One of Alexander Pereira’s primary aims as the new artistic director of the Salzburg Festival is to create an opera programme that will consist entirely of new productions, with revivals considered only in exceptional cases. In doing so, Pereira hopes to increase Salzburg’s allure still further for the world’s top performers – but does a relentless quest for novelty equate to a continued commitment to quality?
The opening production of the 2012 summer festival (and of Pereira’s tenure) asserts itself as a first in more ways than one. It was inevitable that Mozart, the city’s great hero, would provide the material; but this Die Zauberflöte unites Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the period ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien for the first performance of the opera on historic instruments at the Salzburg Festival.
Harnoncourt is a venerable Mozartian with a wealth of experience, but until recently he has been reluctant to tackle the composer’s late works with Concentus. It is fortunate that he relented because the result is a revelation.
Concentus produces a surprisingly powerful sound for an early orchestra – and it needs to in the cavernous Felsenreitschule – but its lighter touch reveals subtleties in the score, especially in the woodwind section, that are stifled by modern orchestras. Harnoncourt conducts with precision and finesse, and his unconventional approach to tempi – which he defends at length in the accompanying programme notes – contributes to this sense of freshness and vitality.
With the hype focused on the orchestra pit, Jens-Daniel Herzog’s new staging cannot help but play second fiddle. The setting is postwar but deliberately vague: Papageno drives a delicatessen van selling poultry to 1950s housewives; Sarastro and his followers are science boffins in white lab coats; and Tamino and Pamina fill in the gaps. It’s a safe interpretation, free from editorial comment, and it will cause no offence.
Mathis Neidhardt’s set designs replicate the stone arcading at the Felsenreitschule (as if to stress, once again, that this production is made to measure) in a complex arrangement of interlocking rooms.
Bernard Richter, possessed of a beautifully pure and clear tenor voice, sings a fine Tamino while Julia Kleiter’s Pamina is convincing, if a little lacklustre. As the Queen of the Night, Mandy Fredrich fires off her staccato volleys with style, and Markus Werba brings some welcome humour to Papageno.
It would be wrong to read too much into this musically insightful but rather conservative production as a forecast of Pereira’s future at Salzburg – but it does seem to tally with the reputation that precedes him.