Salzburg Festival 2018 Review: The Bassarids

Sean Panikkar & Russell Braun Bring Krzysztof Warlikowsky‘s Strong Vision To Life

By Katerina Bezgachina

Hans Werner Henze’s opera “The Bassarids” received its first performance at the Salzburg Festival on August 6, 1966. At the premiere, Christoph von Dohnanyi conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. English-American poet W.H. Auden and his partner Chester Kallman wrote the libretto based on Euripides’ “Bacchae,” one of the last tragedies of the great Greek dramatist. Within weeks, the opera was premiered in German in Berlin. In 1968, it saw its English-language production at the Santa Fe Opera.

The late 1960s through early 1970s were a time of social upheaval in Europe, tense international relations and a stand-off between the two superpowers, the US and the USSR. The plot of “The Bassarids” employed Greek mythology to reflect on those social changes. In August 2018, more than fifty years later and in a time of new upheavals, The Bassarids is seeing its revival at the Salzburg Festival. This time, Japanese conductor Kent Nagano leads the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Polish theatre director Krzysztof Warlikowsky along with his wife, designer Malgorzata Szczesniak, take charge of what is happening on stage. 

But what do we see, hear and get out of this monumental production today? 

Reinterpreting A Mythic Tale

Hans Werner Henze always believed that music was able to speak to people. To him, it was not an abstract artifact or concept but an inseparable part of human reality. We can see this opera as a story of a hooded stranger, who claims to be god Dionysus, sung by an American tenor Sean Panikkar, in his first appearance at the Salzburg Festival. The god returns to the city of his birth to liberate it and restore the cult of his dead mother, Semele. People of Thebes are lured by freedom and lustfulness preached by the newcomer. A newly appointed king, Pentheus, sung by a Canadian baritone Russell Braun, wants to stop new ideas and bring back old traditions. The young king embarks on a dangerous journey and faces a struggle with Dionysus. But can he resist the god? Even Pentheus’ mother, Agave, sung by one of the leading German mezzo-sopranos Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, leaves the city to celebrate dissolute festivities – Bacchanals – on the mountain. In a trance-like state, she cuts her son’s body into pieces and brings home his head. Old Cadmus, the founder of the ancient Thebes and the grandfather of the young king, sung by the acclaimed bass Sir Willard White, witnesses the fall of the city and extermination of his family.

However, things are never simple and straightforward in Krzysztof Warlikowsky’s productions. He puts the plot into a subtle context and turns it into a fable about society and people, fascinated by radical ideas of a charlatan. Masses abandon rational thinking to pursue pleasures and absolute freedom only to find that they bring havoc and anarchy. At the same time, we can see it as a true Greek tragedy —  an eternal struggle between rational, Apollonian, and irrational, Dionysian, in human beings. To show these various interpretation, Warlikowsky divides the stage into four sections: the middle is the place of the coronation; to the right is Agave’s bedroom, an intimate space; to the left is the place of ritual and worship — a place for the chorus, and a mountain, Cytheron, rising steeply upwards. Actions move from one space into another or take place in several spaces at the same time. Often, it feels like watching “The Timecode,” a movie by Mike Figgis, where the screen is divided into quarters and projects four different stories.

Massive Forces

This production of “The Bassarids” at the Salzburg Festival uses the original English text from the 1966 premiere, including the often omitted intermezzo “The Judgement of Calliope,” which offers a play within a play and gives another perspective on the main characters and their relations. It employs a monumental orchestra of the Vienna Philharmonic, the chorus of the Vienna State Opera and dancers as well as lighting and video engineers. Actions spread throughout the whole broad stage of the Felsenreitschule hall with its unique space carved in the mountain over Salzburg. At times, it is hard for Kent Nagano to keep control over the orchestra and various stage movements. However, the natural magic of the hall helps to pull it all together. The music is nuanced and clear, and every sound, projected into the hall, filled it completely.

The contrast between the rational and the emotional penetrates the music of the opera, too. Panikkar seduces the audience with his sensuality and heavenly voice from the first aria “How fair is wild Cytheron.” He is sitting in one of the arcades hewn out of the rock, and his Dionysian melody, accompanied by celesta, seems to be flowing into the hall from heavenly heights. One cannot help but recall the sensual Adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Contrary to this, the sound of his protagonist, Pentheus as represented by Russell Braun, is painted with dark colors and pierced with staccato rhythms.

Lasting almost three hours with an interval, “The Bassarids” culminate with a giant passacaglia as the drama reaches its brutal climax. The new god is ready to set the world on fire. And we are not sure if this is a triumph or a tragedy, when the music stops and the light goes off. 


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