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10 Days at the Salzburg Festival, Music’s Disneyland

So what has Mr. Hinterhäuser been able to do? Was this summer better than the last time I was here, three years ago?

Better, yes, but not appreciably different.

Salzburg is still driven by stars. Kissin, Pollini, Argerich, Mutter, Rattle and more parade through. The soprano Anna Netrebko has been the festival’s queen since 2002, and this year she sang a stylish Aida. Plácido Domingo is a perennial, and he drew an adoring audience but sounded weary in a concert version of “I Due Foscari,” enlivened only by Michele Mariotti’s conducting.


Markus Hinterhäuser, right, the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, with the conductor Teodor Currentzis.

Franz Neumayr for The New York Times

The Vienna Philharmonic, a luxurious, willful house band, remains formidable. In Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony, under Andris Nelsons, its evocation of misty distances was startling. But as in the past, the orchestra’s virtuosity can sometimes seem to exist merely moment-to-moment, for its own sake. Led by Riccardo Muti in a program of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, the Philharmonic sounded emphatic, brisk and unanxious. The music was beautiful — but meaningless.

Stars, the Viennese and beauty never too intense to trouble your sleep: Along with Mozart and Strauss, those were long the defining qualities of Salzburg. For decades, the festival was ruled by the redoubtable maestro Herbert von Karajan, who gave up power only when he died, in 1989.

Gerard Mortier’s subsequent tenure was an attempt to break the Karajan spell. Stagings turned bolder; the repertory was refreshed to add Messiaen, Ligeti, Janacek and new works. The hegemony of the Philharmonic was challenged by visits from guest ensembles.

Mr. Hinterhäuser, who programmed the experimental “Zeitfluss” series under Mr. Mortier and later had a stint running the festival’s concert program before a few years in charge of the Vienna Festival, made his name as a modern-music advocate. While Alexander Pereira, in charge when I was here in 2014, wore the crisp suits of a banker, Mr. Hinterhäuser — always in formless black and gray, always nursing the stub of a cigarette — seems first and foremost an artist.

That bohemian air, and his devotion to recent work as a player, have excited those who have been itching for change here — a change that they frequently articulate as a return to the heady excitement of the Mortier era. In its conscious recalling of that time, Mr. Hinterhäuser’s first summer was a bit of a paradox: Progressive to the extent that it evoked the 1990s.

Like Mr. Mortier, Mr. Hinterhäuser invited into the Vienna Philharmonic’s lair some new blood, notably the gifted iconoclast Teodor Currentzis, whose eyes flash as he describes his ideas for extravagantly long rehearsal periods, and MusicAeterna, his ardent ensemble from Perm, Russia.

These musicians play like their lives depend on it, with a freshness that’s raucous, impolite, lovable. (Even when the ensemble does suavity, it’s like a teenager wearing a tux.) Its Mahler First was an artful roller coaster of momentum, bursting with sly dances. Joined by the intense violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the group’s reading of Berg’s concerto was unsentimental, even severe and raw, but also nuanced and fully developed, the sound milky and organ-like in quotations of Bach.

Peter Sellars, a Mortier favorite and onetime enfant terrible, returned to stage Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito,” with Mr. Currentzis and MusicAeterna in the pit and bits of the composer’s Mass in C Minor interjected into the proceedings. And that Cornelius Meister program, with the ORF Radio Symphony of Vienna, was just like one that Mr. Hinterhäuser would have set up under Mr. Mortier, heightening Wagner’s “Tristan” Prelude and “Liebestod” and Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration” with two modern rarities, Claude Vivier’s “Siddhartha” and Giacinto Scelsi’s “Hymnos,” in a lush orgy of metaphysical extremity.


Anna Netrebko in “Aida” at Salzburg.

Barbara Gindl/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But the Vivier (from 1976) and Scelsi (1963) were about as contemporary as things got. Oddly enough, there was more 21st-century music when I was last here, under the ostensibly more conservative Mr. Pereira. (Kerem Hasan, a 25-year-old from Britain, did win this year’s young-conductor competition leading Andrew Norman’s “Try,” a piece from 2011.)

This summer the late 20th century was better represented, between a staging of Aribert Reimann’s 1978 opera “Lear” and a focus on Gérard Grisey (1946-98) and his circle. Mr. Hinterhäuser seemed, in his first season, to value fresh interpretations of the repertory — no one would confuse Mr. Currentzis’s Mahler, or Giovanni Antonini’s Mozart with the Mozarteum Orchestra, for a chestnut — as much if not more than fresh repertory.

Those fresh interpretations were often revelatory. Mr. Hinterhäuser brought together two old collaborators of his, the artist William Kentridge and Mr. Goerne, the baritone, for a teeming yet sober staging of Berg’s “Wozzeck,” conducted with unflappable patience by Vladimir Jurowski. And I don’t know if it was Mr. Hinterhäuser’s deliberate planning, but placing in the same season “Wozzeck” and Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” — both meditations on the depredations of modern life, both unfolding in surreal, grotesque episodes connected by brooding interludes — was a curatorial coup.

The most problematic production of the summer was “Aida.” Not because it failed — things are allowed to fail — but because the visual artist Shirin Neshat, directing her first opera, seems not to have been guided toward any vision at all. The strengths of her art over the past 25 years — striking, enigmatic film images; an unflinching perspective on gender in the context of exile and violence — went unused. The result could have been made by anyone. Ms. Neshat’s participation seemed more about Salzburg claiming art-world bona fides than about her interest in the art form. Helping to shape the work of a promising newcomer is Mr. Hinterhäuser’s job, and he seems to have left Ms. Neshat in the lurch.

Mr. Sellars, on the other hand, made his vision crystal clear in “La Clemenza di Tito”; hate it or love it, there’s no mistaking his work for anyone else’s. His spare staging set Mozart’s opera of rebellion and forgiveness in a developing nation today, with a brutal police presence but a caring leader.

The ruling family was cast with black singers; the chorus of citizen-refugees, displaced by a disaster, was white. Rather than the libretto’s hapless third wheel in a love triangle, Sesto (the clarinet-rich mezzo Marianne Crebassa, in a star-making performance) was here an agonized budding terrorist, torn between his personal admiration for Emperor Tito and his desire to tear down a monarchy, even a benevolent one. After the assassination attempt Sesto organizes, Tito spent the second act in a hospital bed, trailing IV drips.

The smooth interpolations of Mozart’s Mass, smoothly handled, served to stretch the opera’s action into abstract reflections on mercy and hope. During these sequences, the chorus moved in slow parade, arms gently moving into gestures of supplication and prayer that were familiar to those who had seen Mr. Sellars’s “ritualizations,” as he calls them, of the Bach Passions.

Afterward, at Triangel, the boisterous cafe across the street from the theater, I started talking to my neighbor about the staging. A carefully coifed Salzburg local, she wasn’t my idea of a Sellars enthusiast, or someone eager to see “ritualizations.” So I was surprised when she said she’d loved it: the vivid emotions, the committed acting.

It was a model for Mr. Hinterhäuser’s future: Change that even the tradition-minded can believe in.

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