Curmudgeon's Corner:  Bayreuth 1999

August 3, 1999RW profile 

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, "Ich bin gepooped!" from all this endless Wagner.  Man, the strain on the buttocks is formidable. The official Opera Oasis Jamboree that took place in Bayreuth last week is over and I am back amidst palm trees and in need of some Puccini.  Or is it bourbon?

The venerable, but increasingly vulnerable, opera festival of Wagner's works that takes place in Bayreuth every summer remains an awesome, mesmerising experience, not so much for the actual performances - invariably subject to personal taste, though they play a large part obviously - but rather for the sacrosanct traditions and personal customs that surround a visit to this operatic shrine.  What specific table you sit at during the hour-long intermissions, where you stand awaiting the fanfares, or what you are wearing seems to weigh just as importantly as the opera you are about to see and hear.  It is all part of the Bayreuth "experience" that is formal and precise and it has a life all of its own.  In a way, it reminds me of the hysteria one encounters when attending a Green Bay Packers Football game in a similar, decidedly one-donkey dorf north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The fans are just as rabid and the traditions just as silly.  But for those who like Wagner, Bayreuth is the ultimate experience, one that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.  By its very nature, it is a shrine, the building designed and built by Wagner himself with his works in mind.  Not much has changed and one can sit in the exact, hard-backed seat that he sat in while he was overseeing the first production of the RING.  Believe it or not, even I find this a humbling experience.  During this past week, Norris occupied that seat.  And he didn't use a cushion.

However, the festival is under attack from without and from within.  From without by audiences and critics who dislike how Wolfgang Wagner runs the festival, critical of his inept productions as well as his choices of designers, singers and conductors, and from within, by some of the younger Wagner family members who want to wrest control of the festival from Wolfgang and presumably to change it, but to what, nobody seems to know.  Bayreuth should be able to garner the cream of the crop in singers, designers and conductors, but why it rarely does remains a mystery.  Where is Heppner?  Where is Eaglen?  Where is Pape?  Was it always like this?  Yes.

Reading Frederic Spotts' book, "Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival", one learns that spotty and downright lousy productions with mediocre singers and conductors have existed since 1876, and its failures seem to outweigh and overshadow the successes, causing one to wonder why it goes so wrong?  Bayreuth has almost always viewed itself as experimental theater - Wieland certainly thought so - re-inventing Wagner's works that actually work just fine without too much experimentation.  Bayreuth has never enjoyed a "golden age," a period similar to what the Metropolitan Opera experienced in the thirties and forties, when, year after year, there were dozens of performances of relatively sane productions with singers that included Flagstad, Traubel, Melchior, Svanholm, Schorr, Janssen, Thorborg, and with conductors the likes of Bodansky, Stiedry and Busch, all this in a non-repertory house.  It is interesting that most of the above names avoided working in Bayreuth.  The point is, Bayreuth has never gotten the cream of the crop and still doesn't.  When Wolfgang finally goes to the great Valhalla in the sky, Bayreuth will hopefully change.  From my viewpoint, it can only get better.

I went to Bayreuth again this year and while the overall experience was terrific, the productions were boring (Parsifal), atrociously ugly (Lohengrin and Tristan), comely and reasonably authentic (Meistersinger) and uninspired and silly (Dutchman), although I chose to avoid Dutchman this year.  Having seen it last year, with the same vocally-gruesome cast, I was convinced I did not need its migraine effects again.  Against my better judgment, I went to Tristan.  I found it so bad, I left in disgust after Act I.  Heresy you say.  Tough rocks.  I had intended to leave my front row seat empty for the remainder of the performance, though I doubt anyone would have understood it was a silent protest, but instead I gave away my ticket to a young woman who really wanted to see and hear it.  I hope she enjoyed it.  What I saw and heard gave me dry heaves.  I was in the minority mostly, enjoying Meistersinger, which many did not like due to Wolfgang's inept direction, hating Tristan, and did not enjoy Lohengrin and was bored by Parsifal, but the audiences stomped and screamed themselves hoarse over all of them.  Maybe I should change my underarm deodorant.

For the lover of really good singing, Bayreuth's singers were a mighty inferior bunch.  Only Magee and Trekel were vocally and technically excellent, and Wottrich, Sotin, Schmidt, Holl, Elming and Schnaut were generally good though not without vocal problems, and some, like Gunther von Kannen (Klingsor) and Matthias Hölle (Pogner, Marke and Titurel), were atrocious (as was Alan Titus).  Von Kannen and Hölle have NO VOICES left.  They should hang up their spurs and head for the alpine ravines to hunt moldy old Rhinemaidens and defrocked Siegfrieds, like the old fogey who tried to sing Tristan this year.  I forget his name.  Why Wolfgang continues to hire such mediocrity, and put people like Hölle into three roles, certainly adds fuel to the fires of those who want to depose him.  I myself would have settled for a hanging.  If only I could have gotten my speargun past airport security!

I have previously discussed these productions and need not comment on them again, except for Lohengrin, which is new.  And ugly:  ugly to look at, bleak, dark and pointless, with huge sets that needed gargantuan efforts to move and deal with.  Lohengrin "descends" into the lake for his final exit (actually, he walks down a flight of stairs.  Why didn't they give the poor guy an escalator at least?).  It is stupid.  The production is stupid.  There is no sun in this Brabant.  Nor is there vocally.  Only Roman Trekel, as the Herald, was vocally outstanding.  Roland Wagenführer and Melanie Diener are miscast as Lohengrin and Elsa.  Both have voices three sizes too small for these roles.  Unless they were standing on the prompters box, you couldn't hear them, even from my seat in the first row.  John Tomlinson has seen better days and was woolly and wobbly.  Jean-Philippe Lafont's undistinctive sound bored me but he did well in the unforgiving role of Telramund, going tooth and nail against Gabe 'the Babe' Schnaut.  Gabrielle shouted her head off with Ortrud.  It wasn't pretty but it was LOUD and LOUDER.  There is no bottom voice to speak of and all of Ortrud's low notes were lost as a result.  Her malevolent posturing made her riveting to watch, however, and anybody who manages to get through this fiendishly difficult role deserves much credit for the effort.  In essence, she stole the show but I don't think this is what Wagner intended.

The conductors fared better, with Barenboim doing a magnificent job with Tristan, at least what I heard, and also with Meistersinger.  Why is he so utterly turgid and boring in Chicago?  He did Tristan one night and Meistersinger the next.  A truly astounding feat.  Antonio Pappano was very dynamic and rhythmically propulsive in Lohengrin and it came off sounding a bit Italian but at least it did not drag.  Sinopoli though, like death warmed over, was his usual boring self in Parsifal with long stretches of lifeless music-making.  He conducts the RING next year.  Gee, is that something to look forward to or what?

As for the Bayreuth chorus:  there is none better on this planet.  Anywhere!  Stunning doesn't even come close to describing their effort.  The jury is still out on returning next year for the RING.  It depends on whether I have an oven that needs cleaning.     P13

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