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Recomposing Mozart

In the 250th year of his birth, many opera companies insist on updating the master, with mixed results.

Published October 22, 2006



Were the gods weeping at the genius of Mozart as all 22 of his operas were staged at a single festival? Or was the nonstop rain that brought the biggest bash of Amadeus' 250th birthday to a soggy, chilly end last month their way of saying, "Enough already?"

Either way, the rain's effect on tourism and ticket sales at the Salzburg Festival was negligible. Even the people who stand outside theaters shortly before long-sold-out performances clutching "Suche Karten" ("seeking tickets") signs refused to have their enthusiasm dampened.

When I rolled into Salzburg, I had celebrated the Mozart Year from Prague to Milan with 17 performances of 10 operas and was about to top it off with three more, including the rarity Mitridate, King of Ponto, which I had never seen staged.

What was the point of all of it, I asked myself. Has this just been a massive marketing ploy, or was there something to be learned? The answer appears to be a little of both.

Certainly any possible tie-in or excuse to cash in on the Mozart name was exploited. Salzburg (Mozart's birthplace) and Vienna (the city where he lived the longest and wrote his greatest works) launched their own celebrations, even waging a small war over Internet domain names (if you Google "Mozart Year," you'll get more than 8.5-million results).

In Vienna, where I live, Mozart's figure - from life-size cutouts to candy wrappers to wine labels - was so omnipresent, it became an object of derision. Even the prestigious springtime arts festival, the Vienna Festwochen, used as its 2006 logo a portrait of Mozart doctored so that his eyes are rolling back into his head.

Tradition abandoned

Not content with 22 productions to choose from, opera companies found new ways to abuse Mozart. They sliced and diced, dumbed-down or psychosexualized his most popular operas, with titles like Sarastro's Dream of the Magic Flute and The Magic Flute 06. A company in Berlin gave an all-male production of Cosi fan tutte. Vienna is showing The Weber Women, with music by Mozart and the British post-punk band the Tiger Lillies, about Mozart's sexual escapades with the four Weber sisters (he eventually married Konstanze); Frau Weber is portrayed by a hairy-chested man in drag.

Of the four productions of Don Giovanni I have seen so far this year, only one was given more or less traditionally: At Prague's Estates Theater (where Mozart himself conducted the premiere of the opera in 1787), a classic 1969 production designed by the legendary Josef Svoboda was refurbished. Though a treat for the eye, it was dull as dishwater.

At the KlangBogen Festival in Vienna, British director Keith Warner took Mozart's label for the opera - a drama giocosa, or comic drama - to extremes and offered the work as broad farce set in a luxury hotel, with gags and comic timing that could have been taken from a sitcom. Warner's production was by far the most successful, perhaps because laughs have been so sorely lacking in the Mozart Year.

The world being in the state it is, directors are falling over themselves to come up with ways to incorporate elements of political unrest, war, terrorism and dictatorship into opera. Even Mozart's comic works, such as The Abduction From the Seraglio, have been turned into examinations of xenophobia and tyranny.

In a production that played Vienna, London and New York, Peter Sellars took the fragment Zaide and turned it - quite unsuccessfully - into a story of sweatshop slavery and a relationship between a Muslim woman and a Christian man.

At Salzburg, I missed the festival's most anticipated event, a new Marriage of Figaro starring superstar diva Anna Netrebko as Susanna. But reports of Claus Guth's production were dreary: another dark, pessimistic look at a story of light and forgiveness.

High notes, low notes

What the festival offered was the rare opportunity to examine three of Mozart's ventures into opera seria, in which parables of characters from ancient history and mythology are told through bravura da capo arias.

Mitridate, King of Ponto was the 14-year-old Mozart's first serious opera. With Idomeneo, King of Crete, written at age 24, he revolutionized the dying art form. For his final opera, premiered in Prague only weeks before his death at 35, he returned to opera seria with La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus).

In Mitridate, warrior king Mitridate fakes his death to test the fidelity of his sons, Sifare and Farnace. When he finds them both courting his fiancee, Aspasia, they are sentenced to death. Mitridate eventually sees his errors and commits suicide.

Director Gunter Kramer doesn't do much to tell the story. The sons are presented as badly behaved schoolboys, and the action is relegated to a narrow area onstage. What Kramer and designers Jurgen Backmann and Falk Bauer do offer are some of the most arresting visuals of the Mozart Year: 15 red-jacketed Amadeuses run up an unseen platform behind the main set and then slide down, their images reflected in a giant mirror that hangs at a 45-degree angle over the stage.

The opera was given in the Residenzhof, the courtyard of the former residence of the archbishop of Salzburg. At times, the rain pounded so strongly on the plastic sheeting overhead, the singers and orchestra were drowned out. Water blew in on audience members, who paid up to $355 for a flimsy plastic seat.

Tito is another story of royal betrayal and tests of honor. Tito, the emperor of Rome, jilts the unstable Vitelia, who persuades Tito's friend Sesto to assassinate him. Sesto fails, and good for him because Tito decides to marry Vitelia after all. Sesto is sentenced to death; Vitelia begs Tito's forgiveness by confessing her role in the assassination attempt; Tito pardons everyone.

Director Martin Kusej focused the action on a small chamber in what looks like a parking garage. The production is ugly, muddled and mean-spirited when Mozart's music is at its most soaring. In program notes, Kusej talks about "the false morality of merciless acts of mercy." How this relates to the final image - 21 couples sit across from each other at dinner tables with shirtless, prepubescent boys lying on the tables between them - is beyond me.

Idomeneo is the most human of the three operas. For sparing his life in a tempest, Idomeneo pledges to sacrifice to Neptune the first human he encounters on land, who turns out to be his son, Idamante. When Idomeneo attempts to deceive the god, Neptune sets a monster upon the people of Crete, and Idomeneo realizes he must slay Idamante. When the ax is poised, an oracle proclaims that love has triumphed, that Idamante shall wed his beloved Ilia and assume his father's throne.

Husband and wife directors/designers Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann offer an attractive minimalist production filled with their tiresome trademark faux-naive touches. At least they permit the singers to interact, and they do so with passion. Czech beauty Magdalena Kozena was a perfect Idamante, Ramon Vargas a thrilling Idomeneo, and Anja Harteros a deranged Elettra (the jilted love interest who gets the big revenge arias).

domeneo was given in the House for Mozart, a brand new 1,600-seat theater replacing one which was better suited to concerts than fully staged operas. Sight lines from the orchestra level are atrocious, and the acoustics are uneven, with a pronounced echo. Tickets topped $450.

Vienna shines

Even through the three productions were designed over five years for three different theaters, I noticed a distressing uniformity, a Salzburg style: minimal sets (mostly white), costumes that look as if they came from Banana Republic and a directorial style that negates Mozart's musical messages in favor of cynicism and darkness.

While Salzburg left a bitter taste for me, I need look no farther than Warner's rollicking Don Giovanni, Patrice Chereau's compassionate Cosi fan tutte, Claus Guth's mesmerizing Lucio Silla or Christof Loy's radiant Tito - all at Vienna's Theater an der Wien - to know that contemporary re-evaluations can be valid if undertaken with sensitivity and love for the source.

As for Mozart, I was astounded by the discovery of his juvenilia: The Obligation of the First Commandment, his first stage work written at age 12; and Mitridate at 14. The music is competent and pleasant and, occasionally, precociously demanding, and then all of a sudden an aria so innovative, so sublime, it could only have come from true genius, from Amadeus.

If I had to pick one performance from this Mozart Year to cherish, it would be that of Australian tenor Steve Davislim as Idomeneo at Milan's Teatro alla Scala. After conquering the superhuman demands of the coloratura aria Fuor del mar, Davislim sang the tortured father-king's prayer Accogli, oh re del mar so heavenly, it reminded me of an incident several years ago.

At the end of George Balanchine's Concerto Barocco at New York City Ballet, the little old lady sitting in front of me turned around, caught my eye and said, "It's almost enough to make you believe in God."

Larry L. Lash writes about the performing arts and travel for "Variety," "Musical America," "Opera News" and "Bloomberg." He lives in Vienna.

[Last modified October 24, 2006, 12:59:47]

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