By John Rockwell
BAYREUTH – The Bayreuth Festival clings to the canonical ten Wagner operas, starting with Der Fliegende Holländer. Every summer comes one new production (unless it’s time for a new Ring des Nibelungen, in which case there are four). Each opera (or Ring cycle) lasts five years, usually, then rotates off. This year the newbie was Barrie Kosky’s staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; last year there was Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s Parsifal and in 2015 a Tristan und Isolde from Katharina Wagner, the latest family member to run the festival. Frank Castorf’s widely disliked Ring remains in the rotation, but I skipped that.
To assess the individual productions chronologically, from the years they first appeared at Bayreuth, means to move forward from least successful to most successful, or at least most intriguing and discussable. The Tristan, seen August 6, was pretty much a loss. The sets, by Frank Philipp Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert, ranged from Escher-like ladders and platforms in the first act to a curious pit-like space with technicians training spotlights down on the lovers in Act II to a dark and gloomy wasteland for the supposedly burning sun of Act III. Not very interesting, but not so egregiously conceptual as Katharina’s grotesquely anti-anti-Semitic Meistersinger staging of the previous decade.
Musically, Christian Thielemann, Bayreuth’s music director and probably the best Wagner conductor we have, had things well in hand, although Bayreuth’s recessed pit – which Thielemann makes much of in his recent book about Wagner’s operas – mutes the balances in favor of the singers. Fine if you have a Windgassen and a Nilsson, but otherwise one might prefer more instrumental heft.
The singers on hand were good, not great. Iain Paterson and Christa Mayer made a fine Kurwenal and Brangäne, with René Pape a still commanding – if typically bland and now a little worn – Marke. Petra Lang (who became indisposed later in the run) was a solid, uninspired Isolde, with Stephen Gould a strong but unpoetic Tristan.
Bayreuth is nothing if not politically correct these days. Gottfried Wagner, Katharina’s half-brother, who has spent a lifetime haranguing the family for its Nazi-related sins, might be content now, although he seems congenitally grumpy. This summer there was a festival conference about Wagner, Bayreuth, and the Nazis; the grounds were festooned with apologetic photos of Jewish artists from past festivals; and there is a permanent exhibition of the links between Bayreuth and the Nazis in the home of Siegfried Wagner, Wagner’s only son. Most notably, more and more Bayreuth productions feel compelled to make allusions to the composer’s anti-Semitism. Yes, Wagner railed against the Jews, and Hitler loved Wagner (especially when conducted by Mahler), and yes, Wagner’s successors, led by two Britons (Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Siegfried’s wife, Winifred), forged a direct link to the Nazis. But by now enough is enough, think I, especially when the political points contradict Wagner’s overt humanistic intentions.
In Parsifal, Laufenberg doesn’t dwell on what some see as the grail knights’ epitomization of an Aryan brotherhood or on Klingsor as a Jew. This production, with handsome sets from Gisbert Jäkel drawing on classic Muslim architecture, makes instead a subtler plea for religious tolerance. The knights start out as Christian, with the Flower Maidens as (non-paradisical) houris. But the final ceremony becomes the occasion for the abandonment of religious trappings. Christians, Muslims, and Jews place their regalia in Titurel’s empty coffin and drift off into a beautiful, mysterious fog. Laufenberg also purged Wagner’s sometimes icky notions of female sexuality (not only the Flower Maidens, but the Venusberg hoochie-coochie girls and even the Rhine Maidens torturing poor Alberich) by introducing a counterweight during the “Good Friday Spell,” with nude modern-day young women playfully splashing one another in a pond during a light spring rain. The scene looked like an Art Nouveau painting, maybe still a male fantasy but at least innocence as opposed to heavy-handed seduction. It all worked for me.
We live in the age of Regietheater, so discussions of staging precede mere musical considerations. When this production was new last summer, it was to have been conducted by Andris Nelsons. But he withdrew, reportedly after a disagreement with Thielemann. In his place came Hartmut Haenchen, who this summer fell ill and was in turn replaced, starting with my performance on August 5, by Marek Janowski, who was already conducting the Ring. Janowski is a practiced Wagnerian, and the music sounded surely idiomatic.
Of the cast, the lower men’s voices fared best. Georg Zeppenfeld made a fine Gurnemanz, sonorous and tender, with Ryan McKinny a strong, Jesus-like Amfortas, Derek Welton a properly snarling Klingsor, and Karl-Heinz Lehner a rich (onstage here) Titurel. But Andreas Schager was a merely competent, rough-sounding Parsifal, and Elena Pankratova a vocally unsteady, unseductive Kundry.
Which brings us to the novelty of the summer. Kosky, an Australian who runs Berlin’s Komische Oper, is the hot stage director of the moment in Europe — succeeding Stefan Herheim, whose much-admired Bayreuth Parsifal from 2008 was properly evoked in several reviews of Kosky’s Meistersinger.
Hitler loved Meistersinger, and it is almost de rigueur now to portray Beckmesser as a Jew – even if it is more than logical to see him as a pedantic critic. As the first Jewish stage director in Bayreuth’s rocky history (the American Yuval Sharon has been announced for a new Lohengrin in 2018), Kosky simply had to address this issue, and also Sach’s peroration to holy German art at the end – another instance that can be interpreted in a non-Nazi context.
Kosky’s solutions, like those of Herheim in Parsifal (and in Herheim’s Salzburg Meistersinger, now sadly not coming to the Met), involved direct allusions to Wagner and to German history. Kosky’s first act takes place in the living room of Wagner’s Bayreuth home, Wahnfried. (Rebecca Ringst did the beautifully crafted sets and Klaus Bruns the chronologically wide-ranging costumes.) Wagner is hosting one of his musicales whereat he performs a new work for his family and friends. Cosima is there, of course, and Liszt, and so is Hermann Levi, the Jewish first conductor of Parsifal. Lots of other Wagners, young and older, pop out of the piano, as eventually do 16th-century-costumed master singers and apprentices. Wagner becomes Sachs; Cosima is Eva; Levi Beckmesser; Liszt (Wagner’s father in law) Pogner, Eva’s father. Walter von Stolzing is the outsider, as he is in the opera. It’s all pretty charming, but at the end of Act I the living room is replaced by the courtroom in which the Nuremberg trials took place.
Act II is a grassy meadow within the courtroom. Nothing is made of the trials; the courtroom is a mute witness. The riot at the end of Act II turns into a personal pogrom against Levi-Beckmesser. The man has to don an oversized mask that looks like a Nazi cartoon of a hideous Jew, and eventually a huge balloon of that cartoon inflates and deflates. In Act III, we’re back in the courtroom, now filled with paperwork but no judges and no prisoners. At the very end the courtroom is replaced by an entire second orchestra and chorus on a rolling platform intoning the opera’s triumphant final pages, conducted by Wagner-Sachs.
However eccentric this may seem to a reader who wasn’t there, in practice it worked. I could have done without the pogrom – Beckmesser is an accepted member of the singers’ guild, after all – and the portrayal of most of the masters as goofballs seemed too indebted to Kosky’s love for operetta (in Germany a “komische Oper” performs operetta but also more serious works). What mattered was how much of the staging was both thoughtful and thought-provoking, and how within his cautionary settings in the final two acts Kosky played the interactions of the characters pretty much as Wagner intended. He managed the neat trick of reminding us of the darker issues but ending with an attestation of the power of glorious music.
Although in his Wagner book Thielemann argues that the Bayreuth pit is unsuited to Die Meistersinger’s extroverted orchestral bluster, Philippe Jordan – now of Paris, soon of Vienna – did a fine job conducting. The music sounded fleet yet properly hearty.
His cast had a mixed success, although no one was bad. Appropriately, maybe, the best dramatic and vocal performance came from Johannes Martin Kränzle as Levi-Beckmesser. Michael Volle has a proper Sachs baritone, but was announced as indisposed before the long final act and sang the whole act half-voiced. (His voice had begun to give out towards the end of a recent Met Holländer, too; one wonders if he will have the stamina for all three Wotans in the forthcoming Met Ring.) Klaus Florian Vogt has a tenor, thin and loud, that you love or hate or find merely annoying; I’m in that last camp. Anne Schwanewilms, who had pitch problems the first night and was booed, sounded fine on Aug. 7. Günther Groissböck was the sonorous Pogner, with Daniel Behle as David, Wiebke Lehmkuhl as Magdalene, and Lehner as the Night Watchman.
Any report on Bayreuth – to which I have been coming off and on since 1960 – must end with an evocation of the festival’s atmosphere. Yes, the seats are hard, the food areas outside are cluttered, there is no air conditioning, and the audience is unforgiving of the slightest noise. Yet its absolute silence is endearing, too, speaking of absolute concentration. The walk through a lovely garden to the “Green Hill” on which sits the festival theater; the brass fanfares before each act; the hour-long intermissions; the congregation of Wagner lovers and eager newcomers; and finally the theater itself, as it was in Wagner’s day, with its one-of-a-kind acoustics and hidden orchestra pit and historical resonances evil and inspiring – all make for a unique experience. Bayreuth remains Bayreuth, well worth any opera-lover’s pilgrimage.
Arts critic John Rockwell worked at The New York Times as classical music critic, reporter and editor; chief rock critic; European cultural correspondent; editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section; arts columnist; and chief dance critic. He also directed the Lincoln Center Festival for its first four years. A prolific freelancer, he has published books on 20th-century American composition in all genres, Frank Sinatra and Lars von Trier, and edited a compilation of his own journalistic writing as well as a coffee-table book on the 1960s.