The nexus between the arts and power is nowhere more apparent than at the Salzburger Festspiele, pro­bably the world’s most successful music and drama festival and certainly one of the best financed.

Corporate and individual donors outdo each other with multimillion contributions and the core audience is willing to buy tickets priced up to €500 while, at the same time, making donations of at least €1,000 to im­prove their chances to get any tickets at all. Most performances are sold out many times over.

Bejewelled spectators in black tie and flowing evening gowns arrive in black limousines, greeted by a gawping crowd and blinding flashlights. They are the leaders of Europe’s industrial, cultural and political might and consider Salzburg their playground, a kind of Davos of culture. This year they have been welcomed by Salzburg’s new artistic director Markus Hinterhaeu­ser, whose successful first productions tellingly mixed power and politics.

On January 26, 1936, the career of Russian composer Dmitri Shosta­kovich came to an abrupt halt. His highly successful, erotic opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was seen by Josef Stalin that evening. The next day, Stalin wrote a scathing critique in the Prawda newspaper, forcing erstwhile jubilant critics to do a U-turn and thea­tres to immediately cancel all further performances.

Director Andreas Kriegenburg and Mariss Jansons, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, leave no doubt how Stalin’s wrath must have been provoked. Their Mtsensk, a small town south of Moscow, is the apocalyptic wasteland of a failed society, kept alive by greed and fornication. Harald B. Thor built a gully of Khrushchovkas for the stage – those drab, concrete-clad buildings which formed the suburbs of every Soviet town.

Gray and derelict, the stage edifices provide the merciless canvas for the story of Katerina Lwowna, the wife and property of Sinowi Ismailow, scion of wealthy grain merchants. Nina Stemme as Katerina portraits the murderess of both her husband and father-in-law as a woman in search of love, rather than lust. She is a pitiful victim, rather than perpetrator of hideous crimes.

Under Kriegenburg’s direction she is not merely caught between boredom and pain, despairing for short-lived erotic satisfaction, or dimwittedly suffering a male-dominated world. She is lamenting a societal end game where trust, love, decency and pity will never flower.

Shostakovich’s erotic carnival of despair is flawlessly paraded by Jansons from the orchestra pit. It is difficult to say if it is he who directs the perfect choreography of staggering and swirling bodies, or Kriegenburg, or both.

Maxim Paster is the nerdy, timid husband Sinowi, farcically preferring to switch on and off all night the lamp on his office desk, than to sire the heir to his cruel father’s empire.

Dmitry Ulyanov embodies the fami­ly and estate dictator Boris Ismailov with chilling violence, complete with whipping rod and a spray-bottle of eau de cologne to disinfect himself from the plebs. Katerina will later use it to wash her blooded hands.

The audience in Salzburg, hard to please and even harder to predict, was enraptured and celebrated Jansons and the singers with shattering applause.

Andrea Breth, one of Germany’s most feted star directors, who once famously claimed that her audience paid entrance to her performances to be challenged, not to be entertained, left her audience in the Landestheater clearly divided.

A sizable minority of visitors left in the interval, while those who stayed on cheered with standing ovations. Her production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party was a convincing victory of theatre over film making. Dissecting the psychology of Pinter’s personae with microscopic precision, she persuaded her actors to fact-check and to motivate every second of their presence, basing each word upon causation.

Citizens of Vienna must be tearing their hair out for letting him go

Petey (patiently tight-lipped Pierre Siegenthaler) and his wife Meg (Nina Petri, frail as a wintery child star), make a living in a nondescript English seaside resort. He rents out beach loungers and she runs a B&B. Guests are a rarity these days, if there ever were any. Sand and dune grass and ever more rudimentary, daily routine have invaded the cottage.

Their only lodger Stanley (Max Simonischek) hardly gets out of bed for his daily bowl of cereal and badly brewed tea. When the assassins Goldberg (Roland Koch) and McCann (Oliver Stokowski) arrive to arrest the shiftless lodger and interrogate him in a threateningly Kafka­esque show trial, the defencelessness of everybody’s existence becomes chillingly apparent. Masterfully, Breth dissects social phenomena like conformity, role play or aggression into its ultimate particles, to then let them go again into the unknown, with a knowing shrug.

Mozart’s opera seria La Clemenza di Tito was perhaps the biggest surprise and the biggest success in Salzburg so far this year. Surprising, because conductor Teodor Currentzis and his music, Aeterna choir and orchestra from Russia had cut out without much ado the rather boring recitatives from the libretto and replaced them with monumental parts of Mozart’s C Minor Mass and the Requiem. And they got away with it, successfully, because he and Peter Sellars, American director enfant terrible with a stellar track record, have created one of the most beautiful and touching opera productions of recent years.

Marianne Crebassa (Sesto) and Florian Schuele (clarinet) in La clemenza di Tito. Photo: Salzburger Festspiele/Ruth WalzMarianne Crebassa (Sesto) and Florian Schuele (clarinet) in La clemenza di Tito. Photo: Salzburger Festspiele/Ruth Walz

Things could have gone awfully wrong: terrorists with bomb vests; anti-terror police with MGs. There were hordes of refugees; fields of burning candles, with photos and personal mementos of the victims as we know them from Paris, or Berlin… how easy could this have drifted into well-meaning kitsch. Yet, the artists did not just sing or move about. They acted with a unified purpose on a bare stage with only a minimum of symbolic props.

US tenor Russell Thomas as the all-forgiving Emperor Tito was not the only highlight of a truly global ensemble: South African soprano Golda Schultz as his nemesis, Princess Vitellia, was marvellously revengeful and beguiling. Jeanine De Bique from Trinidad portrayed his trusted aide Annio, touchingly shy, yet passionate. Willard White from Jamaica was Tito’s chilly chief of security, Christina Gansch from Austria the youthful soprano as Sesto’s sister Servilia. The un­tamed power, range of expression and clarity of voice that the French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa could contribute to this enterprise overwhelmed even stubborn doubters, if there were any.

Aida was perhaps Hinterhaeuser’s most valiant gamble, and he almost lost it. His idea to trust Shirin Neshat, a US-based, Iranian video artist with her first opera direction somewhat backfired.

There were no pyramids, no obelisks, no elephants, no grand durbar or triumphal Oriental pageant as we know it from Verona, or the MET Theatre. A few white spa­ces, oversized polystyrene box­es on which Neshat projected minute videos of motionless orthodox priests and frightfully solemn and well-groomed prisoners of war. As they were Ethiopians, they had to put some spray tan on, which was not quite a pinnacle of political correctness either.

The contrast to Sellars’ La Clemenza was striking. Neshat could not be bothered to instruct the singers how to act and how to interact with each other; nobody seemed to have an idea who to put where and why – Neshat herself included.

But then there was Riccardo Muti on the rostrum, happy to give guidance to all, to musicians and singers and the choir alike, happy to have brought Verdi to his beloved Salzburg, happy to have the world’s greatest soprano as Aida on stage, Anna Netrebko, the undisputed queen of Salzburg, the world’s most celebrated, and its most expensive, opera voice.

The singers were all worthy of Salzburg: Roberto Tagliavini (king), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Amneris), Francesco Meli –  very powerful and lyrical as Aida’s and Amneris’ love projection Radames.

Yet no matter how much spray paint she had to put on and how drab her dresses, Anna Netrebko wonderfully and terribly outclassed them all. She always does, no matter how hard she tries not to. Her ability to sing seemingly effortless, to convince with ease without ever overacting or playing to the audience, is her great strength. The audience paid homage with thunderous, long app­lause, bravos, whistles and stamping.

The Hinterhaeuser factor showed yet again with the production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in the Haus fuer Mozart. Hinterhaeuser, who for two glorious years headed the Vienna Festival (now a complete mess, not worth visiting for the time being) has worked with the key pillars of this Wozzeck production before – the South African director artist William Kentridge, the German Bariton Matthias Goerne and Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski. With Kentridge and Goerne he had even performed as pianist in a much acclaimed Shubert evening.

What we see in Salzburg now is a rickety junk yard of ladders, beams and shaky wooden platforms (stage design Sabine Theunissen), enabling co-director Luc De Wit to move performers within a concentrated space, more the mental world in Wozzeck’s head than the social drama focusing on him as the victim.

William Kentridge’s animated charcoal drawings and troop deployment maps – as well as the scratched, flickering silent films of planes, zeppelins and goose stepping soldiers projected onto the stage walls and vertical spaces of Theunissen’s scaffolding labyrinth – recreate the horrors of World War I. With cities obliterated, soldiers mutilated in the trenches, and crippled war veterans begging for food we recognise the bitter war recollections of Otto Dix who, like composer Alban Berg, never managed to shake off the traumatic experiences of his war years.

Kentridge’s Wozzeck, the humilia­ted and exploited creature so masterfully portrayed by Goerne, is not gradually forced into madness. Quite to the contrary, he desperately tries to preserve his sanity against all odds. Imprisoned in a world out of joint, absurd and incomprehensibly mad, he finally falters. Asmik Grigorian as his unfaithful child-wife Marie is not so much a lewd Lolita, but torn between her longing for reprieve from poverty, love for her bastard child (in Kentridge’s production a rag doll puppet with a gas mask) and guilty respect for Wozzeck’s stubborn honesty.

John Daszak (Tambourmajor), Gerhard Siegel (Hauptmann) and Jens Larsen (doctor) portrait a gallery of grotesque Otto Dix characters with sarcastic, farcical humour.

The Russian conductor Valdimir Jurowski goaded the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with merciless speed and almost mathematical precision into an expressionist, rhythmical art-deco firework of dust, despair and glitter. The first-night audience thanked with bravos and shouts of excitement.

Hinterhaeuser is bathing in glory. His first season as director was a resounding success. The citizens of Vienna must be tearing their hair out for letting him go.


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