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Review: Salzburg Festival Opens With Operatic Apocalypses

SALZBURG, Austria — The public has spoken.

Any fears the Salzburg Festival had over whether the conductor Teodor Currentzis’s presence there would attract boos or disruptive protests were dispelled on Tuesday. Since the invasion of Ukraine began, he has attracted controversy over his and his ensemble MusicAeterna’s Russian state support, as well as their silence on the war and ties to associates of that country’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. But at the opening of a new double bill led by Currentzis and featuring members of the MusicAeterna choir, the audience responded only with applause.

The festival itself was under scrutiny for standing by Currentzis. Unlike, say, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which has taken a hard line on Russian artists with links to Putin, such as Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko, Salzburg has kept a close eye on the European Union’s sanctions list and said in a statement, “We see no foundation for artistic or economic collaboration with institutions or individuals who identify with this war, its instigators or their goals.”

Do Currentzis and MusicAeterna fall into that category? Based in St. Petersburg, they are primarily sponsored by VTB Bank, a Russian state institution that was sanctioned this year, and some prominent Russian officials sit on the board of the ensemble’s foundation. As a collective, it doesn’t have any public stance on the war, though organizations and critics have mostly demanded one from the safety of their Western perches.

At the very least, Currentzis seems to have fallen into careerist behavior. Since 2004, he has been building MusicAeterna toward the international standing it enjoys, and as the ensemble went freelance in recent years, it found Russian funding that has since been revealed as untenable. To survive in the West without scandal, it needs a new home, and new sponsors. And the longer this war goes on, the more silence will become as impossible as the group’s current position.

In an interview on Monday, Markus Hinterhäuser, the Salzburg Festival’s artistic director, said that if people are looking for a statement from Currentzis, “the signs are there.” His work has subtly condemned Russian state beliefs, as well as the country’s troubled 20th-century history; and in 2017 he was outspoken about the arrest of the director Kirill Serebrennikov, which was widely seen as punishment for his theater that was critical of life under Putin.

The examples could go on in either direction. But outwardly, Currentzis remains a mystery. If his previous projects have offered signs of his beliefs, there were few if any political revelations in the double bill on Tuesday. All that was left to judge was the art-making itself.

And that was something of a sequel to Currentzis’s collaboration with Castellucci last year: a staging of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” here that stretched the score an hour beyond its typical running time, with recitative delivered at the speed of snow melting in the nearby Alps. I remember spending four hours inside the Grosses Festspielhaus trying to understand why an interpretation like this was necessary; I still don’t have an answer.

Both men are strong-willed, provocative auteurs. Separately, they have been capable of awe-inspiring work; together, they seem to mutually enable an exasperating self-indulgence. Their Bartok and Orff, then, made for an uneven night, as double bills can be — a “Bluebeard” of misguided tempos and dynamics but committed performances and a “Comoedia,” for all the work’s flaws, more persuasively executed than on Herbert von Karajan’s original recording, in a staging characteristically monumental yet somewhat pompous.

Once again, the evening was longer than it needed to be. Each score contains about an hour of music; with an intermission, the double bill ran a little over three and a half hours, in part because of tempo choices, but mostly because the scenes in the Orff were padded with new, atmospheric transitional passages written by Currentzis. This prolonged a piece that few find enjoyable to begin with, and that Castellucci didn’t have much to say about.

His biggest interpretive statement was in bridging the two works, which wouldn’t appear to share much beyond different scales of apocalyptic events. In “Bluebeard,” it’s intimate — the slow-burning drama of a wife unveiling her new husband’s pained world, to the destruction of them both. And in the “Comeodia,” which premiered at Salzburg in 1973, it’s cosmic, with an impersonal, aggressively Christian vision for the end of time.

Castellucci has the spoken prologue of “Bluebeard,” a cameo role called the Bard, given with a declamatory grandeur that later matches the musicalized speech of the “Comoedia.” (The Bard is also played by Christian Reiner, who returns at the end of the Orff as Lucifer.) And he threads the action of the first opera with the second: Bluebeard and his wife Judith, Castellucci suggests, are here an established couple in grief over the loss of their child, and in a dreamy, dark void of just water and fire. Peace comes for them at the end of the “Comoedia,” where they return in an act of redemption that renders Judith as a sort of Eve bringing about universal salvation.

Elsewhere, visual motifs — masks, costumes and even stains — recur throughout both works, which are otherwise aesthetically distinct. The trouble is that these Easter eggs, along with the more explicit gestures, and stylized movement choreographed by Cindy Van Acker, exist more to justify the double bill than elevate the meaning, and, crucially, the emotional impact of either work. Both the Bartok and the Orff come out feeling less operatic for it.

Not that emotion was absent from the performance. As Judith, the soprano Ausrine Stundyte made a bizarre treatment of the character — constantly on the verge of self-immolation — at least compelling, with a fierce humanity largely absent in the staging. (Her counterpart, the bass Mika Kares, was a resonant but wooden Bluebeard, a passive presence where he should have outdone her unraveling.) The Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra played with organic unpredictability yet skilled precision, and brought animalistic intensity to the Orff.

Where they took a wrong step, they were following Currentzis’s baton, which was less reliable than when he and the orchestra performed a moving, sweeping account of Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” Symphony during the festival’s Ouverture Spirituelle last week. His reading of “Bluebeard,” an opera of accumulative power, was one of luxuriant tempos and high emotional temperature with nowhere to go but occasional crests that drowned out the singers, despite the hair-raising power of Stundyte’s voice.

Currentzis’s take on the Orff, though — realized by the orchestra with a game combination of the MusicAeterna choir, the Bachchor Salzburg and the Salzburger Festspiele und Theater Kinderchor — was a triumph that reveled in the primitive, ritualistic nature of the work and rose to rattling clashes that you could feel deep within your ears.

In an evening of looking for signs in Currentzis’s work, it was difficult to miss that his podium sat empty during the final, prerecorded moments of the “Comoedia” score. So he was nowhere to be seen as a single sentence spread over supertitle screens above the stage: Pater, peccavi. Father, I have sinned.

Bluebeard’s Castle and De Temporum Fine Comoedia

Through Aug. 20 at the Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, Austria; salzburgerfestspiele.at.

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