Bayreuth’s ‘Ring’ Is Off This Summer. Regietheater Isn’t.

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Barrie Kosky’s production of ‘Die Meisteringer’ at the 2018 Bayreuth Festival emphasizes autobiographical aspects.
(Photos by Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuth Festival)
By James L. Paulk

BAYREUTH – In Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the Mastersingers – poet/composers who sing their own creations – have fallen into ritual, narrowly defining their art and following strictly enforced rules. Along comes Walther, an outsider, whose approach is daring and bold, and who ultimately wins the song contest and the hand of Eva, his inspiration. And just as Walther challenges the Mastersingers with fresh ideas, the Bayreuth Festival continues to be a bold place for the staging of Wagner’s 10 mature operas. To the consternation of those who prefer a ritual reprisal of Wagner tropes, Bayreuth has become the high temple of Regietheater, challenging the mind with complex, cerebral productions, which tend to get more attention than the music.

Eva (Emily Magee) with the lovelorn Hans Sachs (Michael Volle).

That said, the sound here is uniquely satisfying, in large part due to the fabled acoustics of the Festspielhaus, designed by Wagner himself. This review will focus primarily on the music. (Yuval Sharon’s production of Lohengrin was reviewed separately for CVNA by David Shengold.)

Typical seasons here are dominated by the Ring cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) and also include three non-Ring operas. But after a Ring production has run its course of five or so years, and before a new one is introduced, the festival presents one or two special seasons like this one, featuring five non-Ring operas. (This year also included several performances of Die Walküre from the Frank Castorf production of the Ring, which was otherwise retired after last season.)

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Barrie Kosky’s Die Meistersinger, which opened last year, perhaps best frames the whole Bayreuth experience. Kosky is the first Jew to work as a director at Bayreuth. He is also the first non-Wagner to stage this opera here; previous productions were mounted by Wagner himself, his wife, and his descendants, including the wildly controversial deconstruction of the opera mounted by Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter. Kosky’s riveting production focuses both on the intensely autobiographical aspects of the opera and on what is generally regarded as its anti-Semitism, which here becomes explicit and quite savage.

At the Aug. 11 performance, conductor Philippe Jordan kept things moving briskly with nice control, but the energy was uneven. The big moments were full of tension: the preludes to each act and the accompaniment to Sachs’s “Wahn!” aria. But for much of the night, he took a chamber-like approach that seemed too light for this work.

German baritone Michael Volle was impressive as Sachs, with ample stamina and a sound that was more lyric than the usual bass-baritone in this role. Klaus Florian Vogt brought his unique tenor sound – lyrical, powerful, and rather shiny – to Walther. Johannes Martin Kränzle rendered a nicely nuanced performance as Beckmesser. Daniel Behle was an expressive David and Austrian bass Günther Groissböck was a deep-voiced Pogner. Emily Magee, who portrayed Eva, lacked the light touch that works best for the role.

Der fliegende Holländer

This was the final year for Jan Philipp Gloger’s production of Der fliegende Holländer, which takes place in a high-tech world, with Daland as a greedy factory owner, the Dutchman as some kind of cyborg (implants cover one side of his head), and Senta as an artist/sculptor. Bayreuth has long been looked on as a Werkstatt (workshop), so productions are subject to revision during the course of their run. Among Gloger’s innovations this season is a revised ending: Senta commits harakiri, and the Dutchman’s abdomen bleeds in sympathy. They survive in some form, and the factory begins turning out miniature replicas of the couple.

A scene from Jan Philipp Gloger’s production of ‘Der fliegende Holländer.’

The Dutchman role was double-cast, with American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley singing two performances and Swedish baritone John Lundgren performing the other four, including the one I attended Aug. 12. His voice resonates powerfully in the lower register but is a bit thin on top. In profile, at least on the side without the implants, he seemed made up to resemble Vladimir Putin; make of that what you will. British bass Peter Rose was a strong, solid Daland. Tomislav Mužek was an ideal Erik. But Ricarda Merbeth sang Senta with little control, considerable wobble, and intonation issues. As a genteel British friend observed: “At times, she was a bit unpleasant to hear.”

Alex Kober’s conducting was flexible and invigorating, and the fabled Bayreuth chorus was on its best behavior.

Tristan und Isolde

Katharina Wagner’s production of Tristan und Isolde, deeply informed by her great-grandfather’s writing, features abstract sets and dramatically amps up the level of passion and Todessehnsucht (longing for death) of the lovers.

Isolde (Petra Lang) and Tristan (Stephen Gould) declare their love.

This was an ideal cast. Petra Lang is glorious: the sound is that of a Golden Age soprano at her peak. She has ample power, solid top notes, and the ability to portray acute emotion. Her Liebestod was unforgettable. American heldentenor Stephen Gould is the Tristan of our age. His voice is huge, the top notes are effortless, and he sings with total finesse and control. Rarely will you hear a singer who can so vividly portray such a variety of feelings, from tenderness to raging passion, from arrogance to confusion. Christa Mayer was splendid as Brangäne, René Pape authoritative as King Marke, and Iain Paterson a vigorous Kurwenal.

Christian Thielemann is simply the finest Wagner conductor currently working, and this performance (Aug. 13) must rank among his best. There is something magisterial and inevitable about his style, but he infuses it with energy and fervor. He is the absolute master of the tricky Festspielhaus acoustics, having conducted regularly here since 2000. On this night, the orchestra sounded magnificent.

Parsifal

Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s staging of Parsifal, first seen in 2016, is both pan-Christian and post-Christian, set in a monastery in wartime Iraqi Kurdistan and filled with powerful gestures, like the small boy who is shot when Parsifal kills the swan, an action that makes the scene more poignant. The production has been sharpened somewhat. Act III now includes video portraying the baptism of Richard Wagner as well as Winifred (his daughter-in-law, notorious for her embrace of Hitler) and Wolfgang (his grandson, and Katharina’s father). Quite a lot of sin to be washed away there.

This was a memorable performance. There was an ethereal quality to Semyon Bychkov’s conducting, with nice coloring and pacing throughout. The chorus was superb.

Parsifal (Andreas Schager) amid the Flower Maidens.

Austrian tenor Andreas Schager was an impassioned Parsifal, progressing from callow youth at the beginning to a charismatic leader in the final act. Russian soprano Elena Pankratova brought a wildness to her portrayal of Kundry, with her dark, rich sound. Günther Groissböck gave a towering performance as Gurnemanz (a role debut). Thomas J. Mayer’s lustrous voice was ideal for Amfortas, a role he portrayed with dignity. As Klingsor, Derek Welton, in his Bayreuth debut, was suitably diabolical and strong.

Future

Next summer will again be a non-Ring season and will include a new Tobias Kratzer production of Tannhäuser, to be conducted by Valery Gergiev. Rumor has it that the next Ring, which will debut in 2020, will feature four female directors, one for each opera, with Katharina Wagner staging Götterdämmerung.

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.  

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