their inner depths.

Thomas Hampson, as the Don, visually and vitally held the disparate elements together. But he was wonderfully supported by the Donna Anna of Anna Netrebko, the Donna Elvira of Melanie Diener, and the Zerlina of Magdalena Kozena.

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo was a raffish Leporello, with Michael Schade as a very nuanced Don Ottavio. For once, this gentleman didn't look clueless or helpless.

Kurt Moll looked good—and sounded better—on video. Luca Pisaroni was a lively Masetto, taking his lumps with a sullen sense of getting even somehow.

This is a such a very stylish production, it wouldn't look out of place under canvas in Bryant Park. As the centerpiece of Manhattan's next Fashion Week!

The music is glorious. The All-White sets are stunning. And Fashionistas wouldn't understand what Da Ponte was getting at anyway. With all this outmoded stuff about seducing virgins with vengeful fathers…

Achim Freyer's Magic Flute Circus
Returns To the Felsenreitschule!

Achim Freyer's memorable and totally delightful circus-version of Mozart's Zauberflöte premiered some seasons ago in the Salzburg Prince-Cardinal-Archbishops' manège or "Rocky Riding School," with its tiers of long arcades carved from the living stone of the great Mönchsberg which looms over the medieval/baroque city.

Then it disappeared, only to resurface in 1999, in Salzburg's Messehalle—or Fair & Exhibition complex. This informal and larger space encouraged families to bring their children—with affordable ticket-prices, which is not the rule in the regular festival venues.

At that time, it was suggested that this dynamic production—and this venue—would again be an ornament of the next summer's festival. But it vanished without a trace.

Now, under a new Festival Director, it has returned. It is so joyous, so complex, so crammed with visual details, that I am going to refer to what I wrote about this production in 1999:

"Actually, Achim Freyer's colorful and hilarious staging of Mozart's Magic Flute incorporates far more than five rings into its concentric designs. But its center-piece is a great raked circle, recalling the traditional one-ring circuses of Europe.

"And—as in such venues, like Circus Schumann—it also has a form of proscenium-arch theatre upstage behind the performance ring. This makes possible an astonishing variety of stage-pictures, some of them amusing visual footnotes to major action downstage.

"Sarastro, for example, appears in various fantastic guises in this space: sometimes as a god high overhead, another time as a giant puppet. At a crucial moment, he emerges from a circular hole in the star-studded circus-tent ceiling to protect Tamino and Pamina, as long rods terminating in hands—the symbolic Egyptian hieroglyphic images for the rays of Ra, the sun-god—radiate downward.

"Papageno, the bird-catcher for the Queen of the Night, warms up the audience and makes a Ringling Brothers entrance on a Rube Goldberg tricycle hung with bird-cages. He deftly balances a towering stack of cages—suspended by a fine wire—as well.

"The circus-ring is flanked by tiers of bleachers on either side, while the audience sits in temporary bleachers in Messehalle 1 of Salzburg's Austellungs-Zentrum, or fair-and-exhibition venue.

"Freyer—who is also a painter and sculptor, as well as a stage-director and designer—has his own special visual vocabulary of images. He is partial to skulls and to hopscotch patterns, so some of these turn up in his Salzburg Zauberflöte.

"Unique and brightly colored steel sculptures Freyer has based on Magic Flute designs were on display outside the Messehalle. There were even one or two in the heart of Salzburg in the garden of the Jesuit Collegiate Church.

"For those in the audience who may not be familiar with Mozart's 'Masonic' opera—or its length—Freyer has saved them the trouble of looking at their watches periodically.

"As the production progresses, a large illuminated snail—with a big watch-face framed by its shell—crawls around the stage perimeter from right to left, keeping very accurate time. It reaches Stage-Right just as the opera ends!

In 1999, Christoph von Dohnányi conducted. This summer Bertrand de Billy did the honors, joining in the circus atmosphere with gusto, and getting a very lively reading of Mozart's score from the Vienna Philharmonic. Neither he nor Freyer go so far as to ask it to impersonate a circus brass-band en masse, however.

Simon Keenlyside was a jolly, knockabout Papageno, a singing clown whom children in the audience adore. Alfred Reiter, as the Circus Ring-Master Sarastro, managed sonorous fatherly majesty, despite the odd costumes and strange perches assigned him by Freyer.

As Queen of the Night, Diana Damrau sang her challenging coloratura arias with great skill and thrilling clarity. But in some overhead locations even a trapeze-artist would have questioned.

Rainer Trost and Barbara Bonney—the Tamino and Pamina—were visually and vocally well matched and attractive. Martina Jankowá was a delightful Papagena. Indeed, the entire cast was very good, given all the circus-extras expected of them.

Freyer's concept is that the cast is actually a troupe of traveling circus-folk, pitching their gaudy tent wherever they find a ready audience.

When Magic Flute was in the Messehalle, Freyer believed he was recreating some of the original circumstances of its production. Schickaneder's theatre was in the suburbs of Vienna. He played to audiences of ordinary people who could not afford costly tickets—or easily go to the heart of Vienna for a Night at the Opera.

And—despite the mysterious Masonic Symbolism and the endless scholarly studies of meanings and intentions of the libretto and score—initially all Schickaneder wanted was a merry musical romp that would, as they say, "put bums on seats."

Of course, this splendid production still works very well back in the Felsenreitschule. But it doesn't have as many seats as the Messehalle. Nor can tickets be priced so affordably.

Freyer's circus-inspired staging is so colorful, so inventive, and so much fun, it should be adapted for touring to major opera stages and festivals beyond the Realm of the Euro. Another marvelous opera-production for BAM?

A New Jedermann for Everyman
Staged by Oberammergau Director!

Christian Stückl Passes From Passion Play
To Medieval English Morality Drama
Reworked by Hugo von Hofmannstahl

Obviously having been chosen by the Bavarian town of Oberammergau to stage its world-famous Passionspiel—performed only every ten years—proved an invaluable experience for the young director Christian Stückl.

In restaging the Salzburg Festival's signature production of Jedermann, he has drawn on the folk-theatre traditions of Alpine Bavaria.

Instead of a narrator to introduce Hugo von Hofmannstahl's German version of the medieval English Morality Play, Everyman, Stückl has created a kind of cute, folkloric Kinderspiel.

A ragtag troupe of children—with horns and drums—scramble onto the elegant new temporary stage, erected before the majestic facade of Salzburg Cathedral. They act out a kind of synopsis of what is to come. And they are charming in both singing and acting.

They meet a frayed old Rabbi, who gives them crucifixes from a plastic bag. A rabbi with crucifixes?

Later, it develops that this odd but kindly figure is really God the Father—who usually never appears on stage in this drama. He also impersonates a Poor Neighbor.

Stückl has introduced another novelty in having the fearsome figure of Death appear in a skin-tight blue leotard. The Salzburg Jedermann Tradition—from the time of its first director, Max Reinhardt—has been Death as Black Figure with white bones and grinning skull outlined on his costume.

The costume-contrast between humble peasants and the baroque elegance of Jedermann's presumed friends at his farewell banquet is very effective. He of course has no idea that this will be his Last Hurrah until Death grips him.

What had become almost ritual and routine over the years since Jedermann was revived in the Cathedral Square after World War II—even in the hands of some very famous German and Austrian directors—has been completely rethought and revitalized by Stückl.

For me—and I have seen it every summer for over four decades— Stückl's production seemed almost like a new play. Certainly some scenes were darker, more foreboding than before. The banquet was certainly not as colorful or riotous has it has been in the past.

In previous summers, old splintery platforms were set up before the cathedral for Sunday performances. And they were struck immediately after.

This past summer, however, set and costume designer Marlene Poley devised entirely new platforms with great white stairs rising right up into the great arches of the cathedral—with upper-level playing-areas inside the arches. This has never been done before and it now includes the cathedral in an even more powerful way.

But the handsome new platforms still have to be struck. They will become splintery soon enough with so much handling. Fortunately, they are now stored on site in steel sea-containers.

It is a Salzburg Festival Tradition that Jedermann and his beautiful mistress will be played by outstanding actors from leading German and Austrian stages. Maximilian Schell, Karl Maria Brandauer, and even Curd Juergens have played Jedermann.

For the premiere of this new mounting, the distinguished actor Peter Simonischek did the Jedermann honors, with Veronica Ferres as Buhlschaft. Hans-Michael Rehburg played God the Rabbi.

When I interviewed Christian Stückl in Oberammergau in 2002, about his work on the Passion Play—which also had undergone some helpful changes—I was struck with his strong theatrical instincts and innovative ideas. Especially the ways in which he was able to get his fellow Oberammergauers to make the play more effective both as drama and as a quasi-religious experience.

Stückl is a native of Oberammergau. No one who is not a native can be in the drama. And certainly not direct it. So it is amazing that what used to be a village duty has been translated, in his case, into a major theatre career.

In the past, however, in the nine years between revivals of this play—still performed as a thank-offering to God for sparing Oberammergau from the Black Plague—there were no performances of any kind in the great 5,000-seat Passion Playhouse.

Tourists and religious pilgrims paid good money to look at the costumes and the open-stage unit-set which easily suggests major locales in the story of Christ's Passion, Death, and Transfiguration.

But no show of any kind.

I asked the young director if something couldn't be done to change this? At least a play or oratorio of a religious nature, so visitors could experience the magic of that famous theatre?

He told me he had been discussing that very idea with village elders. This past summer it finally happened.

Verdi's Nabucco was performed on the great stage. As this opera deals with the conquest of Jerusalem and the enslavement of the Jews by Nebuchadnezzar, beginning the Babylonian Captivity, it seemed an excellent quasi-religious choice for that hallowed stage.

The Salzburg Festival's
"Powered by Montblanc"

This past summer—despite the understandably increasing anti-Americanism evident—use of English/American words and phrases in journalism and conversation seemed much more intrusive than before. The computer-revolution obviously has something to do with this, as software programs are almost always identified by their English names.

But—as with the popularity of Le Drug-Store and Le Week-End in Parisian palaver—American McUsages are becoming standards.

So I was not very surprised to see banners across famous Salzburg streets proclaiming—in English—AUSTRIA TODAY and YOUNG DIRECTORS PROJECT as major features of the current festival.

Nonetheless, when I innocently asked at the Montblanc press-conference for the Young Directors why the title was not in German, instead of English, a German critic sarcastically noted: "Because the Germans are Doof!"

As a German and a critic, he resented this creeping invasion of English and Americanisms into an historic language, spoken in Austria, Germany, and the important parts of Switzerland.

The Young Directors Project is an initiative of Jürgen Flimm—who has staged Bayreuth's current RING production. Flimm made his considerable directorial reputation as Intendant of Hamburg's Thalia Theater.

As Salzburg's new Festival Chief was formerly Intendant of the Hamburg Opera, it seems only right that he has put old colleague Flimm in charge of Drama for the Salzburg Festival. Flimm replaces Gerard Mortier's disappointing Drama Chief, Frank Baumbauer, who has moved on to the Intendancy of Munich's Kammerspiele.

Musical Chairs, so to speak…

My time in Salzburg was much too brief to be able to see any of the productions mounted by Flimm's directorial Chosen Ones. I regret that, as I had no idea from the festival calendar what I would be missing.

At the press-conference, I was especially impressed with the presentation and comments of Young Director Igor Bauersima. He is very personable and even looks like the young Keith Baxter. He could easily have a film-career if he tires of directing. But then every movie-actor longs to give it up and direct instead…

He was directing Neil La Bute's The Shape of Things. When I met him after the session, he looked at my New York Theatre-Wire card and then at me:

"So you're Glenn Loney?"

And why did he recognize my name?

"I'm surfing the net for theatre-sites. I've read your reviews. You're tough!"

Especially on Neil La Bute and that play. As staged in Manhattan, it seemed to me a carpentered exercise in misogyny. It was also cutely, schematically, overdesigned, which made the play seem even more mechanistic.

The Basics: A female Art grad student induces a schlumpish lad to fall in love. She remakes him, but not for her dream-lover. He is her MFA project: a Personality Make-Over. Understandably, he feels manipulated. Used. But that seems to be a La Bute view of women.

Having just written the above, I discover in New York Magazine a La Bute film-review by Peter Rainer. He labels La Bute's plays and movies "aggressively misanthropic." Of his new film, Possession, Rainer notes: "…he's as schematic about human nature as ever."

So I am now doubly disappointed that I was not able to see how Igor Bauersima was able to make this script work. And I'd be interested to know why he chose this new play out of so many other possibilities?

His last name, I said, sounded German. But the Igor?

He told me he was born in Czechoslovakia, but his family escaped to Switzerland during the brief interlude of the Prague Spring.

One of the features of this new program was an Overview of Young American Theatre Artists by Anne Cattaneo. She is dramaturg/script-editor for the Lincoln Center Theatre. Was The Shape of Things one of their out-of-house productions?

Montblanc, by the way, is the manufacturer of those huge and hugely expensive fountain-pens. You can hardly get your fingers around them.

But as Collector's Items—there are special pens dedicated to famous authors—they are surely treasured. There is even a Max Reinhardt Pen—limited edition but designed to appeal to Festival visitors who might like to honor the memory of Festival-Founder Reinhardt. His lovely baroque Schloss Leopoldskron—Julie Andrews lived in it in Sound of Music—is just outside the medieval city!

The beautiful Montblanc Max Reinhardt Pen was offered as the prize for the outstanding Young Director. You can bet most young playwrights are working on laptops, not using old-fashioned fountain-pens, no matter how handsome they may be. But Montblanc included a check for Euro 10,000 as well! Par with the dollar!

Alberto Vilar, Schloss Arenberg,
The American Austrian Foundation,
& The American Friends of the Salzburg Festival

By now, most opera-lovers are familiar with the name Alberto Vilar. Born in Cuba, he has prospered in America as an astute investor and fund-manager.

But his first love has always been opera, rather than high finance. So, in recent years, he has made impressive contributions to the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, the Bayreuth Festival, the Baden-Baden Festival, Valery Gergiev's Kirov Opera, and the Salzburg Festival.

Vilar has even pledged funds for the reconstruction of Salzburg's Kleines Festspielhaus. The new Bayreuth Tannhäuser was his gift. The Kirov's War and Peace would not have come to the Met without his aid.

This past summer, he was honored at a special ceremony inaugurating Salzburg's historic Schloss Arenberg as an international center for cultural and medical studies. This spacious and lovely baroque palace is on the lower slopes of the Kapuzinerberg. On the other side of the River Salzach from the Old Town.

The center is an initiative of the American Austrian Foundation, a private institution promoting the public good in Austria, but concentrating on Salzburg as a center of culture and scientific research.

American medical schools such as Cornell, Duke, and Columbia are already involved in programs to share the latest technology and procedures with doctors and med students from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

These programs are of special significance to Alberto Vilar. As he told the assembled dignitaries, this past year he was gravely ill, having had four operations. One of which found him in the balance between life and death.

So, as he said, he had spent most of the year quietly at home, recuperating. I'd seen him at the Met at the end of the season, walking with a cane, and had wondered at the time what had happened. When glimpsed at the opera, here or abroad, he had always seemed alert and vital, enjoying every minute of the opera-experience.

After a number of expressions of thanks for his generous subsidies to various Salzburg cultural and medical projects, he noted wryly that he had recently been asked more often about the health of his investments than about his own personal condition.

Among the cultural programs to be administered from Schloss Arenberg are the Graf Moy Fellowships for Young Musicians, the Hayward Prize for Young Artists, the Karajan Fellowship for Young Conductors, and a New York-based program for Austrian Artists at PS 1 way out in Queens.

There are also Media Programs. One involves nothing more complicated than mailing copies of the Wall Street Journal to some 50 Austrian high-schools. Whether this gift is to help them on the Road to Venture Capitalism or train them to be fact-finding journalists is unclear.

In any case, international financier George Soros—like Albert Vilar—seems to be generously committed to the various programs of the AAF.

Thus far, I've found no mention of Alberto Vilar being given the Keys to the City of Salzburg. If this has not been done, certainly some similar gesture should be made for all the millions he has donated toward Salzburg's cultural life.

In fact, it would be a very nice gesture if the Austrian Federation were to honor Vilar with an Order. Ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani now has a British Knighthood. And he never gave Tony Blair or the Queen a penny.

The Austrian Government can make quite an impression with such well-deserved awards. I was once privileged to watch the distinguished Haydn scholar, H. C. Robbins-Landon, invested with an order.

I had come to know Robbins-Landon when he was discovering forgotten Haydn opera manuscripts in the Eszterhazy Palace Library in Eisenstadt. Haydn's body is entombed in a nearby chapel. With its once severed head—long in the possession of the Soviets—restored to the rest of Haydn's remains. Don't ask how it got cut off originally…

And, speaking both of Austrian Honors and Schloss Arenberg, this baroque palace not long ago was the home of the Max Reinhardt Memorial and Research Center. This had been established and funded by my old friend, the Baron Dr. Gerd von Gontard.

His most notable ancestor had been Charles Gontard, court architect to Wilhelmina of Bayreuth. And later to her brother, Frederick the Great of Prussia—who bestowed the "von" for his architectural enrichments of Berlin and Potsdam.

But his money came from his mother, an American Anhäuser-Busch heiress. When Hitler came to power, Von Gontard came to the United States to fight the Nazis with publications and programs. When World War II ended—based in two worlds—he began using his fortune to facilitate theatre-exchanges, bringing outstanding German, Austrian, and Swiss ensembles to New York to heal the cultural breach the war had made.

His most memorable venture was the Worldwide Tour of Vienna's Burg-Theater, with the venerable actor, Ernst Deutsch. I joined the group in Amsterdam briefly to write about the adventure.

At an elegant post-performance banquet, a special telegram arrived for the Baron from Vienna. It had long been a joke between us that I was a University Professor, while he was only a PhD—or Dr. phil, as the Germans style the title.

Gerd called all the actors and techies to attention: "I have a very important announcement! I have just become an equal to my distinguished American friend, Professor Dr. Loney! I have been appointed Professor of Theatre at the University of Vienna!"

Lucky Baron Prof. Dr. Gerd! He never had to read essays or grade exams!

Unfortunately, the money for the Max Reinhardt Memorial must have run out after his death. The great bronze plaque is still in the hall of Schloss Arenberg. But no one seemed to know what had happened to the Reinhardt Archives.

Finally, someone said they had been taken over to the Festspielhaus and added to the Festival Archives—which are in themselves a considerable research treasury.

But it is sad that something more permanent—and visible—no longer exists in Salzburg to honor this most dedicated, thoughtful, and generous of men. I write this as a small tribute and memorial to a fellow lover of theatre: Gerd von Gontard!

The American Friends Are Active—

I have been reporting on the Salzburg Festival for over four decades—except those years when Gerard Mortier's staff wouldn't give me any press-tickets,

"He didn't like what I wrote about his press-conference?"

"Now you know Gerard is not like that!"

Then why was I suddenly, after so long, abruptly cut off? Fortunately, after a year or two in Journalistic Siberia, I was allowed to thaw out.

As I was then writing for a number of publications—as I still do—I thought my reports might be of interest to at least some American readers and of help to the Festival.

Especially as I was often asked by press-office staffers and others associated with the festival management: "Why don't more Americans come to Salzburg?"

Reason One: The tickets were and are too expensive.

Reason Two: Many Americans prefer casual dress in summer. The idea of packing tux and designer gowns for a trip to the Salzburg Festival—followed by canal-boating in England—puts a lot of potential theatre and opera-goers off, off, off.

Reason Three: A great many Americans, strange to say, have never heard of the Salzburg Festival. Although they certainly know about Mozart in Salzburg. North American Festival publicity needed—and still needs—to be broader and more effective.

Fortunately, the formation of the American Friends of the Salzburg Festival has been a big boon. It is not only making the fest better and more widely known in the United States, but it is also aiding in fund-raising. And its members are encouraging their own friends to reserve a week in August for the Salzburg Cultural Outing.

During the Festival Season, it is involved in Opera Consciousness-Raising by programming really interesting lectures, panels, and seminars related to specific productions. Or to introduce such beloved artists as Tom Hampson or bright new directorial and conducting talents.

The Friends also maintain an Information Center just by the Post-Office in front of the Grosses Festspielhaus.

And for those American Friends who did pack their tuxes and formals, they have taken over the great second floor foyer of the Festspielhaus for their own intermission enjoyment.

This may seem a bit chauvinistic—as those in tuxes but without passes are turned away. But it in effect creates a sub-set of the Central European social snobbishness of bowing and smiling to one's better-dressed betters for Americans who know no German. Nor any German CEOs, Professors, or Cinema Celebrities.

The Salzburg Festival has always been a great place to show off your wealth, your jewels, your Pradas, your teeth, your tan, and your Power—if any.

Time was when I also looked good in a tux and knew some opera-stars, famous directors, and major music-critics:

"Guten Abend, Herr Professor Schauspiel-Direktor!"

"Grüss Gott, Herr Kammersänger! Wie geht es Ihnen heute Abend?"

"Hello there! Jess Thomas! Why aren't you singing here this season?"

Those days are gone forever. I can't even get into the Friends Foyer, even in my tux…

Hail and Farewell, Herbert Wernicke!

HANDEL'S "JUDAS MACCABÄUS" STARKLY SET--Herbert Wernicke's 1980 Munich "scandal" staging. Photo: Courtesy Bavarian State Opera/2002.
This report is already too long, but I cannot close it without saluting the genius and the unexpected passing of Herbert Wernicke. He died in Basel in mid-April as he was preparing to stage Die Walküre for his new RING at the Bavarian State Opera.

Wernicke was not only an ingenious and strikingly innovative opera-director, but he also devised his own sets, costumes, and lighting for his highly unusual stagings. He was famously shy of interviews or even discussing his concepts for daring new visualizations of operatic war-horses or new works, so there is little on record.

In the many published tributes which immediately followed his demise, Wernike's talent for seeing how an opera ought to take form on stage, while at the same time "thinking musically" was emphasized.

In fact, he had begun arts-training to become a painter, studying at Munich's Art Academy under the late Rudolf Heinrich, also a distinguished stage-designer. But Wernicke soon fell in love with Music-Theatre and applied his artistic talents to the most daring and striking stage-designs.

For him, opera was more than a superb entertainment. One eulogist observed that opera was for Wernicke an "Actus tragicus und moralische Anstalt."

MONUMENTAL "BORIS GODUNOV" ON SALZBURG'S GREAT STAGE--Herbert Wernicke links the Russian Past to the Present. Photo: Courtesy Salzburg Festival/2002.

Under Gerard Mortier's Intendancy in Salzburg, Wernicke created some of his most memorable stagings. His monumental Boris Godunov—with a curving backwall featuring all the Tyrant Rulers of Russia to the present—made this opera immediately relevant, without sacrificing any of its historic gravitas.

Wernicke's Salzburg Rosenkavalier—after decades of powder-puff neo-baroque scenery—was all mirrored surfaces. They reflected images of built-scenery in the wings—which was not seen by the audience—to suggest the superficiality and shallowness of the imperial society it depicted.

An early Wernicke staging for Munich involved not an opera, but Handel's oratorio, Judas Maccabäus. On an immensely high bare stage, enclosed with chain-link fencing, he deployed singers in modern dress under towering searchlights such as those used in internment camps. Two big Mercedes trucks were used by the fighting Maccabees.

WERNICKE'S "FLYING DUTCHMAN" DOCKS IN SENTA'S PARLOR. Photo: Courtesy Bavarian State Opera/2002.

This proved an epic scandal. But he followed it with an even more scandalous Munich Flying Dutchman, in which all the action took place in an elegant Victorian salon.

Wernicke's Munich Elektra had only two major design-elements: an immense stage-filling red door which opened on a diagonal pivot to reveal a stark tall staircase on an otherwise bare stage,

The new Munich RING—to be shown in two complete cycles in May 2003—like his Dutchman, is confined to a single room. But this one is immense, historic, and Wagner-oriented. On the stage of Munich's National-Theater, Wernicke duplicated the neo-classic auditorium of Wagner's Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

Everything in all four Ring operas—in Wernicke's vision—happens in this fantastic space. Whether director David Alden—who is completing the production—breaks out of this enclosure remains to be seen. But Wernike left notes—and his visual instincts were almost always sound.

Many obituaries quoted major theatre leaders to the effect that Wernicke's work has changed the way people think about opera. On both sides of the footlights… [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2002. 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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