Wagner’s Mystique Still Resonates at Controversial Bayreuth Festival

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Bayreuth Festspielhaus
By Scott Cantrell

August 20, 2012, Bayreuth, Germany: For serious music lovers, certain places have the aura of shrines. For pop music fans of a certain age, it’s Woodstock. For me, walking into the Vienna Musikverein was deeply moving. Brahms conducted on that stage, I thought. So did Tchaikovsky. So many great pieces of music were first heard there. Surely, though, no musical venue has quite the mystique of the hilltop Festspielhaus (festival theater) in this Bavarian town of 75,000. And no composer in history has achieved the cult status of Richard Wagner, who settled here in 1874 and planned the Festspielhaus specifically for the then-radical demands of his new operas.

His operas are peopled by strange men, women, gods and demi-gods from Teutonic mythology. But they’re also tracts on big ideas – power and love, exploitation and redemption – in ways wholly new in opera. Many a library shelf groans under tomes analyzing their meanings. Others painstakingly analyze their musical themes, unprecedented harmonic complexities and bold innovations in orchestral sonorities.

Wagner was an unlikely hero. After landing a prominent position as chief conductor of the Dresden Opera, he got in serious trouble by backing a socialist-anarchist revolution. A fugitive from the law and creditors, he fled to Paris, then to Switzerland.

His visions for dramatically new musico-dramatic expressions were balanced by a towering, ruthless ego. The composer whose operas often idealize love betrayed his first wife and made off with the wife of a friend, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow – who, amazingly, continued to champion Wagner’s operas.

Wagner documented his anti-Semitism – shared, it must be said, by much of the 19th-century German-speaking world – in an unsavory book called Jewishness in Music. Half a century on, one of his most ardent admirers was Adolf Hitler, a regular at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival. From a Festspielhaus window he saluted crowds of admirers screaming “Sieg heil!”

The composer’s daughter-in-law Winifred Wagner, who ran the festival from 1930 to 1945, was creepily close to the Führer. To this day, letters between them remain locked up by the Wagner family.

Only this year has the festival openly confronted its own “Jewish problem,” in a display of panels outside the Festspielhaus. It was big news recently when the Russian tenor Yevgeny Nikitin withdrew from The Flying Dutchman after older photos revealed a tattooed swastika on his chest, from his days in a rock band.

That’s a lot of baggage to lay on a bunch of operas, let alone an opera house. But it adds to the strange mystique that surrounds the composer and the festival he inaugurated in 1876 with the first performance of his four-opera epic The Ring of the Nibelung. Wagnerians from around the world wait as much as 10 years for tickets.

This isn’t a Ring year at Bayreuth, the playlist this summer comprising the other “major” operas. A review of The Flying Dutchman appears today, to be followed by Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, Tannhäuser and Parsifal.

Outside, and in the lobbies, the Festspielhaus looks like a rather grand hunting lodge. Inside, a succession of Corinthian columns, dotted with globular lights, narrows the focus onto a surprisingly narrow stage. The orchestra pit is covered with a cove that focuses the sound toward the stage rather than toward the audience.

The renowned acoustics are indeed amazing, with a distinctive glow of resonance. Voices – and diction – are quite clear, but warmly embraced and dispersed; the stage house itself seems to add depth and richness to the sound.

Thanks to that cove and the steep downward rake of the instrumentalists’ seating in the pit, the orchestra at first seems to be facing away – which it virtually is.

This tames and narrows the sound of the brasses, while strings and winds emerge more prominently. The ears soon adjust, and the arrangement – and the relative intimacy of the 1,925-seat auditorium – means singers don’t have to work nearly as hard as in most modern opera houses.

Seats for the audience, in wide rows accessible only from the sides, remain Spartan, with low backs and only modest padding below. There’s no air conditioning. In the Wagnerian shrine, art trumps creature comforts.

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Revision Rules Dutchman: Updated Staging of Wagner’s Production Is Mostly Well-Suited as Voices, Orchestra Impress

August 20, 2012, Bayreuth, Germany: If he were alive today, Richard Wagner wouldn’t be voting for Mitt Romney, but I’m not sure he’d be voting for Barack Obama either. The German operatic innovator was repulsed by the inequalities and exploitation of capitalism. Establishment authority figures in his operas tend to be corrupt, in need of redemption if not destruction. Stage director Jan Philipp Gloger certainly pursues this line of thought in his updating of The Flying Dutchman, seen Saturday evening at the Festspielhaus. The background force isn’t the sea but designer Christof Hetzer’s web of glowing electronic connections and digital counters.Karin Jud costumes the wandering Dutchman not as the usual sailor but as a rootless modern businessman with a roller bag. As if leprous, both he and his mysterious sailors are marked by strange black lesions on their faces.

Daland is a suited businessman, too, popping pills and shooting up, all too transparent in readiness to barter his daughter, Senta, to the highest bidder. The male chorus is dressed in identical gray business suits; the women, thread spinners in the libretto, are turned into workers in an electric-fan factory, playfully spinning the blades. Erik, unrequitedly in love with Senta, isn’t the usual hunter, but a lumpen laborer brandishing a caulk gun.

In a festival so obsessively “true” to Wagner that it eschews air conditioning, modern seats and projected translations, what the Germans call Regietheater – revisionist directors’ theater – rules the house. Detractors huff about “Eurotrash,” and a few boos were heard Saturday, but Wagner himself urged his followers to “make new!”

I’m open to revisionist stagings if they make sense within themselves, and I pretty much followed Gloger’s line of thought. Here the men have sacrificed sensitivity and love – humanness – to self-absorbed drive. Senta, usually a mercurial naïf, here is the only figure uncorrupted by ambition. Clad in a red dress and obsessing over a cardboard dummy of the Dutchman, she gives herself unquestioningly to the real man.

Alas, a misunderstanding dooms both love and, for the Dutchman, redemption. Rather than jumping into the sea, Senta stabs herself, in effect completing the sacrificial blood imagery that repeatedly counterpoints the action.

Samuel Youn is the aptly stolid, sonorous Dutchman. Franz-Josef Selig’s rich bass and loose vibrato incarnate Daland’s corruption. Adrianne Pieczonka’s soprano sometimes goes steely, but she has the power and authority for Senta. Even Michael König’s rich textured but underpowered tenor somehow fits Erik. Benjamin Bruns is a slimy steersman with a penetrating tenor that also yields seductive head tones.

At generally lively tempos, conductor Christian Thielemann proves a master of proportion and trajectory. Once past some uncertain intonation, the orchestra played incandescently. The chorus, prepared by Eberhard Friedrich, sang stunningly.

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Wagner, Vermin-Style: Bizarre Staging Overwhelms Lohengrin

August 21, 2012, Bayreuth, Germany: Richard Wagner had very specific ideas about how his operas should be staged, with decors in the manner of German romantic paintings. The festival he founded here used the original sets well after they had gotten pretty moth-eaten. It was that rabid Wagnerian Adolf Hitler, when the Nazis essentially ran the Bayreuth Festival, who approved scrapping the original designs. The replacements stirred up a storm of controversy, as did the stripped-down, abstract sets imposed by Wagner’s grandson, Wieland, during the 1950s.Now, like opera houses all over Europe, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is the playground of avant-garde stage directors and designers. On Sunday, between 4 and 9:30 p.m., with two one-hour intermissions, came my chance at director Hans Neuenfels’ Lohengrin – the one with the rats.

Rats? I tried, I really did, to follow Neuenfels’ logic: that dressing the chorus in black-and-white rat costumes, with some pink baby rats scurrying and twitching, was “a sensual metaphor for the masses and for mass behavior.” The chorus, prepared by Eberhard Friedrich, sings splendidly, but before long I was thinking, “Oh, no, here come those rats again.” Exterminators in blue hazmat suits occasionally shooed them away and disposed of the bodies.

Apart from the rats’ glowing red eyes and some pastel bridesmaid dresses, designer Reinhard von der Thannen goes for the black-and-white look. Fluorescent-lit walls are portholed and finned. Attire is au courant, King Heinrich sporting a black-painted Burger King crown and the Herald a rock star’s upshot coif and floor-dragging tailcoat.

At the end, though, the reincarnated Gottfried appears as a newborn out of an egg, tossing fragments of his umbilical cord to the chorus, now in military uniforms. Pardon me while I wince.

Something might have been made of this with a Lohengrin more elegant, and more charismatic, than Klaus Florian Vogt. He obviously has quite a following here and got loud bravos and foot stompings at the end. His quiet singing is lovely, honeyed legato, but his default position is a very loud and steely sound and mechanically syllabic delivery.

Annette Dasch sings capably as Elsa and captures her vulnerability, if not her warmth. Thomas J. Mayer and Susan Maclean are aptly brutish as an incestuous Telramund and Ortrud, although Maclean’s mezzo frays under pressure. Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s King Heinrich is dapper of presence and voice, and Samuel Youn delivers the Herald’s proclamations with firm authority.

The Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, reportedly a leading contender for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has an idiomatic feel for the music’s give-and-take, and he stirs up thrilling climaxes from the orchestra. But he could do nothing about a first-act vocal ensemble that drifted far from its tonal moorings. Ouch.

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A Dreary Tristan

August 22, 2012, Bayreuth, Germany: Never have I heard the score to Tristan und Isolde more gloriously played than it was here Monday. The hushed opening, at a surprisingly mobile pace, first suggested a businesslike reading. But conductor Peter Schneider soon was working magic, caressing Wagner’s aching suspensions. Climaxes rose to thrilling effect, but quieter music was lovingly balanced and shaped.The sound of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra hovered, glowed and blazed in the Festspielhaus acoustics. After some gamey wind playing on two previous evenings, now everything was exquisitely polished.

Ordinarily, a conductor would be scolded for so often allowing climaxes to overpower the singers. This time, the masses of sound were often a blessing. I kept recalling former New York Times critic Bernard Holland’s description of some bygone Bayreuth singers as “the walking wounded.”

To her credit, Iréne Theorin delivered Isolde’s final waves of sonic ecstasy in great lava flows of sound. At that point, it almost didn’t matter that she had looked and sounded – how to put this delicately? – a bit matronly for Wagner’s wild Irish princess.

Several of us wondered if Robert Dean Smith, the Tristan, were under the weather. His voice was a couple of sizes smaller than Theorin’s and often sounded a bit choked. Surprisingly often out of tune, his singing hadn’t an ounce of poetry.

Jukka Rasilainen’s Kurwenal picked up some of Smith’s uncertain tuning in the third act, but he supplied a handsome, muscular bass-baritone. Kwangchul Youn, as King Marke, exuded bass notes to vibrate the floorboards. Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne sometimes sounded stretched in Act 1, but at the end she brought the voice beautifully under control.

The smaller roles were capably filled: Ralf Lukas as a sonorous Melot, Arnold Bezuyen as the Shepherd, Martin Snell as the Steersman and Clemens Bieber as the Young Sailor.

The staging by Christoph Marthaler, one of the more controversial European directors, certainly defies conventional wisdom that Tristan celebrates amorous ecstasy. As revived by director Anna-Sophie Mahler, all is isolation, confinement, sterility. The sole touch of tenderness comes when, in the second act, Tristan sinks to the floor to lean against Isolde’s legs.

With each act, designer Anna Viebrock plunges us deeper into mid-20th-century English provincialism. (The opera does revolve around provincial Cornwall.) The first act looks like a lower-class sitting room on a 1940s ferry, with peeling wood-grain wallpaper. King Marke’s castle has ugly mustard-colored walls and fluorescent lights. The last act transpires in what looks like a morgue, with paint chipping off grim concrete walls.

With provocative touches too many to number, something might have been made of this with really fine singers. As it is, the drab conception makes a long opera seem interminable. Thank God for Schneider and the orchestra.

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A Bizarre Tannhäuser at Bayreuth: Dystopian Stage Design Belies Superb Musicianship

August 23, 2012, Bayreuth, Germany: It’s a good thing I read the Edward and Paula Bortnichak essay in the program book before Tuesday’s Bayreuth Festival Tannhäuser. Otherwise I would have been yet another of the critics dismissed for mistaking those gray, tailed things slithering and pulsing onstage for giant tadpoles. They are, we’re told, giant spermatozoa that “graphically represent the ebb and flow of Tannhäuser’s sexual desire.” Thanks to the Bortnichaks, too, for explaining that designer Joep van Lieshout’s stage-filling, tri-level factory, with big red-and-blue storage tanks, represents a chemical plant in some Huxleyan future. Video projections, by Christopher Kondek, range from flitting protozoa and dividing cells to industrial directives.

This cold science-rules-all world is counterpointed by a red-lighted cage that rises from the floor, its denizens of both sexes pawing all over each other and Tannhäuser. This, at least, is easy to identify as Venus’ playpen.

The libretto of Wagner’s opera tells of a singing knight torn between Venus’ voluptuous pleasures and the upright, if rather self-righteous, world of his old singing-warrior buddies. His reward for singing the best song would be the beautiful, virtuous Elisabeth, niece of the Landgrave.

When even the pope in Rome denies absolution for Tannhäuser’s past debauchery, redemption is provided by Elisabeth’s self-sacrifice. (Where would 19th-century opera be without doomed but redemptive women?)

In Sebastian Baumgarten’s staging, religion is reduced to a silly video of a barefoot Virgin Mary. Neither Venus’ cheesy lust nest nor the coldly efficient factory, updating the medieval court, appeals. I missed this detail, but the Bortnichaks report that Tannhäuser bears lesions of AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma, stigmata of his sexual misdeeds.

This is material for much eye-rolling, and, yes, my eye muscles are sore today. But musically, Tuesday’s performance was the most consistently superb so far in the Bayreuth lineup. Thorsten Kerl is a rather keen-toned Tannhäuser, but he’s got the decibels and vivid projection. Camilla Nylund sings radiantly as Elisabeth. The most glorious singing of all – a sumptuous baritone dispensed with elegant legato – comes from Michael Nagy’s Wolfram von Eschenbach.

Günther Groissböck, as Herman, could use some beefier low notes, but he cuts a dashing figure. Lothar Odinius (as Walther von der Vogelweide), Thomas Jesatko (Biterolf), Arnold Bezuyen (Heinrich der Schreiber) and Martin Schnell (Reinmar von Zweter) round out a sonorous (non-)knightly entourage.

Michelle Breedt sings well enough as a shopworn, and increasingly pregnant, Venus. Katja Stuber is the bright-toned Young Shepherd.

Once again, the enormous chorus, prepared by Eberhard Friedrich, produced thrilling sounds. But the loudest applause and foot-stomping went to conductor Christian Thielemann, who drew wondrous and richly expressive playing from the orchestra.

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German History Lesson at Bayreuth: Wagner’s Parsifal Gets an Update

August 25, 2012, Bayreuth, Germany: It has taken some doing, but the Norwegian stage director Stefan Herheim has transformed Parsifal, at the Bayreuth Festival, into a parable of modern German history. On paper, Wagner’s first act is about some medieval knights who guard the Holy Grail, the legendary cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. Their leader, Amfortas, suffers from a wound that won’t heal, punishment for a night of pleasure with the demon-possessed Kundry. The evil sorcerer Klingsor took that opportunity to stab Amfortas with his own spear, supposedly the same one that pierced Jesus on the cross, and to steal it. Amfortas, and the weakened community of knights, can be healed only by “a pure fool made wise by suffering” – who finally materializes in the person of Parsifal.

Set designer Heike Scheele opens the Bayreuth production in an upper-class, early German-Empire home, circa 1880, with period costumes by Gesine Völlm.

In a miraculous bed in the middle, Parsifal’s bloody birth gets enacted, and later quite a number of characters appear and disappear here. I’m not sure why so many of them sport dark wings, unless incarnating aspects – variously power-hungry, weakened, noble and wanton – of a nation represented by an eagle.

For the second act, we get not Klingsor’s castle and magic gardens but a wartime hospital. Wagner’s Flowermaidens are rendered as Red Cross nurses and Las Vegas showgirls, whose “services,” ahem, extend well beyond traditional medicine. Momme Hinrichs and Torge Moller supply background videos of armies marching to war. Nazi flags and swastikas and worried-looking refugees are de rigueur shockers.

The last act opens in postwar ruins. Gurnemanz is presented as an old soldier to whom Parsifal appears as an out-of-this-world medieval knight. Here, and in the ensuing baptism and foot washing, Herheim actually sticks fairly closely to Wagner’s design. But the final scene is updated to today’s Reichstag, a huge mirror simulating the downward view from architect Norman Foster’s dome.

Somehow, the opera’s redemptive message comes through all this, but only just. This is a production with way too many ideas.

Apart from Kwangchul Youn’s dignified, richly resonant Gurnemanz, the singing is capable if not particularly distinguished. Burkhard Fritz has the decibels for Parsifal, if not a wished-for warmth. Susan Maclean certainly personifies Kundry’s multiple personalities, at one point looking like a silver-haired Marlene Dietrich. Thomas Jesatko’s Klingsor is half a drag queen: white tie and tails above, fishnet stockings below. Detlef Roth wobbles aptly as Amfortas.

At least on Wednesday, the stars of the show were conductor Philippe Jordan, whom some may remember from his 2005 Dallas Symphony concerts, and the festival orchestra. Elegantly tinted and delineated, the score’s many delicacies have never seemed so transcendent. Eberhard Friedrich’s chorus was again superb.

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Note: These articles originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News. They are reprinted here with permission of the author.

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