Bayreuth for Beginners II: You never forget your first time


(c) Susan Brodie

Arno Breker's bust keeps watch over the Green Hill


The tourist map of Bayreuth immediately plunges one into the deep Bavarian world of Richard Wagner. To get to the Festspielhaus, get yourself to Kaiser Wilhelm Square, reachable via Friedrich V. Schiller Street, Karl Marx Street, or Goethe Street. From there proceed up Nibelungen Street, cross Meistersinger Street. At the junction of Parsifal Street and Tristan  Street the avenue enters the park and becomes Siegfried Wagner Allee. Instead of entering the park you can proceed to the right along Tristan Street, then turn right again onto Wotan Street and then cut down the first right to Gravenreuter Street and turn left, where you'll pass three streets named Telramund Way, Ortrud Way, and Kundry Way, before Gravenreuter becomes Furtwangler Street. Or you can go left on Parsifal Street and cut left at Rheingold Street (if you hit Knappertsbusch Street you've gone too far), and you'll come to Heinrich Schutz Street, which becomes Karl Muck Street as it loops around to the hospital grounds.


Bayreuth has plenty of intriguing spots to visit beyond the Green Hill, including one of the prettiest Baroque opera houses I've ever visited, the Margravinian Theater.  I'm sorry I didn't have the time to stroll through the Friedhof (cemetery), where many of the great conductors rest. There are small museums for German Freemasonry, for porcelain, for the sui generis German poet Jean-Paul…too many to see in a short visit. There are plenty of tourists in evidence, but not enough to make either residents or other visitors feel overrun. There's even a Spa, named after Lohengrin, where the weary visitor can take a cure, with a cold spring outpost just above the theater grounds where you can take a quick cooling wade during intermission. Bayreuth would be a very attractive destination even without the Festspiel.


But for me this week was all about the music. At the first downbeat it was clear that the Festpielhaus's unique sound is the primary reason for such fanatical pilgrimages to the House that Wagner built. The orchestra in its covered pit at first sounds small, a bit distant, but after a few bars the ears adjust to conditions more typical of an era before muscle cars, boom boxes, and the shrieks and whoops of sirens.  The opening of The Flying Dutchman crackled wtih sparkling clarity, strings shivering, the horns announcing danger. The peaceful woodwinds answered with pungent melancholy, each reed instrument mellow and distinct. Christian Thielemann at the helm drew a performance of vivid eloquence, wtih supple tempi, supporting the singers without overwhelming but unleashing frenzied power when called upon. My ears will never be the same.