Thursday, August 16, 2012

Bayreuth Parsifal on TV

The August 11 performance of Parsifal that I attended at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was filmed and shown in Europe on the Arte Network.  Above is a picture of an interview during one of the intervals.  Can't wait to get my hands on a recording of it.  I am sure that this production will eventually find its way to DVD and Blu-Ray.  Bayreuth's current production of Lohengrin by director Hans Neuenfels has recently been issued on both formats in Europe and in America.  The current Parsifal should be next on the list.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

No Man is an Island: Parsifal at Bayreuth

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 Parsifal, a work that in 1882 Richard Wagner labeled a “Stage-consecrating Festival Drama,” was never to be heard outside of the “sacred precincts” of Bayreuth.  For the composer, the quasi-religious aspect of the work was the perfect liturgy for his cathedral of music on the Green Hill.  More importantly, the orchestration of the work was written with the Festspielhaus’s singular acoustics in mind.  Bayreuth was its home – a veritable Montsalvat on a hill guarding its own Holy Grail.  Wagner died the following year, and his widow Cosima was not able to stop the Metropolitan Opera from staging a rogue production of it in 1903.  Eventually, the dominoes began to fall, and once the copyright expired on the work in 1913, European theaters began staging the work as well.  Parsifal now belonged to the world.

In my lifetime I have attended perhaps twelve performances of this work.  I have not counted -- all of them have been at the Metropolitan Opera.  Over the years I heard Jon Vickers and Plácido Domingo triumph in the title role, and I have heard James Levine and the MET orchestra reach and maintain an outstanding level of musical maturity with this work.

I know the piece fairly well, and I have listened to it multiple times in recording following it with my Dover orchestra score.  My mind’s ear knows what the next musical phrase is going to be.  Now I have heard my first Parsifal at Bayreuth, and it is like listening to it for the first time.  In this epic production director Stefan Herheim dramatizes the background story of the opera, setting it in Bayreuth itself with Wagner’s house, Wahnfried, as the background.  Likewise, this production allows us to see not just the growth of Parsifal (Burkhard Fritz) from guileless fool to compassionate enlightened being, as the composer intended, but we become witnesses to the story of the German nation through the madness of World War I, the rise of the Nazi Party, the destruction of World War II, and the reconstruction and unification of the German people. 

In Act two, the magic palace of the sorcerer Klingsor (Thomas Jesatko) is transformed into a military hospital ward filled with the walking wounded of World War I trench warfare.  Kundry (Susan MacLean) appears to Parsifal as the personification of Marlene Dietrich, complete with tuxedo and top hat, and, at the conclusion of the act, the one who hurls the sacred spear at Parsifal is a “Hitlerjunge”, in full brown shirt and armband regalia, on a stage draped with numerous Nazi flags.  By the way, these flags are red, and have a black swastika inside a white circle, of course.  The same symbol that Yevgeny Nikitin had tattooed on his chest and then covered up.

Act three begins in a Germany in ruins.  Gurnemanz (the amazing Kwangchul Youn) is in uniform, a deserter from the front, and Kundry as civilian casualty unable to say more than the only words that Wagner provided for her: “service, service.”  When Parsifal enters, however, his hair is shoulder-length, and he is the very essence of a knight errand crusader complete with helmet, shield and lance.  As Kundry washes his feet and dries them with her own hair, for a moment this production takes on a very conservative tone.  If for a moment, the settings brings to mind the kind of staging that Wagner would recognize for his work.  Save for Gurnemanz’s modern dress, it looks like the first production of this work that I saw at the MET when I was a young man and knew very little about the work.  Eventually the production recuperates its post-modern feel, and it concludes with the Brotherhood of the Grail as German politicians in the Reichstag.  A giant mirror over them, that all along had been reflecting a gigantic German eagle on the floor, eventually turns to reflect the audience, the musicians in the sunken pit, and then turns into a rotating globe that shines on all of us gathered at the Festspielhaus.  Those of us gathered at Wagner’s theater  represent a microcosm of the world, and the universality of Richard Wagner’s music is seen reflecting on us all.

Sad, Sad, Sad: Tannhäuser at Bayreuth

After the first act of Tannhäuser finished, I stepped outside and filmed the following video.

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Be sure that that hopeful smile on my face disappeared very quickly after being subjected to the concluding acts of Sebastian Baumgarten's travesty on Richard Wagner's romantic opera  The production is not a mindless romp, nor is it what many would consider a desecration of holy writ: it's just plain bad!  We are in a unit set where the Venusberg and the Wartburg are one.  Possibly, the one interesting aspect of the production.  The realm of Venus with its caged subhumans, is right out of the film Planet of the Apes, Venus is pregnant, presumably with Tannhäuser's child, and The Wartburg is a biogas factory.  When we enter the theater we see a curtainless stage where actors are already at work.  The focal point of the set is a giant red tank, an "alcoholator" with the days of the week printed on it.  It seems that this is the worker's manna, and by the actions of the chorus they love their manna.  The workers are often seen embracing the contraption as if it's mother's milk.

Baumgarten has also added material to the performance that does not come from Wagner.  It is the custom at the Festspielhaus for audiences to exit the theater during intermission and to enjoy the grounds, the restaurant, and the refreshing air of the Grünen Hügel.  However, if you walk out you miss scenes that Baumgarten has added that shows the daily lives of the workers.  For example, after the conclusion of Act two a group of workers build a makeshift altar where a priest conducts a new-wave mass complete with a litany that exalts the goodness of an industrial age.  It is performance art as filler showing that the story goes on even after the curtain comes down, which is unnecessary.

This Brechtian approach to Wagner, with plenty of projection of German words, leaves me at a loss how it reflects back to Wagner's original story.  For instance, in Act three the pilgrims do not come back from Rome, but from a deprogramming room where their minds have been altered so they can be more productive.  The wonderful Festspielhaus chorus comes back singing Wagner's powerful music, but they are all cleaning each other, and everything in sight, not praising God and the Pope for having forgiven them.  It is a visually interesting moment, but it puts us very far from Wagner's original intention.

At the conclusion of the opera Venus gives birth, and holds up her child as the last chords of the score intones.  Mr. Baumgarten's job is to serve the composer, but it seems that for the most part he is serving himself and his misbegotten view of Wagner's work.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Verstummte Stimmen - Silenced Voices

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Here is a short video I took of the Verstummte Stimmen exhibition that is currently just outside of the Bayreuth Festspilehaus, in the garden that surrounds the bust of Richard Wagner.  It is a moving tribute to the scores of artists that were forbidden to performed at the Festspielhaus because they were Jewish.  Many of them fell victims to the Nazis in the death camps during World War II.  It is an unforgettable, sad, moving experience.  A sobering reminder of times past, made even more so because the Festspilehaus itself is only steps away.

A memorable Lohengrin at Bayreuth


The first thing that you have to get over in order to strain some type of enjoyment from the current production of Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival is that director Hans Neuenfels has dressed the chorus as rats.  On the surface, it is an absurd piece of regie-theatre, and those that never venture past the surface were the first ones booing when the production team took their vows opening night in 2010.  But if we dig deeper, by going to the source, i.e., if we study the story through Richard Wagner’s libretto we might be able to conclude that the citizens of Brabant are trapped in a society where they are abused by the powerful, and forced to serve.   Are they rats as denizens of the lower depths?  Rats as specimens in a laboratory?  Rats trapped in an Orwellian world?  A mixture of all three, I would say.  However, an inspired Winston Smith moment arose early in the first act when one of the rats tried to assassinate King Henry the Fowler after he commanded his subjects (the rats) to rise to arms against the invading Hungarians.  The creature managed to pull a knife on the monarch, but before he could harm the king the rat was dragged away by thought-police types into a laboratory where surely his brain will be re-programmed to believe that two plus two equals five.  Mr. Neuenfels’s metaphors are not stupid, just obvious most of the time.

Last night, the most beautiful singing came from Klaus Florian Vogt.  His shining tenor cutting through the orchestra fabric with the kind of sweet intonation that separates him from the usual hefty heldentenors who usually take on Wagnerian roles.  Annette Dasch sang and acted the role of Elsa with conviction.  She is able to convey a sense of victimization through her acting and her sweet, but at times frail voice.  Thomas J. Mayer and Susan MacLean were both very good as Telramund and Ortrud.  Wilhelm Schwinghammer was a memorable King Henry, and Samuel Youn once again proved that he might just be the busiest singer in Bayreuth these days.  After he has taken the role of the Holländer this year his baritone continues to be a focused, beautiful shining instrument.

The most impressive part of the evening was the Bayreuth chorus.  Time and time again this ensemble, led by Eberhard Friedrich proves that choral singing can achieve astonishing heights.  Last night he took a vow with his group.  It was well deserved.  The same can rightly be said of conductor Andris Nelsons, who lead an impressive reading of the score. 

There were multiple curtain calls at the end, and when Mr. Vogt appeared that ignited the house into my first Bayreuth standing ovation.  When the audience at the Green Hill likes a performance it is as if an explosion occurs.  It was very exciting to be there and experience this.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

This photo, taken with my iPhone, does not do justice to the interior of the Margravial Opera House, but at least it gives you an idea of the extravagance and opulence of the place.  Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia participated here as writer, player, composer, actor and director.

My first opera at Bayreuth: Tristan und Isolde


The Festspielhaus does a good job of welcoming newcomers.  At least that’s how I felt yesterday after stepping inside the auditorium for the first time in my life.  I slipped in to my seat rather comfortably, I must say.  For years I had heard that comfort was not something that Richard Wagner’s theater was known for.  Save for the wooden back (no wonder people bring cushions for lumbar support) it’s not a bad way to listen to a Wagnerian act.

I can’t describe properly, at least not yet, what it was like to step inside a place that you always wanted to go to all your life.  Aside from a great feeling of accomplishment, there is also the believability factor that stayed with me throughout the evening.  At times I had to forget the opera, look around, and say to myself: “Oh, my God, I’m at the Festspielhaus!  I’m actually here!  I made it!”  After an eight-year wait for tickets the sense of finally having arrived is very big.  And my first taste of the place was with Wagner’s mature work Tristan und Isolde.

For those in 1865 who were musically trained, the harmonic landscape of Tristan und Isolde must have been mystifying and exhilarating.  They were listening to Wagner hijacking Romantic music into an undiscovered musical territory that Western composers had not explored.  Its daring new musical language quickly influenced many, and it is safe to say that no work written after “Tristan” has failed to be influenced by this astonishing work.  For the ordinary listener, in the mid nineteenth century, however, this opera must have been musically incomprehensible and truly disorienting.  Even now, for modern un-initiated audiences, Tristan und Isolde can sound challenging, and its musical landscape obtuse and murky.  To fully understand the work one has to analyze its musical language.

It all happens within the first ten seconds of the opera.  The “Tristan Chord,” a diminished chord that fails to resolve the previous notes, and instead leads us to another unresolved harmony, serves as the perfect metaphor for the forbidden sexual longing between the two lovers.  It also arguably serves as the starting point in the history of music for the disintegration of tonality.  Wagner dares to carry this experiment for hours, right to the end of the work.  Resolution is only allowed to occur minutes before its conclusion.  The tonal landscape resolves itself with the death of the lovers, and on top of that it is not an easy resolution.  Wagner resolves his music in a way that opens the door to another harmonic development.  To us, the “Tristan Chord” no longer sounds puzzling.  Our modern ears are accustomed to this kind of unresolved dissonances.  We’ve heard it in contemporary classical music, jazz, and punk rock.  However, for mid nineteenth century audiences it was the unheard of music of the future.  Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson and director of the Bayreuth Festival from 1951 to 1967 described the work as “the acknowledged summit and supreme crisis of Romantic music, and at the same time the gateway to the atonality of our century.”

Christoph Marthaler’s current production is odd. Set in either a has-been ocean liner or a run-down hotel in a totalitarian state (I can’t decide which), it focuses on rings of light in the sky and walls.  The characters are always looking up at the ceiling, or touching the walls, where oftentimes one finds a switch that turns those lights on and off.  It is a rather odd way to interpret Wagner’s libretto where the lovers constantly sing about wanting to be alone with one another in the darkness of night.

This cast has been singing this production, more or less, since its premiere.  Tenor Robert Dean Smith has sung every performance of this work.  Last night, he sounded a bit weak, and many times covered up by the amazing playing of the orchestra under the capable hands of Peter Schneider.  Iréne Theorin is one of the great Isoldes of our time.  Her singing was forceful, able to ride the orchestra, and even overpower it at times.  Likewise, Kwangchul Youn was a sonorous, dark King Mark.  Unfortunately, during the last part of his Act II monologue an old lady in the audience fainted, and this brought the kind of disturbance that takes your mind totally away from the stage.

There was some ugly sounding singing from Jukka Rasilainen as Kurwenal, and a beautiful interpretation of Brangäne by South African singer Michelle Breedt.

All in all, the truth of the matter is that I will never forget this “Tristan” because it was my first time in Bayreuth.  Perhaps, in future visits to the Festspielhaus during this trip I will be able to distance myself from the place and concentrate on the performance.  As a first timer, I think it's going to be hard.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Bayreuth: The Margravial Opera House


The Margravial Opera House (Markgräfliches OperHaus) is one of the last surviving European theatres dating back to the mid 1700s.  In the words of Stephen Fry in his documentary Wagner & Me it is a “Rococo extravaganza” the likes of which is hard to find anywhere else in Europe.  The ornamentation is truly breathtaking, beyond gaudy in its plethora of decoration.  It transports you back to a time when this late Baroque style was the supreme example of an age. On my first day in Bayreuth I saw the exterior of the theater where I took this picture with my iPhone.  Tomorrow I hope to visit and see the marvelous interior, this time armed with my Nikon D90.

The theatre was already one hundred years old by the time the young Richard Wagner conducted here.  For him this place represented what he hated most about theatre going in his day.  From among its statues of angels and crystal chandeliers, royalty and the very rich came to this jewel box to see and be seen.  The lights would remain lit during a performance, and audiences typically arrived late, talked during the show, and usually left early.  It was a place to admire social superiors in their gilded boxes and scoff at social inferiors.  Meanwhile, the performance would dribble on in the background, no more important than “musak” in a modern elevator.

Thanks to Wagner’s experiences in this theatre and in others like it, he began to formulate particular ideas about what makes a theatre piece, and how audiences should behave during one.  For starters, Wagner was the first to conduct turning away from the audience, a concept that reached its zenith in the hidden orchestra pit at the Festspielhaus, where neither the orchestra nor the conductor is seen at all.  It was also Wagner’s idea to turn off the lights in the theatre so that the audience could concentrate on the action on stage, and not on the social interactions in the boxes out in the audience.

These were radical concepts from one of the most radical minds of the nineteenth century.  Interesting that many of these ideas simmered in the mind of the young Wagner while conducting in one of the most beautifully ornate, but conservative minded theatres in the world.