The Salzburg Festival follies

Under Karajan, Austria's celebrated music festival fell into a rut. It was time for a change. But, his successor has created a rut of his own
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Taking the mickey out of a masterpiece can be great fun. It's something we all do sometimes in conversation and at its best it can produce parodies and satires that are themselves masterpieces.

Taking the mickey out of a masterpiece can be great fun. It's something we all do sometimes in conversation and at its best it can produce parodies and satires that are themselves masterpieces. But as a practical approach to interpreting works of art, it is hopelessly defective. They then have to be taken seriously on their own terms if the juice is to be got out of them. If they are not loved or respected enough for that, a travesty of them is certainly not going to be interesting.

Such thoughts are forced on me by the terrible fate of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus at this year's Salzburg Festival. The libretto, famed for its wit, is scolded in the festival's official handbook for lacking a social attitude, and an author is quoted there approvingly as saying: "The main objection, however, is that the operetta is completely domestic, unrevolutionary, and without problems.''

The new production sets out to put this right, and for this purpose the director, Hans Neuenfels, has re-written the libretto in a version that has been separately published. He changes the setting to the time when Nazism was new, and fills the stage with a despairing populace. The bourgeoisie is then shown as playing silly-buggers in fancy-dress and getting delirious on drugs while evil takes over the streets. New scenes and characters are introduced; for instance, a blind man is baited by street thugs with questions about whether he is a Jew or a Communist, and is then beaten up.

This large-scale "correction'' of the work continues all evening, by which time the original has all but disappeared under the repainting. Alas, it comes nowhere near the quality of the original, and the audience is fobbed off with something grossly inferior. It shows us the full horror of prison conditions; and the jailer, Frosch, now a woman, is extensively introduced into the second act as well as the third, with a long, new part, written for her.

Eisenstein and the prison governor go through a mock homosexual marriage, and Prince Orlofsky is changed into a decrepit old American druggy. It is all done with intense earnestness of purpose but not the slightest wit, originality or love, and to the destruction of a work that has all these qualities.

It is, I think, the worst production of anything I have seen in a theatre of repute. The night I saw it the audience became increasingly restive, until members of it started to laugh with derision and slow hand-clap and then heckle, whistle and cat-call, and finally walk out. I have never seen such an audience response on such a scale. But the show deserved it. Those responsible for it are now congratulating themselves on having challenged the audience by their radicalism and daring, but this is completely to misunderstand the situation.

Truth to tell, outgoing director Gerard Mortier has generally prided himself in putting on productions at the Salzburg Festival that travesty their works. Another victim this year is Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. During Marcellina's big aria in the last act she invites the audience to clap along with her, and some do. In the same act, the opera stops altogether, while a man comes on to the stage and sings a German song to his own accompaniment on the musical glasses, after which he slopes off again and the opera resumes. The recitatives throughout are accompanied not on a harpsichord but on an electronic keyboard, complete with trumpet effects, played by another itinerant musician on-stage.

The whole crazy production is anti-musical – in the letter scene in Act III, the letter is not hand-written but typed, so one of the most entrancing duets in all opera is half-drowned by the fortissimo clatter of a typewriter. The setting of the story is relocated among the young of more-or-less today's world, with disastrous consequences for the plot. No one could deny that two themes at the heart of Figaro are sex and class. All the important motivations derive from them – little of it could happen in anything like the way it does in today's sexually permissive and decreasingly class-conscious society. By ignoring this, the staging voids the drama of its otherwise credible content, and makes it the emptiest Figaro I have ever seen.

But the worst example at this year's Salzburg of an opera having its plot-content nullified by the production is Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. Basic to this work are two sets of jarring disjunctions. Most famously, commedia dell'arte is played out on the same stage and at the same time as an opera seria, the rich man who commissioned both having decided not to waste time before he gets his firework display. In addition to that there is a contrast between the first and second halves: by the time we are presented with warm-hearted clowns and the gods of classical antiquity, we have seen the petty, unglamorous human beings behind the costumes.

All these meanings are annihilated in the new production by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. No commedia dell'arte is enacted, neither is any opera seria. The performers remain in their rehearsal clothes throughout, and never move outside a set that represents their green room. I have tried in good faith to see what light is shed on the work by this approach, which throws out all the basic ideas of the original opera, but can discern none. I have asked around in a Salzburg teeming with opera professionals and no one can offer me anything other than ideas that are not in the work.

As far as stage presentation goes, this production simply takes away its point. What it gives us instead, though this is obviously not its intention, is the equivalent of a concert performance. As such, it is musically distinguished, with mandarin playing from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnanyi, and singing of a matching quality from Susan Graham as the composer and Deborah Polaski as Ariadne. It might make a first-class recording, but staging it in this production is a waste of resources. It does not enhance the opera; it diminishes it. As so often in Salzburg nowadays, one feels that this is not a production of the opera but a production against the opera.

Increasingly, there is a whisper going around that this might provide the explanation of what is occurring – that opportunities are being given to directors who are hostile to opera as an art form, and especially hostile to the Salzburg audience, in both cases of grounds of outmodedness and elitism; and that they are putting on productions intended to lampoon the works and shock the audiences. I would be loath to believe in such pettiness. But I have to admit to the cynics that the results are the same as if it were true.

What I believe has happened is that a necessary reaction against the Karajan era has gone too far. The Salzburg Festival was dominated by Karajan for 33 years before his death in 1989, and great things were done during that time, especially in the earlier part of it. But by the end, the festival had become too set in his ways, too enclosed in the traditions of his creation. He was giving us what would be the equivalent in publishing terms of sumptuously boxed, leather-bound editions of The Hundred Greatest Books.

It was essential for his successor, Gerard Mortier, to get away from that. He began by introducing radical productions by non-establishment directors, and bringing in younger singers. His great limitation has been that too much of what he has done is of the same kind, so that after 10 years he has dug himself into his own rut, a rut of the radical, with its own clichés which are now tired and repetitive. Now that he is going, there is a compelling need for his successor, Peter Ruzicka, to lift the Salzburg Festival out of this rut.

What has never failed at the Salzberg Festival is the maintenance of world-class musical standards. What the new regime most needs to do is bring into being a cliché-free approach to stage-presentation that exploits the primacy of music in opera. It helps to have already in place, as the orchestra for most of the performances, the Vienna Philharmonic. This year, they play like devils for Gergiev in a production of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk that lacks the blazing intensity of the staging at the London Coliseum but surpasses it in musical values. They also play intensely for Lorin Maazel in Verdi's Don Carlos and Falstaff.

Both of these operas are sung with unusual distinction, the former including a dominating Posa from Thomas Hampson, the latter Bryn Terfel in full refulgence in the title role. But in neither case does the staging make much contribution to the evening. The hard, unfeeling sense in Don Carlos creates only an atmosphere, not a world. Declan Donnellan's production of Falstaff is, considered all in all, the best staging in a poor year.

In the symphony concerts the orchestra comes into its own, untrammelled by the irrelevancies of fashionable, but deeply uncomprehending, stage productions. With such conductors as Boulez, Muti and Rattle, it has been giving us music-making of a quality that will always, as long as it continues, lead the feet of music-lovers from all over the world to Salzburg. Among their offerings this year have been all the Beethoven piano concertos with Alfred Brendel, Simon Rattle conducting. It is performances such as this, not any of the stage productions, that will be talked of 10 years from now.