Letter From Salzburg 1: I Due Foscari

Almost exactly 100 years ago the Salzburg Festival, located in the picturesque Austrian city of that name, was founded by stage director Max Reinhardt and playwright (and librettist for Richard Strauss) Hugo von Hoffmanstahl.  During the summer the Festival attracts music lovers from around the world to hear opera of surpassing quality, plus the finest orchestras, soloists, and chamber ensembles.

Lovers of the dramatic stage can see historic and contemporary plays in excellent productions with well-known casts.  For a number of years, it has been the summer home of the Vienna Philharmonic, which offers concerts conducted by the world’s most renowned conductors and also provides the pit orchestra for many of the operas.

Having attended the Festival on-and-off for seven seasons, I found this season the most enjoyable.  Almost all performances every season are sold out. This year the unattainable ticket was to see Anna Netrebko’s first Aida in Verdi’s opera of that title, conducted by Riccardo Muti.

Alas, a ticket was also unattainable for me, but having seen Aida many times any disappointment was muted by the other excellent offerings of the Festival.

Verdi’s rarely staged sixth opera, I due Foscari, was given two unstaged concert performances.  It is a vehicle for Domingo in his reincarnation as a baritone, on this occasion in the role of Francesco Foscari.

His collaborators included tenor Joseph Calleja as Jacopo Foscari, Guanqun Yu as Lucrezia Contarini, and Roberto Tagliavini as Jocopo Loredano.  Michele Mariotti conducted with finesse the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg, a group consisting primarily of music faculty and students of the local university, and the Philharmonia Chor Wien.

Domingo’s voice does not have the lower register heft of a true baritone, but his noble phrasing, technical excellence, and dignified stage presence merited the rapturous applause he earned from the public at the conclusion of the performance.

The finest singer on the stage to this listener in the matinee performance of August 14 was Joseph Calleja, whose ringing tenor voice electrified the sold-out house.

The role of Lucrezia is the most engaging and fully involved character, and Guanqun Yu sang the music with the right blend of passion and forcefulness.  The orchestra’s playing was on a higher level than any other comparable university-based orchestra I have heard.  Mariotti missed no cues in a performance that probably  cannot be equaled today with the current dearth of Verdi voices.

The performance was in the Grosses Festspielhaus, one of the three primary music venues for the Festival and of course the largest.  This hall has an enormous stage (124 ft. at the front of the stage), one of the largest in the world, although the hall seats only about 2200 spectators, rather small by standards for opera houses and concert halls today.

For this concert performance, the seats for the orchestra in the pit were removed and replaced by seats for the overflow of about 150-200 additional spectators.  Yet despite the huge stage, the acoustics, particularly in the balcony, are miraculously warm, rich, and articulate.

If you are fortunate enough to go to Salzburg for the Festival, I recommend sitting in the balcony for the acoustics but also for the unobstructed sight lines from every seat.

Tim Snider is one of the hosts for Sunday Opera Matinee, 2-6pm on WTJU 91.1fm, or wtju.net

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