A Note from Bayreuth

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From Hans Neuenfels' Lohengrin at Bayreuth. Photo Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH/Enrico Nawrath.

From Hans Neuenfels’ Lohengrin at Bayreuth. Photo Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH/Enrico Nawrath.

I had originally planned this commentary simply to let you, our readers, know about the changes in our usual coverage for the remainder of the summer: Larry Wallach, Seth Lachterman, and Keith Kibler will bravely continue their coverage of summer festivals in the Berkshires and Hudson Valley, while I visit Bayreuth, to review the entire 2010 season: Tankred Dorst’s production of the Ring, along with the controversial productions of Parsifal (Stefan Herheim, 2008), Die Meistersinger (Katharina Wagner, 2007), and Lohengrin (Hans Neuenfels, 2010). I left my rat-catching gear at home, not wishing to incur overweight charges and thinking it might be cheaper simply to purchase the necessaries here, but all the ratting supply stores in Bayreuth are sold out of equipment, and I realize that I simply have to remain unrattled, while the rodents run free.

Sir Charles Mackerras, Portrait by June Mendoza

Mozart, Symphony in A Major, K. 201, Andante, Sir Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Courtesy Linn Records.

On a serious note, however, I was saddened to learn of Sir Charles Mackerras’ passing. (From what I know of him, he would not object to being mentioned in a humorous context.) He will be missed at the Edinburgh Festival, not least by myself, who was looking forward to hearing his concert performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Full tributes have already been published by people who knew him well as students and colleagues. (The one from Linn Records is especially fine.) I can only add my gratitude for his standard-setting Mozart conducting, for his energetic, sensitive, and perfectionistic conducting of period orchestras (which accomplished a lot in bringing historically informed playing to a larger public), and for his editions of Janáček. We simply would not know some of Janáček’s great operas as they were written, if Sir Charles had not prepared his scholarly editions of the scores, and his performances, developed from his early training in Prague, were exemplary. His objectivity and freedom from pretension may have led some to underestimate his talent, which was enormous. As for my tribute, I offer here the Andante from Mozart’s Symphony in A Major, K. 201, from Sir Charles’s recently released second set of Mozart symphonies, acknowledging the kind permission of Linn Records to stream the music here. A full review of this indispensable set is forthcoming.

And now we’re hearing Tristan, or at least the second act, played on original instruments! [Click here to read further.]

Meanwhile, it is a heady experience to be at Bayreuth, to hear the playing of the Festival Orchestra in the unique acoustic of the Festspielhaus, and under such conductors as Thielemann, Weigle, Gatti, and Nelsons. As I write this, I can look up and see the balcony from which the brass choir play their fanfare. As my reviews appear, you will read about a variety of production styles, ranging from the Tankred Dorst’s moderate idiosyncrasies, administered with a light, experienced, and wise hand, to the extremes of Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger and Neuenfels’ Lohengrin.

This is the first festival following Wolfgang Wagner’s death on March 22 of this year. He had already withdrawn from his position as leader of the Festspiele on August 31, 2008 after securing the involvement of his two daughters, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, who have officially succeeded him.

Sabina Hogrefe, who made her warmly received Bayreuth debut, replacing Linda Watson as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre.

Sabina Hogrefe, who made her warmly received Bayreuth debut, replacing Linda Watson as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre.

There has already been one piece of exciting news in the impressive debut of Sabina Hogrefe, who took the place of an ailing Linda Watson last night in Siegfried. The flexibility of her pure, bright, but warm and fully fleshed soprano was especially welcome, and her performance was greeted with terrific enthusiasm by the audience.

On the other hand, the best introduction to Bayreuth would begin in a mundane but nonetheless fascinating place, under the awning of the small shop the Markgräfische Buchhandlung runs across the street from the main entrance to the Festspielhaus. Thanks to several enterprising small CD companies, an astonishing quantity of Bayreuth performances from the post-war years is now available. Until the last ten years or so these were few and hard to find. As I look over the covers and read off the casts and conductors, I am awestruck by the greatness that has appeared here over the years. This is no secret, of course, but seeing it all together on a shelf with festival-goers browsing over it makes it strikingly graphic. Many Bayreuth productions have been controversial, dating back to the postwar reopening, and some casts and conductors have been more successful than others, but one cannot deny that the basic quality has been of the highest order. 2010 is now offering its own vintage — an extremely fine one so far, I can say, after the Ring, Parsifal, and Meistersinger. The casts have been remarkably consistent in their outstanding dramatic and musical quality, and a Albert Dohmen’s brooding Wotan, Klaus Florian Vogt’s unusually youthful Walther, James Rutherford’s Sachs, Edith Haller’s Sieglinde and Gutrune (among other roles), Susan Maclean’s Kundry, and Kwangchul Youn’s powerful Gurnemanz come nowhere near exhausting the truly memorable performances.

All of the productions have proven controversial, although it is rather harder to understand why in the case of Tankred Dorst’s Ring, in which he handled his interventions with a light hand, good taste, and a fine sense of theater. The Bayreuth audiences’ wild applause for the cast, conductors, and orchestra has gone along with grumbling over the productions, above all Lohengrin and Meistersinger. There is in general much discontent among audiences and singers in Europe and America regarding Regieoper, or “Eurotrash” productions, as American opera-lovers like to call them, but of course not all of them are bad, and departures from tradition are hardly to be condemned in themselves. Vivica Genaux in her 2009 interview for the Review explained the defining principle. If an innovative treatment is based on a thorough study of the score and an understanding of the mechanics and aesthetics of musical dramaturgy, one has to give it fair consideration. If, say, a film director is working on his or her first operatic production, as is so often the case these days, and has no interest in the text or score, and forces the singers into unnatural positions which are incompatible with good vocal production, one should also also keep an open mind, taking due note of whatever technical errors appear through the director’s ignorance and overconfidence. But sometimes you just can’t help getting mad, as I did in the case of Achim Freyer’s Ring in Los Angeles this June. This was fuelled by the boredom and depression the production inspired, but on a rational level, I had a fundamental objection to the way in which Herr Freyer drew attention away from Wagner’s creation in favor of himself. Obviously he did study Wagner’s text and score, and he had the faculties to understand them. (In fact his explanation of the production was perfectly sound and very interesting.) However, there is a difference between visualizing a classic anew and deliberately going against the dramaturgical foundations of its original creation. Meddling with the integrity of Wagner’s humanized characters and his linear on stage narration is perverse and counterproductive and should be avoided. See my review for a full explanation.

Inscription commemorating the first performance on the Ring in 1876. Photo Michael Miller

Inscription commemorating the first performance on the Ring in 1876. Photo Michael Miller

Bayreuth remains the hub of Wagner production in the world. Its mission to keep Wagner’s work alive requires the Festspielhaus to set an example and to offer the best, but of course it would hardly be keeping the work alive if it remained totally resistant to innovation and made itself a repository of a performance tradition going back to Wagner himself. Wagner himself expressed his disappointment in the first Ring production in a statement which amounts to a repudiation of that production and the stagecraft of his own time. What’s more, it didn’t take long for the classic images of characters like Wotan, Brünnhilde, Lohengrin to become the objects of ridicule by admirers and opponents of Wagner alike. In Wagner, tradition has its limitations as well as its advantages, and the Festspielhaus has sought to maintain a living tradition since the post-war resumption of the festival in 1951. Wieland Wagner discussed these questions of tradition and innovation a year or so before then, coming to the conclusion that “The Festspielhaus is by nature neither an experimental stage nor a theater museum.” [Wieland Wagner, Jahrbuch der Musikwelt, 1949-50, cited in the Programmheft to Die Meistersinger, 2010, p. 19] It is significant that Katharina Wagner includes this another relevant text of Wieland’s cites this in the program to her Meistersinger production, which is, among other things, an artistic manifesto. Wieland’s position of sixty years ago still stands.

At Bayreuth this second inauguration entailed a break with tradition as much as a restoration of it. Wieland Wagner, as an artist, wanted to create productions which belonged to the post-war world and was under some pressure to avoid the visual and dramatic elements which had been co-opted by the Nazis to promote their own values. At the time, many people complained about his stark productions, reminiscent of a trend in church design which originated at the same time. The sounds of these productions survive, in recordings of mostly high quality, and in retrospect there is much interest in the stagings. The Chéreau centenary production of 1976, which appalled most people at the time, earned more respect over the years, especially as audiences digested the production on DVD, and is now widely admired. It was both a historic step in Bayreuth’s path towards innovation, as well as a watershed in the development of Regieoper. Today the naughty boys of the 1960s and 1970s, to which both Chéreau and Dorst belong, have matured considerably, and their recent work in Janacek’s From the House of the Dead and the Ring shows profound humanistic currents of which our present day should be proud.

Since there is nothing in Dorst’s production which disturbs Wagner’s fundamental dramaturgy, I’d classify it as a traditional production, although not everyone might agree with me. The other three productions on the 2010 roster, Katharina Wagner’s 2007 Die Meistersinger, Stefan Herheim’s 2008 Parsifal, and Hans Neuenfels’ new Lohengrin, break most decidedly with tradition, even as far as Wagner’s texts and stage directions. Katharina changes Renaissance Nürnberg into an East German dystopia, not to mention the characters of Sachs and Beckmesser, and many other fundamental elements of Wagner’s comedy and its setting. Parsifal superimposes an elaborate allusive structure over Wagner’s medieval narrative. What’s more, Herheim’s interpretation at certain points influences how the music is performed. I haven’t seen Lohengrin yet, but pictures I’ve seen suggest that the production is not dissimilar. I can say that all the productions share certain central themes, civilization and its discontents and historical interconnections being chief among them. The stories are removed from the specific times and places indicated by Wagner, with the purpose of universalizing them and bringing the ideas behind them to the surface for further development and argumentation on stage.  In approaching these productions as a critic, I must consider the validity of the directors’ respective methods in addition to the usual primary issues for a critic: how effective is it on stage? How has it affected me as a laboratory animal for the public? (There come those rats again! I’m feeling like poor Renfield in anticipation.) Am I moved or indifferent, bored or thrilled? Two factors which bear strongly on the success of the performances are the strength and focus of the musical elements and the extraordinary standards of execution in all aspects of the staging. A director can get away with a lot, when everything is so very well done. Pure Kulinarismus, as we’d have to admit to our Brechtian friends.

Whether one personally enjoys these performances or not, we should be thankful that the Festspiel does not see itself as a museum, or as an institution like Wagner’s own Master Singers, and Katharina Wagner made that perfectly and literally clear in her production. Wieland, Wolfgang, and now Katharina and Eva have been well aware of that, and the crucial need for Bayreuth to be a center of experimentation and creativity as well as a shrine. As the Master himself said, “Kinder, schafft Neues!”

I can say, in any case, that attending seven evenings of Wagner in succession has a profound effect on one’s understanding of the works. I feel that my sense of theater has been renewed and revivified. And it’s powerfully addictive.

Fanfare at Bayreuth. Photo Michael MIller.

Fanfare at Bayreuth. Photo Michael MIller.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

Readers Comments (2)

  1. thanks so much for posting this. We only managed one opera at Bayreuth last week (Die Meistersinger), turning down the possibility of seeing Lohengrin because we hadn’t “prepared” and wanted to visit Bamberg and Wuerzberg before returning home the next day. And we had not sufficiently briefed ourselves on Katherina”s bold, provocative re-imagination of the opera, and regret that immensely. I will say that we found the vocal performances superb, even though we were quite confused by the staging…..
    Look forward to hearing more of your reports

  2. Thanks for the intriguing points about present-day stagings. I see what you mean: that a superb musical performance, and persuasive acting, etc., can help one swallow a concept-driven production that might, when described in a few words, sound utterly inapt and distracting.

    You’ve given me food for thought, as I prepare to attend two operas at Glimmerglass: Le nozze di Figaro, and Handel’s Tolomeo….

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