The Surroundings: The newcomer to Bayreuth can readily grasp the lay of the land. A large pedestrian area in the center of town stretches nearly from Wahnfried to a few blocks below the train station. This contains all the points of interest, shops, bookstores, and restaurants to keep one busy for one or two free days. And if one takes the bus, as I did, this bus stop is the departure point for the walk to the train station, then up the Strasse to the Festspielhaus. This is a short and pleasant walk, and the closer one gets to the Festspielhaus the pleasanter it becomes. The town is left behind, and soon one enters the beautiful parklike surroundings of the Festspielhaus with its lawns, colorful plantings, statuary, and quiet. Here one can relax and prepare oneself for the evening’s performance. It’s all part of the intended experience.
The Ring Cycle: Tankred Dorst’s production of the Ring was better than many reviewers have suggested, and it may have started with the best set of all. The Rhinemaidens were placed on a rocky river bottom; above them was projected the surface of the water, giving the scene an unusual sense of depth. Most of the Cycle’s remaining scenes were modern, mundane settings, as Dorst’s concept is to present a parallel universe, with gods coexisting with modern life. Seeing the gods on bridge abutments or in power stations was tolerable, but the pedestrian walk-ons were distracting and must have been annoying to the singers, who were giving their all only to have the audience’s attention shift to a man walking across the stage with a bicycle. On the whole, this concept did not reveal the inner aspects of the work; instead, it imposed limits on it and on the broader, mythical interpretations that a timeless setting can convey.
The singing throughout the Cycle was quite good, especially the Siegmund and Sieglinde of Endrik Wottrich and Adrianne Pieczonka, Hans-Peter Konig’s Hagen, and Gerhard Seigel’s Mime. Mihoko Fujimura, who sang both Erda and Waltraute, delivered a large and sonorous sound. Albert Dohmen, well cast as Wotan and the Wanderer, benefited from the famed Bayreuth acoustics. Stephen Gould, who reportedly was booed at Bayreuth a few years ago, was a convincing, even heroic Siegfried. Though overall Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde was a disappointment, the last act of Siegfried was electrifying, and the audience brought Gould and Watson back for repeated curtain calls. The real stars of this Ring, however, were the orchestra, conductor Christian Thielemann, and the Festspielhaus.
I found this Ring more enjoyable than I expected. With a starting time of 4 p.m., hour-long intermissions, beautiful grounds, and a leisurely pace, the experience was luxurious. And with the addition of the morning lectures sponsored by the Wagner Society of New York, I quickly became totally immersed in the Wagnerian experience.
However, just as I was settling in nicely, I was “Eurotrashed.”
Parsifal: I am no authority on Regietheater, or director’s theater (see the excellent articles on the subject by Heather Mac Donald in City Journal). However, no amount of reading prepared me for the visual assault of Christoph Schlingensief’s Parsifal. The stage was crowded with religious symbols, pop icons, and surreal constructs (there were multiple Parsifals and Kundrys). In front of the Grail scene a transparent curtain was lowered onto which a film of animals, feathers, and an obese naked woman with a stomach wound was projected so that the opera was filtered, as it were, through this directorial mélange. Sometimes the screen was opaque, so all one saw was film, as, for instance, the time-lapse photography of a decomposing rabbit, which made up the last three minutes of the opera. Reliable sources informed me that this represented the Grail. One gentleman, who was seeing this production for the second time, said that now he could understand what Schlingensief was trying to convey. A Wagnerian from California told me the production helped her understand the world her grandchildren would someday face. She then offered one of the most pertinent remarks I had heard all week: although she enjoyed the performance, it felt incomplete to her because she could hardly remember the music. The visual material had overwhelmed her completely. This was a great shame, for a score specifically written for that house and, to my mind, is the result of a “vision” not in harmony with the rest of the work. To the extent that a director puts him or herself on the stage, he/she runs the risk of pushing Wagner off of it.
Musically, the performances were enjoyable. Adam Fisher conducted movingly, and the principal singers, Alfons Eberz as Parsifal, Judit Nemeth, a late fill in-for Evelyn Herlitzius, as Kundry, Karsten Mewes as Klingsor, and especially Robert Holl as Gurnemanz, sang admirably under the circumstances.
Tannhäuser: The following night’s Tannhäuser may have been the sleeper of the season, possibly because I was in reaction to the dreadful Parsifal of the previous night; it was delightful from start to finish. The Bayreuth orchestra, under Christoph Ulrich Meier, and particularly the chorus were outstanding. I sat in the 25th row, and the Pilgrims’ Chorus rang in my ears. My only complaint was that I would have preferred to experience the Paris version, with its additional Venusberg music. The cast was also first rate. Frank van Aken as Tannhäuser, Ricarda Merbeth as Elisabeth, Roman Trekel as Wolfram, and particularly Judit Nemeth as Venus were all in fine voice, as were the rest of the cast. The sets were most pleasing.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: The final performance of the season was Die Meistersinger, which, as we all know, is Wagner’s only slapstick opera. This production was noteworthy for the Bayreuth directorial debut of Katharina Wagner, Wolfgang Wagner’s favorite offspring and heir apparent to the Directorship for Life. Some considered this production a test of the 29-year-old’s qualifications, and clearly more time and money were lavished on Meistersinger than on the other productions. Ten minutes into the performance it became apparent that her updated Konzept would be long on caricatures and short on subtlety or fidelity to the text. The apprentices were uniformed automatons, apparently the products of a rigid and bourgeois society. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Walter was a punk throwing temper tantrums and painting graffiti on anything that stood still, including Eva. He found a kindred spirit in Franz Hawlata’s Hans Sachs, a barefoot, chain-smoking freethinker who eschewed the garb and mannerisms of his fellow Mastersingers and hammered away on a typewriter instead of a cobbler’s bench. Amanda Mace’s Eva went from a hyper-giddy schoolgirl swooning over Walter in the first act to a vamp who couldn’t wait to jump into Sachs’s sack in the second act. In the scene of Beckmesser’s beating (one of the many things that don’t happen in this production), the town clerk was transformed into a town freak donning a “Beck in Town” T-shirt. Walter and Sachs, in Hugo Boss clothes, became conformists who upheld family and German values, respectively. These latter sentiments (and Bayreuth’s history) are obviously troubling issues for Ms. Wagner, and she dispelled them by staging dancing statues, oversized phalluses, nudity, and a blowup doll. But the real problem was that because of their antics, Walter and Sachs failed to convey what Wagner has to say about music and art. This was all about Katharina, and not Richard, all style and no substance. Compared with the Met’s wonderful presentation last season, this Meistersinger was puerile and musically lacking.
Vogt made his Bayreuth debut as Walter, and though some have criticized him for being a “Heldencrooner,” his voice was always secure and pleasing. Michael Volle’s Beckmesser was also a standout, and the audience rewarded him enthusiastically. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for either Hawlata or Mace, who lacked the voice and stamina necessary for their roles. The Bayreuth audience is not shy about booing, and after meting out the same to our Sachs and Eva, they saved their best for Ms. Wagner. I never imagined that I would end my first trip to Bayreuth by booing, but I found it satisfying.
A Final Word: A book recommended by Dalia Geffen—Bayreuth, by Frederick Spotts—was an excellent read and invaluable for a trip to Bayreuth. And Bayreuth Coordinator Carleton Gebhardt’s advice and assistance immeasurably enhanced my enjoyment of the trip.
Robert Reed is the Treasurer of the Boston Wagner Society.