Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Bruckner, Schubert, Mozart

The 2017 Salzburg Festival has begun, and I opened my festival-going with a Bruckner mass for a Sunday morning.  Bruckner’s Mass #2 was a personal work – although he was well into his forties when he composed it, he had only recently begun writing larger works and had not yet left his job as the cathedral organist in the provinces to begin his career Vienna.  

The mass, for choir and a limited wind ensemble, opens with clear inspiration from the 16th-century master church composer, Palestrina, who had entered mystic legend as the man who had saved music from a papal ban and was a particular favorite of Bruckner’s then-boss, the Bishop of Linz.  But by the time he reached the middle Credo section, Bruckner had found his own idiom, transcending music in the 19th century as Palestrina had done three hundred years before.  A brief return to Palestrina in the Sanctus led to a search for chromaticism in the winds, moving around their accompaniment of a chorus harking back to traditional form.  The devout Bruckner had scored a triumph, which would help propel his career outside the Church.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra performed with distinction in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall, under the baton of the rising young Lithuanian star Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, demonstrating a mastery of both idioms reflected in the work: the traditional polyphony of Palestrina and the superimposed chromatic experimentalism of Bruckner inspired both by his predecessor and by his own piety.

The second half of the concert worked less well.  Schubert‘s Stabat Mater, composed for a Church commission when he was 19, set not the Catholic Latin liturgical work, but rather a German-language poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock inspired by the Catholic work but reworked into a German Protestant vision.  Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church rejected Schubert’s work.  That it also went unperformed elsewhere during his lifetime may represent that it’s not actually very good.  Derivational of both Haydn and Mozart, it fails to match the quality of either, and also lacks spirituality in the way Bruckner’s deceptively simple music did.  Three soloists known primarily, appropriately enough given the composer, for singing Lieder joined orchestra and chorus: Christiane Karg, Martin Mitterrutzner, and Michael Nagy, and all excelled.  No, the failure of the work was not due to the performers, but really to the work itself.

Gražinytė-Tyla then went directly with no pause (indeed, while Schubert’s Amens were still floating in the room) into the final work, Mozart‘s short Ave Verum Corpus.  Although brief, it had just enough notes, and while Mozart had long since left the Church in spirit (if not officially), he captured the necessary simple and straightforward spirituality, in the same manner as the hymn to Isis and Osiris in his opera Zauberflöte. This very personal spirituality was admired by, among others, a young Anton Bruckner, and therefore served as an appropriate bookend for the morning’s program.

Salzburger Landestheater, University Church

Kutavičius, The Gates of Jerusalem

The Salzburg Landestheater‘s music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla decided to conclude her tenure here with two works by her Lithuanian countryman Bronius Kutavičius.  Knowing nothing about him, I bought a ticket for one – his oratorio “The Gates of Jerusalem” – and figured I would then decide whether to get a ticket for the other.  Having now wasted 80 minutes and 26 Euros, there won’t be a second ticket.

Although Jerusalem has more than four gates, Kutavičius only made four (perhaps we should be thankful – 12 gates would have presumably lasted four hours): East, North, South, West.  Stylistically, he drew inspiration for each movement from music coming from each of those directions: Japan, Ancient Lithuania, Africa, and the Western Church.  Each movement was indeed quite different (the Japanese-inspired one involved playing string instruments incorrectly, including scraping something against the strings inside a piano).  What they all had in common, however, was mind-numbing repetition.  Kutavičius came up with an idea for each movement and then repeated it for twenty minutes.  Although none of the movements reflected the musical language of Ravel’s Bolero, in some respects this oratorio used the same logic as that endlessly awful work, never understanding when enough is enough.  

The only movement that partially worked was the African one (the South Gate), with spirited solo singing by Elliot Carlton Hines.  But even this was interminable.  At the end of the curtain call, Hines reprised part of this, which was welcome because the abbreviated reprisal was indeed the right length.  What a shame Kutavičius did not think to edit his own work.

The setting for tonight’s performance, in Salzburg’s University Church, allowed the chorus and orchestra to move around and explore the resilient acoustics.  I think highly of Gražinytė-Tyla’s conducting, and her infectious smile permeated the evening.  But while patriotic she made a poor choice of music to champion.

Salzburger Landestheater, Felsenreitschule

Bizet, Carmen

I do not know what opera I just saw performed by the Salzburg Landestheater at the Felsenreitschule (something nonsensical about Mexican drug cartels), but I do know what I heard: a musically-outstanding performance of Bizet‘s Carmen.

The highest kudos must go to the Landestheater’s music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, for ignoring the idiocy on stage and getting the musicians to produce real drama.  She captured the emotion, drove the (real) plot, and balanced the tragedy with the light-heartedness and dance in much of this music.  The orchestral colors mixed in just the right combinations, full but never overwhelming the singers.

The cast, too, responded to her direction more than to the stage director’s.  The Byelorussian mezzo Oksana Volkova portrayed a seductive – both flirty and hard-to-get – Carmen with a full voice, although it tired during rhe second act (performed without a break from the first, so requiring her to show quite a lot of stamina).  Tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi, like his character Don José a Basque, took most of the first act to warm up, but his originally somewhat-dry voice came into its own as the opera progressed.  Philadelphian Zachary Nelson disappointed as a weaker-voiced Escamillo, more telling in contrast to the others.  The best voice of the evening belonged to Russian soprano Elena Stikhina, as Micaela, whose beautiful instrument radiated confidently.

About the staging (a terrible concept by Andreas Gergen), the less said the better.  This was not an update into another time and location, but rather a retelling of the story.  Determining exactly how to get the new plot to match the libretto took too much energy.  When it became apparent that the musical performance deserved full attention, I started ignoring the revised plot on stage and just enjoyed the music.  Looking at the singers, it seems they tried to do the same, focussing entirely on Gražinytė-Tyla and getting on with it.

Salzburger Landestheater

Mahmoud, Tahrir

The world premiere of Tahrir, an opera by Hossam Mahmoud, an Egyptian composer based in Salzburg (and a Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar), took place at the Salzburg Landestheater while I was on my way back from Odessa last month, but I fortunately managed to catch the production tonight. Mahmoud, who wrote the libretto (in German) as well as the music, produced a powerful drama in all respects, inspired by the Egyptian spring uprising and its aftermath.

As a music student, Mahmoud studied both the oud and the viola, and his musical idiom mixes classical Arabic music with classical western form. For this opera, the mix proved especially atmospheric and otherworldly. He described the plot as a “hallucination,” so the action and the character development were both minimal – the music drove the meaning. Staging was also minimal, with few props and a movie screen in the back of the stage which presented a series of images, including film footage of the Egyptian uprising. This approach worked much better than a realistic one, because the drama happens less on stage than between the sung lines.

The central character, the ghost of a protester whom the regime had tortured to death, lurks until his grieving mother realizes that the regime’s official story (that her son had been run over by a car) is false, and she takes up his cause to inspire the people and to allow her son’s soul to be released to heaven. The moment it became clear that the official story was a lie, the music turned the knife just as the powerful moment at the end of the prologue to Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, when the news comes back that – despite earlier lies – Tove, too, has been murdered.

The singing lines proved difficult for the cast, both in their oscilating volumes and in the music itself which did not quite stick to western tones. As the murdered son, Ilker Arcayürek sometimes slipped from singing to screaming.  Giulio Alvise Caselli, as the duplicitous politician, mastered his lines (the character was not sympathetic but the music also did not characterize him as evil) with bold and clear voice. The two lead female roles, Frances Pappas as the dead man’s mother and Laura Nicorescu as the politician’s young wife, acted out their roles with full emotion, understated but dramatic in the music.

The Landestheater’s young (20-something) and dynamic Lithuanian music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, did an unbelievable job keeping the complex strands linked and in time. This was especially so because the orchestra members were scattered all over the stage, in loges, and on the upper balcony; the stage was also built out over the orchestra pit and the front rows of the auditorium. Gražinytė-Tyla stood on the stage itself, on the far left, surveying it all and leading the performance with her sleeves rolled up and big dramatic arms shaping the difficult score like clay. Second only to composer Mahmoud, she was the star tonight.

Salzburger Landestheater

Mozart, Die Zauberflöte

My first opera since moving to Salzburg… had to be Mozart, I suppose.  The Salzburger Landestheater has brought out a new production of Zauberflöte this year.

There may not be a right way to stage this opera.  I’m sure a German could think of a wrong way, but the German director in this case decided to actually stage it properly (maybe because he did not train in Germany).  The curtain opened with someone representing the impressario Emanuel Schikaneder (and in this case the librettist) on stage with an oversized suitcase, out of which emerged the evening’s characters.  This production would clearly bridge fantasy and reality.  Then the Schikaneder shed his cloak to reveal himself as Papageno… just as the real-life Schikaneder sang Papageno at the opera’s premiere in 1791.

For Tamino and Papageno, and Pamina and Papagena, in addition to the singers, they were also portrayed by marionettes.  Rather than just mimicking the singers, the marionettes became alter-egos, adding an extra layer of emotion, but also allowing these characters to talk to themselves and explore the their innermost psychologies.  The ploy added charm, helping to make these characterizations fuller, but also underscoring the fantasy/reality dichotomy.

The staging was otherwise simple and straightforward.  Costumes, though mixing periods, were generally neutral and blended well – except for Tamino’s.  Why Tamino (and therefore also his marionette) wore a Yale University sweatshirt was entirely unclear.

At the end of the opera, Papageno put his cloak back on and became Schikaneder again, ushering all the characters and props back into his suitcase.  Except Tamino and Pamina decided to go their own way without their puppets.  He gave them a hug and a blessing, and then climbed with his own puppet into his own suitcase as the curtain fell.

The star of the evening was the Landestheater’s terrific new 28-year-old Lithuanian music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.  Her unusual conducting style looked a little like she was mimicking the marionettes: she held her arms outstretched in front of her and upwards, while making oversized but clear motions.  Everyone could follow her perfectly.  She doubles as Gustavo Dudamel’s assistant in Los Angeles – but on first sight seems like she has more of knack for musical clarity than her overrated boss.

The cast was fine – voices were as big as they needed to be in this relatively small theater and with a chamber orchestra in the pit.