When Rolando Villazón took over as artistic director of the Salzburg Mozart Week and first announced his intention of programming only works by Mozart, he was confronted with more than a little scepticism. Now, having successfully completed his second season, very few people question his idea, preferring instead, like Rolando, to see it as the most natural and obvious thing in the world – Mozart Week means focusing on Mozart in all his facets, discovering less well-known works, exploring new forms of interpretation so that familiar pieces sound like new, and showing how Mozart himself was inspired by the music of his predecessors.
It was precisely one such work, Handel’s Messiah, in the reworking by Mozart that was performed on the opening evening of the Mozart Week 2020. It was presented as a staged production by American visual artist and stage director Robert Wilson in the “Haus für Mozart” (on the site of the former Kleines Festspielhaus in Salzburg). Writing in the Mozart Week almanac, Robert Wilson states that for him religion has no place in theatre and should remain in church. He regards the Messiah not so much as a religious work but more a spiritual journey. He says he is fascinated by the structure of the composition and the freedom it allows, and above all it is a work about hope. Mozart in his version of Handel’s Messiah added parts for flutes, oboes, clarinets and horns, and he also made alterations in the parts for brass. So the resulting sound is rather different from Handel’s setting and the text is sung in German translation, not in the original English, which is not to everyone’s taste, especially in such a familiar and popular work. Over the years Robert Wilson has evolved his own very distinctive style of staging: clear geometric lines, bright, mostly white lighting, and in his interpretation of Messiah the stage was populated with abstract elements and figures, even one that was reminiscent of those in folklore parades such as Die Wilde Jagd (The Wild Hunt) or “Krampus Trails” which take place in and around Salzburg during the Advent season – perhaps Robert Wilson was inspired by one of these while he was here in the rehearsal period.
Marc Minkowski, former artistic director of the Mozart Week, who during his term was responsible for bringing truly spectacular equestrian ballet productions to Salzburg, conducted his ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre and a quartet of soloists.
One of the most authentic and intimate experiences to be had at the Mozart Week 2020 was the event entitled “Dearest, best friend”, a reading of excerpts from Mozart’s letters, interspersed with music played on Mozart’s own instruments, the so-called ‘Costa’ violin, played by Hugues Borsarello, and the fortepiano built by Anton Walter in 1790 and played by Paul Montag. The Mozart Residence on the Makart Square, where the Mozart Family lived in a spacious apartment from 1773, was completely renovated and reconstructed in 1996. Stored in the underground vaults are many of Mozart’s original manuscripts and the majority of letters written by members of the Mozart Family – these are owned by the International Mozarteum Foundation. During the Mozart Week it is possible to visit the vaults and see some of the letters and autograph manuscripts on display there. Popular actor Florian Teichtmeister, a member of the renowned Burgtheater ensemble in Vienna, read passages from letters Mozart wrote to his friends. Writing from Prague on 14 January 1787 Mozart reports to his friend Gottfried von Jacquin in Vienna what a huge success the performances of his opera The Marriage of Figaro were in Prague. He relates that nothing is played, sung or whistled but music from Figaro, and no other opera attended but Figaro, “to be sure a great honour for me”, he writes. Towards the end of the letter Mozart tells his “dearest and best friend” that while travelling to Prague he and his companions invented nicknames for each other – his wife was Schabla Pamfa, his servant Sagadarata, his dog Schomanntsky, and Mozart himself was referred to as “Punkitititi”.
This nickname was used by the Salzburg Marionette Theatre for its specially devised production for the Mozart Week 2020. Punkitititi is a musical collage compiled from Mozart’s well-known and unknown completed compositions and fragments, played live by the Pool of Invention ensemble. Marionettes and an actor interact on the tiny stage of the charming theatre. Not until the marionettes enter the scene – and too much time passes before they appear – does the piece gain momentum, action and humour, and everything ends happily.
Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro was, as mentioned, a huge success at its premiere in Prague in 1786; during the Mozart Week 2020 audiences had a chance to hear concert performances in the Felsenreitschule, one of Salzburg’s most spectacular venues but with difficult acoustics. Sir András Schiff conducted his ensemble the Cappella Andrea Barca, excellent musicians but not especially renowned for their interpretations of opera. Among the vocal soloists, a name to listen out for is Regula Mühlemann, soprano from Switzerland, for her enchanting singing of the role of Susanna. She was a perfect match too for Christiane Karg in the role of the Countess, and hearing them together in the so-called “letter duet” made one wish to see and hear them in a full stage version. Le nozze di Figaro, like the two other operas Mozart created with his brilliant librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, absolutely cry out for action.
Sacred music by Mozart anticipating the sophistication and drama that was to come later in his operas could be heard in the concert by the ensemble L’Arpeggiata under its founder and artistic director Christine Pluhar, which made its long overdue debut at the Mozart Week 2020. This was one of the many guest orchestras playing on period instruments; Salzburg also presents its own resident ensembles, the Mozarteum Orchestra and the Camerata Salzburg. Concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic have been essential to the Mozart Week ever since it was founded in 1956; this year they were conducted by Daniel Barenboim, a great personal friend of Rolando Villazón, and by the young Israeli Lahav Shani, still in his early thirties. Besides a rare chance to hear the Concerto for Flute and Harp played live, with soloists from the ranks of the Vienna Philharmonic, Lahav Shani made an outstanding impression with his interpretation of the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550. He was also the soloist in the Piano Concerto in B flat major, K. 595, directing the orchestra from the piano, as Mozart used to do. This particular concerto was long thought to have been written in the last year of Mozart’s life – he entered it into his Thematic Catalogue on 5 January 1791. However, modern research into the composer’s manuscript paper and its watermarks has caused musicologists to revise this view because it appears that it was written as a draft three years earlier. This and many other fascinating, often amusing details from Mozart’s life, to be found in the informative programme booklets and official almanac, illustrate how well research, concert planning and performance go hand in hand at the Mozart Week in Salzburg. All those who wish to find out more about the man and his music, and like Rolando Villazón, perhaps come to regard him as a friend, can do nothing better than to visit Salzburg in January and join in the musical and theatrical celebrations of Mozart’s birthday.