"Governments rise and fall," Johann Nestroy, Austria's most beloved playwright once remarked, "but the Burghers remain." A trip to Salzburg during its celebrated music festival -- which ended Thursday -- verifies the lingering validity of Nestroy's maxim.
In the 100 years since he first made this observation, Austria has lost an empire, suffered defeat in two catacylsmic wars and endured a Soviet occupation. Yet at each festival premier -- one of the social highlights of the year in Mozart's home town -- Austria's gentry reappears as resplendent and imperturbable as ever.
For many middle-class Europeans, tickets to the festival are highly sought after as status symbols. Opera seats cost about $140 and can fetch twice that on the black market. "The difference between a Salzburg audience and audiences anywhere else," Marilyn Horne commented, "is that people here have paid three times as much for their tickets." But Dr. Hans Widrich, the director of the festival's press officer, maintains that "spending a week in Salzberg is less expensive than skiing at St Moritz."
If it is expensive to attend the events, it is even more expensive to put them on. The festival costs $14 million, and only 10 percent goes for the artistic side -- singers, musicians, directors, stage designers, etc. The rest goes to the more than 2,000 invisible hands who work behind the scenes, mainly the stage crew and other technical craftsmen.
Since ticket sales bring in only $9 million, the deficit of 5 million must be made up by subsidies from the federal, provincial and municipal governments. Royalties from radio broadcasts also contribute a little. But the federal government makes money: Although it gives the festival a $2-million subsidy, it receives in return $3 million from a direct tax on ticket sales.
The city of Salzburg also reaps enormous benefits from the festival, its major industry. During the 36-day period, 155,000 guests visit the city from 50 different countries and spend a total of $38 million. Germany and America send the most visitors, but Italy, Holland and Japan are also well represented.
The festival's central office carefully controls the distribution of tickets on a world-wide basis to ensure its international character. Tickets are strictly allocated through Austrian consulates in various countries for national sale, and Salzburgers grumble that only they can't buy seats. The crafty ones, however, write to friends and relatives abroad to purchase tickets for them.
The 1979 festival presented 16 orchestra concerts, 8 lieder evenings, 6 operas, 6 Mozart matinees, 6 serenades, 5 instrumental recitals, 4 chamber ensembles and 3 plays -- a total of 55 different events from July 26 to Aug. 30.
"We have no desire to be the biggest festival in the world." Dr. Wildrich wryly observed, "We merely want to be the best."
In addition to the official program, several churches offer excellent concerts of sacred music, and opportunities to hear chamber music abound in the daily concerts held in various palaces. Listening to this music in its original setting rather than in a concert hall is one of the greatest and most economical pleasures Salzburg affords. One of the best concerts I heard this year was a recital of Spanish organ music from the 16th century held in the Franciscan Church.
Salzburg is the oldest festival dedicated to both music and the theater. It dates back to 1920 when Max Reinhardt presented Hugo von Hoffmansthal's modernized version of the old English morality play "Everyman." Reinhardt set up a wooden platform in front of the cathedral -- an appropriate space, since medieval European drama began on church steps as an extension of the liturgy.
Although Salzburg is better known for its music, theater remains a vital part of the festival. Austria in fact, has one of the most important theatrical traditions in Europe, and three of the most innovative contemporary dramatists are Austrian -- Wolfie Bauer, Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke.
A slightly modified version of Reinhardt's original production of "Everyman" is given each season, and after almost 60 years it still retains its vigor. Particularly interesting sound effects are achieved by placing actors at different strategic points of the entire city. The voice of God, for instance, boomed down from the bell tower, which soars 274 feet into the air.
The final scene, in which Good Works and Christian Faith accompany Everyman on his descent into death, remains one of the great moments in modern theatrical history. Maximilian Schell, in the role of Everyman, managed adroitly the difficult personality change from arrogant defiance to penance and acceptance.
Schell also directed a new production of Arthur Schnitzler's "The Vast Domain," a tragic comedy that takes place in Vienna in 1911 and admirably conveys the mood of a corrupt society and top-heavy empire languidly waltzing over the precipice. The Salzburg production far surpasses the fulsome version currently on display at the National Theatre in London.
The third play presented at this year's festival was Nestroy's "The Talisman," an intriguing mixture of sophisticated comedy of manners and popular folk drama using both words and music. (Nestroy, one of the greatest 19th-century actor-playwrights, endeared himself to his audiences to such a point that no well-appointed middle-class home was complete without a porcelain figurine of him gracing the mantlepiece.) The play deals with the rise in society of a young man who covers his carrot-red hair with a black wig. His curly locks make his fortune, and Nestroy uses every opportunity to mock a society more concerned with surface then substance. Helmut Lohner in the title role evinced rare comic intuition, and in some of his ad lib songs he made sport of a wide range of current issues such as Skylab. The set that represented his patroness's dining room, decorated in Biedermeier style, was an object lesson in scenic beauty and authenticity.
If the operas at Salzburg had matched the quality of the theater, the festival would have lived up to its formidable reputation. If at one time Salzburg used to set international standards, this year's six productions ranged from inadequate to medicore.
Orchestras are getting louder and louder, and voices smaller and smaller. Half of the time one had to resort to lip reading in order to understand what was being said. In recent years the operatic superstars have not graced the festival with their presence, and the Salzburg experience suggests that a golden age of singing may be drawing to a close. The large, sumptuous voices that have caressed our ears for the past 20 years are disappearing. It appears unlikely that the emerging generation of singers contains a Callas, Tebaldi, Milanov, Nilsson, Farrell, De Los Angeles, Caballe, Sutherland or Price.
Marilyn Horne as Amneris in "Aida" provided the only top-notch operatic performance and superb vocalization. Horne's intelligent and perceptive approach to psychology enabled her to mould the portrait of a woman ravaged by internal conflict, and she used each note and each word to unfold both character and drama with ultimate sensitivity.
Discussing "Aida," Horne remarked that the opera had always puzzled her. "Amneris is one tough customer. She is a princess and a woman of absolute power. Aida, on the other hand, is a lowly captive. In the first act Amneris discovers that Aida is her rival in love, and I have always wondered why she simply doesn't have her dragged off stage and exterminated. Why worry about the life of one slave girl? But no triangle, no opera."
The staging of the operas never rose above the banal except for an arresting "Marriage of Figaro" designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. If the Salzburg festival continues to limit its repertory to such a narrow range of familiar masterpieces, it had better come up with more innovative stagings. At a third the cost one can see better productions in Milan, Paris, London and, on rare occasions, New York.
If opera has fallen upon hard days at Salzburg, the orchestra concerts retain their musical glory. Any festival that presents the likes of Abbado, Bernstein, Boehm, Ozawa and Von Karajan must be taken seriously. The finest concert I heard was by Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. They audaciously opened their program with Bela Bartok's "The Miraculous Mandarin," and their technical expertise and emotional energy enabled them to communicate the piece's paradoxical mixture of cruelty and elegance. Never before have I heard Bartok's jagged rhythm sing with such hidden romanticism. I know of no other orchestra that could rival this interpretation of the Hungarian composer,
Speaking about Bartok, Ozawa commented that his music, often based on folk tunes. "Comes from the dirt. It grows from the ground. It is rough, barbaric, violent. Yet the big danger is to sacrifice refinement and artistry in a frenzied attempt to capture the brutality. We must strike the proper balance. Bartok is not academic music. He is very close to human beings. He speakes to the heart."
The Bostonians triumphed again with "La Damnation de Faust" by Hector Berlioz. Soloists included Fischer Dieskau, Kenneth Riegel and Frederica von Stade, the young American mezzo who has now become a leading exponent of French music. Her vocal timbre and placement suits this repertory admirably.
American singers were omnipresent at the festival. "We do not take into consideration the nationality of performers at the festival," remarked Dr. Widrich. "We only want the best and will go anywhere in order to get it." In addition to von Stade, other young American singers who created a favorable impression included Maria Ewing, Catherine Malfitano, Carol Neblett, Elizabeth Parcells, Marjorie Vance, Philip Creech and James Wagner.
One of the real heroes of the festival is Dr. Walter Hagengroll, the director of the Vienna State Opera chorus, which performed for both the operas and the orchestral concerts and regaled the audience each night with choral singing of the highest order.
This year's festival marks the last one under the direction of Dr. Tassilo Nekola. Under Nekola the festival has often fallen into a pattern of repeating stale formulas. As a result, many musically sophisticated members of the European audience have ceased to return. Furthermore, the festival's prestige has depended largely on possessing the double trump cards of Karl Boehm and Herbert von Karajan. The former celebrated his 85th birthday this year, and the latter is 71 and ailing. It is clear that the new director's first task will be to create a fresh sense of purpose and excitement independent of the two long-time stellar attractions.
Whatever the fortunes of the festival, however, Salzburg will remain one of the chosen places of the earth -- blessed by nature and touched by genius.