MUSIC / A change for the better?: David Patrick Stearns on tradition and innovation at the Salzburg Festival

THOUGH few would dispute that the tradition-encrusted Salzburg Festival needs changing, far fewer would have ever predicted artists such as Peter Sellars, Pierre Boulez, Luc Bondy and other perpetually forward-looking artists would appear on the hallowed soil once trodden by Mozart, Karajan and Furtwangler. But despite all the talk of cancellations - Riccardo Muti, Marilyn Horne and Edita Gruberova withdrew for artistic reasons, while Jessye Norman and Cheryl Studer had health problems - Salzburg audiences have seemed reasonably receptive to the innovations brought in by the Festival's controversial new director, Gerard Mortier.

And there is a lot of novelty to take in. Besides relatively recent works, such as Boulez's still-in- progress Repons and Messiaen's 1983 St Francois d'Assise, there are older works that never cease to challenge listeners, such as Janacek's From the House of the Dead and the programme of volatile Gesualdo and Monteverdi madrigals by Les Arts Florissants.

The only thing that seemed to really upset anybody was Peter Sellars' staging for St Francois, which was greeted with boos and cheers - but that's to be expected. And though the Los Angeles Philharmonic was critically castigated in the first concert of its month-long residency for daring to play the 'Emperor Waltz' on the Hallowed Soil - the conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, admitted that it was something of an irreverent gesture - all seemed forgiven at the close of St Francois, when Salonen and the orchestra received roaring approval. And with good reason: far swifter and more cogent than Seiji Ozawa at the 1983 Paris premiere, Salonen revealed the music's clarity, simplicity and open-heartedness as no one before. Jose van Dam sings the title role with greater eloquence than nine years ago, and Dawn Upshaw was born to play the Angel.

The opera is often thought of as an oratorio in disguise, but Sellars showed how dramatic it can be, even in the most contemplative moments. He didn't always know how to use Georges Tsypin's stage designs (a skeletal cathedral, a huge grid of fluorescent lights and dozens of video monitors), but there were unforgettable moments: when St Francis received the stigmata, he lay with blood dripping down the stage, illuminated by pulsating lights and with the monitors stacked like crosses with fire on their screens.

Bondy's production of Strauss's Salome also provoked the eye and mind, but in a more consistently brilliant way. He freely mixed periods - Hanna Schwarz's Herodias looked like Joan Collins in Dynasty, while Bryn Terfel's Jokanaan wore animal skins - but did so purposefully. The characters were so vividly etched that you hardly remember what the production looked like. Catherine Malfitano's agonised Salome was nothing like her performance on the Teldec video from the Deutsche Oper Berlin; though still not vocally lustrous, she has discovered tremendous power in restraint and detail, especially in a heartbreaking 'Dance of the Seven Veils', choreographed by Lucinda Childs.

The only real flaws in the festival were the more traditional offerings - Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, conducted by Sir Georg Solti and produced by Gotz Friedrich, and Janacek's From the House of the Dead, conducted by Claudio Abbado and produced by Klaus Michael Gruber. In both cases, the Vienna Philharmonic seemed determined to show off its loud, glorious self, to the detriment of a total artistic statement. In an extravagantly written piece such as Die Frau ohne Schatten, that's not so bad, particularly with Solti finding so many new colours in the score and drawing literate, refined performances from singers such as Marjana Lipovsek (the Nurse), Ellen Shade (The Empress) and Robert Hale (Barak). Friedrich also delivered a refreshingly spacious, uncluttered production that allowed the singers to tell the story.

However, From the House of the Dead was a mistake. Abbado tore through the score, missing much of its dramatic underpinning, while Gruber's static staging ignored much of the story's grit and terror. As Goryanshikov, Nicolai Ghiaurov calmly sauntered offstage to receive a whipping; Philip Langridge, as Shishkov, sang confession of his wife's murder as though it were a Hugo Wolf Lied. Of course, mixing progressive and traditional artists and repertoire must continue if the festival is to be strong and varied, but this Janacek production illustrates the crucial importance of knowing who belongs in what camp.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup