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.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies