Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Salzburg Festival (3) – VPO/Barenboim: Saint-Saëns and Wagner, 22 August 2022

Grosses Festspielhaus

Saint-Saëns: Samson et Dalila, op.47: Act II
Wagner: Parsifal: Act II

Elina Garanča (soprano)
Brandon Jovanovich (tenor)
Michael Volle (baritone)
Members of the Young Singers Project
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Jörn Hinnerk Andresen)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

This was, alas, very much a concert of two halves, disturbingly so. For reasons that I hope will be obvious, I shall concentrate on what was best; there is neither critical nor broader human need to hammer home the shortcomings.

Programming was unusual, yet revealing: an excellent case of using a cast to think what might conceptually as well as musically be possible. Consider what these two acts, premiered within five years of one another, have in common or in meaningful contrast, and the answer is quite a lot. Samson et Dalila is not, I think, a theological work; formal affinities to oratorio notwithstanding, it treats with religion, as do many nineteenth-century operas, as an engine of drama and colour. Parsifal most certainly is a theological work; we should probably not get too hung up on whether to call it an opera at all, but its dissociation from common operatic practice is undeniable, even extreme. Both acts, however, deal with seduction of a quasi-consecrated hero with a religious (and political) mission, by an exotic temptress with whom, at least in part, it is difficult not to feel some degree of sympathy. Indeed, as John Snelson remarks in his programme note, hearing these two acts divorced from their predecessors (however much we may still bear them in mind) enables us to observe the action more ‘from the perspective of the women’, even arguably intensifying ‘the hypnotic force they exert as they propel the dramas to contrasting climaxes’. Saint-Saëns’s ambiguous musical debt to Wagner was certainly in evidence here too, perhaps unsurprisingly given the conductor was Daniel Barenboim.

What was surprising was that Saint-Saëns fared so much better overall than Wagner. The initial orchestral sound we heard from the Vienna Philharmonic was, to my ears, perfect in balance, colour, and harmonic grounding, its darkness seemingly transposed from Siegfried’s forest. It was inviting, intensely so, with promise—not least of danger. On entry, Elina Garanča could likewise hardly have been improved upon: flawless in delivery, dignified and rich of tone, her (Dalila’s) made mind up, her lines despatched with duly operatic grandeur, even hauteur. The orchestra spoke and commented upon the action, much as in Wagner, though rightly also with reference to a long French history of orchestral recitative dating back at least to Rameau. There was certainly more than a little Berlioz to be heard; I soon found myself wishing for a Troyens from these forces, whilst knowing in my heart of hearts that it was already too late. Barenboim’s ear for motivic unity extended over sections of the score, but also across the entire act, imparting a unity necessary yet sadly all too rare in this repertoire. Michael Volle made for a commanding High Priest of Dagon, his typical sensitivity to words and music married to extraordinary dynamic and colouristic range. Brandon Jovanovich, our Siegmund-on-Seine, was as ardent a Samson as one could have imagined, playing nonetheless on a fine ambiguity between hero unmediated and a character compelled (or choosing) to play that role. The climactic duet between Samson and Dalila was, quite simply, a privilege to see (such acting too!) and hear, all the while knowing Dalila ultimately was in control.

The Parsifal Prelude was more deliberate, at its best evincing the spirit of a Klemperer, certainly oozing Tristan-esque malevolence. I listened for as long as I could in that vein and, to be fair, there was much in the orchestral cauldron still to admire, at least in the first scene or two. The first, orchestral intimation of Klingsor’s magic garden, for instance, appeared before our ears’ eyes with all the freshness of continually renewed experience. Whether that were the VPO’s or Barenboim’s, however, soon became a moot point. Samson et Dalila certainly does not play itself; the talk I heard from some about the conductor’s disengagement at this stage was just that, talk. It was, sadly, shown all the more to be so by much of what we heard of Parsifal, in which a disaffected orchestra at times seemed more or less to have given up, kept together (just about) only by the extraordinary commitment of three outstanding soloists. One made what one could of it; at least I did. Concentrating on the poem, I heard all the more in this context just how much of Wagner’s language is steeped in Lutheran theology. So many of the words could have stepped straight out of Bach; in a sense, they had. The luminosity of the orchestral grail, here with a distinctly Viennese tinge, beguiled as ever. Ultimately, though, this was difficult to listen to, as well as to watch.

Barenboim does not need critics, even those who are long-term admirers, to tell him what to do. I hope, though, that those close to him will counsel caution, for his recovery is clearly far from complete. If, for now, that entails fewer, shorter concerts, then for his sake I hope he will consider that path.