Of course. Who else but Richard Wagner would build himself his own opera house in the middle of nowhere and decree that only his operas were to be played there? Yeah, no one. The orchestra is in a mystical, covered pit to make life easier for the singers. The hall is notoriously hot, because no air conditioning can be installed (the whole thing is built solely out of wood, for acoustic purposes). Imagine that you are sitting on the inside of the body of a violin, in the summer heat. No one but Wagner would have the guts to do that. Remember, this is the man who, upon finishing the composition of the first act of his opera Walküre, wrote to his father-in-law Franz Liszt: “This is the most beautiful music ever written.” Charming.
Nauseatingly enough, Wagner was always annoyingly on-the-spot in his self-assessment. The Bayreuth Wagner festival, which is run by his descendants to this day, quickly became a cult around the works of the Meister, when it was opened in 1876. Tickets are therefore notoriously hard to get, even though things have gotten easier in recent years. I managed to get tickets for three of Wagner’s greatest works on the green mountain this year: Parsifal, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Der Fliegende Holländer. All within five days in the smouldering hot Festspielhaus (this was during the height of the European summer heatwave.)
There is a special air around Bayreuth, it is the place where the art of Wagnerian opera has historically always been advanced to new, unknown levels. Production such as those of Wieland Wagner, Patrice Chereau, Harry Kupfer and Frank Casdorf have played vital roles in how we perceive Wagner’s art and philosophy. Strawinsky famously hated this cult when he came to attend performances of Parsifal. And yet, you simply cannot resist it. As Christian Thielemann, famous Wagner-conductor, once said: “You simply fall for Wagner’s music.” And that’s how it was for me as well. So, let’s get into the great adventure of Wagner in Bayreuth.
PARSIFAL 26th July 2018
Wagner only wrote his final opera Parsifal after he had built the Festspielhaus. The music is made for these intense acoustics, and is conducted beautifully slowly by Semyon Bychkov. As with almost every production at Bayreuth, an outstanding cast of singers are signed for some of the most demanding roles that have ever been written. These Parsifal singers produce a final result, that really shows you why Bayreuth is known to be the place to advance Wagner: They work incredibly hard and transport the work and its subtle but strong messages with passion and grit. From Andreas Schager as an impure, comparatively tortured Parsifal, Elena Pankratova as a harrowingly good Kundry and Thomas Johannes Mayer as an Amfortas who cries out in pain so expressively, that you almost have to look away from the scene.
Wagner wanted the Festspielhaus to work as a sucking mechanism, sucking the public into his works. Uwe-Eric Laufenberg’s production interprets Parsifal as a no-compromise criticism of the three global religions. Set in the middle east of today, the Christian monks who throw the Muslim civilians back into the war the minute the western soldiers show up. The flower maidens provokingly take their niqab off to reveal bikinis underneath, while the lazy Klingsor simply watches. And at the end the whole stage goes up in smoke and bright light, as the struggling grail society is redeemed by their redeemer. An impressive finish to a highly thoughtful production, that might still need a few years to mature, but already packs in impressive philosophical punch. This is Bayreuth, this is where the big thoughts in Wagner’s works are brought to the forefront. Wagner is more than just composer here. He is philosopher, dramatic interpreter and overall commanding artist of the whole spectacle, even 135 years after his death.
DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG 28th July 2018
After a good day’s rest from Parsifal, I am off for Meistersinger. This production had its debut last year. This production, the first by a Jewish director in Bayreuth’s history, shows a whole lot more about Wagner. It shows what director Barrie Kosky calls “Wagner’s vision of German culture.” And consequently, Wagner himself has a large role in the production, including all artistic high-points and modernities, but also his dark spots: Anti-semitism. Pure and ugly. We are transported back to Wagner’s home, where the anti-semitic traces of the story of Meistersinger are inserted into Wagner’s biography. And to make the message extra-clear, acts two and three take place in the reconstructed hall of the Nuremberg trials. Kosky manages something that only one director managed before at Bayreuth: A nuanced and yet honest portrayal of Wagner’s anti-semitism. Without anyone really noticing it.
The artistic personnel is probably the best you will find for this opera, anywhere in the world. It still fulfils the old Bayreuth standard of being the best at Wagner, as it existed for centuries. I simply cannot think of any better Sachs than Michael Volle. He eases through Wagner’s longest role with the experience of a proven veteran and the artistic commitment of a young, energetic Hollywood actor working on his Oscar. Johannis Martin Kränzle is his congenial partner as Beckmesser, who plays the role with one of Kosky’s clever twists: Beckmesser is not the assimilated Jew that Wagner wanted him to be, but is extraordinary in his own right. He simply is himself, which makes the whole societal conflict around the character all the more potent. Günther Groissböck as Pogner and heavenly clean tenor Klaus Florian Vogt as Stolzing round out a near-perfect ensemble. The whole thing is conducted in a manner as nuanced and clever as the staging, by Parisian music director Philippe Jordan.
DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER 30th July 2018
After another day’s rest, now for the shortest opera at Bayreuth, unfortunately it was also the hottest. It was the only one from which I came out sweating down through my dress shirt. It had been a highly interesting performance, where the actual star was the Choir of the Bayreuth Festival, to me the premier opera choir that I have heard to this day. This opera choir surpasses (in my experience) those of Berlin, Munich and London. The voices are so loud and magnified, and yet never lack expression and sensitivity. An extraordinary feat. The choir is joined by the comically highly talented due of Peter Rose (extraordinarily clear and soft bass voice as Daland) and Rainer Trost (beautifully clear helmsman’s tenor). Greer Grimsley sings the title role slightly unclear and elephantine, but Ricarda Merbeth makes up for it as she breathes stunning life into Senta, Wagner’s possibly most advanced female character besides Isolde.
Jan-Philipp Gloger’s production, while never much liked, has become something of a secret tip on the green mountain. With several corrections, it has now become a potent satire of capitalism in its sixth revival. Showing Daland and the helmsman as comic caricatures of greedy businessmen, the Dutchman as an unmoving catalyst for the story who is somehow above it all, and Senta as the not-so-madly, but rather intimidatingly in-love heroine. She is not someone you want to cross. Wagner described her as the “woman of the future,” revealing himself as one of the early proprietors of feminist thinking. The reason this production was never liked, is probably because love does live freely at the end, as it does in the libretto. Capitalist factories starts producing merchandise of Senta and the Dutchman’s love, they are not able to celebrate their love freely. So while the finale on stage leaves you slightly thoughtful and subdued, the sounds coming from the fantastic orchestra conducted by Axel Kober are all the more romantic and festive.
Bayreuth was an extraordinary experience, not only for the three operas. You had the feeling that you were part of something, part of a great movement for the love of a composer’s work. Traditions everywhere, doing typical Bayreuth stuff like eating at the Steigenberger Restaurant, as well as a post-opera drink at Wagner’s favourite pub. It just had that special air about it. And Salzburg, Munich and Berlin can do what they want, they cannot take that away from Bayreuth. The whole five days felt like the end of the first act of Parsifal: A sanctification of art, as the Wagnerians from all over the world descended on a tiny town in rural Germany, to once again pay their respects to their Meister. Yannik Eisenaecher August 2018
Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics