Salzburg, Austria — At the Salzburg Festival, you expect some operas by Mozart, for it’s the boy’s hometown. And the festival is duly staging three Mozart operas this year: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. These are the “Da Ponte operas,” i.e., the ones with librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a boy so bad he could keep up with his pal Casanova.
There are, of course, other operas on offer, including one by Janáček: The Makropulos Case. This is the opera about the singer who’s more than 300 years old. It is a complicated and talky affair. The stage director ought to let things be as clear as possible. Our director, Christoph Marthaler, disagrees. He is happy for the audience to scratch its head.
I could complain about this production in detail, and also praise here and there. But let me mention one fact. You know the term “sideshow,” right? Well, this production has literal sideshows: separate little shows or scenes taking place on either side of the main action. We might well find the production clever, if we had the director crouching at our seats, explaining it to us.
The Makropulos Case requires a brave, defiant, nearly all-capable soprano, and it has one in Angela Denoke. The night I attended, she made the role of Emilia Marty (the tricentenarian) a tour de force. She didn’t always sing pretty, but she always sang gutsily and meaningfully. For me, though, the revelation in the cast was Raymond Very, an American tenor. He has an enviable voice — big, beautiful, and lyric — and a keen sense of music. Very is better known here in Europe than he is at home, which ought to be remedied.
Just about stealing the show was the Vienna Philharmonic, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. It had a crackling good night. Salonen can be brash, frosty, tight, and fast (too fast). If he was any of those things on this night, it was helpful. The next day, a friend said to me, “Did you notice that the orchestra applauded Salonen, when he was taking his bows? I’ve never seen the Vienna Phil. do that before.” I had noticed, yes.
As it happens, Salonen was a guest of the Salzburg Festival Society, in its series of public interviews. He showed up in a black T-shirt and funky facial hair, looking very cool indeed. And he was a candid, insightful, and warm guest. Perfect.
He is a Finn, and I asked whether it is possible for such a person not to like Sibelius — the country’s musical hero. Is that allowed? Salonen said that it’s natural to go through a period of rebellion, when you want to “kill your father.” He himself was nauseated by the aura of reverence around Sibelius. As a young man, he fled to Italy, a “Sibelius-free zone.” But he soon learned to love the master — not because he (Sibelius) was Finnish, of course, but because he’s great.
Salonen loves Stravinsky as well. And he almost bought his house. For 17 years, from 1992 to 2009, Salonen was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. One day, Stravinsky’s house, at 1260 North Wetherly Drive, came up for sale. In fact, it was in foreclosure, a very good buy. Only one owner had occupied the place since the Stravinskys left. There were still signs of the composer about. For example, Salonen saw the hook to which the Stravinskys tethered their goat. Igor was allergic to cow’s milk.