The Festspielhaus
Interior of the Festspielhaus

Before I took my seat in the Festspielhaus, I stopped to look up into the house. In all but the first row where leg room is ample, the patrons were standing to allow late comers to take their places as there is no centre aisle: nor are there aisles on either side, running toward the stage. Each door provides access to four rows of seats and only those four. This eliminates bottlenecks and delays at the end of each act and one can be out of the theatre in a matter of seconds.  The orchestra hood is curved as are the rows of seats, and from where I was standing I could see the violin players in casual attire, tuning up.

My seat was in the centre of the first row, and directly in front of me was the outline of a small trapdoor, which in some old drawings shows Wagner's head poking through to talk to Hermann Levi at Parsifal rehearsals in 1882.

Once 4pm came around, bells rang in the distance and all of the doors were closed simultaneously by the blue-skirted young ladies, and curtains were drawn over the doors to prevent chinks of light seeping through.  The lights went out and I mean OUT. Looking over my shoulder I saw complete darkness.  A faint light from the reading desks was thrown up onto the grey Wagner curtain on stage.

No conductor striding to a podium to waves of applause and huzzahs.  Giuseppe Sinopoli was already under the hood and began waving his stick.

I had closed my eyes, the better to concentrate on the sound.  I could hear the polished wood of the instruments, such a warm soothing sound.  Ripples of harp joined in.  The sound was wet and transparent and clean.  When the brass chorus played, I felt I would weep. The sound was smooth with no hit of rasp, no brash tinniness.  I was bathing in it.

Before travelling to Bayreuth I had often said that it wouldn't bother me if some of the singers were poor:  I didn't expect otherwise from past recordings and videos, and I said that as long as it sounded like the Festspielhaus and it was THAT band and THAT chorus, I would be a happy man.

I was a happy man.

When the curtain opened there was Hans Sotin, whom I love, as Gurnemanz, just 20 feet away from me at eye level.  There is no looking up at the stage, just straight ahead.  The production by Wolfgang Wagner featured tall fibreglass structures with diamond shaped facets lit from within, serving as the forest in Act I.  The stage was weakly lit.  (I looked around for Gil Wechsler in the lighting booth....)  Costuming was shades of grey, adding to the drab austere look.

The young esquires with Gurney were Bayreuth veterans Helmut Pampuch and Peter Maus, who were a tad overactive in their mugging once the Kundry of Violeta Urmana came stumbling in from my right.  She can certainly sing the music even though the voice is not especially memorable or moving.  She has power and no wobble, which are both plusses.

Amfortas was the worthy Falk Struckman, big of voice and so impassioned that I shouted out, " Gott und Himmel! Can't somebody help this man?"  He is a keeper.

I for one, do not find Gurnemanz' Narration to be a snooze, and particularly not so when it is sung by Hans Sotin, and until we get to the Transformation music it is the highlight of the Act for me.  No shouting, no barking.

An earthbound swan went nosediving at the back of the forest, signalling the arrival of the youthful Poul Elming.  The haunting "look what you have done to this poor swan" music shimmered, and seeing the error of his ways Parsifal sent the bow and arrows flying.

The King was returning from his bath and the Transformation music started up as the lights dimmed even further, so that the "trees" could be shuffled around to become the pillars of the temple.  From the floor rose the circular altar on which the Grail would be placed.

So it was that I came face to face with the most outstanding choral group one could hope to hear as they shuffled on and almost blew my head off with their power.  It was worth all the effort of getting to Germany just to hear them sing...."die hehrster Gab empfah'n!"  I could feel the throb of the band beneath my feet and my heart pounding.

The offstage voice of Titurel was my first hearing of the wobbly hollow voice of Matthias Holle.  Falk Struckman turned on his after-burners in this scene and was rivetting.  The alto solo was sung by Simone Schroder, who did duty as one of the four esquires.

Upon the slow close of the curtain, the majority of the audience followed the tradition of sitting on their hands, although there were outbursts of applause from the rear which resulted in some shushing.

We filed out into the bright afternoon sun and to our table, which was bearing plates of shrimp salad and pots of coffee.  It is a beautiful thing to attend a long opera at 4 pm while one is fresh, rather than rush for a 7pm curtain after a hard day's work, and then to have an intermission which lasts a full hour.  No crush to use a restroom or get a drink and a bite to eat.  We ate at the large two story restaurant, but above there is a huge, more casual cafeteria where you serve yourself, and stands where one can get bratwurst in a roll and a cold beer for the equivalent of $5 in under five minutes.

An hour gives one time to eat and then stroll down to the pond to commune with the ducks and waterlilies.  People-watching is also an option.  The vast majority were German, judging by their speech.

A few more words about the theatre at this time.....
The seats are indeed thin and hard, but I had no problem with them and in fact squirmed and shifted less than in upholstered seats in the Met or Lyric.  It was also surprisingly cooler than either of those theatres.  The floor is wood and shows the wear of an endless procession of stamping feet, and it has a slight musty smell.  The wood is neither varnished nor polished.  The doubled proscenium is painted in drab colors, that by comparison would make a battleship look cheery.  As you look ahead there is nothing, no gilding nor ornamentation to distract the eye:  there is just stage and singers closer than I have ever seen them.  As I was sitting directly behind the conductor, I often made eye contact with them.  The audience, without a doubt, was the quietest, most intent I have ever had the extreme pleasure of being amongst.

As the intermission was now ending, I rejoined the assembled for Act II.

To be continued......

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