Wagner Week: Bayreuth Remains a Colorful, Controversial Mecca

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Richard Wagner Opera house in Bayreuth, Germany Richard Wagner Opera house in Bayreuth, Germany (manfredxy/Shutterstock)

The 2013 edition of the Bayreuth Festival opens on Thursday, led by a new production of the Ring Cycle that's expected to be as colorful and contentious as anything this German celebration of Richard Wagner's music has seen.

The annual summer festival, which Wagner himself created in order to perform his four-opera Der Ring des Nibelungen, has served as a site of a pilgrimage for his fans since 1876. Bayreuth is also, as New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote in 2011, an "eternal artistic battleground." Administered by the composer's descendents since his death in 1883, it has been a hub for provocative stage directors and a magnet for on- and off-stage debate.

Last year, Evgeny Nikitin, the baritone hired to sing in The Flying Dutchman, had to resign when it was revealed he had an apparent swastika tattooed on his chest. This year, festival directors Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier – the great-granddaughters of the composer – have hired German stage director Frank Castorf to create a new Ring for the composer's bicentenary. Early reports indicate that the Castorf Ring will open in the defeated Germany of 1945 and contain a heavy subtext on the modern oil-based economy.

The Castorf Ring may echo another famous staging in the festival's history: the 1976 Patrice Chéreau Ring, which made Wagner's Rhine Maidens prostitutes and turned the whole thing into a critique of capitalism. While it was vociferously booed at the time, it was later hailed as a masterpiece.

Bayreuth also remains a place where tradition runs deep, right down to the armless, wooden seats in the non-air-conditioned hall (so as not to hurt its superb acoustics). The festival is notoriously difficult to attend; the average wait for tickets is eight years. Thursday's opening is expected to be accompanied by a customary red-carpet procession of celebrities and politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.

With the bicentenary year, Wagner's former residence, Wahnfried (now a museum), has been undergoing extensive renovations. There has also been heavy pressure on Bayreuth to open its archives and shed light on its ties with the Nazis during the 1930s and '40s. Recently, Katarina Wagner told the Tagesspiegel newspaper that she intends to hand over letters between Adolf Hitler and the Wagner family, but getting family members on the same page is proving difficult.

"It's very difficult to make all the widely dispersed documents available to the public, because they are owned in part by all four branches" of the sprawling Wagner dynasty, she told the newspaper. "And all of their heirs must be in agreement. If even just one says 'No', then I can't do anything about it, no matter how outrageous I might find it," she said.

Leading up to World War II, Hitler was a frequent visitor to the festival and a close friend of the Wagner family, in particular the composer's British-born daughter-in-law Winifred Wagner who ran the festival from 1930 until 1945.

AUDIO: a 1965 edition of WNYC's 'Opera Topics' features bass Lorenzo Alvary interviewing Friedelind Wagner, the composer's granddaughter. The two discuss audiences at Bayreuth and its importance to Wagner performance.

Program Highlights for Thursday, July 25

Each hour will have a piece by a composer who attended the Bayreuth Festival in its earliest years.

7 am  Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Overture and Opening Chorale (Daniel Barenboim)

9 am Tannhauser: Entry of the Guests (Eugene Ormandy)

*Near the end of 9-10 am hour: the Adagio molto movement from an arrangement Wagner made as a teenager of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

11 am Parsifal: Prelude, Act I (James Levine)

1 pm Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I (Eugen Jochum)

3 pm Tannhauser: Geliebter, komm!  Sieh dort die Grotte! (Grace Bumbry)

      Die Walkure: Nun zaume dein Ross...Ho-jo-to-ho! Birgit Nilsson

5 pm Lohengrin: Act III Prelude (Wilhelm Furtwaengler)

7 pm David Dubal on Wagner Transcriptions


Program for the Operavore Stream: Thursday, July 25

Richard Wagner
Amfortas – Simon Estes
Titurel – Matti Salminen
Gurnemanz – Hans Sotin
Parsifal – Peter Hofmann
Klingsor – Franz Mazura
Kundry – Waltraud Meier
Chor und Orchestra der Bayreuther Festspiele
Norbert Balatsch, chorus master
James Levine, conductor
Phillips –  416842-2
Richard Wagner
Daland – Matti Salminen
Senta – Lisbeth Balslev
Erik – Robert Schunk
Mary – Anny Schlemm
Der Steuermann – Graham Clark
Der Hollander – Simon Estes
Chor und Sonderchor der Bayreuther Festspiele
Norbert Balatsch, chorus master
Orchester der Bayreuther Festpiele
Woldemar Nelsson, conductor
Phillips – 434599-2
Richard Wagner
Tristan – Wolfgang Windgassen
Konig Marke – Martti Talvela
Isolde – Birgit Nilsson
Kurwenal – Eberhard Waechter
Melot – Claude Heater
Brangane – Christa Ludwig
Ein Hirt – Erwin Wohlfahrt
Ein Steuermann – Gerd Nienstedt
Ein junger Seemann – Peter Schreier
Chor und Orchestra der Bayreuther Festspiele
Karl Bohm, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon –  449772-2
Richard Wagner
Hans Sachs – Robert Holl
Sixtus Beckmesser – Andreas Schmidt
Walther von Stolzing – Peter Seiffert
Eva – Emily Magee
David – Endrik Wottrich
Magdalene – Birgitta Svenden
Veit Pogner – Matthias Holle
Chor und Orchestra der Bayreuther Festspiele
Norbert Balatsch, chorus master
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Teldec –  3984-29333-2
Richard Wagner
Heinrich der Vogler – Franz Crass
Lohengrin – Jess Thomas
Elsa von Brabant – Anja Silja
Friedrich von Telramund – Ramon Vinay
Ortrud – Astrid Varnay
Der Heerrufer des Konigs – Tom Krause
Chor und Orchestra der Bayreuther Festspiele
Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor
Decca – 470592-2


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Comments [4]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

FRANZ LISZT who had been a friend of Wagner for many years and had transcribed many of Wagner's choicest selections maintaining their essence and allowing for virtuoso display with elan, also prepared LOHENGRIN's world premiere when Wagner was for political reasons unable to participate. COSIMA, Liszt's daughter became Wagner's second wife and was intimately involved in all matters that touched on Wagner's aspirations and enterprises. Just as BACH's music is performed by all sorts of instrumental ensembles , even the MOOG, so Wagner's music may be thoroughly enjoyed in piano arrangements, but their original versions with singers are the definitive versions. The incandescent beauty and intoxicating spirituality are so transformational in Wagner's oeuvre that any religious belief may be accommodated and synthesized to replicate the sense of selfless empathy for the welfare of others that the sacrificed UNICO represents to us all. That may explain why so many famous JEWISH singers GEORGE LONDON, RICHARD TAUBER, HERMANN JADLOWKER, MELANIE KURT, FRIEDRICH SCHORR, ALEXANDER KIPNIS, EMANUEL LIST, JONAS KAUFMANN, OTTILIE METZGER, LILLI LEHMANN, HERMANN WEIL, DESZO ERNSTER, HERTA GLAZ, MARGARETE MATZENAUER, SOPHIE BRASLAU, WALTER OLITZKY, GERHARD PECHNER, ESTELLE LIEBLING, MONA PAULEE, GUNTHER TREPTOW, PAULA LENCHNER, ALMA GLUCK, ADOLF ROBINSON, IRENE JESSNER, MAX BLOCH, ERNESTINE SCHUMANN-HEINK, HERMANN SCHRAMM, SIEGFRIED JERUSALEM, PAUL KALISCH, ETC], conductors LEONARD BERNSTEIN, JAMES LEVINE, BRUNO WALTER, ALFRED HERTZ, DANIEL BARENBOIM, GEORG SOLTI, WALTER AND LEOPOLD DAMROSCH, ARTUR RODZINSKY, RICHARD FRANK GOLDMAN AND HIS FATHER THE FOUNDER OF THE GOLDMAN BAND THAT PERFORMED BRASS INSTRUMENT VERSIONS OF THE WAGNER "REP," FRITZ REINER, SERGE KOUSSEVITZKY, FABIEN SEVITSKY, ERICH LEINSDORF, and HERMANN LEVI, the conductor whom Wagner himself appointed to premiere PARSIFAL at Bayreuth, Levi's father being a rabbi, and Levi reportedly denied Wagner's request for him to turn Christian, still Wagner decided LEVI was the best one to cinduct his work, ETC. and stage directors HERBERT GRAF AND LEOPOLD SACHSE dedicated the fullest portion of their careers to performing Wagner's music dramas.

Jul. 27 2013 02:04 AM
Elisabeth Trumpler from Bensalem, PA

What happened to the Prologue of Goetterdaemmerung today? Was it omitted on purpose, or intentionally??

Jul. 26 2013 07:18 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

The troubles that tear asunder the prospect of REAL "echt" WAGNERIAN PERFORMANCES are primarily based on the total lack of singers with squillo, ping, ringing "juicy', not dry secco , delivery, WAGNERIAN BARKING rather than legato full-throated singing, strained, forced and flat singing, unsupported, undersized and underpowered singing, WITHOUT impressive carrying power and with throaty or nasal ugly voice production. Today's news deals with deficits and declining support for the arts. Tandem to this predicament for the talented is the perception that the current situation will continue for a long time to come. Speaking specifically how this precludes the motivation for young operatic singers who must early on choosing their life's work, many have turned to Broadway or the business world. Nowadays Broadway musicals are out for show-stopping sensationalism with laser distractions, monster sets, acrobatic feats and space age technical projections and featuring dancing over singing. So, for the real thing opera singer, Broadway musicals, outside of Phantom of the Opera and an occasional Les Miserables there is little prospect of a sustainable career . The Wagner oeuvre has suffered the most. Husky physiques, witness the iconic John McCormack, do not offer similar size singing voices in power or stamina. Heroic voices like Melchior, Tamagno, Ruffo and the mature Caruso are nowhere on today's world class stages. Instead we suffer to hear miniscule, non-charismatic, non-distinctively memor able singing voices essaying roles far beyond their underpowered, thin not orotund, singing potentialities. Why has the always controversial political or uniqueness for uniqueness's sake been the overriding context in which the Bayreuth Festival has ALWAYS manifested its presence back to the days when Hanslick then Tschaikovsky and later Verdi found it an unfriendly atmosphere or decried its "lack of melody (sic !)?" The daughters of Wolfgang Wagner like their dad have managed to incur the wrath of others either more conservative or radical in their concepts of the evolving Wagner music drama production values/concepts. It is an eviscerating condition that feeds upon confrontation rather than productive aesthetics. Kudos to the daughters of Wolfgang who I anticipate will bring on a still more evocative and compelling aspect of the panoramic, dynamic searching persona of the composer that most appropriately can don the mantel of SHAKESPEARE by nature of his genius and wide-ranging interests and perceptions.

Jul. 25 2013 10:55 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

We all may associate one's atttitudes and convictions politically and socially with the mores of their own contemporary era. Wagner was in every respect as much a revolutionary figure against monarchy, yet for a united Germany as was Verdi's compatriot Giuseppe Garibaldi for a united Italy. Wagner, as many leaders against an imperial status quo governing body, was imprisoned. His opera RIENZI, a man of the people, the historical last tribune of Rome was partially written, the overture especially exciting, while Wagner was in prison. The genius Mozart, like Wagner, depended on the financial support of royalty, yet pictured them for what they were, oppressive and the Counts and Dons were aggressive, venal and non-empathetic to others less fortunate by their birth.

Jul. 25 2013 10:21 AM

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