Yuval Sharon’s Lohengrin in 2018 at the Bayreuth Festival was the first production there by an American director and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are echoes of contemporary events in the US in the show. Specifically Sharon’s Brabant is a conformist theocracy in which society has regressed technologically. Some of the action takes place in and around a prominently placed disused electrical installation of some kind. The Brabanters are cowardly and subservient, initially to Telramund and then, equally, to Lohengrin. The advent of a charismatic leader. does not necessarily equate to liberation or full citizenship. Sharon also claims in his director’s notes that the real dissenter is Ortrud and that it is her actions that liberate Elsa and Gottfried. Whether the staging supports this is, I think, questionable.
Live from Salzburg is a new CD featuring music recorded live at Salzburg during the pandemic. The performers are Elīna Garanča, The Vienna Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann. There are two sets of songs; Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder (recorded in 2020) and Mahler’s Rückert Lieder (recorded in 2021). Both recordings were made during live performances in the Großesfestspielhaus.
I like Garanča a lot in this music. Sometimes I find her a bit “cold” but here there’s a really nice balance of emotion and clarity. Her articulation of the text is excellent and she sounds good throughout her range. The lower and middle ranges have a kind of burnished quality; not really dark but definitely not soprano like , while her upper register is controlled and smooth. The low end is perhaps best heard in Um Mitternacht where she shows real power and depth of emotion.
The 2018 Salzburg Easter Festival production of Puccini’s Tosca was directed by Michael Sturminger. The only Sturminger works I’ve seen before are his rather odd Mozart collaborations with John Malkovich; The Giacomo Variations and The Infernal Comedy so I really wasn’t sure what to expect. The production riffs off film noir and is updated to more or less the present. It opens with a shoot out between Angelotti and the police but that lasts only a few seconds and the first act and the first half of the second act are fairly conventional, bar Scarpia on an exercise bike as Act 2 opens. That said, it’s big and monochromatic and it does have a noir feel. It starts to get a bit more conceptual around the Scarpia/Tosca confrontation. It’s an interesting take on Scarpia; perhaps more bureaucrat than psychopath. The relationship between the two is well drawn and Anja Harteros does a really convincing job of her build up to killing Scarpia including a first class Vissi d’arte sung from some unusual positions. There’s a hint of what’s to come at the very end of the act when an “I’m not dead yet” Scarpia is seen crawling towards his phone.
To quote a quite different opera, “it is a curious story”. In 1967 a production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, heavily influenced by Herbert von Karajan  who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for the performances, opened the very first Osterfestspiele Salzburg. 50 years later it was “remounted” with Vera and Sonja Nemirova directing. I use inverted commas because it’s actually not entirely clear how much was old and how much new. It might be more accurate to describe it as a homage to the earlier version. In any event, it was recorded, in 4K Ultra HD, no less and released as one of the very first opera discs in that format.
Vincent Brossard’s production of Verdi’s Otello for the 2016 Salzburg Easter Festival is both elegant and subtle; the latter quality being backed up by superb singing and acting from the principals. In many ways the production is clean and straightforward with a focus on character development but it also makes use of elegant lines and sharply contrasting darks and lights in creating the stage picture. There’s also a really cool use of mirrors during Già nella notte densa that I can’t quite figure out.
Jonas Kaufmann made a double role debut as Turiddu and Canio in the classic verismo double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2015, The productions were directed by Philipp Stölzl and Christian Thielemann conducted with the Staatskapelle Dresden in the pit.
At first blush Axel Köhler’s 2015 production of Weber’s Der Freischütz for Dresden’s Semperoper seems entirely traditional but as it unfolds it reveals some real depth that pretty much restores the sense of horror that the original audience felt. It’s set in an indeterminate time period in the aftermath of war. The first act looks quite conventional but there’s a very tense air to it with both sexuality and violence just below, and occasionally above, the surface. The atmosphere is greatly enhanced by our first look at Georg Zeppenfeld who is a very fine and rather plastic Kaspar. There are echoes here of his König Heinrich in Bayreuth.
Katharina Wagner’s take on Tristan und Isolde recorded at Bayreuth in 2015 is hard to unpack. There are some hints in a short essay in the booklet accompanying the disk and a few more in the interview with conductor Christian Thielemann included as an extra but it still leaves the viewer with a lot to do. It’s essentially unromantic and quite abstract. A lot of stuff that happens in a traditional interpretation just doesn’t happen but there’s not really anything much to replace it. What’s left is the story of two people who fall in love in a situation where that is bound to end badly and where, despite the best efforts of pretty much everyone else, it does. It’s actually quite nihilistic. Tristan, and maybe Isolde, seek a kind of transcendence in love/death but there is none. At the end Isolde doesn’t die but something in her does. It had me thinking of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (but then so much in life does).
For the performances of Elektra at the 2010 Baden-Baden festival the Powers that Be chose to revive Herbert Wernicke’s 1997 Munich production with Bettina Göschl directing. The production concept seems to have been inspired by classical Greek drama. Sets and costumes are very simple, even austere, and the singers often address the audience directly. On stage this probably worked quite well as the overall effects are visually striking and the relative lack of interaction between the characters is perhaps appropriate for a work that is so much about alienation.
Christoph Loy, in his 2011 Salzburg production of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, avoids the problem of how to represent the Spirit World by essentially eliminating it. Instead we get a Konzept based on Böhm’s first recording of the work in Vienna’s Sofiensalle in 1955. Vienna is still recovering from the war and the hall is unheated and the singers unpaid. The Empress is rising star Leonie Rysanek and the Nurse is long time favourite Elisabeth Höngen. They represent the generations separated by the war. The Emperor is an American singing in Europe for the first time and, crucially, Barak and his wife are a real life married couple. Initially we see a lot of recording studio action as singers are moved about by actors in this experiment in early stereo. Then the action, particularly the Barak/Wife interaction slips more and more off stage. For the finale, we get a sort of celebratory concert in evening dress. It’s not a bad concept and this cast handles it very well but I fancy it’s a tough introduction to this far from straightforward opera and it does lose the magic of the Spirit World. (In other words I’m glad I saw the Met production before this one.)