A just war

Opera - Peter Conrad applauds an assault on German middle-class values

The Salzburg Festival was intended by its founders to be an Olympic Games for the soul. It aimed, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal declared in 1920, to "serve the world's classical heritage" in its own way, complementing the workouts given to the body by the athletic festival and offering spiritual peace to a strife-torn world. These days, the project has been amended. The purpose of art is no longer to atone for war; instead, it is the continuation of war by other means. Directors aim to antagonise Salzburg audiences, and to challenge the complacent swank of the society that bankrolls the festival.

This year, hostilities broke out with the opening production of Don Giovanni, which inaugurates a Mozart cycle conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and directed by Martin Kusej. For Kierkegaard, Mozart's libertine was the spirit of music itself: energetic, elusive, ethereal. Kusej tugs him down to ground, grubbily demystifying him. Thomas Hampson's Giovanni briefly undresses in order to exchange clothes with his servant, and - despite his cultivated, patrician voice - exposes a sallow, sagging, middle-aged belly and incipient breasts. The object of everyone's desire is a fraud, a specious commercial myth constructed by a society that, in Kusej's view, exploits sex to sell things.

As the overture begins, a billboard showing an array of sleek female rumps extends across the proscenium. Haughty supermodels, identified in the programme as Persephone's sisters, sashay down a catwalk and disappear through a door that opens in the billboard. What lies behind is the factory where the illusions are concocted, a cold, blearily white recess that replaces Giovanni's punitive inferno. The models cosmetically touch up the corpse of the murdered Commendatore, and prepare him for cryogenic storage: the beauty industry, which they serve, mortifies the body in order to preserve it.

During the graveyard scene, these long-limbed young women change to wrinkled crones, still obscenely outfitted in skimpy black bikinis, to show up the decadent squalor of the pampered flesh. The nipped and tucked consorts of the German industrialists sitting near me looked on with frozen faces.

Giovanni, according to Kusej, loses his heroic singularity and his satanic allure, since sex is merely a marketing aid. In this production, everyone is a libertine. Donna Anna - played as a nymphet in filmy lingerie by the soubrettish Anna Netrebko - smooches with Giovanni while supposedly suffering an assault, and tongue-kisses Ottavio (the excellent Michael Schade) to ensure that he believes her lies. The Zerlina of the luscious-voiced Magdalena Kozena does a tawdry striptease to placate her bridegroom after her own romp with Giovanni. No devils come to drag the apostate away because he is already in hell. He expires, like Al Pacino's Scarface, in a desert of coke, the victim of affluent excess.

David Pountney's stunning production of Turandot continued the attack on society, presenting Puccini's violently sensual Orient as an industrial abattoir, a robotic dictatorship run by puppets who issue orders through megaphones. The abased masses troop and toil on gantries dominated by grinding, torturing wheels like those that threatened to mash Chaplin's bones in Modern Times. Turandot herself (the belligerently loud Gabriele Schnaut) is the idolised automaton Maria from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. She sings her homicidal aria on a pedestal high above the stage, but the hydraulic mechanism abruptly deflates when her riddles are solved by the unknown prince. As when Hampson sheds his shirt, the emphasis of this production is on unmasking characters with mythic pretensions and desecrating myth itself. Valery Gergiev, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, conjures up a sonic world that exactly corresponds to Pountney's vision: he aligns the score with the rhythmic brutalism of Stravinsky or Prokofiev, though he also elicits inner instrumental voices that lament on behalf of the individuals - especially the sacrificed slave Liu, touchingly sung by Cristina Gallardo-Domas - trampled by this regime.

The usual problem with such iconoclastic stagings is the disparity between drama and music. During Don Giovanni, I wondered whether Harnoncourt, intent on respecting Mozart's original tempi and dynamics, had noticed how Kusej had manhandled the work. The contradiction is resolved in Turandot because the score has been ingeniously adjusted to suit Pountney's interpretation. Puccini died before completing the final scene, and a colleague supplied a brassily jubilant apotheosis in which Turandot and her lover Calaf hurl out aphrodisiac high Cs and conveniently forget about the death of Liu, who kills herself to ease their union. This padded, pompous, morally obtuse conclusion has been rewritten by the composer Luciano Berio, who forces Turandot to take account of the music written after it: the expressionistic anguish of Schoenberg and Berg, and the deafening, untempered noise that, for Berio himself, is a condition of our society.

After Liu's death, Puccinian melody suddenly gives way to a clogged, muddy cacophony, with a funereal tolling of bells that suggests Mahler. There is for Berio no other way of expressing the violence of the moment, which lyricism would have muffled and euphemised. When Turandot and Calaf return to Puccini's vocal lines, they utter them softly, reflectively, rather than crudely broadcasting their triumph; and as they do so, they perform rites of absolution over Liu's body (which in most productions is swiftly carted away). They wash her, and in doing so begin to cleanse their own guilt, while the oppressed populace emerges from hiding and shyly begins to re-cement human relationships. A quiet orchestral postlude quotes the final bars of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which heals the dissonance that made modern music possible and restores the "peace of the mind" that for Hofmanns-thal was Salzburg's blessing.

The plutocrats in the audience politely applauded this revolution, and then - with rustling dresses and jangling jewels - scuttled off to gorge themselves at dinner. It's one thing for Pountney and Kusej to destroy a corrupt old world and create a new one in the theatre. On the streets outside, reality soon enough inequitably, invidiously resumes.