At Glamorous Salzburg Festival, Talent and Production Clash

Perhaps it’s the effects of an end to the most destructive century since the Black Plague, but the prevailing approach to opera at the world’s most prestigious music festival this summer has been punitive. When you find yourself at a Don Giovanni whose noxious atmosphere makes the underground parking garage where you left your car look hospitable, you’re reminded that in this deeply conservative corner of Europe it has long been axiomatic that one must suffer for one’s art. Salzburg has maintained its aura as the premier watering hole for the world’s most expensive conductors, singers, soloists, orchestras and listeners. (Even in stifling August heat, the well-dressed patrons who throng the street outside the Festspielhaus make Hollywood’s Oscar-goers look like schlumps at a Rotarian raffle.) But the presiding spirit has become that of a vengeful Commendatore who seems determined to let you know that no amount of diamonds and Mercedes sedans can disguise the fact that the world is a dreadful place.

Of the four operas I attended during a week in this primly picturesque town where Mozart was born, only one-a stunning, high-spirited production of an 18th-century rarity, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Boréades -was an unalloyed delight. Presented by the sort of international consortium that has long been de rigueur in Salzburg-mainly American singers, German designers and British musicians-this was the one production in the festival whose only agenda was to entertain.

Apart from the fact that you had to take it pretty much on faith that the language being sung was French, Les Boréades was a sensational success: a visual spectacle that juggled rococo foppery, exuberant athleticism (trampolinists in the garden) and special effects worthy of Stephen Spielberg before he got serious (a silvery drawing room that bursts into flames). In the pit was one of the world’s finest period ensembles, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by the irrepressible Simon Rattle, who is shortly to become Europe’s maestro-supreme as the next director of the Berlin Philharmonic. On stage was a virtually flawless cast, led by Barbara Bonney, whose sometimes generic sparkle was eclipsed by a genuine discovery-a young American tenor from Little Rock, Ark., named Charles Workman. (Strangely enough, Little Rock was also the hometown of the cast’s other superb young tenor, Jeffrey Francis.) Mr. Workman, a tall, handsome figure, with an idiomatic command of the French lyric style, beautifully navigated both the high-flying poignancy and the heroic power of the suitor Abaris, a role that gets murderously more demanding as it goes along. In the pre-Verdi repertoire, at least, he is a tenor to watch.

On paper, the most promising new Salzburg production was Margherita Palli’s staging of Don Giovanni , which boasted a dream cast and the forces of the Vienna Philharmonic, led by Lorin Maazel. Despite Mr. Maazel’s determination to turn the evening into Mozart’s Parsifal , with tempos that bordered on the dirge-like (even the conductor’s bows were in slow motion), it was hard not to be musically entranced by an ensemble of singers that included the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s effortlessly seductive Don, the commanding German bass Franz Hawlata as Leporello, the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila’s plush, imperious Donna Anna, the British tenor Bruce Ford’s immaculate Don Ottavio, and a sensationally harrowing Donna Elvira from the Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli.

International peacemakers could learn a lot from the vividly heterogeneous ensemble achieved by these nationally diverse artists. But the stage designs, which roamed referentially from Mussolini’s Italy to neo-Daliesque landscapes (a tower of fallen clocks) to industrial-zone abstraction to, at the end, a post-Holocaust museum of human (rubber) skulls, were lugubriously redundant for an opera that is so delicately masterful about matters of love and death. During the curtain calls, the perpetrators were roundly booed by festivalgoers who clearly had become all too familiar with this sort of grim kitsch.

A similarly didactic pall permeated the world premiere of Luciano Berio’s new opera Cronaca del Luogo (“Chronicle of the Place”), which was performed in the Felsenreitschule, a spectacular space with a vast stage carved, as it were, out of the rock of a mountain. Berio’s piece was carved out an addiction to lofty metaphor. Set in a Colosseum-like arena, in which the orchestra occupied tiers of galleries against the back wall and the singers milled about a “piazza,” the work was not a “chronicle”-it has no story line-but a musical setting of ideas that were elucidated in a program essay by Paul Griffiths: “The wall stands for civilization, stability, home-building, safety, but also for power and its abuses, whereas the piazza is a more mutable and dangerous area.” Thank you very much. But to become involved in what followed, one had to be awfully enamored of Berio’s patented clever, wall-to-wall soundplay in which portentous effects are sovereign to dramatically informed variety.

In his program note, the composer wrote, “A staging that aspires to something more than manneristic decoration does not have to concern itself with slavishly following and illustrating the action … rather, it should represent the emotional ambience, the ‘Stimmung’ of a musical, scenic and poetic situation.” Thanks again. Despite the plenitude of movement on stage-involving, among many others, a pompous general, a holy fool, children, architects and a central, Cassandra-like figure called R, valiantly sung by Hildegard Behrens-the only “action” I could discern was the Pavlovian enactment of half-baked abstractions, and the only “emotional ambience” was my frustrated longing for something resembling a genuinely dramatic situation.

The most eagerly awaited event of the festival was one of the great oddball masterpieces of the century, Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust , in a new staging that is scheduled to come to the Met in 2001. Busoni (1866-1924) was an immensely magnetic “bridge” figure at the turn of the century, a staggering piano virtuoso and pedagogue whose compositions drew on everything from Renaissance and Baroque music to intimations of atonality. Doktor Faust , which he worked on for the last 15 years of his life without quite finishing it, is the grand harvesting of everything Busoni knew, musically and philosophically. That it so transcends anything like pastiche testifies to his belief in the power of melody and the eloquence of the human voice, and his ability to create sound pictures that perfectly mirror the episodic turns in the old legend about the scholar-magician who sells his soul to the Devil.

Peter Mussbach’s production obstructed the expression of these virtues at almost every point. Busoni took his inspiration not from Goethe but from a 16th-century German puppet play and from Christopher Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus . Mr. Mussbach transported the story into a miasma of postmodernism: Both his Faust and his Mephistopheles were homeless men shambling around in Gogolian overcoats. The warring Protestant and Catholic students of the tavern scene in Act 2 appeared in commedia dell’arte clown suits. A Cinemascopic woman’s eye, shown in too alluring bloodshot detail, hung over the scene in which Faust has a vision of Helen of Troy. The effect of all this visual bludgeoning was not only confusion but constant distraction from what is a dreamlike but rigorously planned musical drama.

Worse, the use of a mostly empty stage made vocal projection by the singers difficult, with the result that the excellent conductor Kent Nagano was, for the most part, obliged to keep the mighty Vienna Philharmonic to the volume level of a tearoom ensemble.

Obscured by bad costuming and dim lighting, Thomas Hampson nonetheless made a vivid, noble figure of the marathon title role, singing with unfailing strength of line and beauty of tone. In the production’s one stunning coup de théâtre , he made his big, athletic body seem utterly weightless in Faust’s dying fall onto a stage covered with snow. Chris Merritt’s Mephistopheles was never less than imposing and sharply insinuating.

Such is the power of Busoni’s score and its perfect union with the story’s themes about the limits of human knowledge and desire that, in the end, this Doktor Faust managed to make its impact as a masterpiece of magic theater. But what a lot of directorial nonsense to overcome! Except for the beautiful Rameau staging, my most rewarding memories of this Salzburg Festival are of two concerts, organized by the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini, which spanned six centuries of Western music, from the Renaissance polyphony of Josquin Desprez to pivotal Beethoven, radical Arnold Schoenberg and new works by contemporary Italian composers. I will have more to say about these extraordinary concerts, which were part of a mini-festival called “Progetto Pollini” that is coming to Carnegie Hall in October. For now, it’s enough to note that they demonstrated beyond a doubt that great music, when played at the highest level, is best heard and not seen.