The Salzburg and Glyndebourne festivals have more in common than nature


Towering above the Salzburg Festival concert halls is the Monchsberg, an enormous cliff. The theaters were originally going to be built on top of the mountain, where one can walk today on paved paths offering panoramic views of farms, valleys and the church spires of the old city.

Instead, the connection to nature was made even more intimate: the theaters were built into the cliff's base. Fifty thousand tons of rock were blasted away to construct the Large Festival Hall in 1960.

The oldest hall, called the Summer Riding School, was once an arena where bearbaiting and horse displays were presented for the local princely households. It was literally carved out of the mountain 300 years ago: arches of cool, moist stone provided a )) primal backdrop to the festivities.

As Salzburg begins a new era under Gerard A. Mortier, directing his first festival this summer, that backdrop will provide stability amid change.

The presence of nature is one of the dominant features of the Glyndebourne Festival in England as well, though here the contrasts with the subtly crafted artifice of European opera are provided by the rolling hills of the Sussex Downs, by grazing sheep and cows, shaped hedges and formal gardens.

The theater has almost nothing to do with the pastoral surroundings; it was built as a humble appendage to an old country mansion -- itself an unimposing series of modifications to an Elizabethan core -- and is now being torn down to be replaced by a larger, free-standing opera house.

Apart from the appeal of their natural settings, the two festivals could hardly seem more dissimilar. Salzburg is the world's largest, presenting stars in concert, opera and theater productions that have made it a musical trade fair.

Glyndebourne is host to England's only privately financed opera company and is itself a private residence. It has traditionally placed emphasis less on stars than on classical productions with meticulous ensemble work.

Yet to a critic who visited both festivals recently, they seemed connected, not just in their status or purposes, but in the transformations each is undergoing.

Both began in the decades after World War I, with the model of Wagner's Bayreuth firmly in their founders' minds. Salzburg, as described in writings by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Glyndebourne, in the conception of John Christie (the estate's owner), were meant to provide, like Bayreuth, a Wagnerian immersion in another world.

At first, in the early 1930s, Christie even wanted Glyndebourne to specialize in Wagner; he played host to musical evenings in which listeners dressed in Bavarian costumes. But the upper-class British fascination with German nationalism was transformed when the festival itself began in 1934.

Mozart became the center, and the music director was a German exile, Fritz Busch. Salzburg, Mozart's birthplace, had the composer as its focus from its beginnings in the 1920s (though the festival later fell prey to temptations that Glyndebourne declined: photos taken after the Anschluss show the festival halls festooned with Nazi banners).

For both festivals, too, the focus on Mozart was part of their mythic intention. As the historian Michael P. Steinberg has shown, the Salzburg Festival's founders -- notably, Max Reinhardt and Hofmannsthal -- saw the festival as a tribute to Austrian and German art, offering cultural coherence at a time of political disarray.

Hofmannsthal described Salzburg as uniting, like Mozart, the spirit of the German north and the Italian south, the heroic and the idyllic, the urban and the rural, the worlds of Baroque princes and simple peasants.

At Glyndebourne the purpose was also mythic: a celebration of what upper-class Britain could make of the German cultural heritage. Mozart would be treated with the care lavished on the sculptured and ordered countryside. No show biz or jet-setters; participants might even reside in the mansion for the summer.

(Dame Janet Baker has played tennis there with Sir Bernard Haitink.) Europe's greatest operas would become domesticated, refined and intimate, and be presented for the delectation of guests.

Rituals are part of these celebrations. At Glyndebourne there are formal picnics, at Salzburg performances of the morality play "Everyman." Luxury is promised as well -- at Salzburg, with its $360 tickets, at Glyndebourne, with its "memberships" and dress code. These festivals have tried to recapture an ambiance associated with courtly patronage.

Now changes have come. With the death of Herbert von Karajan, who towered, Monchsberg-like, over the Salzburg Festival for 30 years, the festival can no longer maintain its cultic quality; with the increasing importance of corporate sponsorship, Glyndebourne has been losing its social significance. (One-third of its seats often go to corporate donors.)

The national and class myths that lay at the festivals' origins are no longer so compelling. Both are entering the secular world of the contemporary arts institution.

Glyndebourne will be expanding by more than a third, building a new hall, guaranteeing 10 percent of its seats for public sale, even establishing inexpensive standing-room areas. Its taste in opera productions is merging with avant-garde international taste.

Salzburg, under Mortier, is also taking on a cosmopolitan character, moving away from mythic grandiosity to include early and contemporary music and experimental opera stagings. But as both festivals find new artistic ground, their natural settings will stand as mute witness, reminders of forces that gave these festivals birth.

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