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SALZBURG DIARY : Two Operatic Faces of Mozart

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart remains the symbol of all that is pure and lofty, noble and holy in festive Salzburg.

He also remains a commercial commodity beyond compare. Call him Amadeus, if you must.

His sweetly peruked image is emblazoned on T-shirts, umbrellas, postcards and key chains. His name adorns a local movie theater that happens this week to be hosting an icon of nearly comparable appeal: Batman. The musical genius’ reputation is linked, moreover, to an immortal, ubiquitous confection that harmonizes marzipan with chocolate and nougat.

There is, of course, a Mozart Square in Salzburg, complete with commemorative statue. Significantly, perhaps, there also is a Papageno Square. Salzburg has something for everyone.

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Contrary to popular speculation, Gerard Mortier, the iconoclastic new artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, does not intend to banish Mozart to Munich or Bregenz. But he is trying to give the composer a brave new look in his hometown.

Mortier has made it clear that he has little sympathy for the massive, lavish, quasi-realistic opera productions that were favored by the regime of the late Herbert von Karajan. Tradition is out. Modern invention is in.

Two current offerings illustrate the clashing aesthetic ideologies all too clearly. At Karajan’s Grosses Festspielhaus, a glamorous 2,170-seat theater with a stage much too broad for Mozartean intimacy, audiences are cheering Michael Hampe’s safe, ultra-conventional staging of “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Next door at the Kleines Festspielhaus (capacity 1,383 including standing room), audiences are booing a daringly provocative version of “La Clemenza di Tito” by Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann.

The popular “Figaro” production, first seen here at the Easter Festival of 1991, probably represents the last conceptual gasp of the Karajan era. The unpopular “Tito,” which enlists a dangerous directorial duo that had been favored by Mortier when he ran the opera house in Brussels, probably points to the priorities of Salzburg’s future--assuming that the embattled artistic director manages, or chooses, to survive the five years that remain in his contract.

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The current “Figaro” is neat, clean and pretty. It offends only those who think even Mozart can benefit from some fresh interpretive ideas.

The “Tito” is disturbing, a probing attempt to focus the political, social and psychosexual complexities that mark both the libretto and score. It offends only those who like to snooze through costumed concerts.

The biggest problem in the Salzburg “Figaro,” for one possibly jaded observer, involves its lack of identity. Mozart’s lovely melodies and intricate ensembles as aligned with Da Ponte’s witty text could leave virtually the same impression in any number of major opera houses from Vienna to London to Paris to Los Angeles.

The performance on Friday was routine--high-quality routine, but routine nevertheless. Hampe defined the action and moved the traffic within a ridiculously reduced playing area deftly (he utilized only half the Festspielhaus stage), and without comic excess. John Gunter’s airy sets reinforced the essential theatrical realism, a few oddly missing walls notwithstanding.

Bernard Haitink conducted a decent cast and an understandably tired Vienna Philharmonic with a welcome stress on lightness, fluidity and transparency. Although he cared little for such authentic niceties as linear embellishments and cadenzas, he did restore the top line of the second-act terzetto to the Countess, and he did reinstate Basilio’s (if not Marcellina’s) bravura aria in the last act. Haitink succumbed--most effectively--to romantic expansion only in the yearning of Susanna’s “Deh vieni non tardar” and in the sudden pathos of Almaviva’s “Contessa, perdono.”

Ferruccio Furnaletto sang the title role in the darkly robust Pinza-Siepi manner, without emulating their Latin finesse. Sylvia McNair complemented him as a small-scale but ultimately radiant Susanna.

Felicity Lott, a late replacement for Lucia Popp, brought uncommon delicacy to the Countess’ arching lines, and Thomas Allen, though not in top vocal form, repeated his elegantly befuddled Count. One Monica Bacelli (a mezzo-soprano about whom even the normally informative press department knew nothing) introduced herself as a reasonably pleasant mini-Cherubino.

The supporting roles were modestly cast. The exception was Robert Tear, the celebrated British tenor who steadfastly refused to be funny but made a star turn of Basilio’s unaccustomed moment in the moonlight.

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It was all very nice. It was all rather boring.

“La Clemenza di Tito” wasn’t boring. The wild yet stark staging concept so alienated Riccardo Muti, the intended conductor, that he recklessly abandoned the project nine days before the opening. (One wonders why it took him that long to recognize the potential conflict.) Luckily, Mortier persuaded Gustav Kuhn to dash into the breach, which he did with enlightened bravado.

Most textbooks claim that Mozart’s great opera seria is a portrait of benevolent despotism amid the corruption of power in the historical Rome of 79 A.D. The Herrmanns (whose imaginative Brussels production of “La Finta Giardiniera” has been seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) pay little attention to the specifics of time and place. They are more interested in defining eternal human conflicts by means of symbolic abstraction.

They play the action in a huge, white box--a bit sterile, perhaps, for the ideal projection of Mozartean ardor--and they dress the cast in a jolting combination of period and modern costumes, mostly black and white. The plot is universal, they insist, and thus the tone can be surreal.

The production doesn’t always work. But it is fascinating even when it doesn’t, and when it does, it makes “Tito” a strikingly vital piece of contemporary musical theater. There is no room here for empty ritual, or for the empty indulgence of vocal exhibitionism.

The ensemble, mostly virtuosic, is dominated by Ben Heppner, marvelously stentorian (sometimes too much so) as the stolid titular emperor; Ann Murray, extraordinarily sympathetic and technically secure as young Sesto; and Daniela Dessi, poignantly hysterical as a fiercely ambitious Vitellia who models strapless evening gowns in varying shades of pink. While the conductor and singers received deserved ovations after a recent performance, the couple who shared director-designer duties were treated to a fortississimo chorus of catcalls.

They took the insult in stoic stride.


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