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Bayreuth : can Wagner be saved ? (1/2)
Looking at the Bayreuth Festival with a conservative eye
The Bayreuth Festival 2023 came to a close on August 28. For more than 20 years, the author has attended the opera performances on the Green Hill. In this two-part article, he describes his impressions, takes stock and asks about the future of the festival.
Author: Bernd Fischer
The Festival and I have drifted apart a bit in recent years. It was a slow, creeping process, but last summer I realized how even the last ounce of resilience to disappointing productions had now been used up. And so this time - for the first time in over 20 years - I almost did not travel to Bayreuth. Even in the Corona summer of 2020, I was there. I say almost, because the feelings for former great loves still lead a life of their own in the subconscious, even when reality has long since buried the romantic exuberance of the old days. It was only at the last moment that tickets were purchased, first for the new Parsifal and then - in view of the miserable weather, which made the planned excursions into the beautiful Franconian countryside seem less attractive - at even shorter notice for Siegfried and Götterdämmerung from the first Ring cycle, my tenth visit to a performance of these works in Bayreuth.
Nowadays, it is possible to make arrangements at short notice, because the days when ordinary mortals had to wait many years for tickets are long gone. In 1991, the festival management could still proudly report that almost 360,000 orders had been received for the 57,500 seats available! Today, they can only dream of such a booking ratio. Even two days before the start of the festival, tickets for almost all performances were still available on the Internet. Even shortly before the end of the festival, tickets for most of the remaining performances could still be purchased easily, and this despite the fact that the festival management literally advertised the free ticket contingent in the social media like sour beer. At the end of the festival, they must bitterly admit that practically not a single performance of the Ring was fully sold out.
After more than two decades with about 100 performances, it is a good time to take stock. Hundreds of times the joyful shuddering when the lights in the hall go out, hundreds of times the anticipation of the sound that shortly afterwards comes out of the pit as if by magic, mixed through various refractions and reflections reaching the ear of the spectator, hundreds of times the experience of collective complicity in matters of Wagner. But also, to an increasing degree, the predictable deep disappointment when what is shown on stage has very little to do with the works of Wagner. We will come to this later.
Attacks of weakness in the hall
"Eagerly awaited" is a phrase that journalists like to use when talking or writing about the respective new production on the Hill (usually it is only one). This year it was reserved for American Jay Scheib's new production of Parsifal, and for once it even had some justification, because his production used the concept of "augmented reality." However, an audience member can only enjoy this "additional reality" if he or she wears special glasses by means of which the stage action is enriched with digital elements. For cost reasons, however, only 330 such glasses could be provided, and only in the last three rows of the stalls and in the first row of each of the boxes, the balcony and the gallery, i.e. not exactly in the best seats in the house. The rest of the audience (like me, sitting in the front of the stalls) had to make do with what video snippets were played on stage. What was to be seen in this conventional way of feeds, however, seemed rather superfluous, as they added little that was enlightening.
Here, however, the question arises as to what exactly these additional elements could be considered illuminating, because basically Scheib's staging is a rather conventional realization of the Wagner libretto. Occasionally, one even feels reminded of the classical stagings in the 1950s and 1960s, as Scheib works heavily with the circular form, for instance in the first act when he shapes the transformation scene by depicting the temple through a ring structure rising from a pool of water. Scheib achieves quite impressive moments in this way. However, this is overshadowed by a flood of associations formed by means of videos or the highlighting of rather incidental details.
For example, in the first act, by means of a hand-held camera, a large-format and miserably long close-up of Amfortas' wound is projected onto the stage background. The Grail knights desperately try to staunch this rather realistically depicted wound, which, as is well known, can only be closed "by the spear that struck it". For the spectator - apart from perhaps accidentally present surgeons - it is rather unpleasant to witness such a scene, which resulted in three spectators collapsing in my field of vision alone and having to leave the hall supported by paramedics. It is true that it often happens in Bayreuth that spectators suffer a fainting spell - in hot weather it can become uncomfortable in the festival hall - but as a rule these are isolated cases, even in very extreme temperatures. So in this respect at least, Scheib's production is record-breaking, but the gain in insight remains hidden.
Parsifal musically at top level
Scheib took some liberties. For example, he had several Kundry's appear. Gurnemanz (brilliant: Georg Zeppenfeld) had ( suggested) sex with one of them right at the beginning. Klingsor was portrayed as a kind of transvestite and Parsifal had the Grail, which he was only supposed to unveil, broken at the end of the third act; a few liberties, which are rather distorted in meaning, but bring a bit of zeitgeist into the production, which was probably considered necessary. All in all, this could be ignored quite well and over large parts the staging was not at odds with the libretto.
Musically, Parsifal was at a top level. Here, the strengths of Andreas Schager come into their own. He put on the role of Parsifal very lyrically, but owed nothing to the dramatic parts in Act 2. Elīna Garanča was a fascinating Kundry. The Parsifal-Kundry scene is one of the strongest impressions one could get in recent years in Wagnerian singing, even if the high notes in this very difficult role are a challenge for Garanča. Certainly it would have been interesting to experience the originally scheduled Joseph Calleja as Parsifal; unfortunately he had to cancel due to illness.
The conducting lived up to these expectations. The Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado, conducting for the first time in Bayreuth, was noticeably "in" the score and shaped the climaxes (impressively the transformation music) very thoughtfully, without overdoing it. Perhaps the tempos here and there were a bit too much on the slow side, but the musical flow was always maintained. If a similar cast is mustered next year - perhaps even with Calleja as Parsifal - then a visit to a performance would be worth considering again.
Never again to this Götterdämmerung!
Let us now turn to Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. No ten horses will make me attend another performance of this staging, unless Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad get up again and take over the leading roles next year! This is not to examine whether it was objectively bad. In the meantime, there are no generally accepted standards by which to discuss this question, because "modernists" (enthusiastic supporters of radical director's theater) do not accept any kind of work-related standards. For me it was Schwarz, not Wagner! In order to explain this, only a few pillars of the new, Schwarzian concept of action shall be briefly sketched.
In his world, Wotan and Alberich are brothers and struggle for power within their family clan. For this purpose, Alberich kidnaps a child (in Wagner it was gold), which later turns out to be Hagen. If I understand correctly, Wotan is also Siegfried's father (not Siegmund). One can do it this way, but then the question arises why one still needs Wagner's music and the libretto, because this no longer fits at all with Schwarz's vision. When, for example, the Wanderer (that is the name of Wotan in Siegfried) admonishes Alberich in the first scene of the second act: "Don't talk to me, talk to Mime: your brother brings you danger", then this statement makes no sense at all, because Mime would also be Wotan's brother! Who speaks of his own brother in this way?
Fafner (the giants are also supposed to belong to the clan somehow, which would really make them all related to everyone!) has nothing threatening in Siegfried anymore, because he is in a fancy city apartment and lies in a nursing bed, conveniently with the forest bird as his nurse. Of course, this no longer has anything whatsoever to do with what Wagner wrote for this scene. Also the end of the knowledge contest (Wanderer, Mime in the 1st act of Siegfried) hangs completely in the air, since it has no meaning at all for Schwarz's concept. Consequently, the frenzied music that accompanies the farewell of the Wanderer to Mime ("Dein weises Haupt wahre von heut: verfallen lass ich es dem, der das Fürchten nicht kennt") completely falls flat, since it has become psychologically meaningless. The knowledgeable viewer involuntarily asks himself what the whole Wagnerian effort is still about at this point.
Scale-less form of director's theater
And so one could go on endlessly. Basically, the entire Wagner is being gutted and given a new concept. In some parts of the Ring this may work to some extent, namely in those that are very strongly characterized by dialogues (somewhat mockingly one could say: in the parts where one can easily fade out Schwarz's concept, such as in the vengeance trio in the 2nd act of Götterdämmerung), but not in the plot-driven Siegfried. There, the music simply keeps running into the void. One final example: Wagner meticulously composes the blacksmith scene in Act 1 of Siegfried, from the filing of the sword pieces to the operation of the bellows, the hammering of the sword on the anvil to the riveting of the hilt. Of course, you don't see any of this in Schwarz's vision. All that is offered is a raging Siegfried who smashes the furniture of his uncle Mime. By the way, this seems to become the new staging standard for this scene, because it was already staged similarly by Tcherniakov in the Berlin Siegfried. This can also be done this way, only it becomes yawningly boring after two minutes, also because the music (Wagner) again goes completely nowhere.
Schwarz's concept is thus designed to systematically destroy all internal structures among the dramatis personae as they were originally laid out in Wagner. It is this scale-less form of director's theater that meets with rejection on the part of the "traditionalists" (as they are sometimes derisively called by the oh-so-progressive music community). This is because this form of staging forces the viewer to permanently "double think".
If we take Frank Castorp's last Ring production as a comparison, which also took a great many liberties and is certainly not one of the most important productions of this work, then we can state that despite all these liberties and despite the fact that he replaced the fight for Rheingold with the fight for oil as a raw material, the dramatic internal structures were largely retained, so that the audience was able to abstract from Castorf's imposed concept and to follow the plot of the libretto (and the music!). ). Incidentally, something similar can be said about Hans Neuenfels' production of Lohengrin. His original idea of portraying the inhabitants of Brabant as insecure herd animals (rats) just did not lead to deforming the internal structures among the protagonists.
Action concept and music radically decoupled
And so the consideration of Schwarz's staging inevitably leads to the basic problem of modern staging practice, namely that the concept of action and the music are radically decoupled. The problem has already been addressed elsewhere, very clearly, for example, by Ioan Holender, the former director of the Vienna State Opera, or the conductor Philippe Jordan, who will conduct in Bayreuth again next year and has spoken of a "fatal erroneous path" that director's theater has taken. Daniel Kehlmann had already pointed out the disastrous consequences of director's theater in a Salzburg speech in 2009. Naturally, all criticism of the "modernists" bounces off, critics are denigrated as reactionary or right-wing - "traditionalist" is still a rather harmless term - as has become customary in many areas of politics and culture, with the aim of removing them from the public discourse. Art thus also becomes a question of political power.
Let us briefly return to the performances in Bayreuth. The production of Götterdämmerung was for long stretches just as disappointing as that of Siegfried. Already the first act was a complete fiasco. The Gibichungs were set up as cocaine-snorting rednecks along the lines of the Geissens from the RTL reality show. Of course, Gunther and Gutrune are more trivial characters compared to Brünnhilde and Siegfried, but to present them on this level of clamor robs the piece of its internal tension, since as an audience member one simply cannot take anything seriously in this plot. Later, this cardinal error becomes quite obvious when Gunther and Gutrune strike much more serious notes after they have become aware of their guilt. Against the backdrop of the Geissens, such a transformation is completely implausible.
The third act, which took place mainly in a deserted swimming pool, was also completely inconsequential. There was no reference whatsoever to the actions prefigured in the libretto. Siegfried's funeral march: ignored, Gutrune's search for Brünnhilde: no reference at all, etc. All these Wagnerian scenes seemed like annoying foreign bodies. At the end, however, there was some world fire: the backstage was opened and a row of neon lamps appeared. This paltry idea was said to have already been an "improvement" on the original concept from the previous year.
Musically, however, Götterdämmerung was more successful than Siegfried. The Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen was more at ease with this part of the Ring than with the Siegfried, in which the climaxes did not quite catch on. Schager, who in addition to Parsifal had also taken on the two Siegfrieds (and thus sang these roles on three evenings in a row!), shone in these parts as well, although he sometimes had to push a bit in the Siegfried. Perhaps he should limit his engagements in this role somewhat. Both Brünnhilden were well cast, but Catherine Foster (Götterdämmerung) was clearly more impressive than Daniela Köhler (Siegfried).
Read part 2 tomorrow: What happens next?