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Whitsun Salzburg: Stravinsky for Dummies

Instigated by little more than mood and circumstance, I’d taken a little sabbatical from concert-going—abstaining for the first time in about ten years from live musical stimuli for any extended amount of time. What better way to end the self-imposed drought than to hop down to Salzburg for a day, to catch a performance at the Whitsun Festival.

The topic this year was “OPFER/SACRIFICE”, with thematic and linguistic links which had to include the two most famous ‘sacrifices’ in music: Bach’s Musical Offering and of course Le sacre du printemps. It was the latter I went to see—a Stravinsky triple bill of Les noces (“The Wedding”), Sacre, and L'oiseau de feu (“The Firebird”), with Gergiev at the helm of the Mariinsky troupe… both orchestra and ballet.

The kicker for these performances, not unique but rare and attractive enough to make it special, was the as-faithful-as-possible reconstruction of the original Ballets Russes choreographies by Bronislava Nijinska (Noces; sets Natalia Gontcharova), Vaslav Nijinsky (Sacre; sets Nicholas Roerich) and Michel Fokin (L’oiseau; sets and costumes Fokin, Golovin, and Bakst).

What you get in Les noces is a piece that celebrates abstraction, a depiction of the mechanistic age; a set of tableaux, arranged and full of deliberate artifice, symbolism. It’s visibly modern dance, but an early version of it… and the aesthetic will strike as familiar anyone who has seen Soviet propaganda films on the healthy peasant life in the Chernozem belt and early Fritz Lang films. It’s no coincidence that Les noces is only four years younger than Metropolis: they speak the same language. It’s a strange thing to behold, ahead of its time yet very much of its time… and now behind it; a live reel of an old film… an aesthetic that played self-referentially with ironic distance even at the time.

Now it’s twice more removed, viewing with the distance that 2013 provides for something that already played with distancing 90 years ago. The choreography elicited a few boos; perhaps because it was deemed boring or somewhat unattractive… I wouldn’t argue, but the boos strike me as rather odd all the same: A bit like going to a museum and booing the Guercino on exhibition, because it wasn’t what one expected after seeing it on TV with Sister Wendy. What the boos really amounted to was: ‘We didn’t read the program notes’.

Listening to the music, meanwhile, with its choral outbursts and faux-naïve rhythmic structures, you can’t help but wonder during Les noces if DSCH stole from Carl Orff or vice versa. If you know that Les noces was premiered about half a decade before Orff came out with Carmina Burana, you reckon that the latter would get the blame, were you to assume that any impropriety was involved.

available at Amazon
Stravinsky, Debussy, Dukas: Les Ballets Russes v.1
S.Cambreling / SWRSO Baden-Baden & Freiburg

Intermission. Rain outside the Festspielhaus, with people crowding into that four-foot strip of dryness under the awning, smoking and chatting. Almost like Salzburg in the summer, but with more affordable tickets. Now Le sacre, in a recreation of its original guise: The mocking quality in the multiple layers of historicism, the faux-nativist, the naïve, the height of sophistication masquerading as primitive, in part to rile, in part to mock, in part to delight perhaps, and certainly to perplex. The spectacle, which I’ve once heard described as burlap-clad troglodytes, one leg shorter than the other, dragging themselves around in joyless circles, wasn’t so well received at its premiere. (A fact impossible not to mention, unless you do it in some terribly clever, self-referential way). That was a blip, apparently, because a fortnight later it was already a huge critical, popular, and social success. Was this ballet, too, ahead of its time? “Yes. Evidently two weeks ahead of its time” as a friend remarked with quick wit.

The costumes are garish, but at least they’re busy now, simplistic yet elaborate, and with ghastly mustard-colored beards straight out of a Wodehousean farce. Clown make-up and funny hats, ugly in a beautiful way (or maybe the other way ‘round) and only four eagle feathers and two tomahawks away from being incredibly offensive to the more politically correct among us. The main achievement of the evening really wasn’t the choreography or the primitivist dancing of Daria Pavlenko (Chosen One) and colleagues, but what the choreography did to the music.

The wildness on stage untamed the music, made Gergiev’s reading appear raw and wild. It made Le sacre sound more cacophonic than ever and placed it further away from the high octane, well oiled, perfected and groomed machine of an orchestral showpiece it has become in concert halls around the world. That impression didn’t even rely on the actual musical performance being more than simply very creditable.

The Festspielhaus suffered a good deal of audience attrition after the second intermission. Those AWOL missed out on the Firebird, danced with all the grace of a road-runner cartoon. (Alexandra Iosifidi as the boid, Ivan Sitnikov as the silly prince.) This was uncomfortable watching, because unlike the other two ballets, modern at the time and still visibly so, to our eyes and imaginations, the Firebird choreography looks rather like it might mean it. In which case it’s not an ironic wink-wink about ballet tradition, but just a campy, dusty bit of costume-hopping and the very cliché the other two pieces set about to destroy once and for all. Capes and costumes, phosphorous paint on crude skeletons… a sort of A Midsummer Night's Dream scene for the daft. It made me think of the theory that with rising intelligence, something quite clever in 1910/12, made by and for people with, say, an IQ of 110 (the equivalent of college graduates and above), would now be by and for people with an adjusted IQ of 80—elementary school dropouts and below…

Well, at least the Salzburg audience—minus a minority of quickly out-bravoed booers—liked it.