Salzburger Zeitung 2014 #2

June  5, 2014

Well the Pfingstfestspeile began in semi-earnest last night with La Cenerentola to a mostly full house – I notice that for next year’s Festival the idea of starting on the Thursday of the holiday weekend has been jettisoned.  As happens here there was high fashion, silly fashion, casual fashion and the odd smell of mothballs and dry cleaning fluid that suggested a few articles of summer finery had been in storage over the long winter.  Of the production itself I am of several minds and will have to try and get them all together to a degree where I can write something of some intelligence.  Let me just say that my restraint when stage director Damiano Michieletto and his crew took their curtain call was beyond admirable!

After seeing what’s on the menu (see items below) at Don Magnifico’s Buffet (don’t ask!) Laurent
wasn’t too sure if he really wanted to go in.

Prince Ramiro’s car seemed a bit dodgy even before it crashes through the front window of the
 Don’s Buffet – again don’t ask or I’ll have to explain it to you. 

A late night diner at the Sketch Bar of the Hotel Bristol was a wonderful occasion to have a chat with Herr Leitner, the Manager and see our friend Dr M., who at 81 is still travelling the world for opera, ballet and theatre.  He had just arrived from Toronto via Munich and after the Festival is heading to London to see Natalia Osipova in a new ballet.  He’s already planning for next year’s Whitsun Festival – the man is a wonder.  And as always we were spoiled in the Sketch Bar by Gabor and Peter and the late night kitchen staff while Herr Leitner got us up to speed on the gossip around town and the music scene in Austria.

June 6, 2014

Today was the first of two music free days and an old friend of Madame J’s is arriving from Switzerland for a brief visit later today.  The day started a bit late and continued at a leisurely pace – but that’s why they call it vacation, right?

In 1822 Rossini and his, by then wife, Isabella Colbran left Napoli and moved to Vienna.  The move was not unexpected – his music had been wildly successful in the Austrian capital and his friend-partner (and Colbran’s former lover) Domenico Barbaja was the impresario at the Theater am Kärntnertor.  It might be added that Barbaja seemed to be the impresario and casino operator at half the opera houses in Europe at that point.  Rossini conducted La Cenerentola and Zelmira there and Colbran sang the title role in the later.

In celebration of this rather tenuous connection with Austria – at one point a Festival publication tries to, without much success, link Mozart and Rossini – the De Ponte Institute has set up an exhibition:  Rossini-mania Wien 1822.  Publicized widely in the Festival programmes and prospectus it was still difficult to find – a small sign pointed to the Festival Administrative Building but once inside there was nothing to indicate that it was buried in the basement.

Consisting mostly of prints and scores it covered more than the Swan of Pesaro’s period in Vienna.  His years in Naples, the visit to London and the last years in Paris were well represented in the numerous prints, playbills and fashion plates on display.  Many were familiar from publications and website devoted to Rossini but just as many were new – to me at least – and portrayed the singers, musicians, dancers and vips who performed, befriended, celebrated and feted the composer during his life time.

A general view of Vienna – 1819 by Jacob Alt.  Some of the landmarks are still visible today, others have been blocked by the urban sprawl of the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was only one of the fascinating cityscapes on display at the Rossini-mania Wien 1822.

Perhaps most interesting were the representations of Vienna, London and Paris in those early years of the 19th century.  Many landmarks were recognizable but as with all cities what had once been forest or parklands has long since been filled in by urban sprawl – even if it is late 19th – early 20th century urban sprawl.

One of the more intriguing lithographs on display indicates the orchestra seating at the Kärntnertor-Theater in 1821.  By today’s standards it seems odd that the conductor is situated right at the stage rather than between the hall and the orchestra.  There are 26 seats, most of which would have been given over to violins and oddly there does not seem to be any space provided for a harpsichord or cembelo. Given that Rossini was wont to conduct from that instrument it is likely the arrangement was changed when he conducted his works there.

It was a fascinating exhibition but sadly so poorly advertised that there were very few people there.  It was almost representative of what seemed a slightly under-planed Festival.  However more about that later.

The entrance to the Haus für Mozart and Felsenreitschule features a colourful mural highlighting the first performance of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann at the Festival on 22 August 1920. The architect and stage designer Clemens Holzmeister is seen at the left holding plans for what was to become the first Festspeilhaus. 

After a nice lunch at the Goldener Hirsch Laurent and I headed over to the Festspeilhaus for a tour.  In all the years we have been going to the Festival we’ve never been through the houses that make up the complex set against and deep inside the Mönchsberg. Unfortunately the Grosses Festspeilhaus was closed for rehearsals for the next day’s concerts but we still went through the Haus für Mozart and – my own favourite venue – the Felsenreitschule.  That included a visit backstage to see the workings of Paolo Fantin’s sets for Cenerentola – though thankfully the labyrinth of chairs that cluttered Don Magnifico’s Buffet were absent.

Don Magnifico’s Buffet minus the chairs that were moved, piled on tables, thrown, upended and occasionally – just occasionally – used to sit on.  We also saw the multitude of cables that bore it heaven word when the scene changed to …
…. Prince Ramiro’s party at the Palace Disco.  Do they still actually do the frug – except in operatic productions where they are trying to show decadence and high living?

At Don Magnifico’s they serve up all manner of appetizing – from a distance – goodies. 
I must say that even up close a good deal of it looks very realistic.

But the real surprise came at the Felsenreitschule (Rock Riding School).  The great arched boxes  carved into the sides of the old stone quarry in 1693 have been hidden by a set being built for Charlotte Salomon – a modern opera being presented at this year’s summer festival.  Only the side boxes were clearly visible;  I mentioned what a shame it was and several people, including the guide, agreed. 

Only the side boxes of the Felsenreitschule were the only portion of this wonderful space that clearly visible – the stage itself was taken up with a unit set for a production for the summer festival.

The stage of the Felsenreitschule was a mass of suspended flats, unfinished lumber and carpenters tools.  The sets for the upcoming opera were being constructed in place.

But  more surprising than the decision to hide this architectural marvel, was the revalation that the entire front section of seating had disappeared.  Or at least appeared to have.  The sloped floor and seats are on hydraulic arms that are cantilevered and can swing the seating units up out of the way to allow equipment to be brought in.  It also serves as a scenery dock and storage area.

The first nine rows of the centre sections of seats in the Felsenreitschule are on hydraulic arms.  This allows them to be lifted out of the way.  The day we visited the area served as storage space for the chairs that would be used at the gala dinner on Sunday evening in the Karl-Böhm-Saal.

The Karl-Böhm-Saal serves as the refreshment hall for both the Haus für Mozart and the Felsenreitschule.  Originally created to serve as the winter riding school by Prince-Archbishop Guidobald Graf von Thun it was the scene of tournaments and military training in the 17th century.  This year it was also the site of a gala dinner prepared by Elena Arzak, one of Europe’s more noted chefs.  Needless to say that as it was being held in honour of Rossini the famous Tournedos of that name were on the menu.

The beautiful Karl-Böhm-Saal serves as the intermission foyer and crush bar for the Haus für Mozart
and the Felsenreitschule.  It was built in 1662 as the winter riding school and restored by Clemens
Holzmeister and again with the major renovations of 1960/70.

The balcony and staircases were added by Holzmeister in the style of the original period when further work was done in 1999.

The Karl-Böhm-Saal serves as the refreshment hall for both the Haus für Mozart and the Felsenreitschule.  Originally created to serve as the winter riding school by Prince-Archbishop Guidobald Graf von Thun it was the scene of tournaments and military training in the 17th century.  This year it was also the site of a gala dinner prepared by Elena Arzak, one of Europe’s more noted chefs.  Needless to say that as it was being held in honour of Rossini the famous Tournedos of that name were on the menu.

The fire firescreen fronting the great fireplace built into the rock of the Mönchsberg was also created by Holzmeister to symbolize the history of the room – ecclesiastical, military and artistic.

The Festival venues are used primarily during the Easter, Whitsun and Summer Festivals and lay largely empty during the rest of the year.  He made a point of mentioning that it was the Festival that gave the city much of its status and, its very apparent, wealth.

A few facts the guide revealed concerning the Festival made us very aware of its importance to the city of Salzburg:

  • The Festival employees 226 people year round but that figure jumps to over 6000 during the summer months.  
  • The budget is around 60 million euros with ticket revenue covering about of third of that amount.  
  • Its been estimated that the Festival brings in tax revenues equal to three times what it receives in public subsidies.  
  • In 2011 it was estimated that the Festival generated some 276 million euros in business revenues for the district.  

The afternoon was capped off by finding a table on the loge of Café Tomaselli overlooking the Alter Markt and choosing from their extensive eis menu.

A view from the loge at Tomaselli and a choice between an eis-caffe and a mocha frappe – what more could a gnome of vacation ask for?

Music, drama, history, a great setting and good (and fattening) food – that’s why they call it vacation.  Right?

June 14 – 1789: Whiskey distilled from maize is first produced by American clergyman the Rev Elijah Craig. It is named Bourbon because Rev Craig lived in Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Salzburger Zeitung 2013 – Seventh Edition

Dateline:  July 14, 2013:

Not for the first time I’ve saved the best at the Whitsun Festival for last.

I will begin by saying I’m not a fan of Bellini – of the big three of bel canto he is my least favourite: #1 Rossini #2 Donizetti #3 Bellini.  Yes I know many of my friends with better music knowledge than I find my love of Rossini a case of arrested musical development but there it is.  More often than not Bellini bores me:  in La Sonnambula I find myself almost as comatose as its eponymous heroine (oh come on now she was sleepwalking when she wandered into a big butch bass-baritone’s bedroom?) and I Puritani is only one of two operas I’ve walked out of in 61 years of opera going.  Sorry, poor old Elvira – what the hell sort of name is that for a Puritan girl? – going mad once is okay – twice no dice!  I Capuletti e Montecchi – okay that one I love, it’s fast, it’s furious and it’s filled with great music.  Il Pirata, Beatrice di Tenda and La Stangeria – well let’s admit it there’s a reason they aren’t revived all that often.

That leaves only the biggie:  Norma.   And I’m not all that crazy about it – give me Lucia di Lammamoor in her blood stained nightgown or Maria Stuarda in her soon to be blood stained nightgown but Norma running around cutting mistletoe and mooning over some Roman.   As we use to say in Rome:  boh!

And there in doth lie a slight problem.  In those 61 years of opera going there are two performances that rank in the top 10 I’ve seen – both of them of ….    Norma!

Back in 1974 at the Roman Theatre in Orange Montserrat Caballe fought a Mistral to sing what she – without exaggeration  I believe – claimed to be the greatest performance of her life.  The score that night was Monstie 1 – Mistral 0.

The triumphant curtain calls – Josephine Veasey, Montserrat Caballe and Jon Vickers acknowledge
the cheering, bravoing audience at that legendary 1974 Norma in Orange. When I watch the video
of that evening I like to think that I can actually hear my own bravos over the rest!

In the shadow of Augustus Caesar, as the orchestra struggled to read flapping scores clothes-pinned to their music stands,  Caballe, Jon Vickers and Josephine Veasey generated drama and excitement that has stayed in my mind’s ear and eye for almost 50 years.  This was opera in the grand old style that was starting to disappear even back then – more about voice than staging.  Given those great voices how could it not have been?

Pollione – Jon Vickers (top left, bottom right)   Norma – Montserrat Caballe (top and bottom right)
 Adalgisa – Josephine Veasey (bottom left) * Orange 1974.

They were big glorious voices pouring out torrents of sound, fighting the elements and displaying the power of the human voice to convey emotion and drama.  It was thrilling!  And it was Grand Opera at its grandest!

Fast forward to this year’s Whitsun Festival and a Norma that could not have been more different but in its own way was one of the most exciting evenings I’ve spent at the opera.

Friday May 17: LiebesOPFER
Haus für Mozart: 1900

Before the ink had dried on the Festival prospectus the opera blogs were awash with “opera-lovers” damning Cecilia Bartoli’s announcement that she would be singing Norma at this year’s Whitsun Festival.  The cries of sacrilege that she would even try to sing a role which belonged – do you hear me BELONGED – to the long gone Maria Callas arose from lips that where still suckling at their mother’s breast when Callas retired from the stage.  Her voice is too small!  She doesn’t have the technique!  Her voice is too small!  She’s too mannered!  Her voice is too small!  She doesn’t have the nobility! She’s too small!  If the blogasphere was to be believed it was going to be a bigger disaster than … than… well any other role that Bartoli had sung that they from the comfort of their mostly Manhattan bedsits had seen on YouTube.  This disdain for La Ceci seems to be in not only North American centred but particularly New Yorkcentric and emits from opera “lovers” who, I would hazard a guess, have never seen her live.

Now like them I have seen La Ceci on video and agree that she has mannerisms that in close up can be irritating and like every singer she has her quirks and ticks both physically and vocally.  My only experience with her on stage was in concert in Roma.  That evening she played the role of the “diva” – and we were her adoring subjects.  And frankly I had own doubts about how suitable she would be in a role I normally associate with grand divas of a different sort.

Cecilia Bartoli as Norma, the spirit of Anna Magnani was never far from the surface in her riveting portrayal.  Untraditional vocally and dramatically it was none-the-less a great interpretation.

But this was to be a Norma with a difference.  It was a new critical edition by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi going back to the original Bellini manuscript in the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia in Rome.  The allocation of voices was to reflect more closely what is known about the singers that created the roles.  And the orchestration was more in tune with the forces available at the period rather than the larger orchestras that were to come into fashion shortly thereafter.  Two hundred years of changes and “improvements” were to be removed to come as close as possible to Bellini’s intentions.  Musically it was the equivalent of the house cleaning that had previously largely been done with Rossini but is now being extended to other composers of the bel canto. 

Norma (Bartoli) is first approached by Pollione (John Osborn) as teachers are led away and the local school is closed by the occupying forces.  One of the few examples of dumb show I’ve every seen that actually worked.

A clean slate musically obviously would call for a clean slate dramatically; I will admit that I cringed when I saw the first production photos on the Salzburg website.  It was to be a modern production by the team of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, Bartoli’s preferred directing team.  I had not imagined the flapping canvas oak trees of the ottocento and frankly the thought of Bartoli in pseudo-druid draperies and laurel leave crown was slightly risible.  But was I ready for updating to more recent times?  Was this going to be another one of those regie-theatre concepts with barbed wire sets and Nazis in great coats so beloved in Germanic countries? 

Leader of the local Resistance, Oroveso (Michele Pertusi) cautions his followers to wait for a signal from his daughter, Norma.

Yes there was a directors’ concept and, thankfully, no there were no great coats or swastikas. Norma takes places in Roman occupied Gaul: Leiser and Caurier gave us an occupied country, perhaps France, in the 1940s.  The forces of the occupiers appeared briefly in a dumb show prologue in the schoolroom where Norma is the principal and she and Pollione meet for the first time.  After the school has been closed it is to become the meeting place for the Resistance Movement led by Oroveso (Michele Pertusi).  There was one brief reference to Nazi-style helmets but honestly it could have been any occupied country at any time in recent history – Laurent said he thought it almost had a Balkan look to it.  What is important is the dramatic thrust that it gave Romani’s somewhat formula love-triangle.  Suddenly it became the very modern story of a woman who had slept with the enemy and secretly betrayed her people and one of her young country women who was about to (or in this version did) make the same mistake.   The bond between the two women became central to everything – Mira Norma wasn’t about two sportive ladies showing their vocal chops but two desperate woman in a situation neither of them knew how to get out of.  It was music drama at its finest – in a bel canto opera!!!!!

Adalgisa (Rebeca Olvera) confesses to Norma that she has been seduced and fallen in love with one of the occupying army.  Norma knows only too well the emotion.

A great deal of that drama came from the change of voices from what has become traditional in Norma over the past two centuries.   Rebeca Olvera (Adalgisa) has a light soprano voice – I kept thinking Norina or Adina, both parts sung by Giulia Grisi the creator of Adalgisa – perfect for the young, inexperienced girl who is so easily seduced by the suave Roman soldier.  And seductive John Osborn (Pollione) was in tone and demeanor; though there was a certain sleazy cruelty to his seduction – you almost felt that if he didn’t get his way he would take it!  But it was in the final duets with Bartoli that he gave his best vocally and dramatically – matching her and making the change of heart almost believable.

In the dramatic trio that ends the first act Norma realizes that the man that has seduced Adalgisa is the father of her children. 

As remarkable as Olvera and Osborn were the opera is after all called Norma and as I said even I had reservations about Bartoli assuming the role.  I need not have worried – in this production, this edition and at this time she was Norma!  Were the vocal mannerisms there?  At times yes but only during a few of the rapid fire colouratura passages did they become apparent.   If the Casta Diva was not the show stopper – despite attempts to do so by some die-hard Bartolinis* – it was because in the context of the staging it was only part of a larger dramatic arc.  This was not a great diva spinning out lovely sounds – though the lovely sounds were there – this was a woman stalling for time to save her lover – the enemy.

Adalgisa and Norma dream of escaping the inescapable – they have betrayed their people, their vows to the Resistance.

 The programme featured several photos of Anna Magnani and Bartoli acknowledged that she used the great actress’s performance in Roma, citta aperta as a starting point for her portrayal of Norma.  Nowhere was that more evident than in Dormono entrambi,  the scena that begins Act 2.  After the harrowing revelations of the Act 1 trio we discovered Norma, disheveled, drunk on bitterness and perhaps alcohol hunched against the wall of her apartment.  The threat to her children was very real – again desperation was never very far from the surface.  This made the subsequent scene with Adalgisa even more intense and as I said Mira Norma became a foolish attempt by two scared women bound by guilt to find a solution to their impossible situation.

Norma confronts the man who has betrayed and taunts him – she will reveal the name of his lover and he will watch as her countrymen take their revenge on her betryal.

From there the drama swept along, irrevocably until that electrifying moment when after taunting the bound Pollione, she blurts out, not to the crowd but directly into his face, Son Io – the confession that seals her death. The subsequent appeal to her father for her children had an aching tenderness – again with a slight edge of desperation.  As Laurent said afterwards, Michele Pertusi’s Oroveso may have agreed but somehow you felt these children (one an infant) would not live long after their mother and that this Norma may have felt that in her heart.

Granted Baroli’s dramatic and even vocal approach may have robbed the part of some of the “nobility” that has become associated with Norma but it was a complete exciting portrait from curtain raise until her final sacrifice.  She wasn’t trying to match any of the ghosts of the past – nor did she need to – this was Bartoli’s Norma.

But as much drama as there was on stage it was equally match by the drama in the pit.  Conducting Orchestra La Scintilla, the fine period ensemble of the Zurich Opera, Giovanni Antonini seldom let the temperature or pace drop.  I understand there has been some criticism of his conducting on the album that Decca released to coincide with the Salzuburg premiere.  I purposely avoided listening to it until long after the performance and find the accusation that he pushes things unfounded either in the theatre or on disc.  There were grace moments – the introduction to Act 2,  Norma’s plea to her father – but he obviously saw the score as not simply a succession of arias, duets and trios but an overall dramatic sweep of music that took us along to its tragic and fiery end

Bound together Norma and Pollione face death in one of the most incredibly dramatic endings I’ve ever seen to any theatrical production in my life.

And what an end!  Norma, her hair shorn, and Pollione were bound to chairs on a pyre of furniture, books and anything in the room that would burn.  The school room where they had met was doused in gasoline and set on fire by the betrayed Resistance.  Windows shattered and flames lept through the floor and it was as if the entire stage of the Haus für Mozart was aflame.  It was dramatic stage craft at its best – a true wedding of the music to the drama.

I’ve seen  Norma as Grand Opera and I’ve seen Norma as Music Theatre and both experiences have  moved me to tears and had me on my feet cheering.   

*I’ve yet to come across a term for the die-hard Bartoli fans so figure this will do as well as anything.

PS:  Though Leiser and Caurier filled the production with grand moments there were some subtle pieces of staging that were impressive and suggest the work that they put into their concepts.  In the first act Pollione and his aide Flavio stole into the school room after the Resistance members had left; as his aide searched the room, Pollione took a book from a shelf, leaved through it distastefully and methodically tore out a few pages and let them fall to the floor.  Later Oroveso saw them, picked them up and gave a troubled look around the room – they were being watched!  Anyone who has ever been under surveillance will tell you that it is not uncommon for a “calling card” to be left – just to let you know that you are being observed.  An almost unnoticeable piece of business but one that added to the tension that was carefully being built up. 

All production photos are courtesy the Salzburg Festival 
© Hans Jörg Michel

July 14 -1902: The Campanile in St. Mark’s Square, Venice collapses, also demolishing the loggetta.

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Monumental Sidd – Sidd and the Several Dwarfs

Sidd is currently off on a Mediterranean Cruise with our friend Josée and our colleague Jean-Louis – being a security conscious type – thought he’d best be equipped just in case:

Given what has been happening on cruise ships lately Jean-Louis felt that Sidd
should be pre-equiped just in case they don’t have one his size on board.

Meanwhile as Sidd heads out on his cruise I started going through more pictures of our friend on his jaunt with us to Munich, Salzburg, Füssen and Frankfurt.   One of the common features – well other than food, Sidd seems inordinately fond of food – was the number of monuments that our Sidd wanted to be posed beside.  So starting with a special garden in Salzburg we give you:  Monumental Sidd.

Salzburg – May 22, 2013

My friend David suggested that since Sidd was going to Salzburg for the music festival we should arrange a special performance of Zemlinksy’s Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) for his delectation.  We suggested it to him but he rather huffily reminded us that he was a gnome not a dwarf.  After the distinction had been so clearly, and emphatically,  made I was a bit reticent to suggest a visit to the Zwergerlgarten (Dwarf Garden) at Scholss Mirabell.  However Sidd was agreeable and was even willing to have his photo taken with a few of the strange creatures that inhabit the tower-like patch of grass that has been their home since 1928.

On our visit in 2008 I posted photos of all the dwarfs that live in the Zwergerlgarten and a bit of their history.  You might want to take a look and in the meantime here are Sidd and Several Dwarfs.

Though her expression is no perhaps the most welcoming Sidd remembered
that the pomegranates she was offering were a sign of hospitality.

This poor Turkish Lad may have lost his arm in the Siege of Vienna
– or perhaps it was just the elements or a drunken loat after a night
of beer and sausage.
Many of the dwarfs in the garden are wearing clothes that suggest the commedia dell’arte
– perhaps they were members of the Archbishop’s theatre company?

This lady – one of only two in the garden – was offering a jug of water (or
maybe wine) and some fruit to go with it.  As we all know Sidd loves his
wine and food so it was a given that he’d hop up to see what she had to offer.
This little woodcutter has always struck me as the saddest in the group.
  The difficulty of his existence is etched in the stone – despite assurances
Sidd was afraid to go near him.

In the early 1800s Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, in a fit of superstitious concern for his wife and unborn child, had the little creatures (there were 28 of them)  “with their goiters and hunchbacks” removed from the Garden.  They were to be destroyed but were only auctioned off – nine remained in the city’s possession.   At the moment 15 of them are back in their rightful place – perhaps one day the remaining 13 will be reunited with their fellows.

02 June – 1896: Guglielmo Marconi applies for a patent for his newest invention, the radio.

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Salzburger Zeitung 2013 – Third Edition

Dateline:  May 23, 2013:

After the Schiff concert on Saturday we headed to the Cafe Bazar for lunch.  It was sunny, warm and a long weekend so of course the terrace was full – not a table to be had.  Fortunately the terrace of the  Cafe Sacher is right next door – but, no surprise, the same held true there.  As we stood, no doubt looking a touch forlorn if not underfed, an older gentleman waved at us and motioned to the two empty chairs at his table.  I had forgotten that it is not unusual to share tables in Cafes here with total strangers – invasion of personal space being a very North American concern.  So we gratefully joined the gentleman and his wife at a table that was perfect – one seat in the sun for me, the other in the shade for Laurent.

Clasico  - Picture of Cafe Sacher, Salzburg
This photo of Cafe Sacher is courtesy of TripAdvisor

We tucked into a pleasant lunch and soon found ourselves in conversation with Herr and Frau Schmid.  Both were born in small towns in the region, moved to Salzburg over 40 years ago and have travelled extensively throughout the world.  We chatted excitedly about the Norma, exchanged anecdotes about earlier Festivals and Herr Schmid shared one of those stories that proves the world is small and seems to get smaller every day.

When he was in his teens there were still American forces in the Salzburg area where he and his family lived.  His father was a pianist in a small dance band that played at their local gasthaus on weekends.  His uncle played, if I recall, the clarinet and Herr Schmid  would fill in on the accordion from time to time.  They kept up with all the latest hits from America and where popular with the service men.

Many years later while their son Benjamin was studying at the Curtis Institute Herr Schmid paid him a visit him in Philadelphia.  He had a suitcase that needed repaired and took it into a shop where – and given the ease with which we entered into conversation I can believe this – he soon got into a lively conversation with the shop owner.  The usual pleasantries were exchanged – where are you from etc.  When he heard the name of Herr Schmid’s home town he looked surprised.  The owner had serviced near there in the early 1950s and had fond memories of Saturday night dances when he and his buddies were allowed out on leave passes.  He then pointed to a photo on the wall behind his counter – there was a young GI learning against a piano, cigarette suspended from his lips, Herr Schmid’s father at the piano, his uncle standing clarinet in hand and seated between them a young man playing the accordion.  There in a shop 5000 miles from home he had found a memory of his youth.  The world is indeed small.

Sunday May 19:  Biblesches Opfer
Grosser Saal – Mozarteum: 1100

To the best of my knowledge none of Jommelli‘s
90-odd operas have ever graced the stage of the
Palais Garnier but his person is represented on
the facade. Perhaps it is meant to commemorate
the reforms he brought to opera of the period.

Though I had heard of Nicolò Jommelli he was largely a name from the music history books; during the mid-1700s he was a composer of great renown in Northern Italy, Rome and at the court in Stuttgart before returning to his native Napoli. During the Muti years at the Whitsun Festival the maestro had featured two of Jommelli’s works: Demofoonte, one of his opera seria and La Betulia liberata, perhaps his best known oratorio. In both cases, after hearing the works, I questioned the need for revival. True the opera had several fascinating passages of accompanied recitative and a trio that with some originality morphed into a duet, however I admit to remembering almost nothing about the oratorio.

Looking back to the baroque roots of the Festival and, perhaps even to the Muti years, another Jommelli oratorio had been programmed for this year: Isacco figura di Redentore. The Old Testament story of Abraham and Issac is the first great sacrifice myth of Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition and in this version by the great Pietro Metastasio is linked with the sacrifice of Christ in the purely Christian tradition. Each time I hear a work with a libretto by the prolific Italian I am struck by the beauty of his language and his sense of drama. In the style of the Greeks much of the action takes place off stage and then is narrated in language both vivid and poetic by the participants. The description of the death of Holoferness by Judith in Betulia liberata is truly one of the most horrifying descriptions of a murder written in any language. Strangely four years after the fact I still recall Alisa Kolosova in Mozart’s setting of those words – but of the Jommelli from the same year I recall nothing.

On Saturday I was struck not by the arias – as fine as examples as they were of the AABAA format – but by the recitative including passages of accompanied recitative that built to dramatic climaxes. I grew up listening to opera when recitatives were delivered to the plucking of a harpsichord at a rattling pace – for god’s sake let’s get this over with – by singers who’s command of the language was often just phonetic parroting.  Or often  those bothersome recitatives would be cut to the bare bones and the opera almost became nothing more than a live “greatest hits” compilation.   One of the joys of this past weekend was hearing, both in the Norma and the Isacco, recitatives being used  as they were intended – to drive the story along and give the works their dramatic form.

The Angel of the Lord (Nuria Rial) brings the Lord’s message
of redemption through Abramo’s willingness to sacrifice his son
At times Fasolis seemed to be singing along with the soloists.

Diego Fasolis and his ensemble did indeed bring a sense of drama to the events unfolding that made it more than pretty period music. Unfortunately the mood was frequently broken by the singers acknowledging the applause – particularly Franco Fagioli, a good counter tenor, who’s stage mannerisms are excessive even for a HIP performer. Roberta Invernizzi has made a remarkable career as a singer of baroque music but her’s has never been one of those cool, sexless period voices – her Sara was a woman of fire, passion and devotion. The accompanied recitative and aria that began the second part spoke of Sara’s anguish, anger and deep love for her family and her God and Invernizzi  poured all of that into her performance. Bass Carlo Lepore was an effective Gamari, the faithful servant and Nuria Rial delivered the Angel’s messages of horror and redemption with silvery purity – as with all the singers their use of the language was exceptional.

Roberta Invernizzi and Javier Camarena as
Abramo and his wife Sara ponder the wishes
of a God who has given them a son in their
old age only to demand he be sacrificed.

The young Mexican tenor Javier Camarena delivered an impassioned Abraham – confused by his God’s unfeeling command, eventually bending to his will and finally rejoicing in his compassion. The final accompanied recitative and arrioso, where Metastasio links God’s sacrifice of his son to the Abrahamic story, was delivered simply and with stunning clarity.

Of Fagioli I am of two minds: his countertenor is sweet, even and with only a slight break as he dips into the mezzo range but his stage manner is affected to the extreme. As with the other singers his Issaco was delivered with conviction and a sense of drama but I found myself closing my eyes so as not to be distracted by the contortions taking place on stage.

I Barocchisti are not one of those twee early music ensembles that play pretty music – they have real “fire in the belly”. And Fasolis is not a conductor to linger – he moved the piece along giving it both pace and grace. From my vantage point I was able to watch the work of the horn and trumpet players – I am always astounded by the sounds they are able to produce on valveless instruments. It also makes me wonder why French horn sections of many orchestras – particularly Italian ensembles – with their modern instruments seem to have so many problems.

Diego Fasolis, the soloists, I Barocchisti and Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera take their bows
at the end of Saturday morning’s matinee of Jommelli’s Isacco figura di Redentore.

I have now heard three of Jommelli’s works – all three at Salzburg and all three in remarkable performances by remarkable performers. I do hope fans of early music fans will forgive me for misquoting Mr Bennet but:  thank you Signor Jommelli, you have contrived to delight me quite enough.

Sidebar:  We met Javier Camarena and his family at the hotel after the performance and congratulated him on his performance. We chatted briefly about this being his first “baroque” role and how coming from largely a bel canto repertoire he enjoyed the challenge and the importance of the recitatives. I was pleased to see that he will be returning next year on slightly more familiar ground as Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola.

All performance photographs are courtesy of the Salzburg Festival © Hans Jörg Michel

May 23 – 1829: Accordion patent granted to Cyrill Demian in Vienna.

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Salzburger Zeitung – 2013 – Second Edition

Dateline:  May 20, 2013:

I first saw this skyline when I was 19 years old – in the intervening 47 years
this view has never ceased to give me a small thrill of satisfaction.

Well its been a busy few days since we arrived in Salzburg. Fortunately we arrived a day early and settled into our usual room at the Hotel Bristol – the Tuscany. There had been a few changes in decor but it was still the same comfortable room we had enjoyed on our previous stay.  And though there have been some changes at the Bristol there is much that is familiar: Herr Lackner is still the gracious host, Peter is still overseeing the restaurant and bar,  Florian is doing his usual wonderful job as concierge, the ladies in the breakfast room are welcoming and Gabor has our table in the corner of the Sketch Bar prepared and waiting after the performance.  I guess I’m just turning into an old fart who loves the comfortable and the familiar.

Our home away from home at the Hotel Bristol in Salzburg – the Tuscany.
And returning to the Bristol is like coming home.

It has also been good to see old friends like Dr. M. from Toronto at his usual table and people we recognize from other years and now exchange hellos with at the Mozarteum and Haus für Mozart.  And this year some new acquaintances have been made – the Schmids a wonderful couple from Salzburg who motioned us to join them on the terrace of the Cafe Sacher at lunchtime on a busy Whitsun Saturday.  Their son Benjamin Schmid is a well-known violinist and they regaled us with stories of their travels and his path to a career as a musician.  And just this evening we met a lovely couple from England who have suddenly discovered opera and are indulging their passion for travel and music in their leisure years.

Sidd and another distinguished guest of the Hotel Bristol.

The main topic of conversation amongst us has been the centre piece of this year’s Festival _ Bellini’s Norma with Cecilia Bartoli.  We were all in agreement – it was of a piece musically and dramatically and one of the most moving and riveting evenings spent at an opera in a long time.  It is an evening I am going to have to take my time and write about with some thought.

Saturday 18:  Musikalisches Opfer
Grosser Saal – Mozarteum: 1100

I’ve always loved the gold and white, slightly over-the-top Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum.
At times the seats may be a trifle uncomfortable and the room a bit overheated but the acoustics are remarkable. 

It is often possible to be in awe of the artistry and ability of both a composer and a performer but to find them emotional unmoving: I’m afraid that is how I feel about both Bach and András Schiff.  Bach is undoubtedly one of the greats of Western music and I would be a fool for thinking otherwise but as much as I can listen in admiration I find that I can’t become involved with his works. I’ve tried – lord knows I’ve tried but it just doesn’t happen – and emotional response to music can’t be forced.

With Schiff I find much the same – he is one of the great pianists of our time and I would be a fool for thinking otherwise and on Saturday morning I sat in awe of what he accomplished in a programme of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. But I was left largely unmoved at the end of the programme. With the Festival theme of Sacrifice in mind he had chosen pieces in the Key of C minor.  According to the notes this is the key that has always been associated with lamantation – Johann Joachim Quantz, the flute teacher of Frederick the Great said that it is used for “the miserable affect”.  Though he did admit that it could be used to  express “the affect of love, tenderness, flattery”.  But also it could be used to express “an angry emotion, such as recklessness, rage and dispair”.  Quite the choice there!

Another view of the beautiful Grosser Saal – one of my favourite concert venues.

So perhaps it is pushing the envelope a bit to maintain that Bach sacrificed to his art when he took it upon himself to meet Frederick the Great’s challenge to create a six part improvisation on a theme the King had set out during Bach’s visit to his court in 1747.   That theme from Musikalischen Opfer BWV1080 was to show up again at Monday morning’s concert by the Mariinsky Orchestra in Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium.

Schiff’s Bach was slow, reverential and frankly dull. A friend remarked in passing that listening to Schiff play Bach extended your life time by a third – I’m not sure how true that is but I certainly found the Ricercare a 6 more fascinating when Angela Hewitt played it a few months ago as part of her programme at the NAC.  With Schiff it had all the excitement of an exercise with Hewitt it had a sense of passion and commitment.

András Schiff accepts the applause of an appreciative audience at
sold out concert at this year’s Whitsun Festival.

Schiff’s Mozart is seen through his closeness to the Romantic rather than the Baroque and though again the artistry is impeccable only the Adagio of the Klaviersonate c-Moll KV 457 seemed to take wing.   Not so the Beethoveen Sonata op. 111. Here Schiff seemed to come into his own and the music had an emotional bite to it that made me aware that I was listening to a great pianist. There was real communication here and in the short Schumann piece he gave as an encore.  I only wish he had caught that fire a bit earlier.

Perhaps after the Italianate passion of the previous evening anything would seem a bit cool, perhaps even passionless but I had honestly hope for a bit more excitement from Schiff. What we got was an amazing display of artistry if not of heart.

22 May – 1813:  Richard Wagner is born in Leipzig. 

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