Sunday, 9 March 2014

R.I.P. Gerard Mortier, 1943-2014

In the case Gerard Mortier, it has often proved a case of ‘après moi, le déluge’. I cannot speak so much for La Monnaie, which seems to have continued to prosper following his departure in 1991, after a decade at the helm. However, even if the Salzburg Festival has similarly continued to prosper, its direction has been less clear since Mortier left in 2001, various directors having come and gone, even Alexander Pereira having fallen victim to extra-musical political machinations. As for the Opéra national de Paris under Nicolas Joel, Mortier’s successor having transformed a lively house, with a broad range of interesting directors and conductors, into an artistic backwater that can present a 2014-15 season in which the most ‘modern’ work is Ariadne auf Naxos… And then, there were the directorship of the New York City Opera that never was, and which surely would have saved that now defunct institution, and the valiant, sadly unappreciated, attempt to turn Madrid’s Teatro Real into a world-class house.

Mortier faced a near-impossible task at Salzburg, as successor to Herbert von Karajan. Yet the Belgian impresario’s decade in charge must now be accounted one of the Festival’s most successful. It was not that musical standards needed much in the way of improvement, though one must always be vigilant in such matters, but rather that Mortier opened the way for a much-needed injection of innovative stage direction. Reactionaries complained, even screamed, but who cares? Mortier’s insistence upon offering a world-class platform to twentieth-century operas which had rarely or never been staged in Salzburg proved perhaps the greatest of his legacies.  I have never forgiven myself for missing out, on my very first visit, on the opportunity of hearing Boulez conduct Moses und Aron, but life is full of such regrets. I have very fond memories indeed, from my next visit, of Achim Freyer’s Zauberflöte: a truly magical staging, in which Freyer’s fabled circus ensemble (for once!) made perfect sense, and which benefited from the move, when I saw it, from the Felsenreitschule a specially-converted performance space, in an exhibition hall, where the clowns and the production at large could mingle with the audience and meaningfully break down the fragile boundaries between performance and alleged ‘reality’. At last to see Busoni’s Doktor Faust was alone worth the visit alone – a visit made possible by the Festival’s new scheme of tickets for young people, another Mortier innovation.   It was, moreover, rumoured that Mortier had used funds secured from someone who had insisted that his or her money go to fund an ‘Italian opera’, in order to stage Busoni’s masterpiece: not quite what the squealing plutocrat had in mind, but typical of Mortier’s artistic conviction.

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