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Music

The magic of the Salzburg Festival

The renowned music festival in Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg, is placing some bets on pop culture, but it remains connected to the magical spirit of its location.

Salzburg is the place to go for music lovers and culture vulture tourists during the month of August. The city overflows with Trachten (traditional Austrian dresses) and evening gowns. You have to scramble to grab one corner of a table in "Triangel" - the hip place to eat and drink across from the festival hall. It's loud and somewhat superficial there. Music fans can order a "Netrebko Steak," so named after the famous Russian soprano.

There's something enchating in the air in Salzburg this time of year. And it was precisely this atmosphere that led theater director Max Reinhardt to call Mozart's birthplace a "world stage" in 1920 and establish a summer music festival in the city. Even today, any good stage or artistic director would do well to heed the genius loci - the spirit of the place. Otherwise, he or she just might be punished.

Not quite Mozart

The young stage director Alexandra Liedtke would have been wise to heed that warning in his production of "The Labyrinth - Part Two of the Magic Flute" in the Residenzhof. During the show, the dreamy couple Tamino and Pamina had just managed to embark on the second stage of their journey when the bells of the neighboring cathedral began ringing. The performers had to sing their hearts out to be heard over the chiming - a difficult feat even for experienced Salzburg singer and celebrated Mozart tenor Michael Schade.

Emanuel Schikaneder wrote the text for The Magic Flute

Emanuel Schikaneder wrote the text for "The Magic Flute"

"The Labyrinth" was supposed to become the hit of the season. The libretto was originally written by Emanuel Schikaneder, a friend of Mozart's and the author of "The Magic Flute" libretto. Schikaneder - director of the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden where "The Magic Flute" premiered - hoped to repeat the huge commercial success of Mozart's opera seven years after its debut.

But Mozart had already been dead for the same number of years. So Schikaneder relied instead on a Mozart aficionado for the score. Composer Peter von Winter, who in his younger years was a musician with the Mannheimer Hofkapelle, knew the original work well. Perhaps too well? Unfortunately, von Winter's own music is merely a pale imitation - an agglomeration of slightly altered stage pieces modelled after the marches, love duets and choruses of "The Magic Flute."

Following the trial by fire and water in the first part, in the opera's second act Tamino and Pamina must enter the earth and air to pass the final tests that will seal their love. The re-discovery of the Papageno Family provided for a real sense of merriment at this year's festival: Papa and Mama Papageno and 14 feathered kids reveal the secret of the birdman's origins. It is thanks to Alexander Pereira, artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, that people can finally stop looking for a deeper meaning in every word of Mozart's "Magic Flute." The deeper meaning lies in the music alone.

Scene from 'The Labyrinth' on stage

Papageno flirts with Papagena

The quiet counterpart

The new rendition of "The Magic Flute" by conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt provided a major contrast, yet the sound of the instrumental ensemble "Concentus Musicus Wien" seemed rather undifferentiated in the Salzburg Festival's Felsenreitschule theater.

Only those in the first few rows of the theater could appreciate the delicate, stringent, subtle music-making of the 82-year-old maestro. Historical instruments and a large space with very particular acoustics do not always go together well.

All's well that ends well

Performance in front of the Salzburg Cathedral

Performance in front of the Salzburg Cathedral

But the biggest glitch of the festival until now occurred on August 4, when Polish tenor star Piotr Beczala lost his voice and could not sing the role of Rodolfo, alongside Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in "La Boheme." The worthy substitute, however, performed beyond all expectation: Jonas Kaufmann took on the role at the last minute, singing the part hiding on the sidelines, while Beczala stood in front of the curtain pantomiming Rudolfo at the same time. In flowery writing, the Polish singer later expressed his gratitude to his savior on his Facebook page.

The Salzburg Festival, which includes theater, concert and opera performances, runs through September 2, 2012.

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