In many quarters, there is worry about the health of classical music. There is always such worry—it is a time-honored tradition. But that does not mean it is never justified. In New York, there are fewer and fewer concerts. Salzburg, however? This little burg is booming, certainly at Festspielzeit (festival time). The concert halls are packed. Outside them, people hold up signs that say “Suche Karte”—“I need a ticket”—with anxious looks on their faces.
Among the operatic offerings at the 2023 festival was Macbeth. How Verdi loved Shakespeare (not making him unusual, to be sure). He is the composer also of Otello and Falstaff.
Let’s talk honestly: Macbeth can come off as silly. Why does the music, with its bel canto roots, sound happy, or at least undisturbed, when the action on the stage is horrifying or tragic? Because conductors conduct it wrong. So have said Riccardo Muti and Roberto Abbado, among others, in interviews with me. Conductors let the music be limp when it needs tension, tautness, bounce, and bite.
In the pit of Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall was Philippe Jordan, the Swiss maestro (son of another, the late Armin Jordan). He conducted Macbeth in the fine Italian tradition. Never for a moment was it silly. Verdi’s purposes and genius were apparent.
Portraying Lady Macbeth was Asmik Grigorian, the Lithuanian soprano. She is a marquee name at the Salzburg Festival—celebrated for her portrayal of Salome (in the Strauss opera), for example. She is a true singing actress, reminding me of Hildegard Behrens and Teresa Stratas. Her Lady Macbeth was riveting. I had heard her only in German, but, in this role, she was plenty Italianate. She sang easily—as easily as people talk. There does not seem to be much difference, in her mind, or in her throat, between singing and talking. She sang loud—scaldingly—without stridency. A friend of mine considered her underpowered, but not where I sat (which was fairly close, granted). Grigorian presented the complete package: theatrically, musically, and vocally.
On that night, should Macbeth have been called Lady Macbeth? No, the baritone in the title role held his own. He was Vladislav Sulimsky, from Belarus. He sang regally and handsomely. So did Tareq Nazmi, portraying Banco. He is a German bass born in Kuwait. Macduff was Jonathan Tetelman, an American tenor. When he cried out “O figli,” his voice was a splendid trumpet, filling the house.
The production was in the hands of Krzysztof Warlikowski, the director of the New Theatre in Warsaw. His Macbeth is set sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, it seems. Lady Macbeth reminded me of Evita Perón, strutting around. And yet, Macbeth duly kills Duncan with a dagger. Is that very twentieth-century? (The Metropolitan Opera once had a Faust set at Los Alamos, during the years of the Manhattan Project. There amid the nuclear technology, characters dueled with swords.) Warlikowski’s production leans heavily on the idea that Lady Macbeth is unable to have children.
It is an impressive production. It has many brilliant touches, as when Duncan’s funeral transitions into Macbeth’s coronation. But it is very, very busy. There is lots of video, so that the audience goes to the movies all the time. The production never rests—it never lets the music, and the libretto, alone. It is one of those productions that seem not to trust the music or the libretto to carry the show.
Obviously, stage directors have a bias toward the theatrical. Why shouldn’t they? But I like something that Thomas Hampson once said, in a public interview with me: “Opera is music in a theatrical context, not theater in a musical context.”
In the House for Mozart, down the way from the Great Festival Hall, the festival staged Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck’s hit from 1762. It is a three-singer opera. It can almost seem a one-singer opera, as the role of Orfeo is dominant. In Salzburg, the role was taken by Cecilia Bartoli, the Italian mezzo-soprano. Gluck’s opera was practically an extended scena for her.
Bartoli is so reliably professional, she can be taken for granted, which would be unfair to her. She will always be well prepared. She will always give 110 percent, as they say in sports. Her commitment to whatever she is doing is exemplary. And, of course, she is loaded with talent.
Orfeo has a beloved aria: “Che farò senza Euridice?” From Bartoli, it was as I had never heard it: panicked, desperate, breathless, gasping, fast. This makes sense, in the context of the story. How about in recital (detached from the story)? That is a different matter.
Readers may want to know whether, in her mid-fifties, Bartoli sounds the way she always has. I cannot say that the voice is ageless. I can say that it remains in good shape—and that Bartoli’s sheer professionalism bids to be ageless.
Alongside her were two sopranos, Mélissa Petit (Euridice) and Madison Nonoa (Amore). The former is from France, the latter from New Zealand. Each was poised and appealing. Conducting the opera was Gianluca Capuano, from Milan, who, as usual, was alive. That is to say: he always brings vitality (like Bartoli). There is a lot of drama—a lot of emotion—in Gluck’s bare, or bare-seeming, materials. Capuano knows where it is and how to express it.
The production was in the care of Christof Loy, the veteran German. It features dance—modern dance, on a staircase. Sometimes I was reminded of kabuki, sometimes of yoga. The production is odd but successful.
We had a brief evening, certainly as operas go. An hour and a half, no intermission. Sitting next to me were two women, I believe from Germany. Very friendly. At the end of the opera, as Euridice lay dead, I said to the lady next to me, “No happy ending, tonight.” She said, brightly, “For us, yes. We go to dinner!”
The Mozarteum University, a Salzburg institution, has a summer academy, which has a violin program, which is presided over by Zakhar Bron, a teacher of renown. He was born in the Soviet Union in 1947. For the last thirty-five years, he has taught all over the world. He looks the part too—the part of violin guru—with his mane of hair. Among his students have been Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repin, and Daniel Hope, who have all had big careers. I had a chance to stop in at a recital of Bron’s summer-academy students.
First came a little girl in a white dress: Stefania, about ten years old, from Kazakhstan. She played Wieniawski’s Scherzo-Tarantelle—not exactly a little-girl piece. Then came a boy, about fourteen, named Nikita, from Switzerland. He played Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen. He may well play such pieces on bigger stages later on, for decades. Third came Laura, maybe a few years older than Nikita, from Austria. She played Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois—such a delightful piece, both Viennesey (to use Ira Gershwin’s word) and Chinesey. Ingenious, really. And Laura played it with panache.
Parents took videos, as they do now—as is natural. They took videos when I was a kid, too. But we called them “home movies,” and they had no sound.
From time immemorial, surely, older people have taken pleasure in seeing children learn an art or craft—especially an art or craft that they, the older people, love. It says to us: continuity; perpetuation. Sweet perpetuation.
The Greek Passion, an opera by Martinů, rarely sees the light of day. But it was staged at the festival’s Felsenreitschule—where the stage seems about two-and-a-half football fields long. Martinů wrote the opera in the 1950s. It is based on an English translation, by Jonathan Griffin, of a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis—who is best known for Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. The libretto, fashioned by Martinů himself, is in English.
In a Greek village, Lykovrissi, the people will put on the Passion Play. Each villager cast in the play is instructed to take on, in his personal life, the qualities of his character. (Woe to the fellow assigned Judas.) Refugees arrive in Lykovrissi from another village, destroyed by Turks. Most inhabitants of Lykovrissi treat them abominably, but a few do not. The villager assigned to play Jesus, Manolios, displays Christly compassion. He is of course killed in the end.
I cannot say that The Greek Passion is a neglected masterpiece. I can certainly say that it is worth knowing, and that the Salzburg forces made an excellent case for it. The score is chiefly operatic (as an opera score might as well be), but it is also oratorio-like. Our conductor was Maxime Pascal, a Frenchman, who put his heart, and his musical intelligence, into the piece. Manolios was portrayed by Sebastian Kohlhepp, a German tenor, who was similarly committed.
In the cast were at least two interesting Americans. One was Sara Jakubiak, who portrayed Katerina, who, in turn, is assigned to portray Mary Magdalene. Jakubiak is a soprano from Bay City, Michigan (same as Madonna—not the mother of Jesus but the pop star). In the role of Yannakos, who is assigned Peter, was Charles Workman, a tenor from Arkansas. Every time I hear him—which is only in Europe—I wonder why he isn’t well-known in his own country.
The production was assigned to Simon Stone, the Australian director. His is a thoughtful production, in harmony with the opera. Stone lays great stress on the maltreatment of refugees. In one stretch—longish—people daub onto a wall “Refugees out!” The director is obviously making a point about the present day. But there is no need to lay it on, or daub it on, thick. Refugees, and attitudes toward them, are a theme of the opera anyway.
Sitting in the Felsenreitschule, I thought of a question, by which some may be entertained: What is the best opera in English? I propose some candidates: Dido and Aeneas; The Rake’s Progress; Peter Grimes or some other Britten opera; Vanessa. The list is shorter than one might suppose. (Before moving on, I might submit two other operas, written two hundred years apart: Semele and Porgy and Bess.)
The Great Festival Hall hosted another Shakespeare opera by Verdi, Falstaff. Before the performance began, an announcement was made: the baritone in the title role, Gerald Finley, was suffering from laryngitis but would soldier on. Should he have soldiered on, or should he have given way to an understudy? Finley is a superb artist, but he was hard to hear. So were many others on that stage: a vast stage, in a vast hall, with a vast Vienna Philharmonic in the pit. Falstaff is a chamber opera, you could say. An ensemble piece. It has more in common with The Marriage of Figaro than it does with Verdi’s own Aida.
A bright spot in the cast was the soprano in the role of Nannetta, Giulia Semenzato, an Italian. She has a lovely voice that can penetrate. Her high pianos suggested a diaphragm of iron.
The Vienna Philharmonic had a poor night, playing with uncharacteristic clumsiness. This despite leadership by Ingo Metzmacher, a fine conductor with a solid track record.
Our stage director was Christoph Marthaler, a Swiss avant-gardist. I could go on in interesting and perhaps entertaining detail, but let me be brief: this Falstaff is not so much a Falstaff as a show about people making a movie of Falstaff. Who among the cast is an “actor” and who is “real”? I don’t know. Near my seat, a cameraman was filming the performance. In other words, he was filming a performance that had people onstage filming a Falstaff. All too “meta,” as the kids say.
Not only did I not know what was going on in this messy production, I didn’t care. It was as though the director and a few close friends were enjoying a private joke. Later, I read that the director was paying a kind of homage to Orson Welles. That knowledge would not have aided comprehensibility.
When the curtain had fallen, I was speaking to an American friend of mine, an actor. He once took a course in comedy writing from Danny Simon, brother of Neil. Simon taught: in order to laugh at a joke, a person has to understand it. That is wise.
Many in the Salzburg audience left at intermission. Those who remained, rained boos on the show at the end. I myself am anti-booing. I think a person should either applaud perfunctorily—“golf clap”—or keep quiet. But this evening had indeed been something rare at the Salzburg Festival: a flop on all fronts.
Arcadi Volodos played his recital in the Großer Saal of the Mozarteum. “Großer” or not, this is a smaller hall than he usually plays in at the festival. He is usually to be found in the Great Festival Hall or the House for Mozart. Volodos himself is smaller, remarkably slimmed down. His piano playing remains the same: astounding.
He began with Mompou, his beloved Mompou. Volodos plays a lot of Spanish music. Soviet-born (1972), he is a French citizen who has long lived in Spain. He played twelve movements from Mompou’s Música callada (which has twenty-eight). A majority of those twelve are marked Lento. Volodos was intimate, conveying different moods, subtly. His pedaling produced desired effects. His playing was marked by balance: balance of hands and balance of mind. His mental and physical composure is remarkable.
The first half of his recital, he closed with Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B minor—a terrifying piece, with which Horowitz used to terrify and electrify audiences. Of course, Liszt himself did that before him. And Volodos did it on this night in Salzburg. I thought, “This kind of Liszt is a precursor to Scriabin: visionary, wizard-like, and strange.” The thought came to me because Volodos was going to play an all-Scriabin second half.
He played études, preludes, poems, a sonata, and other things. The program ended with Vers la flamme, perhaps the most visionary, wizard-like, and strange piece that Scriabin ever wrote. In all of these pieces, Volodos inhabited the composer’s mental world (not an entirely comfortable world to be in?). The pianist held the audience in a spell. He also displayed tremendous virtuosity, playing with almost unbelievable clarity and speed.
For years, I have said that Volodos is like a man who owns a Ferrari and won’t take it above forty miles per hour. He has all the virtuosity in the world—yet he has chosen to play programs that don’t require it. On this night, he took his Ferrari out for a wild, yet perfectly controlled, ride.
He played four encores (fewer than usual): another Scriabin piece (a mazurka); two more pieces by Mompou (and two of the very best: Secreto and El lago); and, finally, Malagueña, that chestnut by Ernesto Lecuona. Volodos has played this his whole career, and I love his love of it. Other pianists may consider it silly, hackneyed, and cheap. Volodos knows it’s a winner.
It is my business to describe musical performance, in addition to evaluating it. Volodos makes it difficult. In the Mozarteum, he took piano playing almost as far as it can go. He is not only one of the best pianists of his time but of all. As they were leaving, people in the audience shook their heads at one another. They shook their heads at total strangers, as if to say, “Can you believe what we just heard?”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 2, on page 52
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