You can view/download this article as a PDF here: Bayreuth article Greg Oct 2018
ADVENTURES IN BAYREUTH
an article written in acquittal for the author’s receipt of
A BAYREUTH SCHOLARSHIP
The Richard Wagner Society of Victoria
PART ONE – THE ARRIVAL
The gust of warm wind that greeted me as I stepped off the plane had a strangely familiar quality. Normally when I’ve travelled from a moribund British climate, the sudden thrill of warmth through the tarmac doors would signify that I’d come home to Melbourne. This time, instead, it was a meteorological herald to a Grand Adventure.
The music of Wagner has been a constant companion on my career journey so far, popping up when least expect as if to remind me – swimming as I often am in a sea of Mozart and Verdi – that there exists something broader, higher, deeper. The unique aspect of Wagner in modern repertoire is, I have decided, its experiential element. One doesn’t go to see a Wagner opera as much as one goes to experience it. The demands placed on us as an audience are ones of enforced soul-searching, of internal truth-seeking; to enter a theatre and embark on a metaphysical journey of doubt and exploration and to be overwhelmed by music that seems more philosophical than emotional (although it certainly contains plenty of that most human of qualities).
And where better to encounter these giant pillars of emotional architecture than at Bayreuth, in the theatrical temple built just for them.
For stage directors, the Bayreuth Festival holds an uneasy place in our artistic consciousness. It is the spiritual home of some of the most exercising (in all senses of the word!) music ever written, and long held in private artistic ownership by the descendants of the composer whose statue is frequently encountered throughout a town in which most streets are named for his legendary characters. Each of his descendants – acting as hereditary high priests – has, in their turn, placed their unmistakable stamp on the theatrical offerings that have been presented up to its flock of well-read and musically literate parishioners. The vaults of the museum that are located next door to Wagner’s villa in the town show a fascinating process of idolatry, heresy, excommunication and reformation in the art of directing Wagner. The early years of the Festival, in which the dogma was to preserve the original stagings – inspired as they were by the composer himself – led to an eventual stasis of artistic expression. With works containing so many universal themes, and with characters and situations themselves mythical, it was inevitable that with the change of generations there would come a change of presentation.
The current artistic heiress – Dr Katharina Wagner – has garnered a reputation for creating productions that are in a constant state of flux. Her production of Meistersinger (replaced newly by the production on offer at this year’s Festival, more later) became famous for the many revisions to staging and dramatisation, new changes evident in each of the five years it was presented. This continued an apparent trend in the Festival’s reputation for relying heavily on konzept directors – those who place a more weighted focus on an exploration of ideas and meta-concepts rather than engaging in the literal or emotional relationships of the characters on stage.
It was against this backdrop that I, with some trepidation, hauled open the doors of my train at Bayreuth station and stepped onto the platform of a town whose eponymous Festival was now regarded as the Mecca for avant-garde directors. I recalled, as I lumbered with my suitcase towards my hotel, the back-handed compliment (or was it a front-handed insult?) that had been given to me by way of critique from a senior director in the UK on the occasion of my first 5-star review at Covent Garden: “You make very nice work for London,” he had said, “but it’s too beautiful for Bayreuth”.
I was looking forward to ascertaining the truth or otherwise of that statement for myself.
PART TWO – THE AUDIENCE
I had heard it said by colleagues of mine who had been guests of the Festival in the past that the thing that sets Bayreuth apart from most other festivals in the operatic world is the character of its attendees. As well as being enormously expensive – which rather cuts out the likelihood of getting a small group together on a whim – the Festival also caters to such a particular niche of theatre-goer that it is impossible to imagine that any one member of the audience doesn’t have at least a slight degree of familiarity with the works being presented. This is not to say that I didn’t catch a few be-suited individuals hastily scrolling through Wikipedia pages on their mobile phones as the intervals came to an end, but I can think of no other festival in the world that can rely on its audience bringing with it into the auditorium such a significant pool of pre-existing knowledge.
I’ve been fortunate to have attended several functions in London where I have mingled with the Wagnerians of that city – this has usually been in my guise as an uncomfortably-bow-tied assistant director, there to chaperone the singers who have graciously agreed to talk with the sponsors after singing for six hours, or to attempt answers at indignant questions from Wagnerites who felt personally affronted that the director (rarely there to answer these accusations themselves, I’ve noticed…) made a choice contrary to the dramatic instincts of the complainer. And, constrained though I have been by both etiquette and my waistcoat to truly express my opinions, I have marvelled at the intensity and passion – almost always accompanied by a fully thought-through and carefully considered rationale – of the audience members in question.
Here, in Bayreuth, that impression is concentrated as small pockets form in the intervals – sometimes friends and acquaintances but just as often complete strangers who have found proximate table space for their interval drinks – where the analysis and debate about the Act just witnessed is of the highest level. For many of the European veterans, the Bayreuth Festspiel is an annual pilgrimage, supplemented by frequent visits to other major houses to see how their productions compare. It is on the foundations of this experience that the grand towers of knowledge possessed by these Wagnerites have been built, and it is – for the young and humble student – an exhilarating experience to eavesdrop while in line for a programme as a small cadre of critics dispute the relative merits of Loy’s Tristan as opposed to Bösch’s Holländer.
But, lest I give the impression that the ranks of the ticket-holders are limited to dull devotees and proclamatory pundits, I must hasten to add that there is a light-hearted atmosphere in the beautiful gardens of the Festspielhaus that belies the serious – sometimes dark – subject matter which we have gathered both to witness and discuss. There was, for example, the man beautifully decked out in vintage Lagerfeld, whose short trip from restaurant to programme-seller caused an unconsciously-choreographed parting of the sea of suits as the magnificence of his sartorial plumage momentarily distracted one from reading the cast biographies. Of no lesser spectacle, the lady from America who, we were reliably informed, attended every year with a brand-new outfit – complete with matching parasol – and whose complementary pastel hues had been carefully chosen to represent an aspect of the opera she was attending. Whether or not she was also responsible for the photographer who seemed to accompany her everywhere was up for debate. And, of course, there is something properly and unpretentiously German about leaving the auditorium, having plumbed one’s emotional depths in an overwhelming display of Gesamtkunstwerk, and emerge blinking into the afternoon sun to be greeted by a large sign encouraging you to purchase a sausage in bread and a beer. When I’m next elbowed aside in London by an overly-serious interval crowd desperate for a glass of overpriced champagne at the bar, I shall take great solace in the memory of that queue of opera’s elite, dressed to the nines and inspecting their programmes through a monocle, looking for all the world like a fancy dress line-up at a Bunning’s sausage sizzle.
In my own case, each performance was agreeably accompanied by an opportunity to analyse with Miki Oikawa – the Committee Member of the Society directly responsible for my attendance at the festival – and whichever of our fellow audience we had been sitting next to and had managed to persuade to join us in our reflections. Over the course of the week, this group expanded to include members of Wagner Societies in Adelaide and New South Wales, as well as further afield in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and also extended to various singers who, having been gifted a single ticket to a performance, had made rapid excuses to their conservatoires and ensembles and rushed to experience the atmosphere of a theatre in which they held aspirations to themselves perform in the future.
The height of the social calendar was a dinner held in the grounds of the Festspielhaus at the Festival restaurant to which members of the global Wagner Society family had been invited. Alongside an expertly-curated menu, we had the opportunity to be exposed to a wide geographic range of fellow opera-lovers. This included, somewhat surprisingly, a representative from the Wagner Society of Israel. This Society was, we were told, secretive in its membership due to the severity of domestic public opinion against the racist, bigoted and anti-Semitic Wagner family values of old. Against that backdrop, the attendance of the President of this Society (a highly-respected professor and surgeon) at this year’s Festival was treated as a triumph in and of itself. As one who has worked in Israel – and received not some small amount of scrutiny for doing so – I was left re-committed to the ideal that had persuaded me to work in Tel Aviv despite concerns over the policies of the government incumbent there: Art should be for all peoples, regardless of class or creed. That this man should have experienced persecution for his taste in music, or have been hounded into secrecy because of his predilection for a certain style of artistic expression left me feeling both proud and privileged to have been a guest in the company of this global movement encouraging freedom of artistic expression.
PART THREE – AN AFTERNOON AT THE OPERA
I had deliberately not researched the casting of the productions I was due to see. I had done this for several reasons – prime among them the desire not to create any false expectation before entering the auditorium. As one who works in the profession, I enter the theatre with a slightly different set of priorities than the average theatre-goer: as I have often told young singers and directors in masterclasses, those of us who choose to make the Arts our life are making a deal with the devil for doing so. The reward is that we get to spend our entire working lives submerged in the most glorious sound-worlds and breathing life into the most complex and nuanced characters that humankind has created. The cost is that, by so doing, we become like the apprentice magician who has to disabuse themselves from the love of the magic, and instead learn to fall in love with the skill and craft that makes that illusion possible.
My first instinct on entering a theatre is to look up – where is the lighting rig, and what lanterns have been hung on it? What angle has the projector been placed on and, to reason forward from that, what aspect of the stage will it cover? Can I guess from the position of the rigged bars and their contents where I should focus my attention in order to not to miss the coup de théâtre that will take everyone else by surprise? While other attendees nestle into their seats (or, in the case of Bayreuth, loudly regret not having hired a cushion to make the next 3 hours on a wooden bench a little more derrière-friendly), I am on the look-out for any tell-tale signs that might give me the edge in guessing what theatrical devices might be used and, in so doing, try to observe how they work.
The first opera on our calendar was Dr Katharina Wagner’s own production of Tristan und Isolde. I adore this opera, not solely for its closing moments (after all, what heart could fail to be unmoved by the Liebestod?) but also for the nebulous relationships contained within it. Beyond the Tristan-Isolde relationship (which of course contains enough complications and pre-opera backstory to be worthy of intense interest), I am also drawn to the possibilities contained within the relationships of the other characters. How to show the interactions between Kurwenal and Tristan – ostensibly this should be a straight-forward military hierarchy, but there is too much familiarity between them, and far too much open insubordination, for this to simply be a case of officers at work. Added to that, the characterisation of Brangäne (who, I believe, possesses the most beautiful music of the opera with her Act 2 interruption sometimes referred to as Brangäne’s Ruf) is open to much possible interpretation both in regards to her servant-mistress relationship with Isolde and to Kurwenal, with whom she shares some four hours of stage time but very few words. Finally, I have to confess an antagonistic love for König Marke – as much as I deplore his actions pre-opera in creating the circumstance by which Isolde is wrenched from her homeland to be an unwilling bride, there is something so powerfully pathetic about his reckoning with Tristan’s betrayal. Having worked with Sir John Tomlinson on possibly his last Marke at the Royal Opera, my heart was opened to the anguish of this monarch who, in that production, was more mortally wounded by Tristan’s abandonment than Tristan was by Melot’s blade.
I was more than pleasantly surprised to find that I knew two of the cast very well, and especially excited to see again Iain Paterson’s Kurwenal which had so moved me when we worked on it at Covent Garden a few years ago. With Katharina Wagner’s reputation for meta-theatrical investigation, I was intrigued as to how this would lend itself to an opera in which full epochs of time stretch out between phrases and entire ages seem to pass as time stands still for the two lovers. A busy set of constantly moving stairs to suggest the charged and changing emotions of the first act gave way to a constantly-monitored prison in the second act, and then to a more subdued third act which ended, rather unusually, with Isolde being stolen away by Marke at the conclusion. This last dramatic choice seemed rather at odds with the text of his Act 2 oration, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for Iain Paterson who, in the act 2 prison, was instructed to interrupt the love duet by continually trying to scale the prison wall but succeeding only in collapsing a new part of the set at every attempt. The constant invigilation of the central couple by actors on the ramparts who shined bright lanterns on them may have been contextually useful (it gave a rather obvious and immediate source for Tristan’s shriek ‘Das licht! O dieses licht!’), but too often I was reminded of provincial regietheater where a characterful exploration of entire swathes of charged text is forgone in favour of a strong stage image in the ultimate moments. There was no shortage of vocal brilliance, however, and I found in Christa Mayer an uplifting combination of beauty and character that, although very different from Dame Sarah Connolly’s interpretation at Covent Garden, was for me the highlight of the opera. The interval announcement that Stephen Gould was ill and wasn’t sure that he could complete his vocal duties came as a surprise to most of us, and only served to reinforce the magical nature of live theatre. His understudy sang Act 3 from the side of the stage while Stephen acted, resulting in an enthusiastic curtain call that reached its peak when Festival favourite Christian Thielemann stepped out to receive his Maestro’s applause.
A different beast altogether awaited us with Parsifal, the next day’s opera. I have, for all of the glorious music contained within this score, often felt that this last of Wagner’s completed works was the most in need of editing. At the time of its premiere, it was met with charges of being sterile, prosaic and long-winded, while no less than authority than Mark Twain remarked after seeing a performance that its plot appeared to surround a hermit who “stands in the stage on one spot … while first one and then another of the cast endures what he can of [the singing] and then retires to die”. However, there is undeniably something transcendent in the final 20 minutes of this opera which, I think, can only be fully experienced if one has persevered through all that precedes it. My own world view is not a religious one, and yet I have always been drawn to the uplift contained in the happy ending of this opera –or, perhaps more accurately, in its not-unhappy ending. I confess to finding much of the second act difficult to maintain my energy throughout, perhaps because I am forearmed with the knowledge of the sublimity to come – it is not for nothing that it is reported that an attendee at the turn of the century reminisced after a career in music, “When I first heard Parsifal at Bayreuth I was fifteen. I cried for two weeks and then became a musician.”
Our first Act was set in an old temple, clearly in the modern-day Middle East and the subject of either an evacuation, a military raid, or worse. As contemporary soldiers secured the location, there crept into the interior the local worshippers and priests, carrying with them the cloth-wrapped crucifix which they had evidently laboured to salvage from, and now return to, their place of worship. As an opening moment, it was breathtakingly simple – conveying immediately the importance and urgency of this religious community. The idea of the permanence of religion – an ancient way of thought protected even during modern-day struggles – was what stayed with me in the interval. As did the positioning of Amfortas as a Christ figure – complete with crown of thorns – whose blood from the wound that will not heal is collected by the knights and consumed in direct reference to the transubstantiative rituals of the catholic church. The second Act takes us to Klingsor’s domain, here represented with far less realism as an almost-cartoon version of a Muslim harem. The Blumenmädchen encounter Parsifal and in choregraphed glee throw off their conservative clothing en masse and frolic semi-naked in the bathing pools that make up the lower level of the stage, while from above Klingsor (the Australian bass Dekek Welton in his Bayreuth debut) watches in a secret room covered in crucifixes – the symbols of knights defeated in the past? A reminder of his once-allegiance to the knights templar he now so despises? A statement about the evolution of Islam from its predecessor monotheism? – and occasionally self-flagellates. Kundry seems to me the most difficult character in the piece to represent dramatically – appointed to several roles within the opera – and her change of guise was here depicted by the removal of the burqa which had identified her in the first Act. The final act returned us to the original domed temple, now many years later and inhabited by rival sects of Jews, Christians, Muslims and others. The re-appearance of Parsifal, now armed with the Holy Spear, gave rise to a wonderous scene of renewal and rebirth in which the most tasteful use of nudity I’ve ever seen in a German production evoked clearly the most cleansing aspects of the Adam & Eve myth. This prepared us for the final scene, in which one-by-one the arguing religious tribes were compelled to place their religious insignia in Titurel’s coffin and, as the temple broke apart, the white light of the truth of the Grail beckoned the protagonists to abandon their religious beliefs and leave behind the world of sectarian divide. This powerful and impossibly moving finale was one of the most emotional experiences I have had in the theatre – certainly not the ending that had been envisaged by the composer, and all the stronger for it.
PART FOUR – ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH
As a director, it is often our job to perform the impossible demands of a score. In this respect, Wagner is a particular and frequent offender – who else but a sadist would give the poor director of Das Rheingold only 10 bars in which to transform Alberich into a dragon and back again! – and it was with more than half a mind to the difficult-to-stage ending that I entered the theatre for Der fliegende Holländer, which had been then-30-year-old director Jan Philipp Gloger’s debut for the Festival in 2013. The first act was unexpectedly lively, with so much more made of the comedy than I had seen before. The character of the Steuerman was here greatly expanded – much more Leporello giving a nodding wink to the audience than the downtrodden lackey of many other productions. A massive futuro-electric mass of digital numbers, counting down to some unspecified occurrence and then freezing completely at the arrival of the Dutchman (here entering the stage in travelling coat with a roller suitcase in one hand and a takeaway coffee cup in the other) provided a compelling and claustrophobic backdrop to Daland and the Steuerman cramped in close quarters in their undersized rowboat. The second act transferred the action to a factory where, we discovered, Senta was a wilful and contrary line-worker and Erik the lovelorn handyman in a packaging plant for desk fans (the source of wind for the sails of the ships, as well as providing an onomatopoeic focal point for the female chorus to sing about in “Summ und brumm, du gutes Rädchen“). We remained in this set until the end of the opera and the suicide of Senta as the Dutchman set to leave. At this point, the score calls for the disappearance of the spectral ghost ship. Shortly therafter are seen Senta and the Dutchman ascending to Heaven, the curse having been lifted by Senta’s love. A very beautiful image, and one highly difficult to achieve in any circumstances, let alone when the action has been contrived to fit within the four walls of a factory. So it was that, in this version of events, the Dutchman and Senta became enshrined in immortality as the design for the base of a lamp – forever intertwined in their last embrace and having forever changed the output of the factory in which they met. Our final image is of Daland and the Steuerman counting the money that their new venture has brought them, any suggestion of paternal grief lost amidst the banknotes.
Following the production of Holländer was a day off. It came as a very welcome respite not just for the buttocks (which had endured some little torment) but also for the brain, which was fast reaching its capacity for metaphor and theatrical symbolism. Instead of the theatre, it was to be a day spent investigating Wahnfried – the villa that became Wagner’s refuge in Bayreuth – and the museums that operate in proximity to it. It is to the credit of the curators of these museums that the ugly and contemptible aspects of the Wagner family’s associations are not glossed over with a veneer of credulous idolisation, as has sometimes been the case in the past. Within the museum are frequent mentions of the Wagner family’s ties to Nazism, racism and its sympathies to Aryan supremist thought. I had not expected photographs of Hitler visiting the estate to be so prominent nor for the commentary accompanying these images to be so strident in its acceptance of the reprehensibility of the Wagner family’s actions following the death of the composer and the rise of national socialism. The grounds outside the festspielhaus are now dotted with monuments to the ‘Silenced Voices’ of the Bayreuth festival – these stelae bear the names and photographs of those who, having worked for the Festival, were forcibly removed, denied further employment or impugned by the Wagner family on the grounds of their (sometimes supposed) racial or cultural heritage. Almost all of the monuments also contain details of the gas chambers or concentration camps where these musicians, singers, instrumentalists and choristers were murdered. This indescribably sad installation provides both recognition and apology for the official position of the Festival in years gone by, though of course could never hope to deliver sufficiently of either.
This was all, as it turned out, prescient research for the next production on the calendar – the much-anticipated production of die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Not only was this production by the Australian genius Barrie Kosky, it also marked the first time that Jewish director had helmed a production at the Festival and was the first time that this opera had been directed at the Festival by someone not related to the composer. It was to be the most rewarding and inspiring six and a half hours I was to spend in Bayreuth. I have, of course, been aware of Barrie Kosky since I first started to learn about directing in Australia, and I feel a guilty pang of undeserved pride-by-association whenever I read of his successes, or see them myself as has been the case at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne. A real konzept director has the ability to play both the literal story and explore the relationships between characters while all the time ensuring that the audience is aware of a critical examination of a higher idea that informs the aesthetic of the production. There is, in my mind, no greater exponent of this currently working than Mr Kosky.
The first act took place entirely within a recreation of Wahnfried – in Wagner’s own drawing room that I had spent the previous afternoon exploring. This had been the iste of many Wagner family events, and frequently the composer would play and act out his newest works with and for the ebenfit of a small circle of friends and acquaintances. The first master-stroke of this production was to set the first act entirely in this circumstance, with the singers dressed as Wagner and his associates and acting out the opera. Here, echoing his own real-life propensity to self-identify with and write letters in the name of his main character, Wagner was Hans Sachs. Liszt – the father of his second wife Cosima – took on the role of Pogner, father to Eva in the opera. Finally, von Bülow – the conductor friend whom Wagner cuckolded with Cosima – was to play the part of the luckless Beckmesser, doomed never to marry Eva after Sachs’ interventions. This concept served beautifully both to highlight the moral tensions in Wagner’s own home life and to allow the performers their utmost chance to shine. In Wagner’s longest male role, bass Michael Volle was on stage for the entire first act, usually the only time granted to this character to rest backstage, and so completely inhabited the character of Wagner that it was as though one was watching archival footage. Having worked with Michael at Covent Garden on a rather different character (there is not much room for subtlety in St John the Baptist in Strauss’ Salome!), I was utterly compelled by the gentle, subtle and nuanced mannerisms that combined to give the first act all the natural realism of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It was, however, in the dying seconds of the first act that the more serious overtones of the productions’ metatheatrical conceit began to emerge. Suddenly, amidst the bonhomie of the 19th-century villa there appeared a single guard in the dress of a later time. Wagner turned and found himself under the spotlight, standing in the wooden dock, looking up at an accusation from another era. The Trial of Wagner had begun. A second act set amongst the packed-up furniture of Wahnfried progressed the story of Walther’s attempts to join the Guild and compete for Eva’s hand in marriage, but it was the dénouement of this act that caused a collective intake of breath and a delayed applause from an audience who were suddenly confronted with an act of violence that they couldn’t shrink from. The second act ends with the ‘Riot Scene’ in which Beckmesser – identified by various members of the Wagner family as the ‘Jewish’ character – is beaten up by a crowd who mistaken believe he is attempting to serenade the beloved of one of the apprentices. Often this scene descends into chaos, with the assault on Beckmesser occurring offstage and directors preferring to stage general commotion. Here, however, Beckmesser is set upon and brutally beaten, down-stage, in full view of the audience. From the floor inflates a giant Judenkopf – a racist caricature of anti-Semitic origin with exaggerated features and a malevolent look. As Beckmesser struggles to breathe following his bashing, this enormous face also slowly begins to deflate. Its wheezing echoes Beckmesser’s and as the last notes of the orchestra fade away, the eyes of the grotesque balloon seem to watch the audience until finally all the air is gone. This is an unsettling and disturbing note on which to leave the theatre and, perhaps equally unnerving, presents an accurate reproachment of the wishes of the composer who had anticipated an exhilaration among the audience at the beating of the Jewish antagonist of this work. The third act leaves us in no doubt as to the direction of the konzept – we are now in a large and forboding courtroom with significant echoes of the Nuremberg Trials. Wagner-as-Sachs opens the act with a monologue about how he didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt by his set-up of Beckmesser, and throughout the following scene with the injured antagonist, frequently steps up and into the dock. The opera continues largely along narrative lines, with some inspired use of a very well-drilled chorus, until the final monologue. Here, left alone on the stage and under the bright lights of judgement, Wagner makes a posthumous claim for the prevalent majesty of Art over other considerations and, removing the costume of Sachs, takes up his baton to conduct the final chorus. If there was ever a way to allow Wagner to speak from beyond the grave in defence of his achievements, then this was it. Very powerful stuff.
PART FIVE – A CONCLUSION
Our final performance was a presentation of Die Walküre, unusually presented in isolation outside of a Ring Cycle year and, rumours suggested, so programmed as to be a vehicle for Placido Domingo who was keen to make his conducting debut at the Festival. Act 1 of Walküre is often put forward as the most popular “bit” of the Ring Cycle (although, for my money, Waltraute’s scene in Götterdämmerung contains some of the most heart-wrenching music and text in existence), and certainly it is proving increasingly popular to present Walküre as a stand-alone piece. There are legitimate reasons for doing so, but I wasn’t alone in thinking that it might more easily be achieved from a narrative point of view if such a presentation is conceived of as a seperate opera and not – as was done here – ripped out of a pre-existing Cycle. Robbed as we were of the context and characterisation that had no doubt occurred in the first chapter of this production, it was hard going sometimes to identify characters and the circumstances. The full Ring Cycle, directed by Frank Castorf, from which this Walküre was excised has become famous for it’s interpolation of current enviro-economic events over the narrative of the Wagnerian operas. Utilising visual analogy and metaphor to create a dissonance between the sequence of events in the opera and the plundering of natural resources by way of preceived American imperialist tendencies in the Middle East is an interesting concept and one that presents a host of opportunities for potentially rewarding results. Stripped of its context in the grander scheme of the tetralogy in which it was conceived, however, it is more difficult for an audience lacking an understanding of the full picture to fully grasp certain elements. This led to some rather enjoyable guesswork at each interval (“Do you think that lady in the dress was Fricka? Perhaps … but it could equally have been Erda as a flashback to Wotan’s seduction of her to create the Valkyries! Ah yes, but what then of the chocolate cake she was eating…”), but I couldn’t help but feel that this one-off presentation of an opera outside its usual narrative bookends might have better served its audience if it had been conceived as an entirely new production intended to be viewed as such. Certainly, the singers were in glorious form and one was well able to enjoy the music-making even if restricted in ability to fully appreciate the Mise–en–scène. I have worked with Maestro Domingo before, and there is no harder-working man in show business. He had the evening previous to our performance been in Lisbon to preside over the Grand Final of his Operalia competition (from which I was pleased to learn my colleague and friend the Portuguese tenor Luis Gomes had emerged with a clutch of awards), but such is the indefatigable nature of the Maestro that an early morning plane presented no obstacle to his appearance to conduct this last show of the Festival season. As in some of my previous encounters with him as a conductor, I felt that he sounded more at home when conducting repertoire that he knew well (I still listen to his own recording of Siegmund from time to time) and although I have a reasonable familiarity with this score and some of its interpretations, there were still some tempi that I found dangerously slow. A starry cast, however, ensured that even in ponderous moments there was no break in the excellence of the singing, and it was a great pleasure to hear Greer Grimsley and Catherine Foster in the heart-breaking Act 3 duet.
It is difficult to express just how much I gained from my attendance at this year’s Festival. There were many moments of artistic interest, of philosophical reflection and of career-driven networking. There was a real thrill of privilege at the idea of attending this most renowned of Festivals, and observing the fruits of the labours of many European directors whom I hadn’t come across during my time in the UK. Perhaps most refreshingly of all, there was a sense that I was there as the member of an audience and completely uninvested in the productions I was seeing – it is absurdly rare for me to attend a performance in which I haven’t had a hand either on the creative team, or through coaching some of its performers, or through having worked with the majority of its cast. There really is something very special about the Festival in Bayreuth and, as others have said, it is easy having experienced it once to see how it easily it could become an addiction.
I am eternally grateful to the Wagner Society for supporting me as this year’s Bayreuth Scholar, and most especially to the anonymous benefactor who saw fit to make this opportunity available to me. I will certainly attempt to repay as best I can through a renewed commitment to my own work and a rededicated drive to exploring this most sublime of all artforms.
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