Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Cherubini, Medea

This afternoon, the Festival featured the premiere of a complete new storyline loosely based on the myth of Medea, performed to the music of Luigi Cherubini.

My formulation there is intentional.  Despite what the program said, this was also not a staging of Cherubini’s opera Medea.

Whatever it was, I will start with the music.  Elena Stikhina, as Medea, was stellar, working her way through the full range of emotions, with a big, warm, round voice to fill the hall no matter what the emotion.  She is only 32 years old but had a stage and vocal presence that seemed experienced well beyond her years.  I’ve heard her once before as Micaela in Carmen at the Salzburg Landestheater in 2015 where she overshadowed the rest of a good cast.  This time, the cast was better – with Rosa Feola as Dirce, Pavel Černoch as Jason, and Vitalij Kowaljov as Creon – all highly expressive, but she still outshone them all.  The role is a real tour-de-force, and she achieved it with flying colors (and made it almost sound easy, which it is certainly not).

The cast was ably supported by the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic in top form, under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock, whom I had never before heard of but apparently specializes in non-standard operatic repertory.  His reading tonight was well-paced, and he highlighted Cherubini’s dramatic music perfectly.

Cherubini remains surprisingly underrated, although he was well-regarded in his day, especially by Beethoven (a much more original composer, but who did take influence from Cherubini, whom he openly credited and admired).  Cherubini composed this opera originally in French for Paris, where it flopped (probably more drama and power than the effete French can take).  But the Italian Cherubini, known for his drama and liturgical music, had more influence in the German-speaking world, so he augmented this opera (and had it put into German) and it formed part of the standard repertory in German-speaking theaters throughout the 19th Century, before falling out of favor.  Translated into Italian, it got a new lease on life in the 20th Century.  Recently, there have been attempts to revert to the original French-language setting.

While this was one such case to revert to French, it was not exactly an attempt to be faithful to the original.  The staging was not Regietheater (thankfully), but the director – Australian Simon Stone – altered the plot (more than just updating it to take place in 2019 Austria).  Most of the action in this opera occurs either during the dialogue or offstage during the musical interludes.  By getting rid of the dialogue entirely and leaving only the arias, duets, and choral ensembles, Stone could substitute his own retelling of plot (so he had multiple scene changes jumping from one to the next, showed film clips with new plot during the musical interludes, and replaced some of the dialogue with long voicemail messages from Medea to Jason).

For the most part, this silliness could be ignored. I am not sure it helped elucidate the opera, but it also did not really hurt either and at least Stone was using his brain.  However, the final scene (in which Medea supposedly douses a car she has stolen in gasoline and ignites it with the kids and herself inside while the police watch for ten minutes without doing anything) just looked too silly and had the audience chortling.  The rousing applause at the end turned to boos when Stone and his enablers came on stage for a bow (I did not boo – I was just relieved it wasn’t offensive German Regietheater garbage – but I did sit on my hands when he and his team showed up, as the concept really did not work even if it did not offend).

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)


For the fourth year in a row, Mahler‘s 9th Symphony was on the program at the Festival.  I’ve heard it many many more times as well.  I wondered: what new could there possibly be to say?  Then I heard Herbert Blomstedt‘s masterful reading with the Vienna Philharmonic tonight in the Great Festival House and discovered worlds in that symphony I have never heard before.

The symphony opened desolately enough, but it soon became clear Blomstedt was not satisfied with just being desolate.  He deconstructed every line and then put the pieces back together emphasizing the sinister and the odd and even the grotesque. Instruments jumped out of the mass of sound, only to get abruptly cut off – or to have their flowing line completed by seemingly the wrong other instrument.  All of this appeared in Mahler’s score, but Blomstedt found it (and the Philharmonic reproduced Mahler’s and Blomstedt’s vision perfectly).

He treated the music like painting by Pieter Bruegel – with attention to all the fine details, but upon close inspection a lot is actually malformed.  The interior movements may have even harkened to Hieronymus Bosch – they had the skeletons dancing in hell and blurts on what might have been the bizarre musical instruments Bosch portrayed.  The Philharmonic provided raw playing – not just the winds, but even the strings came across like a lush hurdy-gurdy.

The final movement started by suggesting it might resolve this craziness and rise above the din, but as the music soared it revealed itself as the Angel of Death.  And then… when we may have expected death to warm over, it became instead frigid. As blood spilled upon the ice, it hardened solid.  I did not time how long it took from the last note to fade until Blomstedt released the room, but it certainly felt like a full two minutes of complete silence.  No one in the packed hall even breathed.  We couldn’t.  No air remained in the room.

SWR Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)


The Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra under its new music director Teodor Currentzis gave a monumental but never bombastic interpretation of Schostakowitsch‘s Symphony #7 at the Festival this evening in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

I have admired Currentzis before, lamenting that he often lets performance theater get the better of him to get in the way of actual musical quality (image over substance).  But when he is on, the music clicks, as it did this evening.  He captured nuance and drama in a work, and even a quirky black humor, that itself sometimes overwhelms less-thoughtful conductors.  Although this symphony was used from its first performance for Russian propaganda purposes, the thoughts going through the composer’s mind when he wrote it were far more complex.  It is worth remembering that Schostakowitsch originally sketched the “invasion” theme in the first movement – which Russian propaganda ascribed to Nazi Germany invasion of the Soviet Union – not in 1941 but already in September 1939 in response to the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, which were then still allies.  Dark forces engulfed the world.

Currentzis did revert to some performance theater, of course.  Different sections of the orchestra stood up periodically and played on their feet – not just brass (which would allow more air in the lungs and a fuller tone) but pretty much everyone who played an instrument that did not absolutely need to be played sitting down.  Indeed, when the orchestra first took the stage, the percussion and woodwinds came out and sat down alone – before a long pause when the rest of the orchestra finally joined them (knowing Currentzis, I feared the worst: was he going to have the rest of the orchestra march on stage to the “invasion” theme – thankfully not).

The orchestra, formed from the merger of two previous orchestras, sounded terrific (actually, given the size of the orchestra in this symphony, they might have almost used two full orchestras-worth of musicians).

Collegium Vocale Gent, University Church (Salzburg)

Palestrina, Victoria, Bruckner

The Salzburg Festival gods smiled on my application this year and gave me tickets for every concert I requested.  My first one came tonight with religious music by Palestrina, Victoria, and Bruckner in Salzburg’s University Church.  Unfortunately, the performance by the Collegium Vocale Gent under Phillippe Herreweghe left me sadly unfulfilled.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Tomás Luis de Victoria were giants of western polyphonic composition in the 16th century, and performances of their music can be emotionally draining – especially when accounting for their straightforward simplicity.  From Palestrina, we heard his Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah – Lession 1 for Good Friday; from Victoria his Miserere and Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah – Lessions 1, 2, and 3 for Holy Saturday.  There are not many thrills there, just somber music, but the music itself is supposed to transform the listener if done right.  It’s not that the Belgians did it badly – there were no noticeable mistakes – it’s just that they somehow failed to be transformative.  Their reading was straight and unadorned (fine!) but dull.

Anton Bruckner’s Mass #2 followed the intermission, and somehow was worse.  This is also a restrained work – inspired by Palestrina but using Bruckner’s musical voice from 300 years later – set for a small chorus and wind ensemble (here members of the Orchestra of the Champs Élysées joined the Belgians).  Bruckner’s Ave Maria followed as an encore.

Herreweghe perhaps held everyone back intentionally because this performance took place in a church (as the respective composers intended) rather than in a concert hall, therefore requiring a somewhat restrained reading.  But I have heard concerts in this church before (including Victoria’s Mass for the Dead with the Tallis Scholars at last year’s Festival, which soared while also portraying sorrow), so it’s not the church.  This same Bruckner mass featured at the Festival as recently as two years ago (albeit in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall) with a much bolder reading by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla leading the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and musicians from the Mozarteum Orchestra.

So, no, nothing wrong with the music or the venue either.  In his effort to keep the music properly unadorned, Herreweghe’s interpretation was just missing something (perhaps a soul).