A festival easily turns into a fixation, and for proof, look no further than the Salzburg Festival's artistic director Gérard Mortier, who at times seems to be operating under the impression that what has not been done at Salzburg has not been done at all. In his first season, in 1992, he and his staff could be heard congratulating themselves that Janácek's From the House of the Dead had "at last" come to the Salzburg Festival. Never mind that Mortier himself had recently been responsible for a different, superb production at the Monnaie in Brussels; never mind that the Janácek is otherwise neither unrecognized nor unknown. Last summer, Mortier was taking credit for showing that "Stravinsky's works are great classics, coequal to those of the nineteenth century." If this is news in Salzburg, it is no news elsewhere.
Mortier's tenure as director began with equal measures of fanfare and alarm. On the eve of his fourth season, he remains probably the most scrutinized figure in European musical life, and precious little of the scrutiny inclines to the celebratory. Hopeful prophecies of his impending dismissal are no longer heard, however, nor his own wistful fantasies of imminent departure. He has made his peace with the Vienna Philharmonic, mended fences with Riccardo Muti. In music as in statecraft, politics is the art of the possible: Mortier has had to learn to accept compromise.
Thus Der Rosenkavalier this summer -- "not a work," Mortier freely admits, "that I feel the necessity to do in one of the six years of my Salzburg contract." In view of his frankness on this point, one may take it at face value when he represents La Traviata as the nineteenth-century counterweight to Lulu, and both as principal texts for the festival's systematic study of Woman as Commodity. While on the subject, he mentions Balzac's Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes. (He who seeks the Big Idea must not quail at cliché.)
The unexamined life, Socrates once said, is not worth living, and Mortier is not one to lie down to sleep each night without asking himself what he is up to. He weighs the tough questions. What is a festival for? What is his festival for? How, with civil wars exploding a figurative stone's throw from the Festspielhaus, does one justify the annual campaign for High Art? Mortier has answered that abolishing festivals would stop no wars. And from this potentially glib premise he draws the austere conclusion that the work of the festival must be very serious.
After three seasons, rich evidence has accumulated by which to judge the terms of his seriousness. What then is the Mortier style? Self-assertive. Self-conscious. At its best, self-aware. At its worst, merely pleased with itself.
For evidence, one may look where one chooses. The concert programing is broad and exciting; more important, it is also deep and substantial. The drama component came blazing to life in 1992 with an awesome Julius Caesar but then quickly dwindled, peaked and pined to cynicism and going through the motions. But direct supervision of the music component falls to Hans Landesmann; of drama, to Peter Stein. So it is in opera that we must look for Mortier's personal fingerprint.
Consider last year's Don Giovanni, staged by Patrice Chéreau. The world was expecting a landmark interpretation to set beside Chéreau's centennial Ring for Bayreuth in 1976. It didn't happen. On the podium, Barenboim presided with a leaden hand -- conceivably inspired by Furtwängler, but wildly out of step with admired contemporary styles. On a dim stage boxed in by a constantly shifting inventory of architectural elements, Chéreau displayed at best two or three bright bits of business. The serenade found Ferruccio Furlanetto's Giovanni dancing a melancholy dance with an imaginary partner; the graveyard scene was hauntingly dominated by two marble heads, one immense, the other merely large. And everyone sat up in a hurry at the final banquet when the greater of those two heads came crashing straight through a wall. In its wake followed a shrouded Commendatore, trailing mist -- just like the dying Fafner who appeared behind the broken-down toy dragon in Act II of Chéreau's Siegfried.
Overall, however, no one was very impressed. In an interview before a live audience, Mortier confronted the problem of looking for definitive stagings. Mozart, the genius loci, must be reexamined continually, he said, and by artists who take contrasting approaches. At the same time, he warned his listeners against the scourge of cultural consumerism, citing Bayreuth, where they are forever having to forge new Ring cycles. "It is impossible to reinterpret the great works every five years," he said. "The world does not change that fast."
Alone of last summer's opera productions, Chéreau's returns this year, when, if Mortier is right, its "epochal" summing up of postmodern techniques (eclecticism, quotation, learned allusion) may meet with a warmer reception. "The last word has not been said about this Don Giovanni," he noted, reminding listeners of the history of the Chéreau Ring, hooted at on opening night, later enshrined as a classic. But is the case really parallel? Scandals can turn into triumphs, yes, but the ho-hum stays ho-hum forever. Chéreau's own glum assessment of the experiment suggests a different future. Don Giovanni turns out to have been his farewell to opera, he has said, because he realizes he has been repeating himself.
Love them or hate them, there is always a lot to say about Mortier's productions, and much of it gets said before the rise of the opening-night curtain. Like the Théâtre de la Monnaie during Mortier's years as general director (1981 to 1991), the Salzburg Festival today generates a ton of literature -- academically ambitious, graphically luxurious program books that do not so much document and introduce a production as place it within an elaborate history of ideas.
Whatever the value of the individual volume, the growing library reflects Mortier's dedication to discourse, to commentary, to background -- to the study that precedes a production as well as to the talk it generates. He sets great store by bringing together for exchanges of ideas such favored artists as Peter Sellars, Peter Stein, Chéreau, Robert Wilson and Luc Bondy, not to mention such keynote speakers as the Dalai Lama and George Steiner.
The festival visitor not privy to the illuminati's private dialogue may well ask, what's in it for me? The answer is the same as it ought to be for everyone: look at the stage.
Of the productions on view in Mortier's first and third Salzburg seasons (I missed the second), the one that towered above all the rest was Herbert Wernicke's staging of Boris Godunov, mounted in cooperation with the Easter Festival. The scene in Pimen's cell may best serve to illustrate Wernicke's method and its power. The cell -- first glimpsed in the depth of the stage, against a panoramic chart of portraits of Russian rulers from time immemorial to the present -- is a small square box, lit by one dangling light bulb, furnished with table and chair, otherwise bare but for a large clock, set to the actual hour. Pimen, bearded and dressed in monk's habit, works at his chronicle. Grigori, shabbily contemporary, lies in shadows on the floor.
The cell rolls forward as Pimen begins, set to turn over his labors to the young novice. The warrior of old stands aloof from struggles for power, embracing the life removed; the novice burns for the hurly-burly he knows only from stories. All the while, the hands of the silent clock are marking off the inexorable march of time. By scene's end, Grigori has decided to seek his destiny not in writing history but in entering history, and we see him do so -- simply by stepping out of Pimen's box onto the huge, empty platform that is the world.
Against this achievement, one must balance productions all but cabalistic in their subservience to private fetish. Last season, which was nominally devoted to Stravinsky, The Rake's Progress functioned as sheer pretext for the fantasies of the artist and occasional stage designer Jörg Immendorff, a high-rent R. Crumb who dishes up comic-book imagery with a relish of art-school refinement. He re-created Tom Rakewell literally in his own image (Jerry Hadley was made up and dressed like Immendorff's self-portraits); he even made Tom a painter, and outfitted him with an airplane, its wings splashed with color like a painter's palette. Gone mad, Tom climbed into this ingenious machine (a metaphor for the artistic imagination?) and flew off solo into the unknown.
"Stravinsky Becomes Immendorff," one apologist crowed. But in that case we would also have to accept the shaky premise that Tom equals Stravinsky. And why should we do that? Granted, it takes imagination to see oneself in another artist's creation, but it is the imagination of Narcissus, incapable of seeing beyond the cage of his own karma. Barbara Mundel and Veit Volkert's free-associative vaudevillean gloss on L'Histoire du Soldat proceeded on the reverse, equally suspect hypothesis that the Soldier equals Man as Russian Émigré, which is again to say Stravinsky. Wrong again, but at least Mundel and Volkert were looking through the right end of the telescope.
A double bill of Oedipus Rex and The Symphony of Psalms strove for something more radical and profound. Peter Sellars read the pieces as testimony of Stravinsky's rarely acknowledged religious faith and compassion for suffering humanity. To make his case, Sellars did not hesitate to rewrite and invent, supplanting Cocteau's Narrator from Oedipus with Antigone, transmuting the plotless Psalms into an ad hoc Oedipus at Colonnus. The evening had its moments. The sight of Jocasta (Marjana Lipovsek) cradling a kneeling Oedipus (Thomas Moser) during her entrance aria, his face in her lap, could not have been more tenderly Oedipal -- or more unsettling. The celebrated German actress Edith Clever, possessed of an incandescent, childlike openness that to me rings completely true, portrayed Antigone. The evening's dominant impression, however, came from a huge, hideously accoutred chorus, flailing away in gestural gibberish derived (we are told) from Sellars' study of native mime and drama traditions from around the globe. What Sellars had to say about Stravinsky's art and life in yet another gorgeously produced program book bespoke his profoundly imaginative grasp of the materials. In the theater, however, the messages were lost.
A frequent melancholy feature in Salzburg is the gulf between what one is told to see and what actually is there. One final example from 1994, a popular favorite, was Ombra Felice, consisting of some two dozen arias, scenes and ensembles, a few familiar from the concert hall, none from the opera house. Devised by the Mr.-and-Mrs. production team of Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann, this four-hour Mozart anthology revolved around three themes: love before the fall, love beyond the grave, love triangles. The knee-high artiste Mireille Mossé, in high-waisted shorts, with two little branches sprouting from her egg-bald head, presided as a sort of croaking E.T. on the planet Cupid, joining in the action now and then as clown, as bishop, as bride.
Mortier said watching Ombra Felice was "almost like discovering a new Mozart opera." What a world of difference lies in that "almost"! Real Mozart operas are not like this at all. Real Mozart is Mozart not only in his building blocks but in his architecture. Of the latter, Ombra Felice had no trace.
In discussing Mortier, one keeps coming back to directors, which to my way of thinking is in itself the symptom of an aberration. For me, the supreme power of opera is revealed in the marriage of words and music taking fire at the moment of performance. Mortier plainly ranks concept and image a notch higher.
Nothing one might have to say to Mortier about his value system would be news to him. Grant him his premises; his spirit is never frivolous. If the individual effort is flawed, the enterprise as a whole stays on track.
In the last analysis, if we argue with Mortier's Salzburg, we argue for the right reason -- inflamed not by ephemera of fashion but by the lasting messages of Mozart, Mussorgsky, Strauss, Verdi. To do his work, Mortier chooses interpreters in his own image: self-conscious, self-assertive, self-aware intermediaries who will deliver the messages with a point of view, pushing us, in turn, to find our own.
"Tradition," Mortier told a gathering last year, "is not a document of the past but an inexhaustible treasure for future generations." In Mortier's Salzburg, that truth burns bright.