Despite Tensions, Salzburg Remains a Crammed Summer Stage (2023)



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Critic’s Notebook

No other festival matches the sheer profusion of classical music, opera and theater offerings at the Salzburg Festival.

Despite Tensions, Salzburg Remains a Crammed Summer Stage (1)

By Zachary Woolfe

Zachary Woolfe attended 11 performances in six days at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.

Early in 1779, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sulked back to Salzburg, Austria, having failed to land a permanent job abroad. In a letter to a family friend, he sneered at the city he was returning to.

“Salzburg is no place for my talent,” he wrote, adding: “One hears nothing; there’s no theater; no opera! — and even if they wanted to stage one, who is there to sing?”

If only Mozart could see his hometown now.

I read those words last weekend in a program note at the Salzburg Festival, which, over the past century, has been largely responsible for giving this place perhaps the richest, densest musical offerings in the world for six weeks each summer.

Salzburg’s bounty of nearly 200 opera, concert and theater performances, continuing this year through Aug. 31, is so intoxicating that it can lead to some dizzying sprints.

Last Tuesday, I left one concert early — squeezing past the confused people in my aisle right after Jean-Guihen Queyras played Kodaly’s Cello Sonata at 7 p.m. — so that I could make it to the baritone Christian Gerhaher’s lieder recital. And had Gerhaher’s haunting Schumann not felt quite so conclusive, I would have run, at 10:15, to try and make the second part of a third program.

Salzburg has competition. The Aix-en-Provence Festival in France has more varied spaces and a commitment to new work; in Germany, Bayreuth has a laser focus on Wagner and, as in this year’s augmented reality “Parsifal,” an experimental spirit. Glyndebourne, in England, has pastoral grace; Lucerne and Verbier, in Switzerland, vibrant orchestras and chamber intimacy.

But Salzburg is still the annual stage, crammed to bursting.


And currently in some flux. There have been reports of internal tensions as Kristina Hammer, who last year replaced the festival’s longtime president, settles in. A big-budget renovation project looms, as Europe’s economic situation is unsettled by war and inflation. (The cost of paper has risen so high that Salzburg no longer prints opera librettos in its programs.)

Heated controversy last summer over the ties to Russia of the conductor Teodor Currentzis, a recent stalwart here, has largely eased. And tickets have been selling briskly.

Yet the pressure is always on to justify Salzburg’s reputation and its often sky-high prices, which can reach north of $500. As Jürgen Flimm, an old artistic director here, is said to have put it, “People don’t come to the Salzburg Festival to watch us save money.”

The staged operas I saw during my six days here didn’t seem cheap, but they looked and felt too much the same: all gloomily sleek. Best was Martin Kusej’s rueful production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” set in a series of anonymous, sterile, nearly empty spaces populated by the rootless members of a contemporary crime syndicate.

The druggy opening promised a too-broad mafioso approach, but Kusej settled in with action that was sly, surreal and sensual, muted without being chilly, full of casual, bloody violence but also melancholy tenderness. The cast was strong, particularly a trio of female leads — Adriana González, Sabine Devieilhe and Lea Desandre — with light, precise voices and a Mozartian blend of wistfulness and energy.

And Raphaël Pichon’s conducting of the Vienna Philharmonic, the festival’s eminent house band, was remarkable. While Pichon often does Mozart with his period-instrument ensemble, Pygmalion, he embraced the Philharmonic’s more traditional warmth. Detailed without being finicky, this was a grand but dashing, controlled but vibrant “Figaro.”

Christof Loy’s staging of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” had one of Loy’s typical airy sets — wood-paneled but otherwise as blank as the rooms in “Figaro” — as well as his wan, sometimes swooping, sometimes sullen venture into choreography.

With Gianluca Capuano serenely leading Les Musiciens du Prince, Monaco, this was one of the annual vehicles for the star singer Cecilia Bartoli, who premiered it this spring at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, the sister event she runs. Dressed in a men’s suit with a long ponytail, Bartoli’s Orfeo had impassioned dignity, but her voice was less persuasive and juicy — sounding sharp-edged at the top of its range, colorless at the bottom — than in her other recent appearances here.

Both of these works were done in the modest-size Haus für Mozart, while Krzysztof Warlikowski’s dreary take on Verdi’s “Macbeth” — interpreting the action as the internal drama of a couple driven mad by their inability to conceive a child — sprawled across the expanse of the main festival theater’s stage.


In an unfocused production busy with neorealist-style film, movie theater seats and children wearing oversize bobblehead Banquo masks, the soprano Asmik Grigorian, Salzburg’s reigning prima donna of late, alone managed to seize attention with her clear, focused singing and convincing sobriety. Under Philippe Jordan, the Philharmonic sounded vague and limp; this was a performance full of imprecise coordination between pit and stage, in a work that needs to be taut to fully speak.

Far tauter, more delicate and more potent was Currentzis’s conducting of Peter Sellars’s wrenching, decade-old completion of Purcell’s “The Indian Queen.” Adding some of that composer’s religious choruses alongside harrowing spoken excerpts from Rosario Aguilar’s novel “The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma,” exploring the impact of Spanish colonization on Central Americans, Sellars created a hypnotically solemn meditation on that corrosive, ambivalent colonial encounter — here semi-staged under somber light.

Utopia — the orchestra and choir Currentzis has been touring with since he and his MusicAeterna ensemble came under fire for their partnership with a state-owned Russian bank — performed with exquisite sensitivity. In a superb cast, the soprano Jeanine De Bique stood out with a voice and presence of unaffected directness.

Also narcotic and stark, but in a more maximalist mode, was “Nathan the Wise,” Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 18th-century parable of religious tolerance, one of the festival’s spoken theater productions and the most exciting directorial work I saw at Salzburg.

It was staged in darkly industrial style by Ulrich Rasche on one of his characteristic turntable stages, over which his actors ceaselessly walk — rhythmically swaying into slowly shifting configurations, while hurling out their lines with stylized aggression. The showmanship, the physical virtuosity, the intensity and clarity of the text have all been hard to forget.


It has not been unusual in recent years to find the fully staged operas — in theory, Salzburg’s glory — uneven, and the drama offerings more adventurous. While the festival’s artistic leader, Markus Hinterhäuser, has excellent taste in musicians, his choices in opera directors can tend iffy.

So can some repertory decisions. With just five full stagings, for example, does it make sense for two to be Shakespeare adaptations by Verdi? (After “Macbeth,” “Falstaff” opens on Saturday.)

And Hinterhäuser has stubbornly resisted premieres and contemporary work, instead showcasing modernist rarities like Enescu’s “Oedipe,” Nono’s “Intolleranza 1960” and Martinu’s mid-20th-century refugee drama “The Greek Passion,” which opens on Sunday. These are invaluable projects, but surely 21st-century music does not have to be so completely exiled from Salzburg.

Hinterhäuser has been a steady, intelligent hand, though, and many would like to see him extend his contract, which runs through 2026. He demurred when asked in an interview if he hoped to stay longer, saying that he and the festival’s board will discuss the matter this fall. But recent tweaks to the administrative hierarchy have led to speculation about friction between him and Hammer, the new president.

The festival’s president serves as a kind of global ambassador, networker and fund-raising chief, and Hammer, a German-Swiss marketing executive and consultant, was an unexpected choice from outside the usual Salzburg circles. (Her predecessor, Helga Rabl-Stadler, came from a prominent Austrian family and had been a politician, journalist and businesswoman before her quarter-century as president.)

There can be advantages to having someone in the position with deep connections at the highest reaches of government — as in 2020, when the festival leveraged its influence to put on a robust event amid worldwide pandemic closures.

But it’s also important to remember that Rabl-Stadler went through her own difficulties early on. In an interview, Hammer presented herself as an underestimated outsider, patiently learning the ropes.

“I swallow it if somebody runs me over because they think: ‘Who is the blonde? Certainly not the president,’” she said. “I don’t care. If people need time to get used to me, I understand.”

She has been buoyed by the fact that the festival’s corporate sponsors, among the president’s prime responsibilities, have remained stable. And this spring, Hammer secured a 12 million euro ($13.1 million) private gift — unusually large for a festival financed so generously by the government — for a new visitor center.

That project will be a prologue to the main renovation, which, organized by the festival’s well-liked business manager, Lukas Crepaz, will cost an estimated 480 million euros ($527.2 million) and last until 2032. It will increase the comfort for audiences, update outdated backstage facilities and add more behind-the-scenes space by pushing further into the adjoining mountain.

“It creates a lot of question marks for the festival,” Hinterhäuser said. “But we have to do it.”

The construction schedule has been planned to keep all the theaters open each summer. So the fire hose of performances will remain on — with no end to the need to choose, for example, between two memorable 11 a.m. concerts: the sumptuous, detailed Philharmonic under Andris Nelsons, or the Mozarteum Orchestra, exuberantly fresh with its incoming chief conductor, Roberto González-Monjas.

Where else but at this festival could you hear “Le Nozze di Figaro” and then, the following morning, Mozart’s “Coronation Mass,” whose Agnus Dei gives the soprano soloist a melody its composer would later crib from himself for the time-stopping “Dove sono” in “Figaro”?

At Salzburg, the bounty — the extravagance, the sheer profusion — is the point.

Zachary Woolfe became The Times’s classical music critic in 2022, after serving as classical music editor since 2015. Prior to joining The Times, he was the opera critic of the New York Observer. More about Zachary Woolfe

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