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THE 2005 BAYREUTH FESTIVAL
By Glenn Loney, August 15, 2005
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Please click on " * " to skip to each subject in this index:
The 2005 Bayreuth Festival: *
All Aboard the SS Isolde! *
No Salvation for Parsifal in Sight! *
Was Wagner’s Senta Actually an Abused Child? *
Even the Present Pope Would Pardon Bayreuth’s Tannhäuser! *
Last Look at Lohengrin? *
A New RING from Old Fingers? *
The 2005 Bayreuth Festival:
Way back in the dark days of America’s Great Depression, a popular slogan was: "Life Begins at 40!" This was current largely because no one really believed it. Many people already looked old at 35. Now, that has all changed.
Of some talented and dedicated people, it could even be said that Life Begins at 65, 70—or even 80! This is certainly true of Wolfgang Wagner, chief of the Bayreuth Festival, founded in 1876, by his composer-grandfather, Richard Wagner.
Wagner is now in his mid-80s and shows no signs of slacking vigor or vision in running this historic Music-Drama festival. Of course, as he grew up during the Third Reich, it could be said that he already has one-thousand years to his credit—although this ill-fated German Empire did not last the thousand years its Führer had predicted for it.
In fact, although Wagner-Admirer Adolf Hitler subsidized the annual summer opera festival and kept it in operation almost to the end of World War II, it was that politico-cultural connection that nearly doomed the post-war resumption of this famed fest.
Indeed, Wolfgang Wagner’s mother, Winifred, was one of Germany’s most avid Hitler-Admirers. She had to go through de-Nazification hearings twice! She once told me she had never wavered in her admiration and friendship for Hitler as a man and Leader: "If he came through that door right now, I’d rush to greet him as a dear old friend."
In the Festival’s Centennial Year of 1976, she said as much on camera for a dubious Hans-Jürgen Syberberg Bayreuth documentary. At that time, an obviously annoyed Wolfgang told the press: "You know I can’t put a muzzle on my mother…"
Fortunately, the Festival was resumed in 1951, under the joint leadership of the late Wieland and his brother Wolfgang. It is now more than half-a-century later, and Wolfgang is still piloting the metaphoric Wagner ship.
Nonetheless, when he reached the customary retirement cut-off of 65, many wondered who would succeed him. It was widely felt that a successor should also be a Wagner. But Wolfgang showed no interest in abandoning the Festival. He was by no means ready for the Senior Shelf.
There were larger issues at stake as well. His son by his first marriage, Gottfried Wagner—who had worked with film-maker Syberberg to get his grandmother to talk about her relations with Hitler—had become estranged: he is now a fierce critic of the Festival and its Nazi Past. He seems more welcome in Israel than at the Festspielhaus.
Among brother Wieland’s children, Nike Wagner—a brilliant Wagner Theorist, dramaturg, and biographer—appeared poised to assume direction of the Festival. She even proposed some rather challenging changes. Her brother, "Wummi," once tried his hand at opera-staging, though he’s is not now a candidate for Festival Chief.
But Wolfgang Wagner has long had another candidate for his successor. She is his talented daughter by his second marriage—to Gudrun Mack—Katharina Wagner. It would appear that he has refused to retire—not only because he really relishes running the Festival—but also because he was waiting for her to mature as a Wagner stage-director, a Wagner worthy of her great-grandfather’s Masterworks.
For a time, it seemed that Bavaria’s Minister of Culture would force Wolfgang into retirement, but that was not possible. In the Centennial flurries of Wagner excitement, Wolfgang Wagner had been given a Lifetime Contract. Back in Munich—where some Ministerial hostility was in evidence—no one had expected that he’d invoke this.
While it has long been true that the Bayreuth Festival is a Wagner Family Business, it has always needed some form of State Subsidy. Indeed, "Mad" King Ludwig II of Bavaria—long a fervent admirer of Wagner the Man and Artist—was the initial Festival Patron. He paid the outstanding bills for the "provisional" festival-theatre and even for Wagner’s lavish villa, Wahnfried.
For many decades, the Festspielhaus, Wahnfried, and Wagner’s priceless opera-manuscripts remained Family Property. But—worried about the long-term survival of this important ornament of Bavarian Culture—the Bavarian State finally bought them all. Proceeds were shared out among the heirs.
But the new arrangements meant that the Ministry of Culture had the power to choose Wolfgang Wagner’s successor. And it did not have to be a Wagner, though that would be historically preferable. Indeed, the late August Everding, General Intendant of all subsidized Bavarian Theatres, was eager to accept the challenge, as he told me at the time, when there was what appeared to be a "Window of Opportunity."
Wolfgang Wagner dug in his metaphoric heels, insisting on daughter Katherina’s claim to the succession. Since then, she has staged several of her great-grandfather’s operas. There was a Flying Dutchman in Würzburg and another Wagner mounting in Budapest—where Wagner is admired as much as his Hungarian father-in-law, Franz Liszt. I was not able to see either of these, but critic-colleagues seem divided in their appraisals.
Nonetheless, the Bavarian State has created a human Fail/Safe mechanism, to protect its investment in this great International Cultural Asset.
In the event that Wolfgang Wagner might suddenly not be able to continue guiding the Festival—before his daughter is quite ready to take over—Dr. Klaus Schultz, current Intendant of Munich’s Gärtnerplatz-Theater, has been chosen as a kind of liaison. This past summer, when he passed through the Press-Office, he certainly looked properly serious about his responsibilities.
One thing is certain: there will be no return to Tradition & Historicism, despite the perceived longing of many older Wagnerites for the Good Old Days of Winged Helmets and real Swan-Boats. If anything, reports suggest that Katherina Wagner’s forthcoming Bayreuth Meistersinger will be cutting-edge avant-garde.
It will replace the kaleidoscopically colorful Die Meistersinger staged & designed by her father, which was recently retired. Whether it will upstage his vision remains to be seen.
If anything, some of his recent choices of non-Wagner stage-directors—to replace major Wagner productions previously mounted by him—have made a number of Bayreuth stalwarts, who had criticized his stagings, long to have them back on that sacred stage!
Although I had eventually tired of Wolfgang Wagner’s Parsifal—which seemed unduly influenced by Inca Architecture—I would plead with him to bring it back and discard the appalling new Schlingensief Replacement. At least the clarity and detail of Wagner’s libretto were never obscured, and the magnificent score was made visually manifest in action on stage.
Katharina Wagner will have two great advantages when she begins her proposed tenure as Festival Director: her redoubtable father will still be on hand, with all those long years of experience and experiment! And her mother, Gudrun Wagner, has mastered every aspect of festival-planning and operation. This should prove an unbeatable Wagner Family Team.
And there’s always Nike Wagner, waiting in the wings, so to speak…
All Aboard the SS Isolde!
Photo courtesy of Jochen Quast
After the withdrawal of the Heiner Müller staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Wagnerians have been looking forward to an even newer vision of this doomed Medieval Romance on the venerable stage of the Festspielhaus. Working with designer Erich Wonder, Müller had presented a Cornwall-bound ship that was nothing more than rectangles of light on the stage-floor. And the Lovers’ Big-Scene took place in a Zeughaus full of gleaming suits of chest-armor. The illicit lovers had a very difficult time plowing through the steel-plate…
That’s not the problem in the new Tristan: far from it! The vast expanse of the stage at times seems almost empty, even when Tristan and Isolde are on it.
This odd production is the vision of Christoph Marthaler, a current Wunderkind of the German stage. Rave reviews of other Marthaler stagings—some of which I have seen—are puzzling. What does he provide Teutonic audiences that they have been previously missing? Is Peter Stein at last passé?
At least the audience can imagine that they are looking at a ship in Marthaler’s new Bayreuth Tristan. At least part of it: but it looks suspiciously like the Grand Salon of the Andrea Doria, if not the Titanic.
Designer Anna Viebrock’s idea is to confine the first act to what could be the Recreation Room of a cruise-ship bound for the Bermuda Triangle. In the light of what follows, that proves a prophetic destination.
Unfortunately, Viebrock has costumed Tristan in a blue jacket that makes him look like a harried Cruise Entertainment Director. And, as Tristan, Robert Dean Smith—who was once so romantically handsome as Bayreuth’s Walter von Stolzing—now seems apprehensive about his relationship to those two stylish ladies who don’t take an interest in programmed ship’s activities.
His Tristan looks and sounds like a man who is slipping & sliding into uncomfortable middle-age. This may not be entirely acting… It also shows in the voice.
Where Müller was content to let Wagner’s music and poetry speak for itself—through the singers—without realistic stage-business or fussy stage-decorations, Marthaler obviously doesn’t trust the score—or the power of the fable. His Isolde [Nina Stemme] and Brangäne [Petra Lang] look like club-ladies, desperate for some shipboard amusement.
At one point, Isolde wanders about, overturning all the deck-chairs. This may have had some mysterious symbolic meaning, but she looked more bored than cryptic. As for the mixing of the Death-Draught—or Love-Potion— Brangäne has a complicated kit that looks like the complete supplies of an Aroma-Therapist.
Overhead, a complex of fluorescent-light rings blink on and off. Fluorescents do not dim effectively, so this often looks like electronic malfunctions. What they are supposed to symbolize remains a mystery… The starry Heavens—blinking for Star-Crossed Lovers, maybe? Perhaps next summer I will finally figure it out?
Acts II and III are set in the same basic designed-space, with some alterations to the side-walls and upstage areas. So, although the libretto makes it clear that Tristan and Isolde are no longer on deck, the action seems not to have come into port in Cornwall.
The set’s bland tall walls prove very useful throughout, as Marthaler requires members of the cast, not singing at the moment, to face the walls and variously claw or caress them.
If one were hoping for something truly magical—like Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s great silver Bayreuth Tristan-tree—for the Lover’s Big Moment, expectations were rudely shattered. Isolde sits primly on an upholstered bench, paying careful attention to her white gloves. It was rather like a Singles Mixer at the Cornwall Country Club.
At one point—instead of being irresistibly drawn to each other—they stand what seems yards apart. They look like Anchors for the Six o’clock News…
In fact, that may well have been the directorial intention: a German critic informed me that this was a masterful satire of the socially insecure German Spiessbürger Class. Perhaps, but even though Wagner himself had his fill of just such types, his Tristan is not an Indictment of the German Middle-Class.
Melot looks like a scruffy ex-Nazi soldier. King Mark could be a SONY CEO.
The Passion is there—in the music, in the poetry—but not in the performance.
In fact, Tristan is an opera that could be effectively presented on a bare stage, free of sets, costumes, and lighting. But then the singers and the stage-director would have to concentrate on what Wagner actually created: To listen to the music and let it live through their voices, bodies, passions, and spirits. Is that too much to ask at Bayreuth now?
When Tristan’s loving entourage is grieving for his very slowly approaching death—the idea is that he’s trying to stay alive until Isolde can join him, drawing out his swan-song endlessly—instead of crowding round, they are largely facing away. Looking into the walls… Is the idea that they cannot bear to watch their hero die?
Tristan is supposed to be dying in his own remote castle. In this production, however, he seems to be below-deck in the ship’s hospital. Or maybe this is a rather gloomy Spa, with Thermal Baths?
He’s on one of those wonderful mechanical hospital-beds that can be cranked and racheted into many conformations. With all his hopes and dreams shattered, at least he still has good Medical Coverage. Or Krankenkasse, auf Deutsch…
Remembering Peter Hall’s Covent Garden Tristan years ago—when the Lovers rose, singing in ecstasy, high over the stage on an elevator-platform—I was hoping the scenic reason for this bed was that Tristan would be elevated toward the heavens on it.
No such luck. It was just another mechanical hospital-bed. And the only one in the ward, at that…
This staging—coupled with the character-interpretations that Marthaler seems to have imposed on his artists—prevented both singers and Wagner from soaring. For the record, however, the rest of the cast was generally working hard to do justice to the music and the concept: But Clawing Walls cannot be very rewarding…
Among the cast: Kwangchul Youn/King Mark, Andreas Schmidt/Kurwenal, Alexander Marco-Buhrmeister/Melot, Clemens Bieber, Arnold Bezuyen, and Martin Snell.
Eiji Oue conducted one of the very best Opera Orchestras.
Bayreuth is supposed to be a Workshop for Wagner’s Works, not an Opera-Museum. Customarily, this means new productions may be re-thought, altered, changed, and improved from one season to the next.
Other than deserting this ScanLines cruise-ship for North German-Lloyd, there is no way this current Tristan Concept can be changed, altered, improved, developed, or refined by next summer. To Jump-Ship is not an option for Wolfgang Wagner…
Here are some verbal gems from the Thought-Paper generated by Marthaler, Viebrock, and their Dramaturg, Malte Ubenauf: "The egoism of his [Tristan’s] death destroys their hopes of dying together." "Isolde’s oft-described ‘love death’ is arguably and above all a longing for death for want of any alternative." [How about turning over deck-chairs?] "Whether she finds fulfillment is written in the strangely fluourescent stars." [Is that why they kept blinking on and off?] "People sink into endless soliloquies." [That is certainly true!] "…they are poisoned by love, a toxin with far-reaching consequences." [Bird-Flu is also Bad News!]
No Salvation for Parsifal in Sight!
After suffering through Christoph Schlingensief’s ghastly Parsifal last summer, I posited the hope that the fabled Bayreuth "Workshop" Effect would spur Wolfgang Wagner either to request some conceptual and visual changes from the stage-director and his designers—or to make them himself.
I feared that nothing could be done about the dreadfully mis-conceived Concept. Nor would either major or minimal changes in stage-decor or action make the essential fable of Sin and Redemption resemble anything remotely imagined by the composer-librettist, Richard Wagner.
In the event, this production is still confused, junky, and appalling. Some minor irritants have been removed, it’s true, but there is still so much random—if bafflingly symbolic—action and decoration that it’s at first not easy to note what has been subtracted. A colleague made a list of some details for me, but this was rather like being told the patient had recovered from a cold & fever, but was still suffering from mumps & measles and lung-cancer.
Forget about that marvelous Grail Temple on some mystical Medieval European mountain. This Parsifal is definitely in the Third World, but, like the mythic Colossus, it bestrides both Africa and Asia, plus Middle America, for good measure.
The conceptual reason for this—Schlingensief’s Concept, not Wagner’s—is that Modern Europe is so secularized that religious beliefs, such as those symbolically enshrined in Parsifal’s libretto, no longer have an real meaning or relevance. So this immature but aging enfant-terrible political-activist cum stage-director had to look elsewhere for religious rituals that still made sense to someone. If not to those Modern Europeans frantic to obtain tickets for Bayreuth productions…
Instead, this Parsifal is overlaid with images of Namibia & Nepal. The reason for this pastiche—including a side-trip to Haiti for some Voodoo—focusing on rituals which have nothing to do with the Grail Legend or Medieval Europe or even with Wagner’s late 19th century vision of the Grail was Schlingensief’s attempt to "embrace viewers with a contemporary visual language speaking most readily to them."
As very few Haitians—or other Candomblé believers—were in the audience, this didn’t make much sense. Nor were there many Central Africans on hand to appreciate the potentially visually offensive references to Animism and Sympathetic Magic…
"The African and Asian cultural artifacts were attempts to find religious and mythological imagery still resonant in a secular age." [Italics Added!]
As these images are really only resonant on the ground in Africa and Asia—and then, only with the tribes or cults from which they arise—this is Patent Nonsense when applied to Europe, the West, or the First World. In the Third World, they might have some resonance.
As for this being a Secular Age, that may be true for people who do not go to church, mosque, synagogue, or temple. But as the events of 9/11 have made all too clear, there are Fanatic Muslims out there who are willing to die—and to take as many others along with them as they can—for their Religious Beliefs.
That their targets are largely Jews and Christians ought to give the lie to the idea that we are all now secular and unbelieving.
Some of these Religious Terrorists would even be excited at the prospect of blowing up the Grail Temple: They’d go straight to Paradise for their efforts. Taking a cue from the Bayreuth production, they would be rewarded with 72 Flower Maidens each!
Schlingensief’s Third World images certainly do not illuminate Parsifal, either as Legend or Opera. In fact, "the imagery which speaks most readily" to Wagnerites—who may have waited nine whole years to see this production—is that of the Grail Quest as imagined and illustrated in a Christianity-based vision of Parsifal as a Jesus-like Saviour or Redeemer. A child-like Erlöser, in Wagner’s phrase.
Oddly enough, Schlingensief does present his Parsifal—sung by Alfons Eberz, replacing last season’s Endrick Wottrich—in a long white robe, long blond hair, and a Sacred Heart on his robe. As if that were not enough Christian Symbolism, he later equips him with the crooked staff of the Good Shepherd.
What acquiring this stage-prop entails is having Klingsor’s all-important throwing of the Holy Spear at Parsifal go for nothing visually. Somehow, it ends up in Parsifal’s left hand, while his right holds the shepherd’s crook. Parsifal throws the Spear behind some scraps of scenery.
Speaking of Scraps of Scenery, last season the revolving stage-environment looked unbelievably trashy and make-shift. This past summer, I was able to inspect this set up close on stage. Kids at summer-camp could have made a better tree-house…
As before, the aged Pierre Boulez conducted and was enthusiastically applauded. Nor were the principals blamed for what the director had required them to perform: Kudos for Robert Holl’s Gurnemanz, John Wegner’s Klingsor, and Michelle de Young’s Kundry.
Eberhard Friedrich, as usual, had brilliantly prepared the best Opera Chorus in the world.
Can anything else be done before next summer to make this doomed production more relevant to the score and libretto created by Richard Wagner? Don’t bet on it…
What Wagner or Schlingensief could do is get rid of the immensely enlarged and egregiously annoying video-footage of that Rotting Rabbit!
Was Wagner’s Senta Actually an Abused Child?
Some critics actively hate Bayreuth’s current staging of Der fliegende Holländer, but I find it not only visually inventive and handsome to look at, but also an ingenious new interpretation of the ancient tale of the doomed sea-captain who can only be saved from endlessly roving the oceans by the love of a pure young girl.
Photo courtesy of Jochen Quast
Stage-director Claus Guth has re-imagined the fable as the almost incestuous fascination of a little girl Senta with her Daland-father reading the story of the Dutchman to her in his armchair.
She even has a Dutchman rod-puppet, as well as a model-ship. Unfortunately for her, as a grown woman—the girl Senta and the woman Senta, dressed alike, appear throughout the opera—she has conflated her imaginary Dutchman with her own father, who is also dressed like a ship’s captain. Daland-Dad and doomed Dutchman-lover blend into each other.
The only voice of reason that could save this deluded Senta from her psychopathic fantasy is her would-be lover Erik. But she pushes him away, and she will not listen to her old nurse, Mary—who seems to be blind as a bat and deaf as well.
A fellow-critic who admires this production even more than I—possibly because he sees much more in it than I at first realized—insists that the grown Senta is desperately trying to escape from memories of her father and the Dutchman. That she is a virtual prisoner in her own childhood home—and in her childhood fantasies—because at some point her father had sexually abused her.
This is of course not shown, nor clearly implied, but at the close, she is frantically trying to escape, but doors disappear—and there is no way out of this nightmare.
If seeing this unusual story-concept on stage is not confusing enough for first-timers, Guth and Schmidt have also contrived to have the entire action of the opera occur in Senta’s vast living-room.
A great curving staircase—supported only by the wall behind it—divides this great chamber into two opposing wedges of wall and doors. The upper slice is an inverse duplication of the room-section below the staircase. Even the painting of the Dutchhman’s ship—hanging on the upstage-center wall—is shown upside down above the stairs.
Designer Christian Schmidt is responsible for both the stunning set and the striking costumes. Ulrich Niepel devised the ingenious lighting-changes, working with and around the videos of a four-man team.
The production-team creates Wagner’s sea and sea-side scenes entirely with projections and videos thrown on the walls of the great chamber. Waves, clouds, storms, ships are suggestively and abstractly evoked, as the Wagner male-chorus—dressed as sailors—fight the waves in Senta’s living-room.
Senta’s Spinnstube scene also occurs here, but not with spinning-wheels. Instead, blind old Mary is in a rocker at one side, as a smartly dressed young women’s chorus of 1930s flappers does some precisely executed dance-routines for the distracted girl/woman Senta.
In the final Harbor Scene, the town-women, dressed alike in folk-costume, move like life-sized marionettes, filing up the great staircase. Below, on a platform in the center of the living-room, puppet-sailors—with long Pinocchio carrot-noses—dismantle a model of the Dutchman’s ship which has descended from the flies above.
Senta’s mystic Love-Death reunion with the Dutchman, after he has sailed away to his endless doom—Die Frist ist um!—is suggested in Senta’s frantic fantasy by an immense skeleton-puppet, dressed in captain’s uniform, descending upside down from above, bony hands outstreched. When they touch the platform, they draw up a puppet Senta into the heavens.
Is this a metaphoric fate from which she is trying to escape, clawing at vanished doors? Or is she trying not only to escape from malign memories, but also their actual long-ago scene? Or even from Life?
Adrienne Dugger is an admirably distracted Senta, both voice and body speaking of longing and torment. Jaakko Ryhänen and Jukka Rasilainen prove good doubles as father Daland and lover Dutchman. Uta Priew repeated her 2004 role of Mary, with Endrik Wottrich as Erik and Norbert Ernst as the Steuermann.
Marc Albrecht conducted with a power that well supported the often frantic passions and actions on stage. Once again, Eberhard Friedrich brilliantly prepared the amazing Bayreuth Chorus—who also proved outstanding stage-performers as well as singers.
Even the Present Pope Would Pardon Bayreuth’s Tannhäuser!
Photo courtesy of Jochen Quast
If the current Bayreuth Parsifal offers no suggestive visual evidence of Redemption and Ultimate Salvation—despite the powerful indications in Wagner’s score—Philippe Arlaud’s production of Tannhäuser certainly does. This is not entirely the result of Arlaud’s refinement of the staging over several seasons, but also because the impressive Stephen Gould has made the role definitively his own.
In the original Medieval tale, of course, the Pope denies Tannhäuser absolution for his blasphemous exaltations of the joys of Erotic Love with the Pagan Goddess of Love in the Venusberg. Bad enough that he spent some time in that abominable abode of lust and pleasure, but far worse that he should brag about it—and in Song, no less—in front of the saintly Elizabeth, the Count of Thuringia, and his entire Court
Only Elizabeth’s passionate intervention prevents the Righteous Teutonic Knights of the Wartburg from killing him on the spot. Christians always seem to know what is the Right Thing To Do. He is sent to Rome, to beg pardon of the Pope.
Wagner’s libretto doesn‘t make it clear if this was one of those "Bad Popes"—too early for the Borgias, certainly—but no Indulgences were on sale at the Holy See. Tannhäuser returns from Rome crushed and in depair.
Only if the Pope’s dried-up wooden Crozier bursts into bloom will Tannhäuser be pardoned his Epic Sins. Fortunately, this is exactly what happens at the close of the opera—at least in the libretto, even if props can’t make this Special-Effect work.
Obviously, there is a Higher Power than this peevish Pope, and the now dead Elizabeth clearly has interceded once again for the Minnesinger she always loved.
It is not Tannhäuser’s abject contrition that does the trick; it is the undying love of a Pure Woman. Wagner’s vision of Women doesn’t offer much ground between the polar-opposites of Venus and Elizabeth, after all.
In the current Bayreuth Tannhäuser, however, Stephen Gould is so very good as the Singing Knight that the current Pope—a German himself and an eminent Moralist—would surely want to pardon him if only for his powerful performance!
[On the other hand, the Wartburg was the very place in which that Damnable Heretic, Martin Luther, took shelter from Catholic Bonfires and translated the Holy Bible into German so that ordinary Christians could read it.]
Each season, Arlaud’s staging of Tannhäuser has improved, and the actor/singers’ interpretations seem to have deepened as well.
Here is a reprise of previous Show Notes commentaries:
Philippe Arlaud’s Venusberg looked—and still does—like a giant version of a G4 Powerbook, open for monkey-business. But this is certainly a change from most operatic Venusbergs—and minus the usual, if often embarrassing, Obligatory Orgy.
Arlaud limits himself to three maidens fondling golden balls. They might be the Rhine-Maidens in Paradise. But their balls could very well be copies of the Golden Apple that Paris awarded Aphrodite/Venus—a novel visual-intellectual sub-text that has nothing to do with Wagner’s opera.
Initially, I actively hated Arlaud’s carnation-studded Thuringian Meadow scene for various reasons. Not least that its curious mechanics visually worked against the effect of the Pilgrims going off to—and returning from—Rome. They still look as if they are disappearing into an IRT Subway Station under the front of the stage!
Having inspected the construction of this set backstage, however, I now realize that it is impossible for Arlaud to change his staging—or to redesign this scene—so complicated and costly is the mechanism which makes it function—and which permits it to be stored compactly.
The fact that this Astroturf-green meadow is studded with what look like hundreds of Buddy-Poppies on springs remains a disquieting effect. That the upstage aperture at the top of the greensward—framed by flower-studded green arches—resembles an empty eye-socket is also unsettling. But it does focus attention.
Arlaud’s claustrophobic Wartburg Hall—gleaming gold, intense Chinese Red, and sleek black—at last makes its Visual Point, thanks to his effective restaging of the principals and the chorus. Not least in achieving this is the metaphoric chemistry Gould creates.
Gould electrifies every scene. What’s more, he seems to inspire even more powerfully interactive vocal and visually responsive performances from his colleagues. Judit Nemeth’s Venus has never seemed so passionately compelling.
The deeply moving interactions of Ricarda Merbeth’s Elizabeth and Roman Trekel’s always magisterial Wolfram von Eschenbach with Gould’s Tannhäuser are tragical and magical. The Teure Halle scene was, as a result, both exciting and heart-breaking. Originally, Trekel had vocally dominated this entire production: now his Wolfram has found its proper place.
The dramatic effect of the production builds slowly from the beginning. But, by the final scene, the vocal and visually emotive powers of the doomed trio—sparked by Gould’s Tannhäuser—is so powerful that the mise-en-scène seems to melt away into nothingness. Only Tannhäuser, Elizabeth, and Wolfram exist.
Conductor Christian Thielemann repeated his previous achievements with the Bayreuth orchestra and chorus—largely confined to Pilgrim-groupings and narrow balconies in the Halle. Carin Bartels’ elegant court-costumes are especially—and deliberately—rigid and confining.
This has become such a powerful—and handsome—production that it is diffcult to believe that it could be retired in favor of the newer Parsifal and Tristan, both of them less than perfection.
Last Look at Lohengrin?
Photo courtesy of Jochen Quast
With the four operas of the new Bayreuth RING onstage next season, one or more of the current stagings will have to be retired. Keith Warner’s Wasteland Lohengrin is the oldest in the repertory, but it is also the best, so it will be a distinct loss to have it vanish.
Your reporter has written about this powerful production at length in previous summer reviews. But for those who are not Google-Searching, some of those descriptions are included below. Praise, as before, for stage-director Warner, set-designer Stefanos Lazaridis, costume-designer Sue "Rocky Horror Show" Blane, and conductor Peter Schneider.
And once again, all praise to Eberhard Friedrich and the amazing Bayreuth Chorus. The reason it is so good—and cannot be replicated—is that it is composed of the best chorus-members from major opera-houses. They—like the excellent Bayreuth Festival Orchestra—spend their summer-vactions, away from their own opera-ensmbles, making music and acting in the Festspielhaus!
Peter Seiffert is ever better as Lohengrin, with Roman Trekel still powerful as the Herald. Linda Watson’s Ortrud trumps Petra-Maria Schnitzer’s pallid Elsa—even in defeat—but that’s written into the score and libretto. Hartmut Welker is a wimpy Telramund—as Wagner wished. Reinhard Hagen is a regal King Henry.
And here is the reprise of my production description from 2003:
When King Henry arrives with his Saxon army, they don't just march on. Instead, an immense stage-wide elevator descends from the flies, bearing two long rows of soldiers clad in full armor and in full voice. With the king enthroned in the center. This elevation above the Stage-Wasteland also serves to distance them historically, making them almost ghostly.
Later this effect is repeated and magnified by having three rows of fully armored knights—36 in all—suspended above this elevator. These figures are dummies—but the optical impression is terrifying: five rows of knights, instead of two…
Using an unusual machine specially devised for this staging, Lazaridis has created a square stage-space which appears between two mounds of Wasteland. It can revolve, incline, move up and down, and disappear, all of which it does with great effect.
At one point, it slants down toward stage-right, one corner aimed at the audience. From its four sides, small platforms slide out, forming a kind of cross. With Elsa in the center, the King, Ortrud, Telramund, and Lohengrin confront her on all sides.
For Elsa's wedding-preparations, a long drawbridge descends from downstage right, joining the platform-extension. She is asleep on the center platform, surrounded by a swan-like swath of cloth. It's her bridal veil, which is then held high aloft by her maidens on the long incline toward upstage left. Soon, another drawbridge descends upstage, disappearing into the wings, with a long shaft of white light shooting down this long slope.
Manfred Voss's lighting is masterful, especially as it is so sparingly used. There is a great deal of silhouetting, of striking backlighting. Even with a stage full of people, one character can be instantly isolated. Even dim footlighting is highly effective.
Warner and Lazaridis have ingeniously avoided the clichés of staging the famously pompous Wagner "Wedding March." Instead, it begins forebodingly, with Ortrud and Telramund silhouetted against an immense revolving black cube. The cube disappears into the flies to reveal the central square. A Victorian chair and a chaise—earlier used by the villains—are the only wedding-chamber furnishings. No bed at all. A white square is surrounded by a moat of real water. When all hope is lost, the square tilts almost vertically and spills the water into a little fore-stage pool.
You won’t soon see something like this at the Metropolitan Opera, but you can always hope…
A New RING from Old Fingers?
Photo courtesy of Jochen Quast
The last Bayreuth RING could have been called the Flimm/Wonder, thanks to the talents of stage-director Jürgen Flimm and his visionary designer, Erich Wonder. Considering the importance of the stage-vision, it’s no wonder that many opera productions are largely recalled in terms of the way they looked and functioned on stage.
[Incidentally, Jürgen Flimm will become the new Artistic Director of the Salzburg Festival in 2007. He is even now at work planning his premiere season, following the 2006 Mozart Year of retiring festival-chief, Dr. Peter Rusicka.]
How well historic RING productions were sung, of course, can differ from performance to performance.
Who can now remember exactly how Birgit Nilsson sang Isolde on that remarkable night so many years ago in Munich’s Prinzregenten-Theater, when she seemed to glow and grow in the role, lifting Jess Thomas and the entire cast along with her to the lofty heights of Music-Theatre Magic?
But experts don’t refer to that long-gone Bavarian State Opera production as the Nilson Tristan und Isolde…
Although the innovative Bayreuth Centennial RING was then—and still is now—referred to as the "Chereau RING," what most people remember about that production are the stunning stage-visions of the set-designer, Richard Peduzzi. Yet no one has called it the "Peduzzi RING."
The RINGs of the Wagner Brothers—the late Wieland and the ever-thriving Wolfgang—could not be simply called The Wagner RINGs, for each of these director/designers imprinted his own distinctive stamp on their grandfather’s four-part Masterwork.
Since the Wagner RINGs have been retired, to be replaced by newer visions from outsiders, the custom has been to credit the director, rather than the designer. Hence, the Kupfer RING, although its visual effects owed more to his designers than to his own interpretative visions.
But then there is that memorable Rosalie RING! The avant-garde artist, Rosalie, was the first woman ever to design sets & costumes for a Bayreuth RING. Nor have her achievements been challenged by other women-designers at Bayreuth since then.
Who among those who still can remember the vivid impression made by Rosalie’s stage-pictures and costumes can now name the stage-director of this unusual production?
In the annals, it remains the Rosalie RING, not the Kirchner RING…
But what will happen next summer when the Bayreuth Festival premieres a new Ring Cycle?
Will it take the name of its stage-director, the author/playwright Tankred Dorst?
Or will it, by default, be named for its stage-designer, Frank Philipp Schlössmann?
Speaking of Defaults, this team—along with costume-designer Bernd Skodzig—is the virtually last-minute replacement for the defection of the Danish film-director, Lars von Trier.
Although he had no opera-credits, his filmic fame must have attracted Festival Director Wolfgang Wagner, who had previously had such success with Werner Herzog and Lohengrin. Actually, the visual power of that production—its surreally enchanting Look—was owing to the genius of Herzog’s longtime cinema-designer, Henning von Gierke…
It took Von Trier long enough to decide that he really wasn’t going to bring off the new RING. This meant the loss of precious days and months that should have been spent in planning, design, and construction of the sets for the new Cycle.
Wolfgang Wagner must have been desperate to find a new director and designers. The brilliant American director/designer, Julie Taymor, may have been on his list. Her Lion King production has been running in both New York and London for some seasons now.
She told a reporter she’d been asked to create a new RING, but she didn’t indicate who made the request. In any case, she rejected the offer, as there was not enough time to develop designs and directorial strategies for all four challenging operas. Could that have been anything but a Bayreuth Time-Frame?
Fortunately, the new design-team has ample credits: Costumier Skodzig has even studied with Rosalie and with her own teacher, the formidable opera-designer, Jürgen Rose. Schlössmann studied his craft at Salzurg’s Mozarteum, and has since worked with a number of noted stage-directors, including Harry Kupfer—whose Bayreuth Flying Dutchman was ever more memorable than his rough & tumble Futuristic RING.
What may be expected of Tankred Dorst remains a puzzle. If he is known—or remembered—by American theatre Profis at all, it is as a playwright. But his Die Kurve, or The Curve, had its vogue decades ago.
What is more interesting is that he is a Golden-Ager, still at work. He is said to be 78, yet he was able last season to hold his own at the Salzburg Festival as an attraction in its Dichter zu Gast program.
But the Wagnerian RING Cycle is the challenge of all opera-staging challenges: four operas, totalling some 16 hours in performance, all of which have to premier within one week!
Fortunately, he is assisted by Ursula Ehler and Dramaturg Dr. Norbert Abels. The Trump Card for the overall musical effectiveness of the production, however, may well be having Christian Thielemann as the conductor!
Perfect—and Imperfect—Wagnerites: KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED! This could be a Ring that really fits…
Copyright Glenn Loney, 2006. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: email@example.com.
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