Austrian Arts Salzburg Festival Searches in Vain for Meaning of Life

The world’s biggest festival of theater and music fails to address some of the biggest political topics of the day.
Mexico in Salzburg – but what about the people outside?

Salzburg, a musical, beautiful city in the Austrian Alps, is holding its world famous festival, seemingly immune to the refugee crisis just outside its gates.

As festival goers walk up to the Felsenreitschule, one of the venues of what is one of the world’s most important festivals of classical music and theater, they pass people clad in rags, wordlessly holding up paper cups to passersby, asking for money.

Salzburg does not ban begging; if people don’t approach anyone verbally or physically, no action is taken against them.

The art lovers crowding to watch Wolfgang Rihm’s “Conquest of Mexico” or Beethoven’s “Fidelio” pass by some important questions on the way to the festival’s venues. What if Salzburg’s streets were packed with more people from Syria and Iraq, housed in tents and gyms?

It leaves the viewer with a sense of betrayal that the rare chance to put one's finger in a gaping, societal wound has been lost.

“The battle which I want to lead, originates from the war that is led against me” say the lyrics in Wolfgang Rihm's libretto, written by Antonin Artaud, which deals with the meeting between Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez and the Aztec emperor Montezuma.

Now, throughout Europe, people are searching for answers to how to deal with the growing numbers of people seeking shelter on their continent.

Some, like Austria's Freedom Party (FPÖ), say “look away;” those kneeling on the street-side aren’t real asylum seekers but well organized bands of Roma people who use the proceeds of their begging to build palaces.

This seems pretty doubtful. But all that’s really clear is that there’s no sign of a reasonable, sustainable solution.

What should visitors to the festival do? Sell off their tickets and stuff the money – often several hundred euros per ticket – into the beggars’ paper cups?

Or should arts patrons give the tickets away with the conviction that the art and music in the festival not only reflects the reality outside, but might improve it, and provide an example of humanity, hope and comfort as a good institution?

In the end, it’s not surprising the audience does neither of these things. It carries on as before and so does culture.

Maybe the Berlin theater director Christoph Schlingensief was the last person who might have managed to make sparks fly from such a controversial confrontation between art and life without it seeming silly, naïve or embarrassing.

Salzburg’s festival, under interim artistic director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, hasn’t felt compelled to react.

A look at the pieces and the way they are played raises some difficult questions.

The second opera premier of the summer, Mozart's “The Marriage of Figaro,” is a lively, precisely wrought evening with each laugh in place and every punch line a bang. There are many scenic, corny jokes; it’s a funny, conversational and energetic performance – separated from the audience by four walls that cleanly divide their own living environment from the art of Mozart.

But the more you watch hats being swopped and characters exposed, the more you gain a sense that the standard of entertainment is a little lower than usual.

Being below-standard for Mozart may not be surprising – but it’s also below the standard of recent festivals too.

Some of the singing is somewhat ordinary: Luca Pisaroni lacks any authority as a count, while Anett Fritsch is elegant but lackluster as the pale countess and Adam Plachetka’s Figaro is somewhat sluggish. Only Margarita Gritskova as Cherubino makes viewers sit up and take notice -- a mezzosoprano whose voice has the tremor of her own youth. Beautifully and perhaps characteristically, Mr. Bechtholf transfers the finale -- the reconciliation of the diverse pairs -- almost seamlessly into applause. The border between performance and not-performance, this last image suggests, is much narrower than we think. Or should everything in life be a performance and not taken seriously?


Fidelio in Salzburg.


To find this border and to cross it with relish – that’s always been the domain of Peter Konwitschny, who directed the “Conquest of Mexico” for his Salzburg debut.

His men’s choir crawls onto the stage like lemurs; masculine power transformed into an invasion.

The women, meanwhile, strike out in the other direction; the dramatic soprano and companions singing the Aztec Montezuma chant, “You only see gold, only gold” directed as much towards the festival audience as those on stage who are amusing themselves with a couple of gold-dusted, naked beauties.

On the surface, the piece is about the bloody conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards and the fall of the Aztec empire.

But this version, taking the political and turning it into the radically personal, narrating the enslavement and the extinction of the Aztecs as the war of the sexes, leaves the viewer with a sense of betrayal that the rare chance to put one's finger in a gaping, societal wound has been lost.

Perhaps director Mr. Konwitschny is simply too honest. The chic apartment, which the stage designer Johannes Leiacker floats above a car dump, is a symbol for our greedy search for the self and our inability to think beyond ourselves. That is why Montezuma and Cortez decay -- Angela Denoke and Bo Skovhus are both outstanding -- and disappear while he who cannot live without killing cuts his own arteries. What a message.

By contrast, at the end of Beethoven's Fidelio, Florestan also is dead, in any case in Claus Guth's version. This death of a character who was oppressed, politically persecuted and saved too late brings the Salzburg opera summer moments of terrifying truthfulness.

Jonas Kaufmann is Florestan and vocally, he approaches the part with some force as the hero who keeps his ears closed to the liberation cheers of the people, who is heavily traumatized and no longer can tolerate even the love of his wife Leonore alias Fidelio, movingly played by Adrianne Pieczonka.

Mightn’t this also be the alter ego of the artist and the star tenor, who can no longer bring together song and the world and the world and song?

There is hope, at the end, after all; Mr. Kaufmann staggers through to the finale. Together with Leonore, he storms to the front of the stage only to collapse there.

We watch and believe that art has understood the signs of the time. And is working on it.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]