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Salzburg Festival review – dark bluebeard, bewitching Lenz, awful Orff

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Ausrine Stundyte and Mika Kares in ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ © Monika Rittershaus/Salzburger Festspiele

In a strange sleight of hand, Romeo Castellucci made the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg disappear. Almost every production in this rock-cut theater uses the stone alcoves that frame the stage. Castellucci, in the opening production of this year’s Salzburg Festival, concealed them behind a gigantic black curtain.

His staging of Bluebeard’s Castle is black, black, black. In the darkness before Bartók’s music begins, we hear a baby crying, then a woman crying. For Castellucci, maternal love is born of guilt, a regressive view of original sin. Darkness, water and fire define the castle and form the scene of Judith’s frantic battle with herself. Rather than being a wife-killing despot, his Bluebeard is a gently bewildered husband, vainly trying to support his new bride through a psychological crisis. A dead baby makes the most dubious of props, grabbed by Judith and sometimes handed over to Bluebeard.

We are drawn into this symbolic world partly by the feverish intensity of Ausrine Stundyte’s Judith, partly by Teodor Currentzis’ fanatically detailed reading of the score. The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester responds to Currentzis with slavish devotion, making the sweetest of pianissimi, the scariest of sound effects; Bartok wins.

A group of women in dark black long clothes stand and sing
Oratorio by Carl Orff ‘De temporum fine comoedia’ © SF/Monika Rittershaus

The idea of ​​twinning Blue Beard with the appalling Carl Orff Fine temporum comedy (Play at the end of time) takes on fleeting meaning when the tuned percussion echoes the harsh half-scales of Bartók’s opera. But that’s where the compatibility ends. Orff’s endless religious oratorio of 1971 reads like the composer’s attempt to explain the imperative of his own redemption; if even Lucifer can atone and earn forgiveness (the heretical premise of all that ends well in the play), Orff’s flexibility when the Nazis arrived certainly doesn’t have to preclude heaven.

Castellucci’s staging populates the stage with symbols: a large rock for the Sibyls, a dead tree for the Anchorites, the inevitable dead children, the omnipresent darkness. Currentzis and his orchestra provide nebulous waves of noise for the action when extra sound is required. About two-thirds of the way through Orff’s repetitive, creaky score comes one of the doomed cries, “It’s the end!” It is the end! This is the end!” – and the worst part is, you know it’s not. It all drags on and unless you can ride the spiritual wave – which one hope the protagonists were – it’s grueling and grim. ★★★☆☆

A man stands among the orchestra players on a stage;  next to him, the conductor applauds
Georg Nigl sings the title role in ‘Jakob Lenz’, directed by Maxime Pascal, right © SF/Marco Borrelli

Wolfgang Rihm’s opera Jacob Lenz, presented the following evening in concert at the Mozarteum and premiered in 1979, is an infinitely better piece. Young Rihm had all the inventiveness and sense of dramatic form that old Orff lacked, and Lenz is still a tense and gripping masterpiece. It is strongly inspired by Büchner’s short story on the descent of the young eponymous poet into madness and death and rubs shoulders with that of Berg Wozzeck like a classic tale of individual suffering in an incomprehensible word.

With Georg Nigl giving a riveting performance in the title role, John Daszak as the wonderfully nuanced Oberlin, and the polished direction and acting of Maxime Pascal and Le Balcon, it’s a worthy tribute to Rihm, part of a series of concerts of his work as this recipient of the Salzburg Ruby Festival pin of the year. The composer himself, now in a wheelchair, was a visibly grateful spectator. ★★★★★

A group of men and women huddle on and around a wooden double bed
‘Gianni Schicchi’, part of Puccini’s ‘Il trittico’ © SF/Monika Rittershaus

For Puccini The tritticodirector Christof Loy and his team remixed the traditional order, starting with the comic Gianni Schicchiwhich is usually played last, moving into dark jealousy/murder drama The tabaro (usually first) and ending with the tragic transcendence of Sweat Angelica. For all the immensity of this effort, with its triple casting and its maximalist set changes (a complete barge for The Tabarro!), the main draw here is Asmik Grigorian in all three female leads. She’s a stage beast, with charisma to spare and a fine, brilliantly managed voice, and she effortlessly commands attention.

Loy’s direction is competent and detailed without being revealing; it is scrupulous conservatism at its best. Much of the success of the evening is the unsentimental conducting of Franz Welser-Möst in combination with the luscious playing of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, performing in a half-raised pit, making Puccini’s orchestration a character in itself.

Welser-Möst drives this orchestral trailer like a Porsche, knowing exactly when to bring delicacy to the smallest detail and when to unleash its full force. The more restraint it brings, the more moving the result. We hear the modernity of Puccini, his lively spirit, his pathos, and we always hear the singers, in themselves rarely acquired. ★★★★☆

Whether festival director Markus Hinterhäuser makes conservative choices out of post-pandemic economic necessity or simply lacks a clear artistic vision, his opening productions represent a series of safe options, from proven directors whose work can be seen in many European festivals and opera stages, with only the most cautious hints of modernity. The actors are top notch and the musical standards are very high; that may be enough. Still, if Orff’s chillingly banal eschatology is the height of risk-taking, it won’t go down in history as a memorable Salzburg year.

The festival runs until August 31 salzburgerfestspiele.at