15 August, the Feast of the Assumption – Ferraagosto, a public holiday in Central and South-Eastern Europe, traditionally marks the half-way point in the Salzburg Festival. By then most of the new opera productions have been premiered, initial excitement and tension have subsided, and attention focuses on the rich variety of concerts and recitals still to come. As in recent years, Riccardo Muti conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in three performances, all completely sold out, of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Another grand-maître, Herbert Blomstedt, who celebrated his 90th birthday early in September, also conducted two highly acclaimed concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic, playing the Metamorphoses by Richard Strauss, and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. The Salzburg Festival is an important showcase opportunity for the Vienna Philharmonic to present its symphonic qualities in repertoire the orchestra is renowned for, and it is the orchestra that plays in the pit for most of the operas on the festival programme, including this year Aida, also conducted by Riccardo Muti. All those who were lucky enough to obtain a ticket – this was the most highly sought-after opera this season with Anna Netrebko in the title role – did not know at the time that it would be the last chance to hear a staged opera production at the Salzburg Festival conducted by Muti, as he announced recently he no longer intends to spend so many weeks rehearsing a new production. Instead he plans to conduct concert performances of opera; he justified his decision quite simply with the statement, “there are not many summers left to spend relaxing with my family.”
The spectacular opera productions at the Salzburg Festival do of course dominate the headlines but it is also very rewarding to “check the small print”, so to speak and attend some of the real jewels of chamber concerts performed in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum. A prime example was the concert by an ensemble made up of members of the Vienna Philharmonic which gave audiences the chance to understand why the orchestra has such an outstanding reputation. On the programme was Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, with Daniel Ottensamer as clarinet soloist. What a poignant concert this proved to be – his father Ernst Ottensamer, former solo clarinettist of the Vienna Philharmonic, who also played in a clarinet trio with his two sons Daniel and Andreas – died very suddenly at the age of only 60, just before the opening of the Salzburg Festival. The unique and renowned quality of the Vienna Philharmonic string playing and phrasing, led by concert master Rainer Honeck, and Daniel Ottensamer’s beautifully rounded, exquisitely articulated clarinet playing gave a transcendental quality to the performance, yet without melancholy. After the interval came a further gem, Mendelssohn’s Octet in which all the string players demonstrated that even though they are not a regular quartet or octet formation, they have the inherent gift of listening and reacting to each other with a sureness of style and interpretation yet without any hint of mere routine.
The Great Hall of the Mozarteum is also a perfect and rewarding venue for lied recitals – Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva (the Met’s new Tosca in the coming season) made a spectacular debut in Salzburg singing works by Jean-Philippe Rameau and George Frideric Handel. She was accompanied by the Academia Montis Regalis conducted by Alessandro De Marchi – at times a more virtuoso and dynamic interpretation would have better matched the temperament of the singer, but nevertheless she captivated the hearts of the audience and received rapturous applause.
The most characteristic and individual venue at the Salzburg Festival is the Felsenreitschule, hewn out of the rock of the Mönchsberg and with a truly expansive stage area, behind which are three tiers of arcades which an imaginative stage director can use to enhance dramatic effects. The last opera premiere at this year’s Salzburg Festival was Lear by Aribert Reimann, staged by Australian director Simon Stone in the Felsenreitschule and conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. “Here flows much blood” states the libretto, and director Simon Stone took these words very seriously for his production. As the piece progresses, violence increases, every figure comes into contact with violence. Stone said he was of course influenced by the Felsenreitschule but more so by the music, even though the opera was premiered almost 30 years ago, in 1978. Stone feels there is no piece that is more relevant to our time and that Aribert Reimann’s music demystifies madness. The opera Lear does not contain many moments of hope or reconciliation apart from Lear’s daughter Cordelia, who is the only character to speak the truth. The opera had an outstanding cast, first and foremost with baritone Gerald Finley in the title role, and his daughter Cordelia was sung magnificently by Anna Projaska. It is not the kind of subject to attract audiences merely interested in glitz and glamour at the Festival but performances were highly acclaimed – some critics even claimed it was the best staging of the season – and indeed it demonstrates perfectly what the Salzburg Festival can do best: mount a “home-grown” production, with everything – sets, costumes designed and manufactured in the festival’s own ateliers, and with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra playing an incredibly challenging score under the circumspect guidance of Franz Welser-Möst.
The very last performance at this year’s Salzburg Festival – for which people still stood outside the festival hall holding signs saying “suche eine Karte” / “ticket wanted” was a concert performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. This was a true festivity of magnificent singing, for which the term bel canto would have to be invented, if it didn’t already exist. Juan Diego Florez, who for the last seven years or so has given riveting recitals at the end of the Salzburg Festival or concert performances of opera, again proved that he is at present unmatched in such repertoire, yet in this case, the show was almost stolen by the singer of the title role, Krassimira Stoyanova.