Silliness and Subversion Taint the Salzburg Opera Festival

It was a sight that would have given Genghis Khan second thoughts: a battalion of armed policemen behind barriers, amidst an array of outer-space equipment that looked like a preview of the Bush administration’s missile shield. But it wasn’t happening in Nevada; it was happening on the plaza of Lincoln Center. And the advancing hordes weren’t bloodthirsty Mongolians; they were would-be ticket-buyers for the New York City Opera, whose fall season was opening the following week. For four hours on the afternoon of Sept. 6, the box office of the New York State Theater was inaccessible to the public. All entry to the world’s biggest performing-arts campus was restricted to holders of “staff” badges which identified them as either belonging to one of Lincoln Center’s constituents or to the event that was taking place that evening at the Metropolitan Opera House: the annual awards for the year’s most mind-numbing contributions to MTV.

In return for opening its doors to this bash, the Met reportedly earned $1 million, while depriving its next-door neighbor of uncalculated but much-needed box-office revenue, especially from elderly opera patrons who are unaccustomed to buying their tickets through the Internet. (A further insult took place a few blocks away on Columbus Avenue, where the police stopped singers and musicians who were trying to get to a rehearsal.) For choosing to hold their wingding at the world’s most prestigious opera house, the MTV people received front Arts-page publicity in The Times , which reported on the event as a happy conjunction of high and low.

But, quite apart from what seems to have been yet another instance of the Met’s cavalier attitude toward its weaker but invaluable sister, the barricading of Lincoln Center on behalf of a brash outsider was anything but happy. Once again, a venerable cultural institution was cozying up to an institution of the popular media whose interests couldn’t be more divergent.

If the Met is about the cultivation of a tradition-steeped art form, MTV is about the selling of the latest rocker and rapper. And though in this case the Met’s behavior was more a matter of greed than of artistic reach, it raised a question that won’t go away: Why are the older stewards of high culture so desperate to appropriate the juvenile idiocies of low culture?

This question is too complex to answer here, but it speaks to the most distressing operatic experience I’ve had in some time, which took place at this summer’s Salzburg Festival. As has been widely reported, Gérard Mortier, the outgoing artistic director of what is still the world’s most glamorous summer arts gathering, has been virtually run out of town for turning the event into a showplace for Europe’s most self-indulgent directors, who are at the forefront of what is known as Regiemusic , or director’s opera. In my experience, Mr. Mortier’s record is, at worst, highly uneven. Coming after the haute-dinosaur years of his predecessor, Herbert von Karajan, his commitment to contemporary and historically neglected opera has been commendable, and he has pulled off a number of unforgettable stagings, including those of Rameau’s Les Boréades , Busoni’s Doktor Faustus and Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. But there have been some awful examples of wretched excess, especially in his rough-and-ready approach to the town’s favorite son, Mozart. At this summer’s affair (Salzburg-goers dubbed it “Mortier’s revenge”), he outdid himself by throwing mud at two operas that are especially dear to Austrian hearts, Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus and Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos .

I cannot report firsthand on the outrages of Die Fledermaus, which reportedly turned the blithe Hapsburgian antics of its Viennese aristocrats into a grim orgy of incest and cocaine-sniffing, but they prompted even the most Regie-battered veterans of Salzburg to ask for their money back, the first time that this has happened in the festival’s 80-year history.

“This is a blow to our national spirit, and it’s not even entertaining,” a sophisticated Austrian gentleman who had joined a considerable number of walkouts told me.

But I saw Ariadne– as well as a highly respectable, beautifully sung Don Carlo –and I can report that even after a second viewing, it seemed as willfully nonsensical an evening as I have spent in an opera house. If any opera invites deep musings on the conflict between “high” and “low,” it is Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmanstahl’s deliciously awkward conjoining of rude commedia dell’arte with lofty opera seria. And since the two traditions happen to collide at the house of “the richest man in Vienna,” who has commissioned a new serious opera by a brilliant young composer, only to want it leavened by low comedy, Ariadne must have seemed the ideal vehicle by which Mr. Mortier could tweak the well-heeled Austrians who have turned Salzburg into such an occasion for bourgeois self-display. How clever it must have seemed when the directing team of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito had the idea of updating the whole thing to today, and setting it in the very place where all those overdressed operagoers would be collecting, the Grosses Festspielhaus.

And so, when the curtain opened on the prologue, we found ourselves in some backstage holding pen of the opera house. So far, so clear, ironically speaking. But then the performers and the Composer were pushed onstage, blindfolded. But why the blindfolds (which they seemed to be wearing without duress)? And why, as things developed, were we being asked to attend to some of Strauss’ most beautiful music, as sung by the hapless Composer, while the tenor was stripping down to his boxers and contending with a Zerbinetta who was performing a lewd bump-and-grind under his nose? “Subversion!” a man near me whispered.

When the curtain opened on the opera proper, we were still in the same backstage area, only now it had been furnished with club tables and chairs and a well-stocked cocktail table, next to which the sleeping Ariadne sprawled, looking as though she hadn’t been abandoned by Theseus but had passed out after one too many. The three nymphs were charwomen cleaning silver while they chirped about Ariadne’s grief. Ariadne, upon awakening, tippled. On came Zerbinetta, miniskirted, bare-midriffed and high-booted, followed by her loutish clowns, a grunge band from the Austrian equivalent of Seattle. They gleefully groped her. (One had a fetish for her panties, another for her boots.) Bacchus entered, a mod Liberace in shiny silver suit and red T-shirt. To celebrate his transforming moment with Ariadne, he threw seat cushions in the air. And when their ecstatic duet had died away, the two lovers sailed not into the sunset, as Hoffmanstahl directed, but in different directions: Araidne alone into the street; Bacchus, through a door marked “Privat” with Zerbinetta. “More subversion!” the man whispered.

Silliness was a better word for it. For only later, when I talked to Susan Graham, who sang a glorious Composer, did I learn that the blindfolding was meant to convey the “terror”–she said this ironically– “that artists feel when they go into an alien bourgeois world.” And only then did I learn that the people singing Ariadne (a patchy but strong Deborah Polaski), Bacchus (a promising American tenor of Helden proportions, John Villars) and Zerbinetta (the drop-dead Natalie Dessay) were not supposed to be the same people we had met in the prologue. Hmmm. Perhaps the only truly “blindfolded” person present was the conductor, Christoph von Dohnanyi, whose reading of Strauss’ great score with the Vienna Philharmonic was ravishing. A few days later, I heard Mr. Mortier deliver an elaborate apologia for his dead regime. My command of German isn’t good enough to convey the nuances of how he justified the Fledermaus and the Ariadne to a packed audience, but at least three times he compared what he had been up to with the Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut . If this was an attempt to ally himself with a subversive master in another medium, it was–given the fiasco of Kubrick’s last film–a bad choice. But it did remind me of the true and beautiful subversiveness of Mr. Dohnanyi, who could only have conducted that Ariadne with his eyes wide shut.