Salzburg Festival: An Enigma

Wherever the shadows are deep, there is also a lot of light

On The Town | Walter Guertelschmied | October 2010

This year’s Salzburg Festival was an enigma. Everyone who attended came to this nearly unavoidable conclusion. But why?

The Festival must go on. That’s just the way it is. So don’t even contemplate anything else. And don’t think about the rubbish that the people in charge have dreamed up for the next seasons. We are realists, and in Salzburg that’s bad enough.

So much seemed to derail: In the production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra, which held the honor of being the first opera premiere of the festival, conductor Daniele Gatti set off like a madman, pushing up the volume of the orchestra to a crazed frenzy, leaving the audience stunned rather than moved... The maniac – there is no better word – destroyed the entire mood of the production, which under Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s guidance was as dutiful as it was boring. Even the heroine Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra sank into the soup of sound. Only the entrance of bass René Pape as Orest, who has very cleverly raised his tessitura, was a sensation.

And then there was Lulu, but more on that later.

Nonetheless, wherever the shadows are deep, there is also a lot of light – "such is nature," as Thomas Bernhard would say. So let’s turn to the bright light of the summer festival: Wolfgang Rihm, born in 1952 in Karlsruhe and today, professor at the University of Music Karlsruhe. Since the 1980s he has had an excellent reputation as a many-faceted and much sought-after composer. Indeed, he is one of the best-known of his generation – his music sparkles with inspiration, adventuresome rhythms, and sensuous dissonances. All this on a foundation that is cerebral, yet full of volcanic gut feelings. Some may think his music sometimes sounds old-fashioned, but he has an individual, unique power.

The motto "Kontinent Rihm" of concert director Markus Hinterhäuser was enormously successful. We had Rihm in every imaginable variation: chamber music, church music, and the world premiere of a music theater (what used to be called opera). Rihm was even on the Vienna Philharmonic program, which hopefully will improve their appreciation of garden-variety avant-garde.

There has always been contemporary music at the Salzburg summers. Although Berthold Brecht was quickly dispensed with at the beginning of the 1950s, under Karajan, over time the musical offerings became quite wide-ranging, reaching even beyond Mahler and Schönberg – albeit in closed circles where only the insiders, the hard-core new music fans, saw each other. It was Hans Landesmann and Gerard Mortier who took the first important steps at getting a broader audience to become interested in the avant-garde.

Hinterhäuser deservedly reaped the benefits with his "Kontinent." Wolfgang Rihm doesn’t write a lot, although he has been composing since he was eleven. He restricts himself to what is essential. And in addition, (like a journalist) he finishes composing every piece at the very last minute, making some musicians and performers quite nervous. But if Rihm – indeed, a "continent" – gives you one of his broad smiles, you can’t be angry for long. He can enjoy things. He has a sense of humor, and is a marvelous rhetorician and discussant. The excellent Festival programs and publications were able to capture the essence of one of the major figures on today’s music scene.

At 8:30 p.m., on a weekday, the Salzburg audience streamed into the Salzburg Collegian Church, among them Alfred Brendel and the Salzburg composer Gerhard Wimberger (who was on the Festival board of directors under Karajan). "Et Lux," a one-hour work for vocal quartet and string quartet that had its first performance in 2009, was given a phenomenal performance by the Hilliard Ensemble and the Arditti Quartet.

Rihm uses fragments of text from the Roman Catholic requiem liturgy and thus, a specter of the Brahms Requiem floats somewhere in the background of this exciting work. The fragments are not "intact," however, nor are they in the right order. They rather appear like memories of parts of a gradually envisioned context – as if under anesthesia.

"They are individual word connections that – by repeating them again and again – radiate a central meaning," says Wolfgang Rihm. "At the very center: … et lux perpetuat luceat…when these words circle and are reflected, it is possible, perhaps, to feel things that are comforting but also deeply disturbing."

Just as impressive was the success, both with the audience and the critics, of the world premiere in the Mozart House of Rihm’s Dionysos, an ‘opera fantasy’ in scenes and dithyrambs, with a text Rihm himself compiled based on writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is not a literary opera in the true sense of the word, but rather a mosaic of Nietzsche quotes and verses on selected themes, themes like eternity, redundant debates, or modern myths. Rihm pours this into a virtuosic musical collage and song panorama, which oscillates cleverly between times, styles and epochs. This was exactly Rihm’s contribution to Dionysos: two hours of dramatic music that was effective and easy to listen to. Every second was exciting.

Rihm had luck on his side in Salzburg: It was a tremendous performance. Ingo Metzmacher conducted the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin with such persuasiveness and intensity, it seemed as if he had just tossed off a performance of Tosca. On top of this, Mojca Erdmann and Johannes Martin Kränzle sang the devilishly difficult main roles. The staging by Pierre Audi made a clear border between illusion and reality, sense and nonsense, genius and madness – and also got some of its life from the German "wild" painter, sculptor, performance and video artist Jonathan Meese. Using this artist was the right thing to do: sassy, sarcastic and parodying, sometimes serious and sometimes silly, even raucously funny. Dionysos will make its way: It is more than ripe for the repertoire!

Back to Lulu. Here, something was wrong from the beginning. Even though Nikolaus Harnoncourt has wanted to conduct Lulu for years, the Festival was unable to get its act together to make it happen. So, an emergency alternative was found: Marc Albrecht. Although he has a reputable name and can wave a baton, his direction had no shape. The result was a complete disaster. Unlike in Dionysos, here the stage sets by the supposedly well-known German painter Daniel Richter were probably partially to blame. Why are people let in who have no idea about the theater? Because it’s just the "in" thing to do.

Patricia Petibon, who sang Lulu naked in Basel last spring, didn’t do much to improve the situation. No stage presence, particularly indistinct German, and to top it off, musical difficulties with the part. All around a tired ensemble – with the exception of Franz Grundheber (Schigolch) and the brilliantly precise Dr. Schön of Michael Volle.

After the productions in Vienna of director Vera Nemirowa (her Macbeth was tossed into the garbage of the State Opera after six performances), many were expecting her Lulu to be another belly full. But it wasn’t. It was "merely" dreary and dull. A year ago the Festival announced a special three-act version that left out the Paris scene (music sketched out by Berg, but completed by Friedrich Cerha), but at the last minute they were forced to include it because of copyright issues. So there weren’t any sets for the Paris scene.

Nemirowa simply had it acted out in the audience – with lots of musical fuzziness. Her teacher, Peter Konwitschny, managed to use a change of setting like this to good effect in the French Don Carlos staged about ten years ago in Vienna; in Nemirowa’s Salzburg, it was just a cheap, provincial copy.

But the real question is, why on earth is something produced in Salzburg of such shamefully low quality? In this Alban Berg year, there has been a series of Lulus. The first was at the Theater an der Wien, where Peter Stein was duped – despite being in Vienna, no one told him that his own production from Lyon was going to be performed here and he wasn’t asked to rehearse it, and thus, he distanced himself from the whole thing. The second Lulu was at the Graz Opera, and now we had the flop at the Salzburg Festival. Graz clearly came out the winner – with much more limited resources than any of the others (see VR June issue).

Despite the incompetence of various politicians, Martin Hinterhäuser, concert director of the Salzburg Festival, will hold the role of interim Festival director in the summer of 2011, and the following year Alexander Peirera will take over.

Now let’s see what he does with the Salzburg enigma.

Other articles from this issue