At two summer festivals, dark and sinister offerings

ESSEN, Germany – In the constellation of European performing arts festivals, few are more contrasted than the Salzburg Festival and the ...


ESSEN, Germany – In the constellation of European performing arts festivals, few are more contrasted than the Salzburg Festival and the Ruhrtriennale.

The differences start with the event parameters. Salzburg, the picturesque birthplace of Mozart, nestled in the Alps, lies in the geographic center of Europe. The Ruhr region, Germany’s rust belt, is relatively isolated. Salzburg offers great views of the mountains, an old town and a fairytale castle. The Ruhr region is an interconnected network of drab post-industrial cities.

The Salzburg Festival typically welcomes affluent visitors from over 80 countries, while the Ruhrtriennale caters heavily to locals with subsidized tickets.

Yet despite all their differences, the two festivals share a certain DNA.

When the Flemish impresario Gérard Mortier founded the Ruhrtriennale in 2002, he emerged from a decade of upheaval as artistic director of the Salzburg Festival. Although his time there is now considered a golden age, Mortier’s attempts to push the festival in a more daring artistic direction have proven to be true. very controversial at the time. When Mortier arrives in the Ruhr area, his new festival gives him the opportunity to carry out large-scale experiments that he will never be able to do in Salzburg.

Two decades later, the Salzburg Festival’s list of operas and concerts has rediscovered something of the boundary-pushing and avant-garde flair of the “Mortier era”. The festival’s dramatic schedule, however, struggled to keep up.

The Salzburg open-air production of “Jedermann», A moral piece written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, one of the founders of the festival, is the oldest tradition of the event. In recent years, few other works by the Austrian poet and playwright have been staged there. This summer, however, as part of the festival’s centenary festivities, the “Falun mine»Took center stage.

Written in 1899, although never performed during its author’s lifetime, “The Falun Mine” is a ghost story composed in the harsh lyrical language of Hofmannsthal’s best early work. It tells the story of a minor plagued by strange apparitions and engulfed by a mountain on his wedding day, and is suffocated by a symbolism, much of which has remained impenetrable in the dismal staging of the Swiss director. Jossi Wieler.

The actors declaimed their lines in a very mannered tone from a rotating stage littered with cinder blocks. It often seemed that the room itself was buried alive under the rubble.

A theatrical death knell has also sounded for the new Salzburg production of “” by Friedrich SchillerMarie stuart. “Despite some powerful imagery, thanks to a silent chorus of 30 naked male performers, or a single oscillating bulb, Martin Kusej’s stripped-down staging, a co-production with the Burgtheater in Vienna (where Kusej is the artistic director) fell to flat, sabotaged by hammy overacting of almost everyone in the cast.

The atmosphere of sadness and doom seemed to spread like a haze from Salzburg to the Ruhr area, where a number of the region’s “cathedrals of industry” – the disused factories that have been converted into theaters – had a haunted quality at the start of the Ruhrtriennale.

This summer’s program is the first of three directed by Barbara Frey, a Swiss director and the second woman in a row to lead the festival after Stefanie Carp, whose troubled tenure was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic. Based on Frey’s work so far, she seems determined to restore to the Ruhrtriennale the provocative and artistically unpredictable spirit of its founder.

In his own production of “The fall of House Usher,”The building in question was the Maschinenhalle Zweckel, the electrical center of a former coal mine in the town of Gladbeck. In this grim spectacle, another co-production with the Burgtheater, a tight-knit group of eight performers narrated five of Poe’s mind-boggling tales in German, English and Hungarian. With ritualistic precision, they exalted themselves in the melancholy prose of the American writer.

This atmosphere of stifling sadness has turned gleefully macabre with “The Feast of the Lambs”, a musical play written by Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek and composer Olga Neuwirth. Based on a play by British writer Leonora Carrington, it is, like “Usher”, a story of family madness and decadence.

Dublin Dead Center theater company directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd filled the cave Jahrhunderthalle, a former gas-fired power station in the city of Bochum, with stunning production, with trippy video projections, snowfall and a blood-red lake, effectively blurring the lines between domestic and outdoor horrors, as well as between man and animal savagery. (You can watch a streaming performance on the festival website).

As in “Usher”, the eccentric spirit of “Lambs” was linked to seriousness and artistic skill. Things looked very different for “A Divine ComedyBy Florentina Holzinger. This young Viennese choreographer made a name for himself extreme performance which deconstruct the history of dance and the sexualized representations of the female body.

Her latest Dante-inspired release combines stage hypnosis, athletic performances, slapstick routines, action painting and pornographic situations with no apparent end. Using the Kraftzentrale, a huge old power station in the city of Duisburg, Holzinger and about 20 nude female performers went on a rampage for nearly two hours, often to the sound of rumbling siege music.

Holzinger is part of the new artistic team of the Volksbühne in Berlin, where “A Divine Comedy” will be transferred at the end of September. It’s a three-ring horror circus that was mostly tedious. I didn’t buy Holzinger’s intentionally transgressive show, but apparently I was in the minority: the only thing that really shocked me about “A Divine Comedy” was how much the audience loved it.

I felt that there was an artistic work at the Ruhrtriennale that was linked to humanity – and it was not in a theater.

Over the past decade, Swiss artist Mats Staub has conducted hundreds of interviews with people of various ages and backgrounds to “21 – Memories of growing up”, Which was installed in a turbine hall in Bochum. Spread over 50 different stations, the video interviews offer varied thoughts on maturity, independence and happiness. The project looks like an archive of human efforts and the possibility of rebirth.

Renewal was the watchword at the founding of the Salzburg Festival and the Ruhrtriennale. In 1920, this meant reclaiming and safeguarding European culture after the Great War and the loss of the Habsburg Empire; by the turn of the millennium, that meant rejuvenating a depressed post-industrial corner of Germany.

If the on-stage offerings of both events this year seemed relentlessly grim, they at least reflected the struggles of our time. Yet as we cautiously adjust to life with a pandemic for the foreseeable future, we could also desperately use some renewal.

The Salzburg Festival continues until August 31.

The Ruhrtriennale continues until September 25.

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