IN: Reviews

Musings from Bayreuth


David Deveau with the master in a virtual selfie.
David Deveau with the master in a selfie.

Another submission from one of BMInt’s far-flung correspondents follow, this time the first of three Bayreuth reviews from pianist and gadfly David Deveau.

Of my third trip to the Wagner capital one might ask “Why three times? Why not other Wagner productions around the world?” In answer I would simply say that for Wagnerites, perfect or not, Bayreuth is for us what Concord is to fans of the Transcendentalists or the West Lake Temple in Hangzhou is for Buddhists. Wagner’s image- the myriad well-known photos (and many less familiar) painted portraits, pencil sketches and caricatures- are everywhere you look. Need Tylenol? Get it at the Parsifal Apotheke. Want high end chocolates? Choose from confections named Meistersinger, Isolde, Siegmund and even Russ (Wagner’s last dog, a Newfoundland), and specify mit or ohne alcohol in the center. From the Richard-Wagner Strasse, stroll into the town square where you’ll be surrounded by bratwurst and beer, and traditional Bavarian clothing on display (on people and in store windows). In short, if you don’t care for Wagner, this probably isn’t the spot for you…….

I came this year for the revival of the much-derided 2013 production of the Der Ring des Nibelungen, created for Wagner’s 200th birthday by German enfant terrible director Frank Castorf; it was booed for over ten minutes at its premiere last summer. This year’s crowd seems far less hostile; attendees around the Festspielhaus are tentatively saying (quietly) “Maybe this is the new ‘Chereau’ for the 21st century,” referring to the legendary 1976 staging by Patrice Chereau that was initially thought outrageous, but soon, with its references to Wagner’s own epoch during the industrial revolution, became a classic. Castorf has provocatively set various Ring scenes in different locations around the world, with one common element binding the places (and the cycle) together: fossil-fuel energy hegemony (with special emphasis on big oil and big greed). This production more or less defines the “euro-trash” style of repurposing great works of the past to make them more relevant to today’s audience. In our era’s Regie Theater, any sacred cows are slaughtered promptly, and happily. Castorf’s antics with the original stage directions are already well known and documented in the global press, so I won’t repeat that here. [As just one of many such reviews, Tommasini’s review for the NY Times is here. A link to another review with some good pictures is here.]

What I will say is that during Rheingold, I was initially put off by the Rte. 66 setting in Texas, complete with a combination gas-station/motel and a big above ground pool for the Rhinemaidens to (not) swim in. But as the evening progressed, I found myself drawn in by the cast’s uniformly superb acting (apparently under Castorf’s inspired directing). It was irritating to be clobbered with such an obvious polemical cudgel, and indeed in the program book (for 8 Euros), there is a lengthy essay on the perils of modern energy policy and wastefulness. More helpful would have been a précis by Castorf explaining what he was up to. A number of Germans I spoke with said that Castorff, as an East German coming of age in the Cold War, was speaking pointedly about reunification, and the resulting national obsession with wealth. Whether one believes that Wagner’s aim in the Ring was rooted in his youthful, revolutionary Marx-like socialist utopian vision or his later cynicism (inculcated by Schopenhauer), the message is clear: power corrupts, and overall, love is better than power. But that’s why Wagner used mythology rather than a specific time in history (as in Meistersinger). His aim was that the message should be for all time, and thus not of any particular time. Which, I suppose, is what attracts directors like Castorf and frees them up to reinvent the story in a particular era and with a specific point to make. Although when Loge, god of fire, is seen playing endlessly with a cigarette lighter and chain-smoking, that’s a bit of a copout. Instead of surrounding Brunnhilde with a ring of fire at the end of Walkure, a nasty looking oil tank is set alight off to one side while Wotan takes his farewell.

Allow me a personal word about how I came to Wagner. I was about 12, and had been studying music, piano and theory, for several years and I devoured every biography of the great composers I could find. My hero (thanks to attempting to plow through his sonatas at the piano) was Beethoven. By then I knew the 5 piano concerti and all of the symphonies. I’d found my Mt. Olympus. And then one night, on the radio came music the likes of which I’d never imagined possible. (It turned out to be the first act of Walküre). I was spellbound-—even though I had absolutely no idea what they were singing about. Which proves the point I’m about to make: People would not be flocking here from around the globe merely to hear spoken versions of Wagner’s poetic libretti, however brilliantly staged they might be. Wagner’s ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk, or a totally integrated whole of equal parts- words, music and staging, was just that—an ideal. One sees him as a sort of gigantic polymath; he was concept person, story-line creator, librettist-poet, producer, composer, conductor, director, set designer, theater designer, vocal coach, instrument-inventor and even architect. Chances are that some skill sets would be stronger than others. And so it is with him. Wagner’s music trumps alles. The old saw about “I like Wagner until the singing starts” could never be said about the Italian repertoire. Wagner’s total mastery of the orchestra, borne of many stints as conductor, afforded him an intimate knowledge of the qualities and capacities of orchestral instruments, and like an (al)chemist, he admixes various timbres and sonorities in unique and original ways. Muted brass, extraordinary use of solo bass clarinet and bass trumpet (to name just two) create brilliant and sophisticated means of coloring his characters’ emotions, intents and subtexts. The complex web of leitmotifs in his mature works is almost Jungian in its conveyance of underlying psychological processes of the characters. The music stands alone as some of the greatest of all time, and when it assumes its place in the Gesamtkunstwerk, its value is even more profound. Wagner always, always wanted the words to be heard (and sung) clearly. The Festspielhaus here, largely designed by the composer himself, has virtually perfect acoustics, with its buried pit so the players and conductor cannot be seen from the house. With 2000 seats, it is an ideal space for experiencing his work as he intended (Castorf and others aside….). A cautionary note: the space is not air-conditioned due to fears of what retrofitting the building would do to those perfect acoustics, so be prepared to swelter on hotter days here.

This year’s conductor, Kirill Petrenko, is in my view, one of only a handful of current Wagner maestri who can keep the momentum while giving us many details, and yet never at the expense of the musical and dramatic arc. He is simply one of the best Wagner conductors of all time. The casts in Rheingold and Walkure are very strong. It’s fashionable these days to trash Bayreuth as the last place to go to hear great Wagner singing, but in this instance, the singers are uniformly good. Special mention must be made of the Sieglinde of Anja Kampe, who received an ovation that outdid everyone else’s (except Petrenko, for whom the audience roared and stamped seemingly forever…). The largely German casts are augmented by the excellent South African tenor Johan Botha (Siegmund) and the British Catherine Foster (Brunnhilde). Foster had trouble reaching her high notes in her opening scene in Walkuere, but was otherwise quite fine. (To be completely in the shadow of Kampe in the audience’s estimation must hurt, however.) The Wotan of Wolfgang Koch (not a Koch brother, as far as I know) and Alberich of Martin Winkler may not be the stuff of legend, but they are both very good actors and have reasonably appealing voices. Castorf’s directorial skills are clearly unimpeachable, whatever one thinks of his concept. The three Rhinemidens and the eight Valkyries were splendid.

The audience here is like no other. Long before the lights go down, attendees quiet themselves. There is a quasi-religious state that envelopes the entire house. Despite the great length of these works, there is virtually no fidgeting, no whispering, no cell phone interruptions, and total silence while the action occurs. But at the end of each act, the ovations can be thunderous (both good and bad, as booing here is very common if singers or especially stage directors fail to please. To witness audience members vigorously debating the merits of a given performance is like seeing football fans deconstructing plays after the game. The audience is representative of many age groups- a PR department’s dream. Waits for tickets can last ten years. But for those of us who love Wagner, the wait is worth it. Yes, better singing and productions can occur elsewhere in the world. But to experience these works in the house Wagner built, where every spot in town has some Wagnerian significance, is simply unique. And if you love bratwurst and beer, even better.

More on Siegfried and Gotterdammerung after a few days.

One of Boston’s favorite pianists, David Deveau also teaches at MIT and directs the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.

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  1. Thank you, David, for a wonderful article which was interesting, informative, and fascinating in equal parts.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — August 17, 2014 at 8:38 am

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