Oral sex on television is apparently no problem in Austria-at least if the sex is accompanied by the music of Richard Strauss. It’s impossible to know what the greatest opera composer of the last century would have thought about the decision by the Canadian director Robert Carsen to set a scene of his new Salzburg Festival production of Der Rosenkavalier in a fin-de-siècle bordello, where the Baron Ochs gets his comeuppance amid garish nudity and the simulation of head-bobbing pleasure. The Salzburg Festival has long been renowned for trying to outrage the conservative politicians and patrons who foot the bill for Europe’s most lavish summer extravaganza-rather in the spirit of the town’s local hero, Mozart, whose scatological humor is on display in a derrière-baring cartoon exhibited for the crowds trooping through the museum that was once his family home.
In any case, Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, would undoubtedly have enjoyed the exposure given their most beloved opera in a national telecast. And they might even have applauded Mr. Carsen’s determination to divest the work of its usual satin-and-wig trappings in order to bring out its darker, prophetic implications. This Rosenkavalier was no bittersweet retrospective of the gilded life in Empress Marie Therese’s 18th-century Vienna. It treats, with great theatrical bravado, the score’s swagger and poignancy, the contest between Octavian and Ochs, as a foreshadowing of the explosive tensions that splintered Europe in the 19th century and prepared the way for the horrors of the 20th.
A vast mural of military carnage dominates Faninal’s banquet hall in Act II. The undraped tarts in the first scene of Act III might have stepped out of Egon Schiele’s demimonde. (Their clients include, hilariously, a naked man who wanders in looking for his watch.) Semyon Bychkov conducted the Vienna Philharmonic with a ferocity more suitable for the composer’s Elektra, and in the process nearly drowned out a superb cast led by Adrienne Pieczonka’s sedately touching Marschallin, Angelika Kirschlager’s spirited Octavian, Miah Persson’s sweet-voiced Sophie, and the marvelously unbuffoonish Ochs of Franz Hawlata. At the end, as the transcendent ardor of the young lovers dies away, the candles were not snuffed out. Instead, the backdrop rose to reveal a brigade of young soldiers poised for the charge. This further instance of the production’s sometimes sophomoric didacticism (is anything sillier than faked sex onstage?) added another shiver to the prescient chill that lurks in the Straussian fizz.
The chill spread through much of this summer’s festival, compounded by an unseasonably cool July and August. It was there during a performance of Hofmannstahl’s marvelous updating of the medieval morality play Jedermann (“Everyman”), which was staged-as it has been since the festival began in 1920-in front of the Salzburg cathedral’s magnificent 17th-century façade. With the climactic arrival of the figure of Death, a mysterious wind blew through the square, followed by a show-stopping storm. It was also there in a blistering concert performance of Prokofiev’s epic recreation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace , held in the arena of Salzburg’s old Imperial riding school. Using a judiciously trimmed score, Valéry Gergiev and his mighty troops from the Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg demonstrated that million-dollar sets and costumes are unnecessary when you have a feverishly committed cast-this one led by Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Prince Andrei and the divine Anna Netrebko as Natasha.
As part of an ongoing homage to exiled composers, the festival offered Die Tote Stadt by the Austrian wunderkind of the 1920′s, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who went on to compose some of Hollywood’s most vivid movie scores, including The Adventures of Robin Hood and Kings Row . The opera’s morbid but ultimately upbeat plot, which concerns a widower who is haunted by his dead wife, still packs a psychological wallop. The score, conducted by Donald Runnicles with little regard for its latent sweetness or the vocal health of the singers, astonished with the precocity of its assurance. (Korngold was 23 when the opera had its sensational premiere in 1920.) The production, by Willy Decker, employed the sort of tropes with which Salzburg audiences feel cozily at home-tilted ceiling, nightmarish figures from a commedia dell’arte troupe. I found it all rather unimaginative, but the local critics loved it, and my fellow first-nighters in the claustrophobic Kleines Festspielhaus (which is about to be replaced by a sleek, state-of-the art auditorium named after Mozart) cheered as though they had just discovered Freud.
The festival itself, which was the last century’s most illustrious summer camp for musical and theatrical talent, seemed more than ever trapped between the glories of the past and an uncertain future in more competitive times. In the years since the death in 1989 of Herbert von Karajan, who ruled over the proceedings as if by divine right, Salzburg’s artistic focus has been blurred. A parade of big-ticket soloists and a surfeit of unpleasantly provocative productions kept things lively during the 10 years of Karajan’s successor, Gérard Mortier, who was virtually run out of town after a Die Fledermaus that had Prince Orlofsky and his guests snorting cocaine. The current reign of Peter Ruzicka, a composer, has lacked any particular artistic imprint, and I heard several traditionalists grousing, “At least Mortier gave us something to talk about.” (It’s a measure of how shock-weary European operagoers have become that the excesses of Der Rosenkavalier raised scarcely an eyebrow.)
Mr. Ruzicka recently declared that he would resign after he stages all 22 Mozart operas in 2006 to celebrate the composer’s 250th birthday-an event that only a festival with Salzburg’s prestige and resources could pull off. The announcement set off a frantic search for a successor involving the highest reaches of the Austrian government-and on Aug. 30, Salzburg appointed Jürgen Flimm as the festival’s next artistic director. Mr. Flimm, a well-known German opera director whose production of Purcell’s King Arthur at this year’s festival was widely disliked for padding the Baroque masque with 60 minutes of German dialogue, is currently Salzburg’s director of theater.
By chance, I ran into someone who had been a prime candidate in the early stages of the search-the young Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst, who is currently the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. We met in the lakeside garden of a restaurant just out of town where Mr. Welser-Möst was having lunch with his wife and friends. Dressed in traditional lederhosen, he looked very much the loyal patriot; nonetheless, he had turned down the job. “It’s a mess,” he told me. “They don’t know where they want the festival to go-there’s no vision.”
For administrative and artistic clarity, Mr. Flimm would do well to look to the Lucerne Festival, which was founded by Arturo Toscanini as a haven for musicians who wouldn’t-or couldn’t-perform in Salzburg after the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938. Along with its impossibly gemütlich setting alongside Switzerland’s prettiest lake and the generous backing of the country’s well-heeled corporations (headed by Nestlé), this festival boasts a strongly empowered artistic director, Michael Haefliger; a six-year-old concert hall, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel and the American acoustician Russell Johnson, whose superb comfort and sound capacities have made it a mecca for the world’s finest orchestras (the mighty Cleveland, with Mr. Welser-Möst, has just begun a three-year visiting residency); and a far-sighted commitment to the new, via an academy for 20th- and 21st-century music for young performers and composers, under the mentorship of Pierre Boulez.
Most beneficent, during the short time I was in Lucerne, was the inspirational presence of Claudio Abbado, who seems to have been born again after surviving a near-fatal stomach cancer that forced his resignation in 2000 as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. A few years ago, the 71-year-old Mr. Abbado persuaded Mr. Haefliger to revive an old Lucerne idea-the creation of a hand-picked summertime ensemble whose members include some of the world’s most proficient orchestra players (drawn chiefly from Berlin and Vienna), soloists and chamber musicians. I heard two performances of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra: Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (with Maurizio Pollini as the immaculate soloist) and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. As I sat there, astounded by the collective energy of these men and women, I realized that the best recipe for a great festival is twofold: a profound affection for the musical leader and the simple pleasure of making the best possible music together.