Sunday, July 29, 2012

A New Dutchman at Bayreuth

From the very first measures of its famous overture, in a great production of Der fliegende Holländer we are transported to the middle of a supernatural thunderous storm and to the depths of a very dark sea.  Richard Wagner's fourth opera is such a great leap forward in the musical development of the composer that it seems that his earlier three works were written by someone else. And perhaps they were.  Wagner was not the same man after he and his first wife Minna survived an arduous journey to Paris on the ship "Thetis."  Wagner never forgot the fury of the storms that caused Minna to have a miscarriage.  Surely it is the memory of that event that caused Wagner's genius to develop the great evocation of the sea that makes The Flying Dutchman such a powerful and unforgettable work.  The sea is in the music, and the music is married to the story.  Remove the story from Wagner's maritime world, and the musical spell is broken.  This is unfortunately what happened opening night of the Bayreuth Festival this year.  The fury of the sea was there thanks to Christian Thielemann's superb reading of the score, but for his debut at Bayreuth Jan Philipp Gloger delivered a dry dock version of the Dutchman.  Picture Moby Dick shanghaied to the desert or a jungle.

In Gloger's Dutchman, the leading character, beautifully sung by Samuel Youn (who replaced Yevgeny Nikitin) is some kind of itinerant salesman with a briefcase.  He arrives without a ship, dressed in a modern suit, but with a shiny black tattoo on the side of his head, which suggests an island archipelago.  He falls in love with Senta (Adrianne Pieczonka), a girl dressed in red who works in a factory packing electric fans into cardboard boxes.  What this has to do with Wagner's original intention for a story is beyond me.  It's just another example of Bayreuth being the place for wonderful musical performances of Wagner's works and way-out productions.  Needless to say, the singers as well as the orchestra, along with maestro Thielemann received an outstanding ovation from the audience.  Mr. Gloger and the rest of the production team were booed.

The irritating aspect of this production is that ultimately it does not have anything interesting to say about the work.  The lusty boos that the late Christoph Schlingensief and Katharina Wagner received for their Parsifal and Die Meistersinger respectively were well-earned.  They set out to provoke, and boy did they ever.  This production seems to earn the wrath of the audience not because it deviates from Wagner's original intentions, but perhaps because it does not deviate enough.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Future Bayreuth Parsifal Director Loves Swastikas!

Things are getting curiouser and curiouser at Bayreuth these days.  A little over 72 hours after bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin made an exit out of the new production of Der fliegende Holländer following a revelation that at one point he had a swastika tattooed on his chest, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, who have run the festival since the death of their father Wolfgang Wagner, have announced that the 2016 new production of Parsifal will be directed by way-out radical German artist Jonathan Meese.  And guess what?  Meese loves swastikas!  The artist is notorious for using swastikas in his art, as well as other Nazi imagery.  Meese's own words reveal his unique relationship to these well-known Nazi symbols:

"They should be what they are, not want we want them to be. That’s crucial. It’s not about what I want. It’s about what these terms want. For they want something. Of course a swastika is ideologically loaded, but that’s not in the thing itself. The swastika will tell us itself what it wants. We’ve only lost that. We’ve only forgotten that. That this can also be conceded to these things, to be exactly that, what they want and not what I want—that’s critical."

Even though Meese has had little experience directing an opera, in 2005 he was responsible for a performance art piece using Wagner's complete Parsifal score.  This six hour performance took place at Berlin's Staatsoper Unter der Linden under the baton of Daniel Barenboim.  Here are two picture from that performance.
The news that Meese is coming to Bayreuth immediately brings to mind the 2004 Christoph Schlingensief notorious production of Parsifal that was consistently booed year after year.  Ultimately, that production tried but failed to knock down some of the more conservative walls at the Green Hill.  Artistically, it was not strong enough to do that.  What it did accomplish was to crack the door open and allow an artist like Meese to sneak in with the hopes that he will subvert the place a few notches more. 

Given his track record, there will be a huge outcry when Meese unveils his Bayreuth Parsifal four years from now -- whatever he comes up with.  Those conservative walls are still very much there, and I'm convinced that the Bayreuth management is setting the scene for a tremendous right versus left clash.  It's what they want because they know it's the thing that makes opera exciting these days.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Samuel Youn to replace Nikitin

The Bayreuth Festival has announced that bass-baritone Samuel Youn will replace Yevgeny Nikitin in the title role of Der fliegende Holländer.  Nikitin made a quick exit out of the festival this weekend after a German TV program revealed that among the singer's plethora of tattoos he once had a swastika inked on his chest. 

Samuel Youn is a veteran at Bayreuth.  In 2005 he sang the role of Reinmar von Zweter in Philippe Arlaud's production of Tannhäuser, which was conducted by Christian Thielemann.  He was also in Christoph Schlingensief's notorious production of Parsifal conducted by Pierre Boulez.  This year Mr. Youn was to have a very light festival, singing only six performances of Hans Neuenfels controversial staging of Lohengrin.  With the addition of Holländer this brings the number of performances to twelve.  Let's hope that his voice holds out, and that he is able to fulfill his full commitment.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Nikitin out of Bayreuth due to Swastika tattoo

Major controversy has erupted at the Bayreuth Festival mere days before opening night.  Russian bass baritone Yevgeny Nikitin, who was to sing the title role in Die fliegende Holländer, has pulled out of the festival at the last minute after a German television show exposed the fact that Nikitin, whose body is filled with tattoos, had at one point in his life a swastika inked on his chest.  Here is how AFP reported the news:

"Russian opera singer Yevgeny Nikitin said Saturday he had pulled out of the lead role in a new production of "The Flying Dutchman" at the Bayreuth Festival amid a row over a swastika tattoo.
A festival spokesman said bass-baritone Nikitin, who was to have made his debut at the festival opening Wednesday, had informed the management on Saturday after a television programme highlighted the tattoo on his chest.
German news agency DPA quoted Nikitin as saying, "I did not realise how much irritation and injury such signs and symbols could cause, particularly at the Bayreuth Festival."
German state television ZDF's cultural show "Aspekte" on Friday evening had drawn attention to the tattoo of the Nazi symbol, with another tattoo overlaid.
"I had these tattoos done when I was young," Nikitin, a former musician in a rock band, said. "It was one of the great mistakes of my life and I wish I had never done it."
The Bayreuth Festival, devoted to the works of composer Richard Wagner, attracts thousands of fans every year but is overshadowed by its links to Nazism, with dictator Adolf Hitler a regular visitor to great acclaim.
Nikitin's withdrawal means the festival management has only three days to find a replacement for the role of the captain of a ship doomed to sail the seas for ever until he finds love.
The brand-new production of "The Flying Dutchman", Wagner's first mature opera, by young German theatre director Jan Philipp Gloger, is to premier on the glitzy opening night.
It is this year's only new offering and will feature German star conductor Christian Thielemann, widely seen as Bayreuth's unspoken general music director, in the pit."

Monday, July 16, 2012

A First Look at the New Bayreuth Holländer

So far, Bayreuth has not released any pictures from the new production of Der fliegende Holländer by Jan Philipp Gloger which will open the 2012 Bayreuth Festival on July 25.  The picture above appeared on Facebook.  Whether or not it is an authentic photograph of the upcoming production, I am not sure.  If it is, you are looking at a spectacular stage picture featuring a burning vessel designed by Christof Hetzer.  While we wait for official press releases from the Green Hill, I hope that the above will whet your appetite for this new Wagner production.