An idea echoes round the rock-face of the Felsenreitschule, a cavernous auditorium that serves as Salzburg’s most versatile performance space: “One has to go deeply into one’s own childhood before one can go out of oneself.” The words contain a hint of Freudian psychoanalysis that seems appropriate in an Austrian context, while articulating a theme any intelligent audience can understand: the quest for personal identity. But the subject matter of Charlotte Salomon, a new opera commissioned from French composer Marc-André Dalbavie, is as much political as personal. It tells how a young woman of artistic promise surmounts her tragic family background, only to be exterminated in the Holocaust.
As the fragile pillars of the real-life Charlotte Salomon’s world started to crumble in 1939, her desire to “go deeply into oneself” drove this aspiring German-Jewish artist to create a series of 796 gouaches that tell an embellished version of her life story. She perished in Auschwitz four years later aged 26, but the paintings and her accompanying text survive. She gave this quasi-autobiographical oeuvre the title Life? Or Theatre? A Singespiel (sic). (Singspiel is a lowbrow German opera with exaggerated characterisations of good and evil.) Salomon’s work is preserved in Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum. Dalbavie (born 1961) was alerted to its existence by Moshe Leiser, who directed the 2010 premiere of his only previous opera, Gesualdo.
Charlotte Salomon is a useful advert for Salzburg’s creative conscience. The first of a series of festival commissions that will include a long-awaited first opera by György Kurtág and another from Thomas Adès, it demonstrates that the city of Mozart is more than just a golden goose of cultural commercialism. It has always swung wildly between conservatism and creativity, a dichotomy that eventually drove Mozart to leave. Today that tension confronts you at every corner.
On one side you have hordes of tourists clogging the “old town” in the hope of snatching a whiff of history from the arcades and churches of a world-renowned heritage site. On the other you have a civic establishment keen to promote Salzburg’s identity as an international mecca of high culture, new and old.
The two feed each other. Without tourists the city’s coffers would stop filling. Without elaborate shows such as Charlotte Salomon, Der Rosenkavalier and Don Giovanni, Salzburg would lose its international cachet.
Those at the top end of its summer market – the wealthy elite of central European business and society – are happy to pay. A stalls ticket to Der Rosenkavalier or Don Giovanni costs €420. Before a note has sounded, surtitles proclaim that “Nestlé, Audi, Siemens, Rolex and the Salzburg festival wish you a pleasant evening”. Sponsors and private donors now contribute more than the state.
Despite a healthy budget, this is not a vintage year. Festival director Alexander Pereira is being prematurely booted out because his high-handed impresario style does not accord with the team-based ethos of 21st-century arts management. The 2014 programme has fewer stars, and even a Salzburg favourite such as Der Rosenkavalier, mounted as a 150th anniversary tribute to festival co-founder Richard Strauss, has not sold out.
Those who decided against paying up for Rosenkavalier did not miss much. The best of it was the Vienna Philharmonic under the calmly efficient Franz Welser-Möst. With eyes wide shut you could hear the flurries of Straussian invention whirring, whirling, whistling and waltzing round the orchestra pit, making the score sound like a three-hour symphonic poem with voices rather than a “comedy in music”.
The dull, soporific staging was by 78-year-old Harry Kupfer, once the doyen of East German directors. He and his designers, Hans Schavernoch and Yan Tax, set the action in pre-1914 Vienna, dwarfing the cast beneath photomontages of civic architecture, before ending up outside a grubby taverna in a corner of the Prater. With everything strung across the vast Grosses Festspielhaus stage, the poorly costumed singers looked helpless. Krassimira Stoyanova’s Marschallin lacked charisma, Sophie Koch’s widely travelled Octavian has become merely efficient, and the comprimarios were weak. Only Günther Groissböck’s blue-blooded Ochs commanded attention.
Kupfer’s work at least had consistency – more than can be said of the new Don Giovanni, staged by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, the festival’s drama chief, in the Haus für Mozart. You might reasonably expect Salzburg to be in the vanguard of Mozart interpretation. Not on this evidence: expensively but anonymously set in the foyer of a boutique hotel (why?), with all sorts of supernumerary porters and chambermaids, the performance was a depressing example of polished routine. Under Christoph Eschenbach the Vienna Philharmonic played as if the period movement had never existed. A talented cast, led by Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s hunky Giovanni, Anett Fritsch’s spunky Elvira and Luca Pisaroni’s engagingly geeky Leporello, made the best of the circumstances.
In this context, Charlotte Salomon must count as a succès d’estime – thanks largely to a clairvoyant staging by Luc Bondy and the spell cast by Marianne Crebassa, a dazzling 27-year-old with doe-eyed looks, the seductive innocence of Debussy’s Mélisande and a luscious voice that seems destined for Massenet’s Charlotte (Werther).
The piece itself, lasting two-and-a-quarter hours without interval, is hugely problematic, partly because it had a complex, rush-to-the-finish gestation involving several librettists. The dramaturgy is deeply flawed: Dalbavie has stuck slavishly to the story outlined by Salomon’s paintings, reproductions of which decorate Johannes Schütz’s attractively simple set.
The mono-paced result features twin actors representing Charlotte. A narrator (Johanna Wokalek, excellent) speaks in Charlotte’s native German and shadows her alter ego, a French-language mezzo (Crebassa) who plays out the heroine’s rambling life story – from love-starved childhood in Berlin to artistic awakening in Rome, romantic awakening in southern France and political awakening at the onset of war. Deportation to Auschwitz is a mere footnote in the opera’s oddly distended Epilogue.
All this is draped in a collage of musical styles – part quotation, part Dalbavie’s subtle neo-Impressionism – that seems under-characterised, albeit deftly executed by cast and orchestra under the composer’s baton. With hefty cuts and reshaping, some of this material could have been moulded into an opera-with-legs. As it stands, Charlotte Salomon is little more than the musicking of a teenage diary, with the Holocaust acting as a makeweight.