Magazine | September 10, 2018, Issue

A Three-Ring Circus

Curtain call for Salome: The soprano Asmik Grigorian leads the conductor Franz Welser-Möst. (Marco Borrelli)

Salzburg, Austria

At the Salzburg Festival, here in Mozart’s hometown, there is always a variety of concerts, recitals, plays, and opera performances. I will comment on three opera performances (not that opera performers are hurting for attention, true).

The festival is staging Salome, Richard Strauss’s shabby little shocker. Actually, that is the phrase famously applied to Puccini’s Tosca, by Joseph Kerman, a musicologist and critic. Tosca appeared in 1900, Salome five years later. Both are shockers, for sure, but neither is shabby.

Salome is one of Strauss’s several one-acters, which include Elektra, an opera that appeared in 1909, four years after Salome. Elektra is a masterpiece in its own class, in my opinion, but Salome is not far behind.

To stage Salome, you need a Salome, and, in Salzburg, that was Asmik Grigorian, a Lithuanian soprano. She has an Armenian last name, true: Her father was Gegham Grigorian, a famous tenor from Yerevan. Her mother is a Lithuanian soprano, Irena Milkeviciute.

Asmik Grigorian made a marvelous, exceptional Salome. She sang freshly and freely. Rarely do you have a soprano so lyric in this role. Also, she acted up a storm. And, for once, a Salome looked like Salome: Grigorian could pass for a young, beguiling Judean princess. Usually, Salome is portrayed by a battle axe — who has an appropriately rugged and dramatic voice.

If Grigorian continues to sing roles such as Salome, will she wear out before her time? The worry crossed my mind — but Grigorian, especially with her singer parents, should know what she is doing.

In Salzburg this summer, there is a “star is born” aura around Grigorian. Yet she is already in her mid 30s. I’m reminded of Beverly Sills, who said, “I had been working for 20 years before I was an overnight success.” (That happened in 1966, at New York City Opera.)

Another standout in the Salome cast was Julian Prégardien, who sang the relatively small role of Narraboth. What a beautiful voice he owns — a lyric tenor voice. He comes by it honestly, or genetically, if you like: His father is Christoph Prégardien, another tenor, one of the foremost lieder singers of our time. Imagine having to be a tenor, when your father is Christoph. But Julian seems to be coping nicely.

His cousin, by the way — Christoph’s niece — is Julia Kleiter, the German soprano. (The Prégardiens are German too, I should have said.) Julia’s father is not a singer, as far as I know. He is Klaus Kleiter, former coach of the German national hockey team.

The most important participant in Salome is not the Salome but the conductor: He is the straw that stirs the drink, the musical force on whom the thing largely depends (if you don’t count the composer, on whom the thing really depends). Salzburg engaged Franz Welser-Möst, the Austrian conductor who has long been chief in Cleveland. He conducted with great intelligence and command.

Welser-Möst does not see the Final Scene the way I see it. Long ago, I described this scene — a soprano monologue — as “the mad Liebestod.” I see it as rhapsodic, an outpouring of emotion, although with its tender mo­ments. Welser-Möst apparently sees it as gentler and more introspective. “That’s what makes horse races,” as a fellow critic of mine says.

The star of the show, along with Asmik Grigorian, was the orchestra in the pit, the Vienna Philharmonic. What a royal ensemble, with Strauss in its blood. The woodwinds were squirmily Oriental. You could almost smell the Middle East. As in all of his operas, Strauss tells the story through the orchestra, as much as through the people on the stage. When Salome spoke of a “crown of thorns,” you heard the thorns in the orchestra. Welser-Möst made sure these were clear, and prickly.

Brandon Jovanovich and Hanna Schwarz in Pique Dame (Ruth Walz)

I suppose I have to talk about the production. Okay. It’s in the hands of Romeo Castellucci, a veteran Italian theater director. The story is re-set sometime in the first half of the 20th century, it seems. Characters line up for a group photo, taken with an old-timey camera. Opera directors are doing this in production after production. It became a cliché about five years ago, I think.

In Castellucci’s Salome, almost every character has a red face. Or rather, the lower half of these faces is red. Why, I don’t know. The lower half of the face of Herodias is green. Why, I don’t know. Salome, lusting for John the Baptist, puts a saddle on her back. Then she paws the dirt, like a horse. Soon, a real horse appears. Later, prizefighters come out and freeze in place.

I could go on. I think I will.

When it comes time for the Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome doesn’t dance. She is frozen in a kneeling, fetal-like position, in her underwear, on some kind of pedestal. Eventually, a cement block comes down from the sky to crush her, like an anvil in a Warner Brothers cartoon. Before long, she’s splashing around in what seems a pool of milk.

In the end, she doesn’t get the head of John the Baptist. She gets a horse head. (A Godfather allusion?) And we see the headless corpse of the prophet.

At the performance I attended, a wife kept looking at her husband as if to say, “What the . . .?” Throughout Salzburg, people are asking one another what the production means: all of its symbols and so forth. It’s a pleasant game, in a way. But I think a production’s meaning should be fairly clear from the seats (just as you shouldn’t have to explain a joke). A certain amount of head-scratching is fine — maybe even desirable — but a production should not be a total guessing game, the private musings of a director.

Moreover, Salome is interesting, original, and shocking enough without redoing it: Stepfather lusts after stepdaughter, who is also his niece; stepdaughter lusts after imprisoned great prophet; stepdaughter asks for the prophet’s head on a silver platter, in order to kiss it on the lips, and gets it. What more do you want?

The Salzburg Festival is also staging Pique Dame, or The Queen of Spades, the Tchaikovsky opera. It is his No. 2 opera, behind Eugene Onegin. That’s the way it is in the West, at least. The Russian scene is another story. In the West, performances of Onegin are common, and those of Pique Dame much less so.

From The Bassarids (Bernd Uhlig)

And seldom is any other Tchaikovsky opera staged in the West. The Met in New York has presented Mazeppa, a tremendous work, only once (in 2006). Ditto Iolanta, a one-acter (2015). (This opera is not to be confused with a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, Iolanthe.)

In the judgment of Mariss Jansons, Pique Dame is Tchaikovsky’s No. 1 opera — his best. The great Latvian conductor can’t understand Onegin’s popularity over Pique Dame. We discussed this in a public interview here. Pique Dame, thinks Jansons, belongs in the ten greatest operas of all time.

That is not my view, but so great is my respect for Jansons, I will rethink.

He certainly conducted Pique Dame superbly in Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall. He brought his considerable know­ledge, talent, and heart to the experience. The opera had its suspense and, ultimately, its terrible inevitability. As in Salome, the Vienna Philharmonic was a star, treating the ear at every turn.

Singing the role of Hermann was the tenor Brandon Jovanovich, Montana’s own. (He is from Billings.) He sang with the expected youthful ardor. Practically stealing the show was Hanna Schwarz, the German mezzo-soprano. She was the Countess, i.e., the grandmother of the tragic heroine, Lisa. Singers who have finished their main careers are often called on to portray the Countess. Some 20 years ago, I saw Elisabeth Söderström in the role. She was in her early 70s. Schwarz turned 75 this summer, and she was absolutely riveting. She has a treasury of stage wisdom — and plenty of voice left.

The production? It is led by Hans Neuenfels, a German director, and it has a number of interesting and persuasive touches. Also others. The children seem to be prisoners of some sort, transported in something like cattle cars. There are three large sheep that knit (really). When courtiers hail Catherine the Great, they are in old-fashioned bathing costumes, and the Empress is a skeleton (with a wig).

Why? When it comes to opera productions in Salzburg and the rest of Europe, I think of an expression from the American 1990s: Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Our third opera is The Bassarids, by Hans Werner Henze, the German composer who lived from 1926 to 2012. It is based on the drama by Euripides, The Bacchae, and has a libretto by Auden and Kallman. The Bassarids was premiered here at the Salzburg Festival in 1966. This summer, it has had an eye-popping comeback.

The score is symphony-like, in four movements, arguably. It is modernist, primitivist, Romantic, and even sacred, or liturgical. To put it in Stravinskyan terms, it is a combination of The Rite of Spring and the Symphony of Psalms. Henze’s score is a bona fide achievement.

Salzburg’s new production is by Krzysztof Warlikowski, a Pole (obviously). It is suitably Dionysian. It is also porny, pervy, and bloody. Nubile males and females are led about on leashes. That sort of thing. Woodstock, by comparison, seems demure. The cast includes a little girl who walks around with a doll, amid the depravity. My quasi-parental thought was, “She should be at home, reading Pippi Longstocking.”

You’ve heard the expression “a three-ring circus”? This production is almost literally a three-ring circus, with constant, usually wild action taking place on three discrete sections of the stage. The production is so busy, so gaudy, so “look at me,” it detracts from the music somewhat. I think the music should have greater pride of place. But the production is not out of harmony with the score or libretto. The Bassarids is, in part, a depiction of mass mesmerism, a mesmerism that is horrifyingly broken at the end. Warlikowski & Co. are faithful to all that.

There is some measure of brilliance in this opera and its new production.

Those who felt cheated out of a Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome got a dance here: A woman, starkers, dances in a frenzy for about ten minutes. And those who felt cheated out of a severed head? A human one, not a horse one? Well, they got their head here. So, all’s well that ends well.

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