Herbert von Karajan would have been 100 on April 5, and at least in the German-speaking wo rld, in those places he was prominent, he is again ubiquitous. His legacy as a conductor, preserved in a myriad self-adoring videos, has not established him as one of the defining maestros of the previous century, however sumptuous he helped orchestras sound and however sovereign he was in some repertory, Bruckner uber alles.
But at least his institutional legacy is tangible: the Berlin Philharmonie, home of his Berliner Philharmoniker, and the almost-but-not-quite-as-wonderful-sounding large Festspielhaus here in Salzburg, which he built to house his Berlin orchestra in his productions of Wagner's operas, especially the "Ring," are impressive monuments, rather like what Carnegie Hall is to Isaac Stern.
The "Ring" is back in Salzburg, where we are currently in the midst of the first cycle of opera and concert performances. I was paid to come over here and give a music-appreciation talk, which I duly did. That would have invalidated me from commenting on the festival were I still at the NY Times, but I'm not so here goes:
The Easter Festival "Ring" is a co-production with Aix-en-Provence, though curiously nobody at either festival managed to schedule all four operas in one year: when "Gotterdammerung" is seen in the summer of 2009 in Aix and the spring of 2010 in Salzburg, that will be it. (Sets and costumes, the least interesting aspect of the production, have reportedly been sold to the Chinese, but with no commitment from any of the musicians.)
Aix's involvement presumably accounts for the choice of Stephane Braunschweig as the director and set designer of this "Ring," and he is -- to judge from the current "Walkure" -- its weakest element. His production is not so much outrageous (would that it were so, in comparison with this) as dull and plain. In fact, the actual direction of the characters isn't bad, though the sex seems a little puimped up: Siegmund and Sieglinde crave each other from the outset -- so much for the building tension detailed in the stage directions -- and Brunnhilde smooches Siegmund full on the lips, no doubt warming herself up for his son. Oh, well, Braunschweig's choices could be defended and he is, after all, French.
Musically, this was a seriously impressive perforrmance. Curiously, not one of the six principals was a native German speaker, yet all are steeped in the language and the style. The weakest was the Siegmund of Robert Gambill, whose wildlly emitted high notes undercut the rapture at the end of the first act. Still, he looked hunky, which the opera blogs tell us is Tony Tommasini's favorite word, and his baritonal voice suited the Todesverkundigung just fine. Mikhail Petrenko, though costumed like a Puritan or an undertaker or both, sang sonorously as Hunding, and Lilli Paasikivi made Fricka's nagging more tolerable than usual.
Eva Johansson is given to sometimes cartoonish facial expressions, but she looked good, sounded good and phrased with real pathos. Eva-Maria Westbroek, who should be singing Brunnhilde herself any minute now, is a radiant artist with a clarion top, and she mustered the first-act rapture that Gambill lacked.
But most impressive of all the singers was Willard White (or Sir Willard, as we are now to call him). Nothing that this fine, now 61-year-old bass-baritone had done prepared me for his Wotan. He may not have the richest voice in memory. But he encompasses the range perfectly, and he declamed the narratives with a nobility and involvement I hadn't heard since Thomas Stweart -- and White has a bigger voice.
As for Karajan's successor and the mighty Berliners --- I was told only two musicians remain from the Easter Festival's first year in1967 - Simon Rattle (Sir Simon) conducted with sure command in just the kind of core Germanic repertory for which he was been persistently criticized. And the orchestra played just gloriously, as sure a testament to Karajan's legacy as he might have dreamed of.
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