Summer Festivals SALZBURG

Gerard Mortier has gone a long way towards redefining the Salzburg Festival since he took over after Herbert von Karajan's death. Above all, he has restored the place of drama, now ruled over autonomously by Peter Stein. And Stein's new production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is a triumph, an apparently effortless fusion of farce, beauty and tragedy.

Take the moment in Act 3 when Mme Ranyevskaya (the great Jutta Lampe) opens her heart to Trofimov (Sven-Eric Bechtolf) and then, when he offers only platitudinous sympathy, turns on him viciously while reapplying her make-up, or that in Act 4, when Varya (Dorte Lyssewski) hugs a cushion while waiting in vain for Lopakhin (Daniel Friedrich) to propose. Such scenes represent some of the greatest acting, direction and design that I have ever seen.

Elsewhere, however, Karajan's legacy remains troublesome. He dictated the shape of the opera houses: dug from the rock, they embody his revenge on Wagner's Bayreuth - a temporary wooden structure where conductor and orchestra remain hidden so they cannot distract the audience's attention from the drama on stage. At Salzburg the orchestra remains in full view and the conductor is more pre-eminent than usual, visible from the waist up. It also suited Karajan that the stage in the Grosses Festspielhaus should be so impossibly wide: its 32 metres restrict audience involvement to distanced awe, so that the conductor enjoys even more power.

This year, conductors in both opera houses justified their physical prominence. To mark the festival's 75th anniversary, Mortier programmed a new production of Der Rosenkavalier. Co-written by two of the festival's founders, Strauss and Hofmannsthal, this work has long been close to the emotional heart of Salzburg - not least since Karajan chose it for the opening of the large opera house in 1960.

Lorin Maazel drew ravishing, transparent sounds from the Vienna Philharmonic. The staging by Herbert Wernicke, who also designed it, boasted an arty concept - think fin de siecle, think Schnitzler - and a technically intriguing set - angled, mirrored walls reflecting painted period decor that shimmered, rather as the music does. Sadly, Wernicke smothered the opera's humanity in vulgar routines and camp details. The Marschallin wore a lurex dirndl and her negro page was an intrusively sentimental, black-faced pierrot; Octavian appeared for the Presentation of the Rose in white and gold top- hat-and-tails on a giant Broadway-style staircase; Baron Ochs was wounded in the bottom, through his lederhosen...

Ann Murray was a wonderful Octavian, even in boxer shorts, and Heidi Grant Murphy a limpid Sophie. Cheryl Studer offered a genteel, ladylike Marschallin, rather than a grande dame, and manoeuvred her surprisingly small voice very carefully.

For the new Figaro, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe gave a freshly inflected, continuously surprising account of the score, concerned above all with immediacy. Bryn Terfel gave an astonishingly vivid, three-dimensional Figaro in an interpretation freshly minted for Luc Bondy's new production. His splendid Susanna, Dorothea Roschmann, and Susan Graham's Cherubino responded better than others to the interpretative freedom Harnoncourt seemed to offer. Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count Almaviva sounded particularly far from home in this, his first stage Mozart.

Mortier will make his own mark on the repertory later this summer, when such 20th-century classics as Lulu, Bluebeard and Erwartung all finally make their Salzburg Festival debuts.