Posts Tagged ‘katharina wagner’

In Bayreuth, Persisting with the New

Friday, August 31st, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

„Kinder, schaff Neues,“ (Children, create something new) Wagner wrote in an adage frequently quoted by stage directors in Germany. In Bayreuth, 136 years after the founding of his festival, the spirit is alive and well. Provocatively-minded Regietheater, for lack of a better blanket term, has come to stamp the recently installed administration on the Green Hill, which despite widespread criticism to the contrary sees itself as simply carrying on a long-standing tradition. “The artistic point of view is not much different,” said Co-Intendant Katharina Wagner in interview with reference to the previous administration under her father, Wolfgang. “It´s the continuity of the festival and just trying to get interesting interpretations here. That´s also what our father did and tried to do. But of course if you see the Chéreau Ring now, it´s not as strong as it was, and that´s the point.” She went on to compare its power to that of last year´s new Tannhäuser in a contemporary context.

Sebastian Baumgarten´s staging certainly reaffirms the notion of Bayreuth as a Werkstatt, a place where new ideas can be test-driven to give operatic works fresh relevance. The stage director attempts to transcend the dichotomy between the divine Venusberg and the mortal realm of the Wartburg by confining the action to an industrial plant that is meant to represent a self-contained community founded on ecological awareness, indirectly echoing Wagner´s Artwork of the Future in which he envisioned a society liberated from capitalist values where the Gesamtkunstwerk could thrive. Probing as the concept may be, it has no direct connection to the opera at hand, nor does an installation by Dutch artist Josep van Lieshout that doubles as a set design have any aesthetic or philosophical value. In what may be intended as a humoristic touch, alcohol abounds but is recycled daily in an “Alkoholator,” while a biogas tank will ultimately become Elisabeth´s death chamber (something which did not go down well in the German press last year given the notorious sensitivity to such direct World War Two references). A pregnant Venus cavorts freely onstage, at one point dancing with Wolfram von Eschenbach, after her mountain—caged in metal bars—descends into the basement. The audience members sitting on the sides of the stage in Brechtian fashion did little to compensate for the lack of dramaturgical arc.

Program notes by Edward. A Bortnichak argue that Baumgarten integrates Wagner´s “criticism of the natural sciences, technology and medical research of the 19th century,” an over-intellectualized idea which, even if it made itself at all apparent, would do nothing to tell the story of Tannhäuser´s renunciation of the pleasures of the flesh for redemptive love in Elisabeth. The production effectively creates total ambiguity when the goddess gives birth to what is presumably the title character´s baby at the end of the opera. Sperm-like amoebas also crawl around intermittently, but most tasteless is video art by Christopher Kondek. The x-rayed vision of a man drinking milk (oh, right! Venus is pregnant) nearly ruined Wagner´s sublime ouverture, performed exquisitely under the baton of Christian Thielemann. This year´s audience may be lucky that the production has caused such a scandal. Thomas Hengelbrock refused to conduct this season after complaining that he had to constantly rehearse with a different set of orchestra players, and word has it that the cast is a notch up from the premiere.

I have never heard a German opera in which diction was so clear throughout. Torsten Kerl maintains a healthy voice despite having sung all of Wagner´s roles for tenor and consistently demonstrated clear dramatic purpose. Camilla Nylund was a lovely Elisabeth, with a creamy tone whose occasionally squally high notes were easily forgiven. Michelle Breedt was a rich voiced Venus, and the Hungarian baritone Michael Nagy demonstrated impeccable dynamic shading in the role of Wolfram von Eschenbach. Günther Groissböck brought a powerful bass to the role of Hermann, the Thuringian Landgrave. The remainder of the supporting cast and choruses left little to be desired. If only the staging hadn´t reprocessed the archetypal underpinnings of Wagner´s opera to such crass effect.

Christian Marthaler´s Tristan und Isolde, a 2009 production, represents a more understated approach that nevertheless falls just as flat. Any eroticism is stripped bare, much in keeping with drab sets by Anna Viebrock that appear to reference a 1920s luxury ship. This year´s revival, presided over by German director Anna-Sophie Mahler (rumor has it that Marthaler refused to return because of limited rehearsal time), apparently added a bit more physical contact between the ill-fated couple, but the love potion still seemed to have more of a disenchanting than aphrodisiac effect. The duet “O Sinke Liebe Nacht” featured Tristan and Isolde sitting side by side like retirees in front of a television. Fluorescent lighting is assigned special prominence to illuminate the night and day theme so central to the clandestine romance, yet it hardly took on enough symbolic meaning to animate the action. Marthaler saves some interesting moments for the last act when Kurnewal waves his arms as if trying to swim out of the nothingness, and all the characters except for the dying couple end up facing the walls of the ship´s barracks. Isolde covers herself with a sheet on the same bed where Tristan lay dying from Melot´s wound, a demystifying touch.

If it weren´t for conducting by Wagner veteran Peter Schneider, returning to the festival for the twentieth time, one might have secretly wished for the production to have ended sooner. Schneider´s taut, restrained reading was much in keeping with the vision onstage despite his swift pace. The level of technical perfection and power he cultivated from the orchestra often put the singers to shame, with a transcendent Liebestod that compensated for the magic lacking onstage. To be sure, uninspired as Marthaler´s production is, a more polished cast might have better risen above the odds. In this case, Robert Dean Smith was staid and underpowered as Tristan, while Irène Theorin—one of today´s best Wagnerian sopranos—was not in her best voice, nor did she make the text understandable. She still produced some touching piannissimi in the final scene and ripped through the score´s charged moments. Breedt did not disappoint as Brangäne, Isolde´s maid, but it was Jukka Rasilainen who commanded consistent attention with his smooth bass in the role of Kurwenal, Tristan´s servant. Kwangchul Youn was a powerful King Mark, and Ralf Lukas a vengeful Melot.

The finest production this season is hands down Stefan Herheim´s Parsifal, the only opera on the roster commissioned by Wolfgang Wagner. Herheim´s breathtaking allegorical vision begins at the Villa Wahnfried in the 1880s and ends at parliament in the Federal Republic of Bonn a century later. The story integrates elements from a medieval saga by Wolfram von Eschenbach that served as a source for Wagner´s libretto, inserting a silent actress as Parsifal´s mother, Herzeleide. Most likely with reference to Cosima Wagner, she lies in bed at the center of the Villa´s living room, copulating with her son in dream-like visions (namely when Amfortas holds up a glowing grail) and giving birth to a baby which then appears to be circumcised. Such moments were perplexing and somewhat gratuitous, but Herheim´s keen attention to the dramatic structure of Wagner´s score and the impeccable handwork of his team (sets by Heike Scheele and costumes by Gesine Völlm) redeems even what bordered on the offensive. The walls of Wahnfried were recreated verbatim yet haunted in a surrealist vision of black-winged beings and Parsifal as a young boy, only morphing slightly with hospital beds and mirrored walls for Klingsor´s magic castle, a brothel for the wounded.

Herheim is mostly a genius of subversion, effectively sublimating Christian and inherently anti-Semitic references into a commentary on German politics, such as when a chorus of World War One soldiers passes around bread in the Knight´s chorus, “Nehmet vom Brod/wandelt es kühn,” of the first act or when Amfortas, his head still crowned in thorns, takes the podium in the final tableau and utters “Wehe” to a room of bureaucrats while Kundry and Gurnemanz stand outside a proscenium reproducing the pillars lining the stage of the Festspielhaus—a re-consecration of the stage. Despite the politicization of the opera, a film interlude imitating the credits of the black and white era (video by Momme Hinrichs and Torge Moller) asks audience members to refrain from political debate, quoting the Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner adage “Hier gilt`s der Kunst” (Art reigns here)—a value which helped restore the festival to family hands following the American occupation. This will be the last revival of the 2008 production, but much like Chéreau´s Ring, one imagines that subsequent directors will have a very hard time overcoming its legacy—although Jonathan Meese is likely to stir up his own (succéss de) scandale with his 2016 rendition of Parsifal.

Musically, Herheim had a solid cast with Burkhard Fritz as Parsifal, whose reliable Heldentenor and portly presence were well suited to the role within this artistic vision. The dramatic demands were even higher on Susan Maclean as Kundry as she magically changed forms, and although her voice revealed some strain, her keen expressive powers served to pull off the role effectively. Kwangchul Youn was the vocal stand-out of the evening as the veteran knight Gurmemanz, anchoring the production with his mellifluous bass, while the vocal weaknesses of Detlef Roth only made him a more vulnerable, pious Amfortas. Thomas Jesatko brought crisp singing to the role of the magician Klingsor, promiscuously appearing in pantyhose and a tuxedo shirt, and Diogenes Randes rounded out the cast well as Titurel. The Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan, in his Bayreuth premiere, lived up to the family name (his father, Armin, being a well-known champion of the opera at hand) with an account of Wagner´s score as elegant and sensuous as one might dream, transparent, mysterious, and enchanting. Orchestra playing like this deserves a staging as aesthetically ravishing and intellectually challenging as Herheim´s, reminding us that the creation of something new is not enough: great art has always had the power to move not only its contemporaries but generations centuries later.

Impressions from the Green Hill: Tattoos, Rats and Embryos

Friday, August 24th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

The Bayreuth Festival has had its share of scandal to contend with as Wagner’s bicentenary approaches next season. An international investigation into exclusive ticketing practices; the publicized struggle to find the director for a new Ring cycle; administrative policies that have reportedly shortened rehearsal time; widely reviled productions; and—most recently—the last-minute withdrawal of Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin from the title role in a new production of Der Fliegende Holländer due to an alleged swastika tattoo have marred the regime of Katharina Wagner and her half-sister Eva Pasquier-Wagner, who took the reins from their father Wolfgang in 2008. It will be a test next year when Frank Castorf, intendant of the Berliner Volksbühne and a notorious enfant terrible on the German theatre scene, stages his tetralogy, which he has revealed will center upon the “race for oil” as a turning stage revolves between a post-modern socialist vision of East Berlin and Wall Street on the other—an allegorical concept that is eerily reiminscent of Patrice Chéreau´s seminal 1976 production, commissioned by Wolfgang for the centenary of the cycle´s first performance in Bayreuth.

This season´s new Flying Dutchman, much like the protagonist himself, struggles to find redemption as it sails on into the final weeks of the festival. Jan Philipp Gloger, in his third opera staging, has opted for a capitalist critique that posits Daland and his sailors as Wall Street manipulators, while the Dutchman appears with his scalp branded by some kind of technological degeneration. Senta is a lowly factory worker, packaging fans until she takes a can of red paint and devises a sculptural cardboard podium on which to greet her sailor. She even holds a torch alluding to the Status of Liberty, as if we didn´t understand the references to consumerist culture. Instead of jumping overboard, she stabs herself in the final scene, and the Dutchman bleeds as she releases from the curse of eternal wandering. Mass production continues after their death as the factory churns out blinking sculptures of the couple in their final embrace—a hyperbolic, hokey, if sardonically amusing, final touch.

While Gloger generally does not stray from Wagner´s libretto, he fails to give his social commentary depth and coherence. Sets by Christof Hetzer start off promisingly, with a sleek black motherboard of sorts that flashes with stock market numbers and lights up in time with the music, but the cardboard play world of Senta and the Dutchman looks amateurish at best. Most disappointing was the lack of compelling inter-personal dynamics onstage: the romance between the two main characters was as two-dimensional and alienating as the set itself. Costumes by Karin Jud were underinspiring with the exception of the unidentifiable skin disease on the heads of the Dutchman and his crew which left viewers racking their brains to no avail.

A musically indomitable Dutchman might have saved the evening, but Samuel Youn—who stepped in last-minute to replace Nikitin—was vocally bland. Adrianne Pieczonka brought a lush, expressive voice to the role of Senta, and yet she suffered from occasional intonation problems and a slightly steely edge to her booming climaxes. Franz-Josef Selig sang the role of Daland handsomely despite a slightly husky quality, blessed with clear diction. Michael König was an appropriately menacing Erik as he struggle to pin down Senta, while Christa Mayer did not leave a strong dramatic impression as Mary, Senta´s nurse. In the role of the Steersman, Benjamin Bruns´ ringing tenor opened the opera on a pleasant note. The most redeeming aspect of the evening came from the pit as Christian Thielemann conducted the festival orchestra in a sleek, streamlined reading that was well-matched to the more elegant moments of Gloger´s production, driving the sailor´s choruses at a swift pace while allowing for expansive exchanges between Senta and the Dutchman.

Hans Neuenfels´ Lohengrin has further confirmed the German stage director as a master of controversy, inspiring a passage in Woody Allen´s last film, To Rome with Love, while perplexing critics. The notion of the Brabantians as a pack of slowly mutating rats may sound more far-fetched than it appears within the larger context of the opera, although the staging is full of tasteless gestures—namely presenting Gottfried, Elsa´s abducted brother, as an embryo who tosses pieces of his umbilical cord when Lohengrin departs. Yet the swan knight is not just pureness and virtue. He is also a skilled manipulator, and the laboratory-like setting of Neuenfels´ production (sets and costumes by Reinhard von der Thannen) is as comical—and inane—as it is thought-provoking. One could do without the kitschy video art by Björn Verloh, cartoons which only over-saturate an already visually dense production. The only slightly meaningful moment occurred in the image of a rat skeleton running as smaller rodents fell off its ribs during the famous line “Für deutsche Land, das deutsche Schwert” (for the German land, the German sword), although the willingness of these creatures to abide by deceptively God-given precepts was more than clear at this point. The rat-tailed flower maidens in the wedding scene may not deserve profound reflection, but they were certainly amusing in a self-conscious manner that was severely lacking in Gloger´s Dutchman.

Musings on Regietheater aside, the revival of Neuenfels´ 2010 production mostly profited from having Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role. The seduction is immediate when the German tenor, who also saved Kaspar Holten´s recently unveiled Lohengrin at the Deutsche Oper, utters the opening line, “Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan” (Now you can express gratitude, my dear swan). The voice is at once angelic and virile, pleading yet authoritative. He was unfortunately not well matched by Annette Dasch, charming but underpowered in this Wagnerian role. Something of a star in Germany, the soprano nevertheless received thunderous applause. Thomas Mayer and Susan Maclean were well cast as the sinister couple Friedrich von Telramund and Ortrud, and Wilhelm Schwinghammer brought a powerful bass to the role of King Heinrich. Youn fared better as the King´s Herald than as the Dutchman the night before. Shimmering tremolo and sumptuous harmonies emerged with grace and passion under the baton of Andris Nelsons despite some minute technical imperfections, confirming Bayreuth´s tradition of superior musical standards despite a recent tendency toward wayward stagings.

Stay tuned for more on Parsifal, Tannhäuser and Tristan…