Posts Tagged ‘richard wagner’

More Random Thoughts on Bayreuth

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

By: Frank Cadenhead

The Austrian newspaper, Der Kurier, let drop a great deal of information about what to expect in the future for the Bayreuth Festival. The new Ring in 2020, to the surprise of many, will not be conducted by the new Music Director of the festival, Christian Thielemann, but rather the Boston Symphony’s Andris Nelsons with American soprano Christine Goerke chalked in to sing Brunnhilde. She will be singing the complete Ring when the Robert Lepage production returns to the state at the Metropolitan Opera, it has been announced. Hints are that Dimitri Tcherniakov will be creating the new Bayreuth production.

The 2016 Parsifal will also feature Andris Nelsons and will be staged by Uwe Eric Laufenberg with Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role. The 2017 performances will star Andreas Schager. That same year, Die Meistersinger will return with a new production by Barrie Kosky with Vogt as Stolzing and Michael Volle as Sachs. The 2018 Lohengrin will be conducted by Thielemann and staged by Alvis Hermanis with Roberto Alagna in the title role and Anna Netrebko as Else. There will be a new Tannhäuser staged by Tobias Kratzer in 2019. In addition to Goerke for the Ring in 2020, Andreas Schager will be the Siegfried. With time, however, things happen and with the last minute changes in this year’s casting it is way too early to carve these names in stone.

I find the lack of surtitles in Bayreuth to be a symbol of arrogant old thinking that should change. The lack of such an amenity, now literally everywhere in the opera world, is hard to explain in rational terms. If they think all of the audience has memorized the entire dialogue of the always prolix Richard Wagner they simply have never considered the question. With new technology, seat-back additions, like at the Met, would not be expensive and the one percent who have actually memorized every word can turn them off. Frank Castorf’s very detailed Ring dramatics must have left the majority of the audience in various stage of incomprehension a good part of the time.

My impression is that formal wear is now worn by the minority toward the end of the festival run. I can’t speak about opening night but you could see jeans and sport shirts at the last Ring cycle in August. The fact that there is no air conditioning at the Festspielhaus for the August festival is an added encouragement to forget the bow tie and layers.

At the end of the Castorf ring, the larger implications for Wagner’s shrine are being examined whether the regulars like it or not. My first time there, in 1963, Bayreuth and the festival reminded me of a temple of worship and the stiff, well-aged and very formal audiences were acolytes at a ceremony. Significantly, the Wieland Wagner staging of Tannhäuser (with Grace Bumbry as the Black Venus) stirred rage among the traditionalists by abstracting the stage direction. The overt sexuality of the ballet for the Venusberg music was, for me, assuringly apt but provoked the regulars. Aside from the rather more mixed audiences – more varied ages and social levels – a half-century later the Castorf staging still had the traditionalists in a lather. But, at the end of the run, I noted little of this heat. Clearly the staging was intended to puncture some balloons. This lèse-majesté began to be understood better, as with the Chereau Ring, after some time.

The festival Ring program was quite specific about what a dangerous revolutionary Wagner was. While many are aware of his anti-Semitism and assumed he grew socially conservative, Wagner advocated radical social movements all his life. Siegfried’s “Mount Rushmore” with Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao was no accident and his depiction of the lust for wealth and control, here “black gold,” provided a logical background for the drama.

Something that was little discussed among this year’s festival news was a fundamental change in the structure and soul of the festival that will certainly have major long term consequences. My guess is that the change, announced a few days before the start of the festival, will have a ultimate negative impact. The appointment of Christian Thielemann as “music director” of the festival first became public when the new sign for his parking place, with his new title, was widely tweeted. Some days later a press conference gave the official declaration.

Since the beginning, the festival never has had a music director. The structure formally was to hire the conductor and director for a particular opera and wait for the results. Casting was the prerogative of the conductor. Now this is not certain and Kirill Petrenko, the new designated successor to Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic, had his tenor changed just weeks before opening night and it was likely that Thielemann had something to do with that. It resulted in an uncharacteristic public statement critical of the meddling from the notoriously media-shy conductor. I would imagine this will not be the last scandal involving Thielemann who has a long history of arch-conservative remarks and trouble with management and musicians. Clearly there would be conductors and stage directors who would not consider Bayreuth while he is “music director.” My view is that this appointment, approved by the festival’s board of directors, will likely be regretted in the future.

Random Thoughts on the Bayreuth Festival

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

By Frank Cadenhead

The book isn’t next to me in my hotel room at Bayreuth, but otherwise it is always within arm’s reach. Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective, an illuminating collection of music criticism at its worse, is a vast parade of bonehead reviews of the great classics. It is an obvious reminder that originality in art is not always what you had anticipated when you came through the door. But this very originality is the core of creativity and at the very heart of opera and other arts.

My first encounter with Frank Castorf’s universally-derided production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold on Friday, August 21, found me gobsmacked by the astounding virtuosity of the production and the raunchy energy took me by surprise. It was highly theatrical and the involvement of the singers were central to the dramatics onstage. It was busy and the action was layered with video close-ups on a screen which occupied about a quarter of the stage at the top. A cheap Texan Route 66 motel-gas station, with its above-ground plastic pool for the Rhine Maidens, was the new Valhalla and those chaste girls were now sex-toys for the boss.

The public was unusually aggressive in their disapproval when this production first appeared in 2013. The critics, like sheep, followed along, dismissing the staging and not even feeling the need to describe it in any detail. I read the reviews and the contempt and dismissal was solid, did not appear to need justification and assumed to be final. But this conformist reaction might give us a sense of just how much the world of opera needs to be shaken up. An art critic knows not to immediately rail at some artist who thinks he can paint a soup can and get away with it. Even a ballet critic knows better than to try to keep ballet what it was when he was young when he learned early on that Merce Cunningham was going to stick his finger in your eye the next time too. Journalism which assumes the status quo is universal truth is failing the art and the public deserves better.

The festival’s Ring Cycle program, with content now 21st Century casual, had an essay reminding readers of Wagner’s early political and artistic radicalism, important to understanding many of Castorf’s ideas. Also included were sections of a work explaining the concept of irony, a key element of the new staging but evidently a new experience for most reviewers.

Three years into this production, the Bayreuth audience cheered at the final curtain. The one or two who booed were resoundingly outvoted. And those doing the cheering are the regulars. There is not a lot of tattoos and piercing among the well-aged attendees but clearly they had a different reaction than the first-timers. Certainly the shock has worn off – as it always will, even with that painting of a soup can. While the art of opera has started shaking loose from the doldrums of the last half century with imaginative stagings and with a few new operas gaining attention, it still has a long way to go to find its original creative stride. As Wagner himself commanded, “Kinder! Macht Neues!” (Children, make the new).


Thursday, October 10th, 2013

By James Conlon

Today the world is marking the two-hundredth birthday of Giuseppe Verdi. It started already last night (he may have possibly been born in the evening of October 9). In either case, it really has been going on all year, and well it should.

Verdi has been with me my entire life, since hearing my first opera, La Traviata, at eleven years old. Not just the composer, but also the man is an immense inspiration.  A lifetime of conducting his works has only magnified those feelings.

I treated myself to a weekend in Chicago, to attend the opening night of the Lyric Opera (Otello) and a concert performance of Macbeth with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Riccardo Muti.

Aside from the magnificent performance, Maestro Muti had some very witty words to say about Verdi and Wagner (whose bicentennial it is as well). There was a résumé of those words printed in the program. I quote them in part:

“Verdi is like Mozart–he speaks to us about our sins, our defects, all our qualities. And he is not like Beethoven, who points his finger and judges–because Beethoven was always a moralist…Verdi’s music will be of great comfort for generations and generations to come, because he speaks to us like a man speaking to another person.

“When Verdi died, Gabriele d’Annunzio, the famous Italian poet, wrote a few lines which I think perfectly express who Verdi was: “Diede una voce alle speranze e ai lutti, pianse ed amò per tutti” he gave a voice to all our hopes and struggles, he wept and loved for all of us.”

On the editorial page of today’s New York Times, there are five letters to the editor reacting to a front page article from October 4 entitled “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov.” The article, well worth reading, reports studies published in the journal Science.  The study found that after reading literary fiction or serious non-fiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.

The last of the five letters published today, written by Kathleen Crisci, reflected my immediate reaction, that one should make a similar study for various genres of music. She writes, “Who could listen to the pathos of a Beethoven Symphony…and not feel empathy and compassion?”

Art, almost by definition, does not need to justify itself, nor does classical music. But those of us who believe deeply in its value, and who live a life devoted to it, might be enthusiastic to see a similar study conducted, if for no other reason than for it to strengthen the argument for renewed inclusion of the arts in our children’s schools.

I do not know if there is any scientific evidence that listening to classical music has the same effect as was noted by the research cited in the New York Times, but my intuition suggests to me that it does. At least I would like to think so. I suspect that a lot of people reading this Musical America blog would also like to think so. And were they to conduct such a study, they should include the music of the king of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence:  Giuseppe Verdi.

Expunged ‘Tannhäuser’ opens Debate on Artistic Freedom

Friday, May 17th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

The tolerance of German audiences for extreme stage productions is a source of national pride and the envy of many abroad. But a production of Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein which had to be stripped down to concert performance last week has set off a national debate about the sanctity of a director’s artistic freedom. Two seasons ago, the Bayreuth Festival mounted the same opera in a new production by Sebastian Baumgartner which places the heroine, Elisabeth, in a “biogas” chamber. It caused a moral outcry in the press, but the notion of her being “recycled” rather than outright gassed appears to have kept the staging in repertoire. In Düsseldorf, at the Oper am Rhein, the director Burkhard C. Kosminski went a step too far. Naked extras were already being gassed during the overture. An entire family was shot after its members had their heads shaven by soldiers. Venus was dressed in an SS uniform; Elisabeth was raped and burned. The boos in the small city of Düsseldorf started 30 minutes into the production, according to Der Spiegel, and some audience members were so traumatized that they needed medical attention. Criticism from the Jewish community was just the icing on the cake. But Kosminski refused to modify his vision, for fear of betraying his artistic principles. Less than a week after its premiere on May 4, the opera was reduced to a concert version.

The obvious issue, which audience members were quick to point out, is that Nazis and persecuted Jews have nothing to do with Tannhäuser. The opera is about a pilgrim who leaves Venus’ world of love-making, enters a song competition on the Wartburg, and finds redemption in the saintly Elisabeth. An editorial in the German magazine Cicero , dedicated to the intersection of arts and politics, observes that a director turns to Nazis when he has no good ideas of own. The author continues to criticize Germany’s lavish public funding for theater, calling Hitler its “patron saint.” It may be worth noting that the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, a shared entity of the nearby cities of Düssseldorf and Duisburg, nearly entered financial meltdown last season. Was the production a desperate attempt to lend the company a cutting-edge status capable of competing with the many other opera houses in West Germany (let’s not forget that the reunited country possesses altogether one-seventh of the world’s companies)?

In an interview with Der Spiegel this week, Kosminski states the “real scandal” at hand is “censorship in the arts.” He insists that the production intended to mourn, not ridicule, the victims of World War Two, describing himself as “terrified” by criticism from the Jewish community. Just yesterday, he won the support of the president of the Akademie der Künste, Klaus Staeck, who has written a letter demanding that the production be reinstated. “Art—regardless of its quality!—is not a superfluous luxury,” he argues. Is it then justified to use art as a vehicle for emotional torture? And is quality not an important criterium when good tax money is being invested? From a purely literary point of view, there is little to no basis for casting Tannhäuser as a war criminal who is forced into the SS guard. Surely Greek myth is more important to understanding the opera than Wagner’s indirect connection to the Holocaust as a role model of Hitler.

Although the opera derives its plot in part from Thuringian legend, there is little in the way of nationalist undertones compared to later works such as Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal and, to some extent, the Ring cycle. Patrice Chéreau caused a scandal upon the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival in 1976 by setting the cycle at the time of early German industrialization. This is a loaded topic, given the industrial killings that followed during World War Two, but the production opened the door to historical allegory on the Festspielhaus stage. Stefan Herheim’s 2008 production of Parsifal, which opens in the Villa Wahnfried in the 1880s and ends in the Federal Republic of Bonn, plumbs the possibilities even further. The appearance of swastika flags and black-and-white footage from the Second World War remains controversial, but Herheim caused the audience to think critically about the inextricability of Wagner’s works from his time and the institution of Bayreuth itself.

Kosminski, through his graphic depictions of the violence and genocide, crossed a threshold that was already at breaking point. Although I didn’t see the production first-hand, the audience’s reaction would indicate that he lacked the sophistication of a director such as Chéreau or Herheim. The exploitation of World War Two—not just to artistic ends but in the media and in academia—has reached a point of saturation in Germany that, thanks to the reaction at the Oper am Rhein, should finally be considered cause for concern. Artistic freedom does not license a director to indulge his darkest fantasies or work out psychological issues at the expense of an opera. Do we go to the theater to be provoked, reviled and confused, or enlightened and transported by an interpretation that allows us to penetrate a given work with more understanding and appreciation? Wagner may remain a thorn in the cultural consciousness, but it is not paying respect to anyone—neither the composer, the German people, nor the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust—to use his stage works as vehicles for cheap, shock tactics under the pretence of creating socially relevant art. As austerity plagues Europe, it is even more shameful to invest in stage productions that ruin rather than illuminate an opera.

Après lui, le déluge…reflections on Wagner at the Akademie der Künste

Friday, February 1st, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

Richard Wagner has managed to slowly dominate the scene internationally in recent seasons, but with the official arrival of his bicentenary, the saturation in Germany has only begun. Nürnberg, Leipzig, Munich and Dresden have unveiled new exhibits; in the latter’s case, an entire new building. A stream of publications has hit the market, leading Nike Wagner—rebellious daughter of Wieland, one-time bidder for the Bayreuth Festival upon Wolfgang’s resignation—to point her finger at the ‘tsunami-like influx’ (NB: her book Über Wagner comes out February 20). And then there’s the 15-hour opera. Klaus Zehelein, president of the Deutscher Bühnenverein (German Stage Association), called for a moratorium on Ring cycles last June. ‘We should leave the work alone, ideally worldwide,’ he said, denouncing centenary programming as a series of ‘encyclopedic events without artistic relevance.’

In what may be an attempt to provide an antidote, the exhibit, lecture and stage production series Wagner 2013 Künstlerpositionen at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste has set out to grapple with the German master’s polarizing effect and his place in artists’ lives, from painters to contemporary composers. A spokesperson explained that the concept arose from the international enthusiasm for Wagner and was intended to take place prior to this year. Why that didn’t happen is anyone’s guess. On January 27 the academy invited four composers and academy initiates of different generations—Dieter Schnebel, Erhard Grosskopf, Manos Tsangaris, and Enno Poppe—to discuss their relationships to Wagner in the same hall that is exhibiting the legendary rat costumes from Hans Neuenfels’ 2010 production of Lohengrin in Bayreuth.

Musicologist and moderator Jürg Stenzl opened the dialogue with a quote from Pierre Boulez, who declared Wagner ‘forgotten music’ for his generation and invited the composers to express their views on the issue. Schnebel, born in 1930, admitted that he had been corrupted as a child of Nazi times and, upon re-listening to Tristan post-war, couldn’t resist. His Wagner-Idyll (1980), for soprano and chamber orchestra, reworks the lines of Gurnemanz, the veteran knight in Parsifal, into Sprechgesang for a mezzo-soprano—naturally a subversive use of the material. At the other end of the spectrum, Poppe considers Wagner a ‘historical phenomenon,’ much as he considers Nazi Germany part of the past.

None of the composers stated they could ‘believe’ in Wagner. He is too ambiguous, a man who works with symbols, said Schnebel, as opposed to Verdi, whose operas he considers ‘clear cut’ and ‘music of reality.’ This is a fair assessment, although morality is far from clear cut in an opera such as La Traviata (based on the life of the singer Giuseppina Strepponi, whom the composer married). Nor is it true that Verdi didn’t work with symbols—he used entire allegories. The Jewish people in Nabucco represent Italians fighting for liberation from the Hapsburg Empire; the title character of Rigoletto is a disguised king.

Stenzl ended the discussion with a quote from Mauricio Kagel who, upon Beethoven’s centenary, suggested that there be a hiatus from his music for an entire year so that ‘we could then look forward to January 1’ (for a hilarious commentary of the mania around Beethoven, see Kagel’s film Ludwig Van). Tsangaris suggested that, contrary to Cage—who was feted for an entire year at the Akademie der Künste last year—there is already enough interest in Wagner from the public at large (perhaps the academy should have taken up the centenaries of Britten and Lutoslawski instead?). Poppe joked that we will need a ten year break from the Ring because the singers will have to recover their voices.

By many accounts, the music world is already weary. In New York, Robert Lepage’s colossal, machine-generated cycle has provoked a scandal of seemingly irreparable proportions. In Berlin resentment has long been brewing over a tetralogy that the Staatsoper mounted in co-production with La Scala, yielding a light, futuristic aesthetic that one critic likened to a Star Wars film. Meanwhile, in Milan, the decision to open the season with a new Lohengrin by Claus Guth was more than enough to leave national pride wounded in a country where people sing along to the ‘Brindisi’ on New Year’s Day. Still, few can ward off an endless fascination for Wagner, even if it necessitates psychiatric support (as Simon Rattle recently joked in an interview with Die Zeit). For better or for worse, we will be wandering the dark forests of myth for the next year.

Peter’s Principles

Friday, November 4th, 2011

by James Jorden

“I’ve almost come to the conclusion that this Mr. Hitler isn’t a Christian,” muses merry murderess Abby Brewster early in the first act of Arsenic and Old Lace, and to tell the truth I’m beginning to think I’m almost as far behind the curve as she was. Recent new productions at the Met suggest strongly that Peter Gelb either doesn’t quite know what he’s doing or else, if he does know, has some wildly inappropriate ideas about what music drama is supposed to be.  (more…)

Regie in its natural habitat

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

By James Jorden

The Staatsoper Stuttgart may be called the cradle of Regietheater, or at least a cradle of Regietheater. Strong theatrical values have characterized this company from the opening of the theater in 1912 (the world premiere of Ariadne auf Naxos, helmed by megaregisseur Max Reinhardt) through the 1950s, when Wieland Wagner’s frequent projects there caused the house to be nicknamed “the Winter Bayreuth,” on through the future, as Jossi Wieler becomes intendant in the fall of 2011. (more…)