TV & Radio
A whirlwind tour of Mozart's 22 operas
By George Loomis International Herald Tribune
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2006
SALZBURG The Salzburg Festival ended Thursday having made good on its promise to produce all 22 of Mozart's operas. As it began, critics feared an overabundance of Mozart in his 250th anniversary year and expressed mixed views about the project. In truth, few critics can afford to spend enough time in Salzburg to form first-hand opinions, which, of course, won't stop them from expounding on the subject.
Say what they will, "Mozart 22," the crowning achievement of Peter Ruzicka's brief term as Salzburg's intendant, presented a staggering opportunity for Mozart devotees, not least because the Big Seven operas (which now include "Idomeneo" and "La Clemenza di Tito") account for less than a third of the titles. How can it be that so many operas by one of the form's greatest masters are so little known? "Mozart 22" gave fans a chance to find out.
The 40-day festival reported that subscription sales to all the operas amounted to a grand total of 48. But this hardly signals a box office fiasco, since sales of other series and individual tickets (priced for top-tier operas at up to €360, or about $465) ensured good houses. Veterans of "Mozart 22" are a privileged elite.
As luck would have it, one such happy Mozartian sat next to me at a performance, Luis Gutiérrez from Mexico City, who isn't one of the 48 but bought individual tickets to all the performances. Like those, presumably, in the core group, he is thoroughly versed in Mozart's operas. He said the experience left him especially impressed with Mozart's greatness as an opera seria composer and mentioned "Mitridate" and "Lucio Silla," which Mozart wrote in his mid- teens for Italy, as special favorites. Gutiérrez, who said he is a retired chairman of the airline AeroMexico, described himself as a "Mozart aficionado" who has completed a book on the composer.
One opera Gutiérrez isn't too keen on is "La Finta Giardiniera" (The Feigned Garden Girl), a long and diffuse comedy that in a slimmed down version on Saturday became the last of the 22 to hit a Salzburg stage. Yet at age 19, Mozart had already long been a master of the Italian aria, and he lavishes them in abundance on a crazy plot that sometimes only barely holds together. It finds an implausible but often hilarious match in Doris Dörrie's production, designed by Bernd Lepel, which sets the opera not in a garden but in a garden supply store, with racks of merchandise bearing price tags along with more fanciful elements like huge animated flowers, garden statues that come to life and even a man-eating plant.
The Marchioness Violante, sung by Alexandra Reinprecht in a resonant soprano not always under full control, disguises herself as the gardener girl Sandrina simply by putting a plastic bag over her enormous wig. She otherwise remains in elaborate 18th-century garb - although by the end, in one of the production's many sexually charged moments, she wears only a towel. Violante is eventually reconciled with her lover, Count Belfiore (John Mark Ainsley, in graceful voice), but not before they undergo bouts of madness as they are threatened by a giant spider. Véronique Gens and Ruxandra Donose excelled as Arminda and Ramiro, another couple that eventually come back together, while Adriana Kucerova and Markus Werba, as Serpetta and Roberto, ably represented the servant class. As the town mayor - here the store manager - John Graham-Hall shined in his aria lauding musical instruments as means for expressing love.
Ivor Bolton led the Mozarteum Orchestra with aplomb in what was left of the score after the omission of seven arias and a duet. Dörrie's humor misfired only once, but seriously so, when an enormous bird pretended to mouth the words while Violante sang a heartfelt aria about a turtledove.
"Idomeneo" was staged in the new 2,179-seat Haus für Mozart, which replaces the old Kleines Festspielhaus, regarded as too long and too narrow. The new hall, modified accordingly, comes equipped with a second balcony and 250 more seats. It has won high marks for acoustics, but the production by Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann, a thorough reworking of their staging a few years back, frustratingly positions the singers in a variety of places with consequences to the sound quality.
Like other productions by the Herrmanns, this "Idomeneo," abstract and subtly colored, has plenty of visual appeal, but the action veers between the highly stylized and the overly emotional, so that it is often hard to get a grip on the plight of the characters. Still, it comes as a powerful moment when the Cretan king Idomeneo at last confesses that his rash vow to Neptune requires the sacrifice of his own son, Idamante.
Heading a splendid cast, Ramón Vargas made his handsome lyrical tenor serve heroic duty in the title role. Magdalena Kozena was a fresh-voiced Idamante, and Ekaterina Siurina sang Ilia with uncommon character. Anja Harteros's Elettra was a model of vocal strength and dramatic intensity. Roger Norrington led the Camerata Salzburg in a shapely, naturally paced account of the score.
Richard Strauss, an important force in the festival's early history, has been sparsely represented in recent years, although Ruzicka's tenure did see "Die Liebe der Danae" and "Der Rosenkavalier." It was a grand idea to follow "Idomeneo" the next night with a concert performance of Strauss's 1931 reworking of the opera for its 150th anniversary.
The old view that opera seria is not stage-worthy no longer holds water, but Strauss's extensive changes show just how deeply held that view was. Secco recitatives are supplanted by accompanied ones bearing his own harmonic imprint, and aria texts are replaced with continuous words that avoid repetition (unfashionable since Wagner). Strauss transfers Elettra's music to Ismene, a high priestess. His most creative contribution comes in a luxuriant and extended quartet near the end that might have come from "Die Frau ohne Schatten." Yet his love for Mozart shines through it all.
Leading the Staatskapelle Dresden, the conductor Fabio Luisi proved to be an effective advocate, and strong contributions came from Robert Gambill (Idomeneo), Britta Stallmeister (Ilia), Iris Vermillion (Idamante) and Camilla Nylund (Ismene).
Though often overshadowed by more glamorous events, new music at Salzburg has flourished under Ruzicka, himself a composer. Among this summer's 15 commissions was Hans Werner Henze's revision of his 1990 opera "Das Verratene Meer" based on Yukio Mishima's novella "The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea," which was also performed in concert. The grim conclusion of this story about a sailor killed by his stepson's gang is foreshadowed in every bar of Henze's fascinating if relentlessly stern score. He is said to have written a considerable amount of new music. But the opera follows the original scene structure, and Gerd Albrecht, to whom the score is dedicated, made a number of cuts in leading the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI Torino. Now called "Gogo No Eiko," the opera is sung in Japanese, but whether the new language wins the opera new admirers remains to be seen.