SALZBURG, Austria — Salzburg has its priorities.
On Monday, the elite swarmed to the Felsenreitschule for Peter Sellars' controversial staging of Messiaen's forbidding "Saint Francois d'Assise." Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic earned nearly universal approval for their dauntless work in the vastly expanded pit.
Three nights later, however, that had become old news. On Thursday, everyone who claimed to be anyone was at the Kleines Festspielhaus next door.
The attraction there was the premiere of Luc Bondy's darkly progressive staging of Richard Strauss' "Salome," in which a marvelous Welsh baritone named Bryn Terfel loses his head to the toothsome Catherine Malfitano while Christoph von Dohnanyi makes exciting music with the Vienna Philharmonic. The dress rehearsal on Tuesday morning had boded well.
Ardis Krainik, impresaria of the Chicago Lyric Opera, turned up at a press conference Thursday morning to announce that she would be importing the production to her Windy City. Everyone sighed approval. Everyone--the first string of the Germanic press corps plus an army of foreign correspondents who had come primarily for the Messiaen--buzzed with anticipation regarding this latest version of Richard Strauss decadent shocker.
A few of the aesthetic sophisticates placed bets as to whether the American Princess of Judea would bare all, Ewing style, after shedding the seven veils. As matters turned out, she would not.
Lost, somehow, in this festive shuffle, was the second Salzburg concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, also on the agenda Thursday night. One could see some empty spaces at the Grosses Festspielhaus--which, with its 2,100-seat capacity, isn't all that \o7 gross\f7 by American standards. Black ties weren't all that plentiful in the relatively inelegant audience. The only famous face in the crowd seemed to belong to Pierre Boulez, who is scheduled to lead the third and final L.A. Philharmonic program here on Monday.
Still, those who came stayed to cheer, to stamp their feet in unison at the end, and to muster a semi-standing ovation. The concert bore most of the markings of a belated triumph. If Salonen had chosen this program--the Debussy-Bartok-Stravinsky bill that he had previewed at Hollywood Bowl last month--for his Salzburg debut, the initial impression might have been quite different.
Our orchestra did sound a bit drab and dull in Debussy's "Jeux," which opened the concert. One worried that the Messiaen marathon had taken its toll.
But Krystian Zimerman soon woke everyone up with a dazzling, dynamic, perfectly controlled performance of Bartok's First Piano Concerto. Here, Salonen proved himself an ideal collaborator, knowing exactly when to lead, when to follow and when to get out of the way. In the exposed Festspielhaus acoustic, the Philharmonic tone sounded uncommonly brilliant, a few ragged edges notwithstanding.
Because of an error in Salzburg's rather skimpy program booklet (Orrin Howard's Los Angeles annotations were missed), the audience expected only the "Firebird" suite after intermission. No matter. Salonen conducted the whole ballet score, and did so with degrees of rhythmic vitality, dramatic subtlety and climactic urgency that took Stravinsky far beyond the promising sketch tested at the Bowl.
The Philharmonic doesn't always play like a world-class orchestra. We know that all too well. It did play like a world-class orchestra, however, on this crucial occasion.
After examining the evidence here, Salzburg must be getting the incidental impression that the Los Angeles repertory is dominated by masters of the 20th Century. This, of course, is a bad rap.
But it isn't an unhealthy one.