SALZBURG, Austria -- Opera-goers attending Salzburg Festival's new production of Puccini's "La Boheme" expected the worst when the man with the microphone stepped out, shortly before show-time – but then came the good news. Piotr Beczala, who had received rave reviews at last week's premiere, had lost his voice, they were told, but instead of the show being stripped of its star performer, his voice would be replaced by one of the hottest names in opera today.
Enter Jonas Kaufmann, and Saturday's audience settled into a mode of gleeful anticipation of a special evening to come, particularly after the decision to let Bezcala act and Kaufmann provide the singing from the sidelines.
They were not disappointed. Kaufmann performed brilliantly between chews of what appeared to be a hastily organized sandwich and gulps of mineral water – an indication that he got the call to perform just ahead of his dinner.
He was supposed to be "only" the voice, with Bezcala miming the words and action – but the audience was hard put to keep its eyes on the stage.
Formally, Kaufmann is at the Salzburg Festival this year to sing in another role and on Saturday he was supposed to be resting up for a performance on Sunday. But more of that later.
As he threw himself into the role of the poor poet in love with the consumptive seamstress Mimi, Kaufmann accented his broad, full-throated and awe-inspiring Wagnerian tenor with gestures and facial expressions reflecting his total identification with the role of a man tossed and turned by the forces of love and despair.
Though that wasn't the plan, Kaufmann essentially reduced Beczala to window-dressing. He even occasionally verged on upstaging Mimi – no small feat, considering that she was portrayed by Anna Netrebko, the Russian diva who imbues any role with star presence worthy more of Hollywood than the opera stage.
Netrebko's lush voice, perfect intonation, masterful control and passionate interpretations are always a treat, and she again lived up to expectations as Mimi, particularly considering that the opera – one of the world's most popular – has never been performed at the Salzburg Festival before this year. Previous high-brow festival directors had considered it trashy.
"Anna is really good tonight," an audience member was overheard exclaiming as the curtain came down on the first scene.
OK, it WAS Erwin Schrott, the star bass-baritone who happens to be married to Netrebko. But he wasn't exaggerating.
Also good: Massimo Cavalletti as Marcello; Nino Machaidze as Musetta; Alessio Arduini, Schaunard; Carlo Colombara, Colline; Davide Fersini, Benoit; Peter Kalman, Alcindoro, and one other standout who was more heard than seen – conductor Daniele Gati.
Under his baton, members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra delivered a masterful interpretation of Puccini's rich score, from the first exuberant bars depicting the passions of youthful life in an artists' garret, to the final hesitant and somber musical fragments that document Mimi's last heart beats.
Director Damiano Michieletto was restrained but effective in a production that moved the action from 19th century Paris to the French capital of today and the characters from bohemians to modern-day dropouts.
But back to Kaufmann – and forward to Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos," an opera written only a few decades later than La Boheme but as different as day and night.
While La Boheme tells the story straight, Ariadne is an opera within a play.
The prologue depicting backstage preparations for the performance of an opera is then followed by that opera – a work based on Greek mythology exploring the purity of real love. But the rich burgher who commissioned the work suddenly decides to combine it with a farcical musical comedy. It is a prescription for chaos that instead turns into delightful musical theater created only as Strauss could have done.
It all isn't complicated enough, however, for director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, who has added yet another layer to the Salzburg production.
He weaves in the love story of librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal and Ottonie von Degenfeld-Schonburg, a young widow. She is said to have been the model for Ariadne, who longs for death after being abandoned by her lover – and finds love in the arms of Bacchus, played by Kaufmann.
Kaufmann on Sunday was in brilliant voice, just a day after his impromptu La Boheme stint – and Bechtolf's conceit works brilliantly, with the curtain going down on three couples arm-in-arm: Bacchus and Ariadne; the rich burgher and Zerbinetta, the leader of the comic troupe; and Hugo and Ottonie.
Bechtolf's creative work is what makes this production really outstanding. But any opera rests and falls on the music, and the principals did not let him down.
The audience was told that she was in poor voice, but Elena Mosuc delivered amazing coloratura fireworks that not even the highest note could withstand, accompanied by endearing theatrics that nailed the role of the coquettish Zerbinetta. As Ariadne, Emily Magee was Mosuc's perfect foil, her soprano clear and pure, her demeanor somber, as befits a tragic heroine. And the supporting roles were good as well, among them; Eva Libau, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Eleonora Buratto, Gabriel Bermudez, Michael Laurenz and Tobias Kehrer.
Daniel Harding, conducting members of the Vienna Philharmonic, conjured up a musical tapestry that sparkled in all its variations. Costumes and staging by Rolf and Marianne Glittenberg were vivid but not overbearing.
Ariadne flopped at its premiere almost 100 years ago, leading Strauss to truncate the original version and to lament that "an audience going to see a piece of spoken theater doesn't want to hear an opera and vice versa.
"There simply was no cultural understanding for this lovely `hybrid,'" wrote Strauss back then.
Tell that to Bechtolf.