The sleepy Franconian town of Bayreuth is most famous for its annual festival devoted to the works of Richard Wagner, who chose the locale as an idyllic site for both his residence and for a theater he designed specifically for the performance of his own works, to the exclusion not only of those of all other composers but also of his first three operas (Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi), which he considered immature. This year’s festival is the 100th in a tradition that began in 1876. Irregular finances in Bayreuth’s first decades and the effect of the two world wars account for the other 35 years without a festival. It is here that Wagner is most revered, in a way that simply no other composer is. “The true pilgrim,” wrote a French Wagnerian in an 1897 travel guide specifically for countrymen attending the festival, “goes there on his knees.” There are ceremonial wreath-layings on Wagner’s grave, the graves of his family members, and even his dog’s grave. Obsessive fans line up in the summer heat to tour his house (Villa Wahnfried, now closed for renovation until the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth in 2013). Some of the most outré opera-going outfits one could ever hope to see command attention alongside a large percentage of audience members reverently attired in black tie.
It is entirely reasonable to say that the Bayreuth Festival is the most exclusive cultural event in the world, even though, and perhaps because, it lies far above the media radar and the cultural horizons even of many well educated opera goers. Needless to say, it always sells out, and one cannot merely purchase tickets on demand. To date standard tickets from the box office have only been available by written application accepted via conventional post. Only for the 2012 festival will on-line applications be available, and for the first time in its history Bayreuth will accept payment by credit card. The “wait list” can be as long as ten years, with 5-7 years often cited as the average length of time. In 2011 there were about six applicants for every ticket, and it is expected that the new on-line application format will increase that ratio substantially in the future. Unsuccessful applicants must reapply year after year to advance in priority. Special ticket allotments are given to donors to the Festival and to members of select Wagner Societies, who must still pay sizeable donations atop some of Europe’s highest ticket prices (as much as 220 euros in 2011) in addition to their standard membership fees. And even among these privileged groups demand usually outstrips supply. There are at present 139 officially recognized Wagner Societies (how many Puccini Societies?) around the world, in places as unexpected as Singapore, New Zealand, Abu Dhabi, Vancouver, and, as of November 2010, even Israel, where sensitivities about Wagner’s identification with Nazism have allowed only one controversial public performance of the composer’s music, as an encore in a 2001 concert led by the famous Wagnerian conductor Daniel Barenboim. Desperate people with signs advertizing their willingness to buy tickets show up not only at the beginning of each performance, but during the intermissions, thrilled at the prospect of hearing just one act.
The Festspielhaus, or Festival Theater, is set on a hill (“the green hill”) that gently inclines above the town. Many hotels provide shuttle services, in some cases along with a glass or two of Seckt, while some patrons prefer to walk up. The Festspielhaus remains largely as Wagner designed it – a squat barrack of a building with a columned, neoclassical hall arranged in the manner of a Greek amphitheater. Rows of barely cushioned wooden seats reach only about halfway up one’s back. Many patrons attend with special cushions to ease their discomfort in the hard-seated chairs. Bayreuth itself rents them for one euro, while some hotels give them out to their guests. Sparse decorations ensure the purest acoustics. The unusually deep orchestra pit is covered by a curved overhang that forces the instrumental sound onto the outsized stage, where it mixes with the voices to produce the famous “Bayreuther Schall,” or “Bayreuth sound” impossible to find elsewhere. It also spares the audience the distraction of seeing the orchestra during performances. Very noticeably on the often hot July and August days when the festival takes place, there is no air conditioning but rather “blowers,” which offer only slight relief by circulating the air. On the hotter days the audience is reduced to stripping off jackets, bringing fans, or fanning themselves with the sturdy cast lists on sale. At least one person this year had to be removed from the hall for heat-related medical reasons. A glimpse into the covered pit before one act revealed invisible orchestral musicians clad in shorts and t-shirts.
Tradition runs strong in the rituals of performance. The usual start time in Bayreuth is 4pm, except for The Flying Dutchman and Das Rheingold, which are shorter and free of intermissions and begin at 6pm when they are offered. Each act of every opera is announced ten minutes before curtain by brass musicians who play a fanfare of one of the upcoming leitmotifs from a balcony above the theater’s main entrance. Wagner personally scored these fanfares and determined the order in which they are played. During performances the audience maintains a reverential silence that one imagines would be crushed by overpowering social opprobrium if it were ever breached, but I do not recall that having happened even once at any of the five performances I attended this year. Performances of Wagner’s last opera, the deeply spiritual Parsifal, were by the composer’s will not to be applauded at all. This convention has receded to a habit of not applauding after the opera’s first act, though this year the audience observed only about a minute of absolute silence when the curtain fell before tepid applause broke out. Intermissions last an hour in Bayreuth, permitting long conversations about the performance, interact snacking, dining, and drinking, perusing Wagnerian merchandise, or passing time in quiet reflection in the gardens that surround the theater.
After World War II, the festival’s direction consciously tried to shed its productions of the nationalism that had characterized them too uncomfortably during the Nazi era. Wagner’s daughter-in-law Winifred, who had run the festival from the time of her husband Siegfried Wagner’s death in 1930, was barred from resuming her leadership because of her close connection to Hitler, to whom she referred even after the war as “USA,” or unser seliger Adolf. As late as 1975 she publicly defended her friendship with him in a series of West German television interviews. Her sons Wolfgang and Wieland assumed postwar direction of the festival, which resumed in 1951, and held it jointly until Wieland died in 1966. Wolfgang then became sole director and only yielded authority to his daughters from different marriages, Eva and Katharina, in 2008, following a protracted internal feud. Eva, now 66, had a long international career as an arts administrator, while Katharina, 33, is a Berlin-trained theatrical producer who has staged a handful of opera productions around Germany, for the most part poorly received. Her most important work to date is her 2007 Bayreuth production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which was revived for the last time this summer. She has insisted on bowing at every performance of her production over the years and is always heavily booed, even on the production’s final night this year. In 2015 she will stage Tristan and Isolde.
The “avant-garde” concept of Regietheater, or “director’s theater,” reigns in Bayreuth. I place “avant-garde” in quotation marks because it has now become so prevalent and so pervasive that we have reached a place where it is impossible to consider it truly innovative or revolutionary. This is especially true in Wagner productions. Today it is an exception to find a Ring of the Nibelung in which Wotan is not a harried executive wearing a business suit or a Tristan and Isolde in which the legendary title characters are not reduced to ordinary people living through a plain romance. Perhaps if the world’s stages were dominated by the traditional castles and ships and Holy Grails such an approach could pretend to provocation and shock value. But when it becomes the norm – and it has, – then the effect is neither shocking nor provocative. The most common reaction appears to be boredom, closely followed by a lack of comprehension. When the production team is booed, and they almost always are, it is not the kind of booing caused by the aesthetic outrage that famously greeted the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. Directors may dream of making a name by having such a moment, but the boos they receive bellow out from audiences disappointed at not being engaged or brought out of themselves in the way that opera – and especially Wagner – can and must do if it is to survive as an art form.
We just do not want to see Tristan in a sweater any more. But Christof Marthaler’s stale effort for Bayreuth does exactly that, yet again. The production opens in a frowzy brown day room with too many chairs. It could pass for the lounge on the cross-Channel steamer in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. The visual effect is so dull that one almost wants a cast of Waugh characters to parade across the stage getting drunk and throwing up. Act II suggests we have descended a deck to a sick yellow activity room without any activity. The hateful day is suggested by ugly fluorescent lights that Tristan can predictably turn off at the beginning of the love scene but not turn on again at the end of the act, when he and Isolde are discovered. Act III opens in a grayish cargo bay with Tristan in a hospital bed. As the opera progresses, the contours of the sets from the previous acts appear in smaller scale, as though they were stacked below the previous one. I suppose this is meant to tell us that our descent into the ship mirrors a descent into the human psyche. But that psyche is so boring that the effect dissolves in our lack of interest. Some audience members preferred to close their eyes, and not always to imagine something better. The characters, meanwhile, inhabit the tired and familiar universe of bourgeois propriety, sporting dowdy costumes that progress from a ration-deprived 1940s Britain to a Pillow Talk-like early 1960s caricature to some blandly casual present. True to “avant-garde” form, there is hardly any physical contact in this most sexual of operas. Reversing the physicality into stasis might once have played off the rapturous music in an intriguing paradox, but now it has become so commonplace that it is merely a let down. The only suggestion of what Waugh in another novel called “a bat squeak of sensuality” emerges in Tristan’s removal of one of Isolde’s gloves, beige though they are.
Likewise, Sebastian Baumgarten’s unfortunate Tannhäuser was heavily booed and denounced by a cultural figure no less important than Placido Domingo, who has publicly called it “incomprehensible” and said that he never would have allowed it in a theater under his direction. Domingo’s comment revealingly does not label Baumgarten’s production “vile,” “offensive,” “tasteless,” “shocking,” or any of the other adjectives institutional art students dream of having applied to their work by “establishment” figures. It is simply a bore. Baumgarten’s “concept,” which he appears to apply to much of his stage work no matter what the opera is really about, is that modern society can be reduced to an insidious system in which organic material is recyclable from waste into sustenance, a “socially conscious” trope relentlessly present in bad science fiction (The Time Machine, Soylent Green, The Matrix movies, Vladimir Sorokin’s novels, anomg many others) for over a century at least. The set, used in all three acts, is a factory where a large bio-gas tank is linked to smaller tanks labeled “Nahrung” (sustenance) and “Alkohol.” Slick video projections tell us the majestic Wartburg is really a firm” and unmemorable pseudo-Brechtian slogans (“Art Becomes Deed”) distract us from the action, such as it is, with failed attempts at irony. We see the system’s power in the chorus of Thuringian nobles, who appear as working people who accept their rations with delirious reverence. Deviance from this system lies in the Venusberg, a realm of pagan idolatry and sensual delight presented here as a cage containing evolutionarily regressed ape-like creatures who fornicate and devour each other. They coexist with those oversized prehistoric sea creatures found in museums and some kind of leopard. They all revere Venus, who is improbably pregnant with Tannhäuser’s baby. So that the labored point is not completely lost, film projections of microscopic organisms accompany the overture. Progress, in other words, leads to dependence and enslavement. Hence the pilgrims are drunks packed off to Rome in a shipping container and returned as robotically functional cogs in the machine (i.e. religion brainwashes people – now that’s a really original thought!). Elisabeth’s deathful prayer for the ostensibly unredeemable Tannhäuser is of course a suicide (she goes into the bio-gas tank), the only fate Regietheater ever seems to allow her. The resolution of the opera, in which Venus attempts to lure Tannhäuser back only to have him find redemption after all, is a flat conflation of her sensuality (she gives birth) with the sanctity of the Wartburg. Again, nothing new comes of the idea that men like women who are both saintly and devilish, especially not when Wolfram sings his evening star song to Venus.
Hans Neuenfels’s Lohengrin was another case of dull predictability, despite the unusual use of rat costumes for the poor chorus. Neuenfels envisions the medieval romance as a lab experiment in which digital projections of fighting rats narrate the scenes having to do with struggle. The strongest reaction anyone seemed to have was, “the rats don’t bother me.” Some spectators thought they were “cute.” These are hardly reactions to effective provocation. To me the rats were just there, a useless distraction that added nothing to the work except yet another regurgitation of the familiar and tendentious argument that humans are interchangeable with vicious animals in their destructive pursuit of such dubious goals as power and authority. Who needs to be reminded of that? One could just watch the news, visit Capitol Hill, or attend an academic conference. The conceptual emptiness was so bleak that there is hardly anything else to say about the production. It ends bizarrely, with everyone except Lohengrin inexplicably dying. The vanished Gottfried appears as an outsized newborn who rips up and throws around his umbilical cord. I shrugged my shoulders at this pointless reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Meistersinger in the hands of Wagner’s great-granddaughter was more eventful, but it only registered as another failed conceptual approach. The production has been cleaned up since its 2007 premiere, but some of its inexplicable elements remain. We still have the giant hand sculpture that needlessly weighs down Act II. The life-sized puppets of German cultural figures continue to fool about without doing anything other than making the audience lose focus on the fine Act III music. Hans Sachs’s final monologue about the greatness of German art strangely retains the now obligatory sinister dimensions, delivered as it is with eerily shadowed facial expressions. If it is a warning, it makes no sense within the frivolities of the production concept. Katharina’s major thematic interpretation is that the “outsider” Walter von Stolzing – initially a long-haired painter in a leather jacket – becomes the establishment while the “insider” Beckmesser morphs from punctilious jackass to hipster rebel. Any South Park fan will be familiar with the episode in which some of the school kids adopt the lamentable “Goth” style of pseudo-alienated teens and taunt others as “conformists” until they also adopt the style, thus totally destroying its pretensions to being “alternative” because it is in fact the norm. At least the creators of South Park succeed in a 22-minute cartoon program in communicating the motivations for these transitions. Katharina cannot do it in five hours in her family’s own theater. Walter’s artistry really is (unlike most Regie productions) something new. It also (again, unlike most Regie productions) reflects eternal aesthetic truth, which is why it can succeed. One could easily draw the conclusion that Katharina’s own staging comments on its irrelevance. If the “rebel” iteration of Beckmesser’s character botches the Prize Song (here he delivers it as a performance art act in which he frees naked models from a pile of dirt) and is dismissed as a loser, then what other conclusion can one draw about theatrical rebels who botch masterpieces?
With the “avant-garde” orthodoxy now in the ascendant, its practitioners fail to realize that they in fact are the establishment, an elitist clique who simply reproduce each other’s ideas in the world’s greatest theaters while pretending their opinions are inherently more valuable than those of the public to whom they condescend. The effect is too often one of mind-numbing boredom. I already know about the world’s energy crisis. Why, in seeking to get away from such bad news, would I want to spend an entire evening in the Bavarian countryside staring at Baumgarten’s bio-gas tank? I am aware of the insufferable dullness of bourgeois existence. It is something I try hard to avoid. Why do I need to see Tristan and Isolde look so depressingly normal?
We have reached the point where a truly provocative Wagner production would have to be an unapologetically traditional staging. The dialectic argument that traditional stagings are unforgivably “representational” and therefore uninspired has come full circle. Once Regie fully displaced tradition, then tradition became the only radical exception to the tired rule. A good old fashioned Wagner production with castles and gardens and helmets and spears would be the ultimate provocation. It would pose a fundamental challenge to the most deeply held Regie shibboleth, that a work of art must comment on contemporary society. Who says so? Adorno? Bourdieu? Edward Said? Some other dead and irrelevant intellectual most people – including most opera goers and probably a fair number of Regie producers — have never heard of? A bold announcement that this idea is dead would infuriate the “avant-garde” directors who now populate the establishment, all the more so since they hate to think of themselves that way. Imagine how provoked a self-important but nominally anti-elitist elite would be by strident celebrations of transcendent sacrifice, triumphalist heroism, ethereal salvation, Teutonic art, and genuine redemption.
It is the last surreal trope that found unusual attention in Bayreuth this year. Reviving Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal of 2008 bathed the audience in rich symbolism, true meaning, and real catharsis. It is a riveting, haunting production that frames the action through three eras of German history, largely as experienced in the surroundings of Wagner’s villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth. Act I yields a Wilhelmine Germany in which Parsifal’s upbringing emerges in sharp relief. During the prelude we see his mother dying as he plays obliviously with his bow. Gurnemanz presents his story and leads him to the temple of the Holy Grail within an allegory of Rosicrucian mysticism, a cultish Christian sub-sect that believes Jesus conceived a child with Mary Magdalen whose descendants would bear the redeemer. The costumes are conventional late nineteenth century styles adorned with attached angel’s wings to suggest the heavenly character of the Grail’s realm and, perhaps, the spreading wings of Imperial Germany, whose symbolic eagle rests above the stage. The act ends with the Grail rite turning into an evocative regimental mass on the eve of World War I. The second act is a perverse Nazi Germany, complete with swastika flags unveiled over storm troopers at the end (Bayreuth’s direction had to get special legal permission to use the Nazi symbol, which is illegal in Germany). True to the bizarrities of the 1930s, the self-castrated Klingsor appears in a guise of Marlene Dietrich with a tuxedo top, fish net stockings, and the blond wig. Kundry shifts between a similar costume and a resemblance of Parsifal’s mother, whose sad tale she employs in an attempt to seduce him. It is the storm troopers at the end who try to stop Parsifal, only to be crushed by heavenly power as Klingsor’s realm is destroyed. The imperial eagle, now a Nazi eagle, shatters to the ground. Act III brings us to a bleak postwar Germany, where Wahnfried lies in ruins. In a scene of enormously impressive catharsis, the Grail temple becomes the Federal Republic’s parliament, with the Grail knights presenting their choruses in the manner of a parliamentary debate. At the end the eagle has become a dove, both a symbol of peace and a reference to the heavenly dove Gurnemanz recalls having brought the Grail in his first act monologue. Herheim is a well known Regie director, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. This was a Parsifal to remember, and a true credit to Bayreuth as it evolves into a future of what one hopes will be inspired and challenging productions.
Wagnerian singing is thought to be at its best in Bayreuth, though the direction is known for taking chances on new discoveries who do not always impress. This year’s festival offered both alternatives. It is hard to argue with the excellent tenors on display. Simon O’Neill’s Parsifal, Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin, and Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan all stood out with soaring, clarion voices. Vogt’s voice sat a touch too high for my taste, but he received the week’s only standing ovation. Burckhard Fritz cancelled his Walter due to illness and was replaced with the young tenor Stefan Vincke, whose limited preparation time showed in a weaker performance. Lars Clevemann’s Tannhäuser started with verve but tired easily. Fine sopranos were also on impressive display. Irene Theorin must be one of the greatest Isoldes now performing. Annette Dasch sang Elsa with gracious tones. Michael Kaune’s Eva and Camilla Nylund’s Elisabeth registered a tier lower, but still radiated great feeling. Susan Maclean’s Kundry proved this artist’s place as a great Zwischenfach singer who could accomplish the role’s mezzo qualities and still reach its soaring soprano heights. Only Stephanie Friede’s disappointing Venus attracted audible disapproval. At the lower end, Michael Nagy sang an appealing Wolfram. James Rutherford’s Hans Sachs was a less successful effort, giving in to occasional bluster, especially in Act III. The bass Georg Zeppenfeld admirably delivered Pogner and King Heinrich, and Kwangchul Youn’s profound low register accounted well for both Gurnemanz and the voice of Landgraf Hermann, whose scheduled singer fell sick and could only act the role.