WagnerBlog

The World of Composer Richard Wagner and his operas. www.wagneroperas.com with frequent forays into the world of art, culture, and film.

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Vincent Vargas is a foreign language teacher at a private school in New York City. He runs websites dedicated to Casablanca (www.vincasa.com) and Richard Wagner (www.wagneroperas.com).

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

René Pape at Bayreuth

René Pape, who is singing the role of King Marke at Bayreuth this summer, stayed at my hotel.  He arrived a few hours before the performance, and stayed overnight.  A private man, he kept to himself, finding a corner where he could have breakfast and interact with his mobile phone.  But not private enough for me to snap a picture of him.  The day of the performance I ran into him and told him that I was looking forward to hearing him as King Marke.  He responded with a cordial nod of the head, and off he went to his car towards the Festspielhaus.

Parsifal at the Festspielhaus

Parsifal, Wagner's last major work for the lyric theater, which premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, was the opera presented for our last night at Bayreuth.  A new production last year by Uwe Eric Laufenberg, this staging replaced the great Stefan Herheim production which I saw here five years ago. It's a tough act to follow.  Whereas the Herheim production has already passed into legend, and is now beginning to be copied (as in this year's Meistersinger), this current production succeeds in its simplicity.

Set in modern times, somewhere in the Middle East, the Grail Knights give the appearance of being a rogue Christian group who bleed Amfortas every day, and drink his blood in a ritualistic manner reminiscent of the faithful taking the blood of Christ.  Amfortas himself, with his crown of thorns and loincloth is the most Christ-like I have ever seen in any production.

Whereas the rest of the characters, Gurnemanz, Kundry, and Parsifal himself are treated in a familiar manner, the character of Klingsor is somewhat intriguing and provocative.  His story is well-known to those who know the plot of this work.  In an effort to join the Knights of the Grail, Klingsor castrates himself, and after this dastardly act is rejected by the Grail Knights.  This causes him to turn to the dark side, and it is he who steals the spear and wounds Amfortas. He becomes a necromancer who rules over Kundry and an enchanted garden.  In this production he wears a skirt (perhaps alluding to his asexuality) but lives in a lair filled with crosses.  As a matter of fact when Parsifal is able to win the spear from him, he breaks it in two, shapes the pieces into a cross and the destruction if Klingsor's lair is shown by the falling of all the crosses.  I found this turn of events in the production a bit confusing.

Likewise, I found the transformation scene in Act I a bit over-the-top.  A scrim comes down and we go on a space journey, starting a with a Google-Earth aerial look at the terrain where the action takes place and heading far into the farthest reaches of the universe.  Does the universality of this work really have to be shown so literally?  The Good Friday Spell became a torrent of water projected unto a scrim with appearances by the faces of the cast and even Wagner's death mask from Wahnfried awash in the cascading waters of Spring.

After four nights of a lackluster Ring led by Marek Janowsky, it was a pleasure to hear Harmut Haenchen leading the Bayreuth orchestra with such authority.  Like Christian Thielemann, he knows how to get the sound from the pit to ever nook and cranny of the auditorium.  Under Janowsky, the chorus overwhelmed the orchestra in Götterdämmerung, but the Parsifal chorus and the orchestra under Haenchen playing fortissimo made one's ears tingle. 

The star of the evening was Georg Zeppenfeld who last year premiered this production with his star turn as Gurnemanz.  Also returning to this production was Ryan McKinny, who was a moderately voiced Amfortas, and Elena Pankratova, whose Kundry was truly heartbreaking. The newcomer to the cast was Andreas Schager who sang a memorable, powerful Parsifal. 

In many ways this was the best way to leave Bayreuth for the 2017 season.  With a strong production of an austere work that is respectful to Wagner's legacy and the traditions established at the Festspielhaus.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Götterdämmerung at the Festspielhaus

During the immolation scene that ends Wagner's great epic The Ring of the Nibelung, the dead body of Siegfried lies burning on a pyre, his wife Brünnhilde rides her horse Grane into the fire as the banks of the Rhine overflow, and the gold that was stolen in Das Rheingold goes back to the Rhinemaidens.  It's the end of the world, but a hopeful elemental end written to some of the most ravishing music in the lyric theater.  Of course, what I just described are the stage directions that Wagner wrote on his score.  No director has followed them for years as more and more theaters experiment with this work.

Frank Castorf's Ring at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is by far the most experimental of any Ring that I have seen.  At times, it goes beyond just changing the locale of the original setting, it often creates its own running story which pales in comparison to the epic tale that the composer imagined. Often, Castorf's ideas do not work, or are, rather, so strange and alien to the words and music that he seems to be in another world and wants to take his cast with him.

There is no thematic unity to this Ring.  We start in a motel in Texas, and we end up on Wall Street, with some side trips to Baku and an Alexanderplatz filled with hungry alligators.  What does it all mean?  Why is there a comic character (we called him Squiggy!) who continually stops the action with "shtick" that makes no sense?  This is the first immolation scene that features no fire whatsoever, although Brünnhilde does spread some kerosene on the stage.  Nothing ignites.  Perhaps this is the best way to describe Castorf's staging: Nothing ignites.

This is the final time that this Ring will be presented at Bayreuth.  May it rest uneasily forever.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tristan und Isolde at the Festspielhaus

The new production of Tristan und Isolde by Katharina Wagner premiered last year to great acclaim.  It is a production that has been out in DVD/Blu-Ray for a while, and it has been familiar to many who follow the going-ons at the Green Hill.  This year Bayreuth is offering a rare treat with René Pape singing the role of King Marke.

The look of the production with its use of darkness and light harks back to 1951 and the reopening of the Festspielhaus with the now classic, austere, and controversial productions of Wieland Wagner. It is apt that this year, in particular, the role that Wieland played in Bayreuth is remembered.  This is the 100th anniversary of his birth, and here in Bayreuth he is being remembered through a special exhibit on the grounds of Wahnfried, and through a newly published picture book by Till Haberfeld and Oswald G. Bauer.

Last night's production ended up being a compromised evening. Petra Lang was ill and unable to sing the role of Isolde.  However, she stepped into the stage and "lip-synched" the words to Ricarda Merbeth who sang the role standing on the apron, stage left, in front of a music stand, and following the score.  Frankly, I was shocked to see that the Festival did not have somebody prepared to take on the role in case the principal is ill.  I'm aware that it is difficult to readily get Wagner singers, but Bayreuth is a theater, and no theater should be in business unless there is an understudy ready to take on the role.  The show must go on, Bayreuth!

The rest of the cast was solid. Stephen Gould was a stentorian Tristan who was able to sing the part successfully having a silent partner next to him, and hearing Isolde's vocal line yards away, and outside the main stage area.  Not easy!  Iain Paterson, who sang Wotan in Das Rheingold was an able Kurwenal, and Christa Mayer was a big-voiced Brangäne.  René Pape once again proved that these days he owns the role of King Marke. As always, he was heartbreaking in this role.

Despite all the problems, the performance ended up being truly memorable due to the amazing conducting of Christian Thielemann.  After so many years spending his summers here, he knows that orchestra, and knows how to get the best sound out of that fabled pit.  Not everybody has learned how to do it.    Marek Janowski's reading of the Ring, thus far, for instance, lacks power. Thielemann knows that the pit can swallow sound, and he knows how to rescue it and get it out to the house.  As a result what we had last night was an evening awash with wondrous sonority, but finely tuned, and always tasteful.  This was not just big sound for the sake of making an unforgettable expression.  It was, rather, the kind of sound that can only be achieved when a conductor knows the score intimately and the orchestra is able to respond to his choices.  Thus far, Mr. Thielemann has been the star of this festival, something that he has proven, over and over again, throughout his years at The Green Hill.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Siegfried at the Festspielhaus

Of the four operas in Frank Castorf's The Ring of the Nibelung, it's Siegfried that has drawn the anger of the audience the most.  It might be the elaborate Communist Mount Rushmore pictured above which is part of the elaborate unit set for this show that gets the audience going.  Although, what has really brought upon the boos is Castorf's decision to have Siegfried kill Fafner with a machine gun, and not with the traditional sword Nothung. Originally the prop weapon was so loud that the original conductor of this production, Kirill Petrenko, asked Castorf to get another weapon that made less noise..  Eventually, Castorf agreed after many complains.

Since its premiere, the first performance of this opera has brought the wrath of the audience after the end of the second act. But it is the last act that tonight really got me upset.  This is the first production where Brünnhilde is put to sleep in one place and gets awaken by Siegfried in another: why?  Further, why does the set revolve from a Communist Mount Rushmore to a recreation of the Alexanderplatz?  And the biggest, and most stupid aspect of the evening: why is the Alexanderplatz overrun by a bunch of alligators that end up swallowing the Forest Bird?  It was an evening of "whys" and Frank Castorf offered no answers to his directorial choices.  There are no thematic ideas here that unify this production, but rather strange decisions that alienate the audience.

If all he wanted was to provoke, then he has succeeded.  Alex Ross in The New Yorker wrote brilliantly about directors who aim to provoke when he wrote his great review of Christoph Schlingensief's Bayreuth Parsifal.  You can read that review here.  Many of the conclusions that he reached can be applied to this production.

Bayreuth is not a toy for opera directors.  It is a place of tradition, and the keeper of the flame of Wagner and Wagnerism.  Thus, there should be some kind of respect when it comes to presenting the composer's operas.  Wagner was a great, tasteful artist.  I hope that this production goes away soon, and I hope Katharina Wagner hires someone who wants to expand the horizons of Wagner staging without mocking the works of the Master.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Johannes Martin Kränzle and me

While walking around Bayreuth I ran into opera singer Johannes Martin Kränzle who plays Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger: the first opera I saw on Monday.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Die Walküre at the Festspielhaus

After subjecting us to his low-down, white trash film noir with music by Richard Wagner which Frank Castorf calls his Das Rheingold, the director takes us to day one of the trilogy with a Die Walküre in Baku, Azerbaijan.  By setting the prologue in Texas, and following it up with a scene in the oil fields of the largest city in the Caspian Sea, Castorf is on to his main idea of turning the Wagnerian epic from 19th century gold to 20th century and beyond oil.  A clever idea, but one which in the past years of this production has not been followed through to the last two works.  Let us see if Castorf has done any revisions this year as the Ring continues this week.

Tonight's performance was very strong for many different reasons.  First the transparent handling of the great Bayreuth orchestra by Marek Janowski really stood out.  He never overpowered the singers, but also knew well when to whip the players into rapturous sound.  The extended orchestra sections in Wotan's farewell being a perfect example of Janowski's vigorous and expert handling of the orchestra and singers.

This season the Ring will have three different Wotans.  John Lundgren played him tonight with much power and nobility, and although at times the tessitura of the role made him strain and shout, he got through the performance with flying colors.  Likewise, tenor Christopher Ventris and bass Georg Zeppenfeld as Sigmund, and Hunding, respectively offered strong characterizations and solid singing.

It was a night for the ladies, though, starting with the beautiful sound of Camila Nylund as Sieglinde, and Catherine Foster as a powerhouse  Brünnhilde.  Both paced themselves well throughout the night, and the results were beautiful singing from start to finish.

The production continues to be puzzling, although tonight was miles ahead of Das Rheingold.  Once again, Castorf chose a unit revolving set, and although used less, he continued his obtrusive, unnecessary use of video cameras capturing selected moments from the drama, and projected on white sheets There was also  a fake Soviet silent film a la Eisenstein or Dovshenko which only proved to be cryptic and distracting.  ithout the vido element this production would be much stronger.

Of course, pretty soon this whole production will be eliminated, and probably remembered as one of the weakest Rings in recent years.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Das Rheingold at the Festspielhaus

After three years of listening to the boos overpower the cheers, together with a list of controversial reviews and awful word of mouth, I got a chance this afternoon to begin the Frank Castorf experience with a performance of Das Rheingold.  This production was to have been directed by cinema's  Wim Wenders, but he pulled out, and Frank Castorf came to the so-called rescue.  Castorf, an East German director, is best known for his unusual stagings of classic works.  This Ring is a  production that premiered in 2013 to celebrate the bicentennial of the composer's birth.  No longer a story of dwarfs, gods and heroes, Castorf sets the mythic story in the heartland of America, Baku, and even Wall Street's Stock Exchange and Berlin's Alexanderplatz in order to tell a tale of today's gold: oil.

The first installment takes place in a run down motel on Route 66.  The gods have been turned into figures from American films, nd to underscore this, the production is totally filmed anbd shown on a giant videotron.  Some scenes actually have to be seen in the videotron since they happen in rooms in the motel that we cannot see from the audience.  It's all pretty silly, and totally non-nonsensical.   Whenever Castorf runs out of ideas he goes back to Wagner.  For instance when Donner swings his hammer to blow away the clouds and reveal the rainbow bridge that will take the gods into Valhalla, all he manages to do in this production is short circuit the electrical power in the hotel.

As usual, the cast was very strong, starting with Iain Paterson as Wotan, and Nadine Weissmann as a memorable Erda.  Two singers from last night's Meistersinger were also in this cast: Daniel Behle as Froh, and the indestructible Günther Groisböck as the giant Fasolt.


Getting back to Donner, played as a cowboy dressed in black by Markus Eiche, obviously after his hammer blow no rainbow bridge showed up.  There was a rainbow flag, but it looked out of place in a very "straight" production.  However, as we came out of the Festspielhaus after the performance we learned that it had rained on the Green Hill, and overhead there was a lovely rainbow: the rainbow we never got in this God-awful staging.