Tom Sutcliffe is in Salzburg


In 1996, when my book, Believing in Opera, about the theatre side of performing opera, came out, I went to the Aix-en-Provence Festival to review Semele, and for the following five years when I was opera critic for the Evening Standard I reviewed operas at the Salzburg Festival. I also worked as a dramaturg (with Keith Warner directing and Stefanos Laziridis designing) in Brussels on The Turn of the Screw in 1998; in Vienna (with Keith and Es Devlin designing) on Ernest Bloch’s Macbeth in 2003; and for Don Giovanni and Schulhoff’s Flammen in 2006. In Vienna, my son Walter was an assistant on both productions. For Macbeth, which we did in English (though it was written for the Opéra Comique in French), I was also language coach: the Banquo had never sung in English and did not speak it, and the three witches were from Austria, Albania and Bulgaria!

In 2004, my wife Meredith Oakes was the librettist for Thomas Adès’s new opera The Tempest at Covent Garden. She has recently written librettos for two operas, Ransom and Eucalyptus, by Australian composers premiering in 2021, supposedly. Our son became artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera in 2017. I look forward this month to enjoying Meredith’s new English version of Die Fledermaus in Belfast at the Grand Opera House directed by him. In July I reviewed operas at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, and last month I was in Salzburg for the first time in many years on a similar mission. As a family we are heavily into opera.

In Salzburg I stayed (as often before) at the Schwarzes Rössl (‘Little Black Horse’), a university hostel which offers cut-price accommodation during vacations (€53 a night, but no breakfast). I saw six operas, but had to buy a standing place for €20 at the back of the second tier in the Haus für Mozart for Barrie Kosky’s staging of Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers. The best seats at Salzburg now cost €440, the cheap seats vary between €70 and €45 (for ‘raised narrow seats, no armrest’ at the side with limited view). This is not opera for the people. The mega-rich dress up a lot, and paparazzi lurk before and in intervals to snap the famous. At Boccanegra in the Grosses Haus I was just three seats away from Bianca Jagger in the row in front of me.

Achim Freyer’s production and designs for George Enescu’s Oedipe (based on Sophocles with a libretto by Edmond Fleg, who also wrote the French words of Bloch’s Macbeth) was great, with Christopher Maltman deeply moving and authoritative in the title role and John Tomlinson as the blind seer Tirésias. A baby mask and football shorts helped create a distinctive sense of Oedipus, along with other distinctive effects against the background of the Felsenreitschule (literally ‘rock riding school’). Ingo Metzmacher conducted beautifully. Peter Sellars’s Idomeneo was characterless with feckless acting and was poorly directed, with Russell Thomas mediocre in the title role. Andreas Kriegenberg’s Mussolini-era setting for Simon Boccanegra was even worse with its pointless concert grand piano at the back, on top of which the poisoned doge had to pretend to go to sleep. Absurd. American tenor Charles Castronovo was sterling, but Latvian Marina Rebeka as the lost daughter Amelia lacked the sweetness and delicacy needed, while Gergiev is no Verdian.

Kosky gave his Offenbach hyperactive cabaret treatment that swamped the humour of the piece, though Max Hopp made a meal of John Styx. Energetic diverting stuff, but same old, same old for Eurydice’s not very sexy boredom. Michieletto’s Alcina inhabited a bland dull menagerie where Philippe Jaroussky’s monochrome countertenor Ruggiero made little impact except on fans, who also bellowed applause for Cecilia Bartoli in the title role. In reality Bartoli on typical form was less lively and sympathetic than the wonderful Sandrine Piau as her sister Morgana. Nobody could shine in this unmagical setting, though the boy Oberto seeking his dad (Vienna Boys Choir) was excellent. The poorest staging was the pretentious Australian Simon Stone’s Cherubini Médée set in hotel rooms and interleaved clumsily with monochrome home-movies showing Jason and his soon vengeful first wife with their 11-year-old daughters (not sons) in happier times. Feeble conducting by Thomas Hengelbrock and unpersuasive acting culminated in a scene at a filling station where Médée threw petrol around and, surrounded by armed police, held a cigarette lighter poised to ignite.

Having paid that much for their seats, audiences have to believe the show cannot be dross. But Salzburg Festival is a century old next year, and has to rediscover how to be special if it is going to carry on for a second 100 years. It was created to compensate for the disaster of World War I. But it has to be more special than the usual diet of the German-speaking world’s 100 opera ensembles, or it is serving no purpose at all.