At the Salzburg Festival, Myths and Reality Meet Onstage

BERLIN — A woman who kills her own children. A man who marries his mother. A king who is ordered to sacrifice his son.

This summer, the Salzburg Festival (July 20-Aug. 31) in Austria invites its audience to explore classical mythology in stage works from Cherubini’s “Médée” to Enescu’s “Oedipe.” The opera program opens on July 27 with Mozart’s three-act drama “Idomeneo” in a production by Peter Sellars, who returns to the Felsenreitschule with the conductor Teodor Currentzis after their 2017 take on Mozart’s late opera “La Clemenza di Tito.”

The festival’s artistic director, Markus Hinterhäuser, now entering his third season, found himself inspired by ancient myths to create a narrative framework or “navigation system” for the sprawling festival, he said, which includes five new opera stagings, 81 concerts and four new spoken theater productions. In past programs, he delved into the topics of power and passion.

“These great myths create the archive for our understanding of the world,” he said over coffee in Berlin. “The stories provide a kind of mirror for contemporary conflict. Everything that we consider essential in culture, music, theater and science comes from this DNA.”

The “Idomeneo” production will grapple at once with the aftermath of war, the effects of global warming and the eagerness of the next generation to take matters into their own hands. In Homer’s original story, the king of Crete, Idomeneus, is ordered by the sea god, Neptune, to sacrifice his son, Idamante. But when Ilia, a Trojan princess and war prisoner, offers her life instead, the oracle declares that Idamante will inherit the throne and marry her.

“You sense the impatience and sheer intelligence of this 24-year-old,” Mr. Sellars said of Mozart via Skype from London, “that a whole generation doesn’t want to wait any longer to speak. It’s very moving to be doing this while young people are in the streets all over the world saying, ‘We cannot wait.’”

Spare set elements designed by George Tsypin for “La Clemenza di Tito” will connect the two Mozart operas thematically (Russell Thomas, who performed the title role of the Roman emperor, also returns as Idomeneus). Mr. Sellars noted the “primal and deeply earthed power” of the Felsenreitschule, a converted 17th-century riding school carved into the side of a mountain. “We don’t have to make a set for that.”

The opera’s culmination in a ballet sequence, to be choreographed by the Samoan-born Lemi Ponifasio, represents for Mr. Sellars “a gesture to stop talking, time for action.” One of two dancers is from the island nation of Kiribati, which is threatened by rising sea levels.

“[The people of] Pacific Island culture have profound rituals and mythologies for understanding their relationship to the ocean,” Mr. Sellars said. “These dancers will create a final ritual that restores the balances of the universe.”

The Felsenreitschule will also be home to a new production of Enescu’s “Oedipe,” staged by the veteran director Achim Freyer. The libretto follows the life of Oedipus from his birth and, in a twist of the original myth, a grove where he vanishes in a flash of flight. The score, meanwhile, is a unique blend of neo-classical elements, Eastern European folklore and French harmonies.

The conductor Ingo Metzmacher noted Enescu’s focus on the human dimension of the title character, who declares that he has “vanquished fate” in the final act. “Oedipus is not just a title character in the traditional sense,” he said by phone from Aix-en-Provence, France. “The other characters are marginal, exist around him.”

He also pointed to the skill with which Enescu reflects every nuance of the text, particularly in the third act, when the truth is revealed to Oedipus that he had murdered his father and married his mother. “The composer learned a lot from Sophocles,” he said. “The music is very gripping.”

In the tradition of Gerard Mortier, who led the festival from 1991 to 2001, Mr. Hinterhäuser has made it a priority to cultivate underperformed works of the 20th century. But Mr. Hinterhäuser, who is a pianist and founder of the modern music series Zeitfluss, which ran under Mortier’s aegis, gives living composers their due.

A series in the Kollegienkirche (Collegiate Church) from July 25 to Aug. 6 will revisit the oeuvre of Pascal Dusapin, who has written several stage works based on Greek myth. In the composer’s “Medeamaterial,” a setting of the Heiner Müller adaptation of the myth of Medea, the soprano’s vocal lines reveal “a state of permanent divide, a total schizophrenia,” he said by phone from Paris.

Mr. Dusapin said he considered the title character, who kills her children in an act of vengeance against Jason of the Argonauts, representative “of an ancient world which Jason shatters in the interest of political territory.”

“That’s a wonderful and terrible metaphor for the modern world,” he said.

Alongside “Medeamaterial” and Cherubini’s 18th-century opera “Médée,” the festival will show Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 “Medea” film starring Maria Callas, which in turn had a role in shaping Mr. Dusapin’s perception of the character. “Myth is a collective consciousness,” he said, “a way of telling history, which repeats itself.”

The program also includes some comic relief with Offenbach’s “Orphée aux enfers” (Orpheus in the Underworld), a biting satire of the original myth that marks the composer’s bicentenary. The director Barrie Kosky — known for his flamboyant operetta productions at the Komische Oper Berlin — makes his Salzburg debut.

And the opera lineup would not be complete without the mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who appears as the title character of Handel’s “Alcina” in a Damiano Michieletto production first seen in June at Salzburg’s Whitsun Festival (where Ms. Bartoli is artistic director). She views the parable of the sorceress, who loses her magical powers after falling for the knight Ruggiero, as an expression about love but also societal pressures to maintain eternal youth.

“She becomes naked, in a psychological and a physical sense,” Ms. Bartoli wrote in an email. “At the same time, she loses her youthful appearance and suddenly appears at her true age — as an old woman.” She considers this an opportunity to reflect upon the fact that “the life experience of older people has lost importance. Age has become a sign of weakness instead of wisdom.”

For Mr. Hinterhäuser, opera is not an occasion for escapism but to revisit timeless themes from a contemporary perspective. “We don’t live in the rococo or the Romantic [era],” he said. “We live in the here and now. The vitality of opera lies in that it is always read anew, just like myth is always read anew.”

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