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At the Salzburg Festival, Riches, Retreads and Notes of Caution

SALZBURG, Austria — The premiere of a new production of Janacek’s opera “Kat’a Kabanova” had just ended at the Salzburg Festival here last week. When the lights went up, Kristina Hammer, the festival’s new president, was wiping tears off her cheeks.

It was hard to blame her for crying. “Kat’a” is a breathless tragedy about a small-town woman trapped in a loveless marriage and driven to suicide after having a brief affair. Janacek’s music stamps out her ethereal fantasies with the brutal fist of reality.

Barrie Kosky’s staging was the highlight of a week at Salzburg, classical music’s pre-eminent annual event, which runs through Aug. 31. Kosky has pared down this pared-down work even further, to its core of quivering human beings.

The only set is rows of uncannily realistic models of people, standing, wearing street clothes, and facing away from us — and away from Kat’a and her pain. (I admit: I was fooled into thinking these were many dozens of very still extras.) Behind them loom the stone walls of the Felsenreitschule theater, whose vast stage has rarely seemed bigger or lonelier than when the soprano Corinne Winters races across it, running with nowhere to go.

Jittery and balletic, ecstatic and anxious, Winters has a child’s volatile presence, and her live-wire voice conveys Kat’a’s wonder and vulnerability. She is the production’s center, but the entire cast is powerful; Winters’s interactions with Jarmila Balazova’s headstrong Varvara make years of friendship between the characters easy to believe. The conductor Jakub Hrusa confidently paces the work as a bitter, intermission-less single shot, even if the Vienna Philharmonic — the festival’s longtime house band — sounded a bit thin and uncertain in what should be heated unanimity.

There is a kind of familial resemblance between Kat’a and Suor Angelica, the agonized young nun at the center of one of Puccini’s three one-acts in “Il Trittico,” directed here by Christof Loy, with the Philharmonic conducted with sensual lightness by Franz Welser-Möst. Like Winters, the soprano Asmik Grigorian, who stars in all three acts, is an intense actress with a voice of shivery directness. (This is the vocal taste at the moment in Salzburg; the days in which Anna Netrebko’s plush tone ruled here seem over.)

Spare yet detailed, unified by an airy buff-color space with shifting walls, Loy’s staging reorders the triptych, beginning rather than ending with the comic “Gianni Schicchi,” which now precedes the grim adultery tale “Il Tabarro,” with Roman Burdenko as a firm Michele.

“Suor Angelica,” the closer, is the reason to see this “Trittico”; it’s the only one of the three roles in which Grigorian’s lack of tonal warmth plays fully to her advantage. Her face-off against the veteran soprano Karita Mattila — not an alto, as the role of Angelica’s aunt really requires, but properly imperious — is a blazing confrontation of dueling pains. And Grigorian’s final scene, which milks the unexpected poignancy of her simply changing in front of us from her habit into a sleek black cocktail dress and letting down her hair, is just as wrenching.

A woman is also on the verge of a breakdown, but far more amusingly, in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” Now that the star mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli runs the springtime Whitsun Festival here, every summer includes a production vehicle for her. But there were snickers when it was announced that Bartoli, at 56, planned to play Rosina, usually sung at the start of careers. (Bartoli made her professional stage debut in the role, 35 years ago.)

But her voice — and her rapid-fire coloratura — are remarkably well preserved, and her enthusiasm is irresistible. Directed by Rolando Villazón, the show is a love letter to the movies, like “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” which has characters walking on and off screen. Here it’s the silent era that comes to life, with Bartoli as a diva whose experience is winked at in a rundown of her pictures, from Joan of Arc to pirates, projected during the overture. But the concept is not held to so stringently that it detracts from the adorably madcap fun.

The ensemble Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco plays with silky spirit for Gianluca Capuano, who leads a cast as expertly easygoing as Bartoli — including Alessandro Corbelli, Nicola Alaimo and, as a Nosferatu-esque Basilio, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. And the existence of a rarely performed mezzo version of the climactic aria “Cessa di più resistere” lets Bartoli trade off verses with the agile young tenor Edgardo Rocha.

The other opera in the relatively intimate Haus für Mozart this summer also takes a hint from the movies: Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” framed by the director Lydia Steier like “The Princess Bride,” with a grandfather telling the story to a young child — here, three boys. As when this staging was new, in 2018, this is a clever way of super-compressing the work’s extensive spoken dialogue.

Four years ago, the production sprawled in the festival’s largest theater; now it’s been smushed into its smallest. Steier has wisely jettisoned a whole strand of steampunk circus imagery and concentrated more on the plot as a parable of the start of World War I, with “Little Nemo” touches. It’s subtle work as the boys gradually become participants in the action, not merely observers. The Philharmonic played under Joana Mallwitz with an ideal mixture of crispness and roundedness.

Not every Salzburg Festival includes a revival of a past show; this year there are two. In 2017, the Iranian-born photographer and video artist Shirin Neshat’s staging of Verdi’s “Aida” was that summer’s most eagerly awaited offering, a rare full production conducted by the Verdian giant Riccardo Muti, and Netrebko’s debut in the title role.

Rather in the background was Neshat, her first time doing opera — and a pristine, bland effort. Now, with less starry collaborators, her work has come to the fore, still decorous but deeper. To poetic effect, some of her blurry, languid early videos of slow-moving crowds on Middle Eastern streets and coasts have been added; her photographs also now play a part, and some dancers are covered in Arabic calligraphy, a trademark of her art.

There are some good ideas, like the ominous, violent renderings of the ballet in Amneris’s chamber and the Triumphal Scene. Also some bad ones: Amonasro, Aida’s father, here seems to be a specter, already dead, at the start of Act III, which makes the plot incomprehensible. Alain Altinoglu’s conducting of the Philharmonic is sensibly paced but, compared to the exquisite colors and textures Muti elicited, otherwise ordinary. (The nocturnal beginning of the Nile Scene is one of many passages less evocative this year than in 2017.)

Elena Stikhina’s soft-grained Aida and Ève-Maud Hubeaux’s dignified Amneris were impressive, but Piotr Beczala, a shining Radamès, was the only really glamorous singer. And glamour is, like it or not, part and parcel of the ideal Salzburg experience: an extravagance of imagination and achievement that surpasses what you can get at the Met or the Vienna State Opera.

There was grumbling among Salzburg watchers about the two revivals and the not-quite-new “Barber,” which premiered in June. An almost $70 million budget for just three truly new stagings?

This was clearly a note of caution as the pandemic wears on. “I’m convinced it is the right thing artistically, and from the economic side,” Markus Hinterhäuser, the festival’s artistic director, said when the season was announced last year.

But the economic part seems truer than the artistic. “Flute” and “Aida” were improved — the Mozart was tighter, the Verdi more nuanced. The question is whether opera’s most famous and rich summer festival needed repeats of two repertory standards — works that can be seen all over the world during the regular season — in performances that, while solid, weren’t much more distinguished than what you’d get in any major house.

It is a telling bit of weakness as Salzburg faces renewed competition, especially from the growing Aix-en-Provence Festival in France — and even from the likes of Santa Fe Opera, which this year presented “Tristan und Isolde,” its first Wagner in decades, and a world premiere (“M. Butterfly”). For all its resources, Salzburg has of late abandoned major commissions in favor of bringing back underappreciated modern works.

Aix and Salzburg went head-to-head this summer, both offering productions by the in-demand auteur Romeo Castellucci. It was a showdown that Salzburg soundly lost. Aix got a huge, haunting staging of Mahler’s Second Symphony as the exhumation of a mass grave. Here in Austria, though, as Joshua Barone wrote in The Times, Castellucci’s double bill of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and Orff’s “De Temporum Fine Comoedia” was a grim, murky slog, played sludgily by the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra under Teodor Currentzis.

But even an expanding Aix lacks the scope of Salzburg’s concert schedule, which begins with a long Ouverture Spirituelle mini-festival and offers an enviable, overlapping array of often superb orchestral programs and recitals.

This year the concerts didn’t all satisfy. The pianist Grigory Sokolov’s pillowy touch was alluring in Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations and Brahms’s Op. 117 pieces, but smoothed Schumann’s “Kreisleriana” into slumber. The tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s voice rarely came alive in a recital whose halves were dully drawn from his two most recent albums.

But it was touching to see the superstar pianist Lang Lang show his respect for Daniel Barenboim by joining that conductor and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain,” not at all a virtuoso showpiece. And while the Vienna Philharmonic under Andris Nelsons made a muddle of Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Yefim Bronfman, the orchestra sounded sumptuously ripe in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

More memorable was a less exalted, less widely publicized concert: one of the festival’s 11 a.m. weekend Mozart Matinees featuring the Mozarteum Orchestra. These mornings often have the most joyful, vibrant playing of the festival, and this week’s program was no exception, led with verve by Adam Fischer.

The Mozart Matinees are well attended and happily received. But they still feel like a Salzburg secret.

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