I used to think that the most painful image I’d seen from a Regietheater opera production was from Peter Sellars’s Trump Tower version of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro: Cherubino, dressed in a football uniform, mechanically humping on his bed during “Non so più cosa son.” That was a happier time. Now I have witnessed Figaro and the Count malevolently slashing Cherubino with a razor during “Non più andrai,” smearing him with his own blood, callously shoving him into a straitjacket, violently stuffing a wad of cash into his mouth, and then leaving him barely conscious, slumped over in despair.

You still have to go a German-speaking country, it turns out, to get the full Clockwork Orange treatment of Mozart. Outside Berlin, there is no better place to do so than at the Salzburg Festival, which Gerald Mortier, as artistic director, turned into a premier venue for Regietheater in the 1990s. Mortier decamped from Salzburg in 2002, but the festival has continued to hire a large quota of opera directors guaranteed to reject the composer’s conception of his own work in favor of their own predictable obsessions, drawn from the dreary postmodern tool kit of nihilism and sexual transgression.

Salzburg’s Nozze di Figaro, directed by the 47-year-old German Claus Guth, is no exception. This is the fourth year that the production has been mounted here since its premiere in 2006; the festival subsequently invited Guth to massacre Mozart’s other two sublime Da Ponte operas, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte. This year, to great fanfare, all three of the Guth Da Ponte trilogy are being staged, with different orchestras and conductors for each—the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, led by Robin Ticciati, in the case of Nozze; the Musiciens du Louvre, led by Marc Minkowski, for Così; and the Vienna Philharmonic, led by Yannick Nézet-Séquin, for Don Giovanni.

Needless to say, Guth has stripped Nozze of the lightness and humanity which are at its core and replaced them with anger and bitterness. The characters act out their angst against an unchanging bleached-white staircase over an empty hallway of Baroque proportions. The costumes are vaguely modern—the Countess wears a black trench coat at one point, though Figaro’s knee pants suggest an Edwardian epoch; the peasants are incongruously tricked out in dour Salvation Army uniforms and hymn books for the sparkling chorus, “Giovani liete.” Whatever the nondescript modern period in which Guth has set the action, it is long past the time when an employer would even know what the droit du seigneur was.

The set contains no furniture and almost no other props—though dead crows inexplicably accumulate on a window pane over the course of the opera. Consequently, the opera’s farcical stage business, such as Cherubino’s dive under Susanna’s chair and subsequent extraction therefrom, is lost.

Lost, too, is the humor. The recognition scene, in which Figaro and Marcellina improbably discover their mother-son relationship, embodied Guth’s cluelessness about comic tradition. The repeated “Sua madre’s!” and “Tuo padre’s!” of the startled participants should be a moment of ebullient silliness, as indicated by the music’s mounting pitches, unbroken major harmonies, and accelerating tempo; instead, the characters stood around woodenly, looking uncomfortable, alienated, and glum. Figaro nervously cleaned his glasses rather than joyfully embrace his long-lost mother. The delightful fillip dissing the Count which ends the episode fell hollowly among this unhappy new family. Not surprisingly, the scene elicited not a chuckle from the audience on the night I saw it, nor was it apparently meant to—contrary to the patent intentions of Mozart and Da Ponte.

Likewise, Guth turns “Non più andrai,” an aria of jaunty levity in which Figaro teases the dandified young page about his coming induction into the army, into a scene of vicious, spirit-deadening brutalization. The music dictates the scene’s character: it is rollicking, happily skittering, and tongue-in-cheek, not malicious and threatening as Guth’s staging would imply. The dominance of tonic-saturated major keys is broken only by the most seductive and fleeting of minor-key modulations on “poco contante” (little money). Guth would undoubtedly invoke the aria’s mocking reference to the dangers of war to justify his gratuitous sadism. Such a desperate excuse would be akin to saying that because “La Calunnia” concludes with the humiliated slander victim dropping dead, it is a funeral dirge and should be accordingly staged. Guth’s grotesque final tableau of Cherubino as dazed sexual-assault victim requires a massive deafness to Mozart’s sophisticated irony and to the cool suavities of Da Ponte’s verse.

Guth, of course, injected explicit sexual content where none is indicated in the text or the logic of the plot. The Count, played here by Simon Keenlyside as a pathetic petty functionary, nervously trying to liberate his neck from its too-tight collar, has regular nooners with Susanna, even eliciting from her a grateful sigh after one quick mounting. Why, then, is the Count so determined to reinstate the droit du seigneur, or so ecstatic when Susanna promises to meet him underneath the pines, since he has already taken her virginity (presuming for the moment that she still had it)?

And yet in those moments where Mozart himself created a charged erotic atmosphere, Guth perversely drained out all the sexual tension in favor of his overarching alienation theme. In “Crudel! Perché finora farmi languir così,” the Count breathlessly confirms Susanna’s intention to meet him in the garden. His pleading “non mi mancherai’s” become jumbled up with Susanna’s coquettish “non vi mancherò’s”; the words and music rush together in an emblem of the Count’s growing excitement. Guth, however, at this one juncture where he could have legitimately indulged his taste for sexual display, places the Count and Susanna far apart and coldly disengaged.

No Regietheater production would be complete without the semaphore drill, in which the characters line up in a row and telegraph inscrutable messages with their arms to an unseen recipient—a convention pioneered by Sellars and dutifully obeyed here by Guth, as the household digests the gardener’s report that someone recently jumped from the Countess’s window.

The musical discovery of the evening was the Swedish mezzo-soprano Katija Dragojevic as Cherubino. Dragojevic shaped her lines with an impeccable sense of courtly style, subtly playing with tempo, stress, and ornamentation. Her voice is clear on top, seductively dark below; when allowed to do so, she bubbled over with the page’s coltish energy. The passage of time has bumped soprano Marie McLaughlin from the role of Susanna to that of Marcellina, yet along with Dragojevic, she displayed the most elegant nuance of phrasing of the evening. (McLaughlin sang Susanna in the greatest staging of Nozze that I have seen, the Jonathan Miller production at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, in 1991.)

The other singers, however technically excellent, made less of an impression than they might have in a less self-indulgent production. Erwin Schrott’s deep, powerful bass is a force of nature, if occasionally somewhat weak on top, but he was not allowed to bring out the full range of Figaro’s cocky character. Soprano Marlis Petersen moved as sinuously as a ballet dancer and blended beautifully with Genia Kühmeier’s Countess in “Canzonetta sull’aria,” taken by conductor Ticciati at a breathless clip, but her Susanna was nevertheless somewhat bland. Kühmeier’s recitatives were finely wrought; a crescendo in “Dove sono” that came out of nowhere was particularly pure and lovely. Simon Keenlyside sang robustly, but as a needlessly shrunken character.

The musical disappointment of the evening was the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Its performance vindicated the usually unmerited criticism lodged by orchestral traditionalists against the period instrument movement. Ticciati conducted most orchestral phrases virtually staccato. As a result, instrumental lines that should have been singing and legato were frustratingly curt and abbreviated. Barbarina’s brief solo, “L’ho perduta! me meschina!,” perhaps the most concentrated expression of melancholy in the repertoire, ended in the pit as abruptly as it had begun.

Such phrasing was a deliberate interpretive choice; other problems, such as a muddy beat and indistinct voicing in the overture, were surely inadvertent. There were still moments of the wonderful energy that one expects from an early-music ensemble: the winds in “Vuoi che sapete,” for example, were as clear and rushing as a fast-moving stream. The orchestra had arrived late to the hall that day, due to flight complications from London; perhaps the tension from the delay lay behind the less than thrilling nature of the performance from an otherwise superlative ensemble. The Vienna Philharmonic chorus put the overhyped Metropolitan Opera chorus to shame in its clear enunciation and attack, though the wonderful nuances of rhythm in the final measures of “Giovani liete” were barely perceptible.

The most criticized aspect of the production was actually the least offensive. Guth added a silent character, following Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s lead in his film version of Don Giovanni. A tall cherub in knee pants (Uli Kirsch) oversaw the action, clambering on top of the Count like a gargoyle, strewing white feathers, and riding a unicycle through the hallway. Compared with Guth’s heavy-handed attempts to alter the opera’s meaning, his invented Cherubim was innocuous and occasionally beguiling.

Regietheater directors like to kill off characters who would otherwise be happily alive if the composer and librettist still had any clout. Calixto Bieito killed off the Pasha (in Bieito’s production, a pimp) at the end of his whorehouse Abduction from the Seraglio at Berlin’s Komische Oper; Guth reportedly kills off Donna Anna at the end of his Salzburg Don Giovanni; here, the silent Cherubim kills off Cherubino with a fatal grip. Such mayhem is a perfect emblem of the monomaniacal self-absorption of the revisionist theater director. Not only does nothing in Figaro’s story line or score justify such a bizarre act, but the Enlightenment convention of comedy positively rules out such a bleak and puzzling ending. Enlightenment opera moves from darkness to light; happy endings result from the fact that order and clarity have been restored. To say: “No, they really haven’t, we, with our postmodern insight, know better and can decode the work’s dark subtext” is to ignore the historical genre of these pieces, as well as their music.

To be sure, the Countess’s ordeal in confronting and foiling her husband’s adulterous designs could have been irremediably painful. Had Harold Pinter worked with this material, the audience might have wished that it had been dispatched at the opera’s end along with Cherubino. But Nozze, thankfully, was not in Pinter’s hands; it was in the hands of Mozart and Da Ponte. Mozart had a more sophisticated understanding of sorrow, suffering, and irony than Guth, Mortier, Sellars, Bieito, and Hans Neuenfels (who tortured Die Fledermaus under Mortier) combined, and he chose to give us a work of reconciliation and grace. At Nozze’s conclusion, the chorus sings: “Love alone could turn such a day of worries, caprice, and folly into contentment and happiness,” as the music moves from a gorgeously suspended hymn of thanks to an explosion of joy. Only someone deaf to Mozart’s transcendent beauty could find this ending ambiguous. Guth is apparently such a listener, since he leaves his characters peevishly flicking away Cherubim’s intrusions and otherwise ill at ease.

Several days after the August 11 performance I attended, I ran into Ruggero Raimondi at a Lang Lang chamber concert. Raimondi had sung the Count in the 1991 Jonathan Miller Nozze. Was he planning to attend the Guth Nozze? I asked him. No, he wasn’t. “Stanno banalizando e distruendo il teatro [They are banalizing and destroying theater],” he said, referring to the Regietheater conformists. A large portion of Salzburg’s audience shares this judgment, to no effect on the Festival’s choice of directors. Indeed, on August 17, the state of Salzburg conferred a medal of honor on Guth for his contributions to the Festival.

There is a sad shortage of comedies in the opera repertoire, since they are far more difficult to create and perform than tragedies. Why, then, destroy the ones we’ve got, especially works of such sublime perfection as Mozart’s? A culture that cannot tolerate Mozart’s comic vision takes itself far too seriously. Fortunately, Regietheater does not have a total monopoly on Salzburg opera programming, as a coming review will recount.


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