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The Salzburg Festival Gets a Touch of Houston

The Bayou City should be proud of our former maestros performing in Europe.

The internationally renowned Salzburger Festspiele has been at the forefront of annual summer music festivals ever since its founding in 1920 by a prestigious artistic quintet that included composer Richard Strauss (Salome, Der Rosenkavalier), poet/librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and stage visionary Max Reinhardt.

As the birthplace of W.A. Mozart and filming locale of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, Salzburg, Austria, with its nearly intact Baroque old-city center nestled in the limestone mountains, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is an ideal spot for a music festival, easily walkable, with sidewalk cafes and pastry shops sprinkled like salt — Salzburg's historic claim to fame and fortune — along every twisting medieval alleyway and statued platz.

The Houston Press doesn't usually cover so prestigious a music festival as Salzburg's since our publication has little involvement with the cultural goings-on in Europe, but this year saw two former Houston Symphony maestros conducting major works — and I was there to hear them.

Christoph Eschenbach led the Vienna Philharmonic in the Mozart/Da Ponte sex comedy Così fan tutte, while Hans Graf led the Mozarteum Orchestra in Gerhard Wimberger's Passion Giordano Bruno (2007), with a sprightly rendition of Mozart's Prague Symphony as tasty curtain-raiser.

A heady whiff of scandal followed Eschenbach. If the local newspapers are to be believed, his August 21 opening night was greeted by a raucous chorus of boos and catcalls. Apparently a fiasco, the performance was "unprepared...rushed...spiritless...undistinguished." The staid Austrians never boo at the opera to show displeasure, unlike their very vocal cousins across the border at Milan's La Scala, so Eschenbach must really have upset them.

Never a fan of this maestro's idiosyncratic interpretations, I find that when he likes a certain passage in the music, he tends to slow down as if to savor every nuance. Seasons ago at Houston Grand Opera, his Tristan und Isolde and Der Rosenkavalier were devoid of Wagnerian passion in the former and Straussian fizz in the latter. This cerebral, analytic approach saps a lot of drama and charm right out of the music, as phrases are elongated with glacial tempos. Hearing about all the disturbances from within the Festival's modern hall, the Haus für Mozart, I expected the worst.

After four performances — I attended the last one, a Saturday matinee — all the critical carpings had been banished. There were no boos, but there weren't any shouts of joy, either. It was slow, to be sure (an Eschenbach genetic trait), but the cast was young and attractive; the set — a two-story, palm-lined glass conservatory to stand in for the sisters' seaside villa — was scrumptious to look at; and there was none of that misalignment between pit and stage that apparently had annoyed the critics at the premiere. To be fair, Eschenbach had replaced the original maestro, Franz Welser-Möst, who walked out a few weeks before opening night — no one in the front office ever gave a coherent reason for his departure — leaving Eschenbach to pick up the pieces with a cast he didn't choose and a production he never shaped. The newspapers gleefully reported that Eschenbach didn't show up in time for proper rehearsals. We'll never know the true story, but the final performance was in remarkably fine, if stately, hands.

Così fan tutte (1790), roughly translated as "All Women Are Like This," is the third masterpiece in that incredibly fertile collaboration between Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte, appearing after the revolutionary opera buffa Marriage of Figaro (1786) and the marvels of Don Giovanni (1787). It's a ­wonderfully witty battle of the sexes, as soldiers Ferrando and Guglielmo (tenor Martin Mitterrutzner and bass baritone Luca Pisaroni) make a wager with old roué Don Alfonso (baritone Gerald Finley) that their fiancées, the sisters Fiordiligi (soprano Malin Hartelius) and Dorabella (mezzo-soprano Marie-Claude Chappuis), will remain faithful as they pretend to go off to war. To test the theory, they return in disguise as "Albanians," with large mustaches and wearing comic mufti. To the men's chagrin and anguish, the sisters not only fall in love with these strangers, but also fall in love with their other sister's fiancé. To counter the complications, there's a sassy, no-nonsense maid, Despina (soprano Martina Janková), to put the antics in perspective. There's a lovely lightness to Mozart's sublime melodies, as if they're full of fresh air and Italianate breezes.

Hans Graf had an easier time of it, even though Wimberger's contemporary oratorio, scored for baritone and speaker, is full of thunderous percussion, tympani and screaming reeds. It compactly tells the story of real-life 16th-century Dominican priest and philosopher Giordano Bruno, whose modern, heretical views on church and state brought him into the waiting arms of the Inquisition, which burned him at the stake in 1600. He remained stoic and unrepentant, even spurning the cross that was offered as the flames consumed him. "The soul of each man and woman," he wrote earlier, "is the same as that of flies and plants." His "evolutionary humanist" thinking — love for all — was the end of him.

Baritone Roman Trekel, tall and reedy as a saint in a fresco, was a striking Giordano, booming forth his condemnation of the church, yet lyrical and lushly romantic when describing his view of heaven on earth. If you witnessed maestro Graf's concert version of Berg's Wozzeck last season, one of his final Houston performances as director of the Houston Symphony, you still have Trekel's incandescent characterization etched in your soul. His Giordano was just as passionate and theatrical.

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