Strauss and Hofmannsthal deserve better from the Salzburg Festival

They founded it, after all: these productions of Charlotte Salomon and Der Rosenkavalier are no way to repay them

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

Charlotte Salomon; Der Rosenkavalier

Salzburg Festival

The Salzburg Festival’s reputation might largely be one of cultural conservatism, but it made an impressive commitment to new works when it announced in 2011 that it had commissioned four operas, to be unveiled at the rate of one a year between 2013 and 2016.

The first was to have been by György Kurtág, but he failed to deliver on time. And it sounds as though the French composer Marc-André Dalbavie might also have given the Salzburg management a bit of a scare. His Charlotte Salomon made it to the stage on time for this year, but there had been substantial reworking of the piece’s Epilogue by Dalbavie and his director, Luc Bondy, right up until the start of rehearsals. At an earlier stage, a first libretto had been rejected, replaced by a brand new one by the artist and writer Barbara Honigmann.

The end result is a complex work that tells the story of the Berlin-born Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon and draws on the remarkable set of nearly 800 autobiographical gouaches, entitled Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?) and filled with jottings and musical allusions, which she produced in the final two years of her life, having fled Germany for France. (She died in Auschwitz, aged just 26.) Honigmann’s libretto reflects its unusual source and uses the fictional names Salomon produced for herself (she becomes Charlotte Kann) and the major players in her life, while Dalbavie’s score weaves in many of the musical references. Salomon herself is present on stage as a sort of narrator of her own story (the actress Johanna Wokalek, speaking in German), while the characters of that story are embodied by singers (communicating in French translation) on the wide, narrow stage of the Felsenreitschule.

Johannes Schütz’s minimal set consists of movable partition walls, doors and a few domestic props, while Bondy’s direction is impressively fluid and sure, with an extra dimension provided by projections of Salomon’s own paintings. Given all the complexity and experimental nature of the narrative and musical devices, though, it’s surprising that the overall impression is of a story simply — even simplistically — told, of a work too concerned with covering the trajectory of Charlotte’s tragic life to develop any sense of her character, or of anyone else’s. We get little idea of Charlotte beyond the two defining romantic crushes of her young life, while the arrival of grotesquely masked Nazis feels almost trivial.

Dalbavie’s music is expert in its allusiveness, and does an excellent job of digesting quotations and reproducing them in disturbingly skewed form; but otherwise it feels short on identity and imagination: too much of it follows the pattern of rumbling, nervy ostinatos building up to dissonant climaxes, and the vocal writing is rather anonymous. I left with a sense of music not really able to stand up to the subject matter, while the Epilogue, which pushed the running time to well over two hours (without an interval), still feels like a work in progress. There was excellent work from the singers — not least the wonderful Marianne Crebassa as Charlotte Kann — and committed playing from the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, but Charlotte Salomon itself feels worthy rather than inspired.

There was much greater lack of inspiration in the production of Der Rosenkavalier staged for the Strauss anniversary, though. I had some hopes that the veteran director Harry Kupfer might have something to say about this piece, which, despite being so rooted in Vienna, has become something of a Salzburg speciality. He didn’t, alas, and the only thing that felt sharply in focus in his production were the vast black-and-white photos of Viennese buildings that were projected behind Hans Schavernoch’s moveable chunks of glossy set, which floated around, like the cast, without much purpose on the vast stage of the Großes Festspielhaus.

As with Glyndebourne’s recent staging, this was a production in which unconventional casting played a major role. The French mezzo Sophie Koch is a seasoned and convincing Octavian, but her Sophie, the glamorous Mojca Erdmann, was wobbly and weak where she needed to be pinpoint and ethereal — her unreliability in the higher range turned the final pages into something of a car crash. Krassimira Stoyanova is a classy singer, but otherwise fundamentally lacks the charisma and aristocratic demeanour for the part.

The main surprise was casting the hunky Austrian bass Günther Groissböck as Baron Ochs. He looked young enough to be this Marschallin’s son, and made a conspicuously convincing physical match for this Sophie. The balance of the plot was therefore skewed, but Kupfer seemed neither to have noticed, nor to have been particularly interested.

Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in a predictably luxurious and loving account of the score, and the quality of the playing was outstanding. But this is the sort of production that makes the piece feel far more complacent and comfortable than it is. Strauss and Hofmannsthal surely deserve better from the festival they founded.

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