Take a world-famous stage director, an all-star cast, a first-rate orchestra and a great conductor, put them to work on one of music history’s finest operas, and success is guaranteed, right?
Wrong. The Salzburg Festival’s new Don Carlo staging is an object lesson in sumptuous emptiness. Throwing everything that money can buy at a production is no guarantee of excellence. Peter Stein, who has been sinking ever further into his own conservatism in recent years, has outdone himself in cringe-inducing dullness with this production. So diligently does he strive for authenticity that you can almost smell the mothballs; it is a wonder the whole thing does not crumble at the touch.
The costumes are historical, the poses are borrowed from period stage sketches, the detail is extravagant. Ferdinand Wögerbauer’s sets look alarmingly like something dug from the bottom of a cornflakes packet, and the little things that go wrong are almost legion enough to supply the missing entertainment value: Posa falls before the gunshot is fired, and his bags of stage blood burst too late; the heretics are tied to stakes and left to cough in clouds of dry ice while cheap video flames lick at the wall behind them; supernumeraries fumble with lances.
Salzburg Festival director Alexander Pereira has managed to replace Herbert Wernicke’s 1998 Salzburg production of the same piece with something that would not even have looked modern in 1958, when the opera first came to the Festival. What is the point?
Yes, the cast is impressive. Those who made the pilgrimage to see Jonas Kaufmann in the title role will not have been disappointed. He is beautiful, he is heroic, he soars through his phrases with every appearance of ease. At the age of 68, Matti Salminen is a high-risk choice for the role of Filippo II; his artistry is impressive, his third-act lament is intensely moving, but his greatest days are unquestionably behind him. Thomas Hampson, though still the Posa of choice for any house that can afford him, is only a decade younger than Salminen, a fact that is beginning to tell. Ekaterina Semenchuk flounders on Eboli’s Veil Song coloratura, and never entirely recovers. The day’s vocal laurels fall to Anja Harteros, whose Elisabetta is arresting already in the generally omitted opening scene of the Fontainebleau act, and grows steadily in depth and stature as the evening wears on.
On the day of the Salzburg premiere, the Vienna Philharmonic went to press threatening to leave the Festival for the greener pastures of China or South Africa if not granted more say in artistic decision-making, and perhaps more money. It is difficult to imagine the august ensemble earning in the course of a year in South Africa what it earns in a week in Salzburg, and it can hardly be supposed that the threats are anything but empty. Still, their playing has been bad enough this summer to make the prospect seem interesting. Until this Don Carlo. Antonio Pappano finally draws music-making from the orchestra that is worthy of its reputation, and provides so much passion and excitement over the five hours of this flawed evening that it almost makes up for everything else.
Almost, but not quite. This Don Carlo is conclusive proof of the artistic bankruptcy of Pereira’s brief leadership. When he moves on to Milan in 2015, things can only get better in Salzburg.