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Posts Tagged ‘Bayreuther Festspiele’

Tobias Kratzer’s new production of Tannhäuser for the Bayreuth Festival provoked curiosity even before the premiere: the cast list featured two extra characters, Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat. There has been some rant about the inclusion of a drag performer in a Großer romantische Oper by Richard Wagner and that the end of the world is nigh etc etc, but it seems that everybody has forgotten Sebastian Baumgarten’s excrement processing production. If there is something positive about it is that it was an absolute low. Anyone can stage anything in Bayreuth knowing that they won’t ever be responsible for the worst staging in the history of the festival. That is why I had my mind open to what I would find today – and being open-minded always pays.

Tobias Kratzer’s new production is worlds apart from empty provocation. Although the sight of a caravan and a tenor in a clown suit might make one think that he or she ended up in the wrong opera, this is indeed Tannhäuser and the director explores its libretto from an unusual point of view. As he says in an interview, everybody makes it about sex, but there’s a lot more to it. In purely structural terms, this is an opera about exclusion. Tannhäuser abandons society for for a forbidden lifestyle he finally leaves behind with the hope of finding salvation. Then he is banned and sent to a superior spiritual authority in seek of forgiveness and ends up excommunicated. Then he is informed that God’s grace does not exclude anyone. Mr. Kratzer sees a caveat in all that: if you are excluded and is able to make your way back, then you have never truly been an outsider. Here we first see Tannhäuser in a group of anti-establishment street intervention artists. The thrill seems to have been gone for him and his score of Wagner’s Tannhäuser seems to tempt him back to his former life. He jumps off the car and finds himself in the Festspielhaus where the pilgrims are the Wagnerian crowds. His fellow singers recognize him and invite him back, but Elisabeth is not excited about that.

The second act shows the stage of the Festspielhaus where the second act of Tannhäuser is being presented in a traditional production the sets of which look very much like the Wartburg. But there is mise-en-abîme here – the Elisabeth/singer playing Elisabeth is not happy in Wagnerian paradise either. After Tannhäuser left, she felt left behind and tried to kill her self, for unlike him she knows no other world to escape to. The disruption of the singing competition is caused here by the trespassing of Tannhäuser’s troupe – Venus, Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat, who make an intervention in the façade of the theater (actually, their words of order are a revolutionary motto by Richard Wagner himself). The police is called, but Elisabeth pleads here not for Tannhäuser’s salvation, but for her own. Venus is disappointed to see that he has never been really disconnected from the high art establishment and watches him being arrested by the police.

In the final act, Elisabeth looks for Tannhäuser in outcasts’ dens and finally find some solace in the company of Oskar. Wolfram tries to bring her back to their “safe” environment, but only catches her attention when he uses Tannhäuser’s old clown costume. Then they have sex, but this only shows him that he has lost her forever – and shows her that she is irreversibly lost. After hearing himself being condemned not by the pope, but by the text in the score he has carried with himself all the way,  Tannhäuser tries to join Venus again, but discovers that the troupe is not the same anymore and that Elisabeth has just killed herself. In the final chorus, he pictures the vagabond life he could never share with her.

This description may make the concept seem a bit all over the place, but that was not the case, Mr. Kratzer’s reading follows the dialogues very closely and creates atmosphere admirably. The Venusberg scene in the caravan had unusual tension, all characters confined in the front seat, Venus driving in an Autobahn under the moonlight. The two extra characters were made to seem integrated in the action and added lots of character to the depiction of the alternative scene Tannhäuser inhabits. The challenges in act 2 were harder to surmount. Mr Kratzer’s video projections did bring about some zest to a scene that tends towards the repetitive and the static, but the comedy touches – well executed and timed as they were – ultimately had an alienating effect. Not only did they make the weight of exclusion over the outsider characters lighter, but also diverted attention from the predicament of the characters who belonged to the establishment but did not feel comfortable in it. As this was supposed to be the issue addressed by this production, the very fact that it was belittled drenched the whole affair of its dramatic power. I myself left the hall saying “oh, it was fun…” and it took me a while before I realized that this was not supposed to be made fun of. Act 3 redeems part of it by focusing on Elisabeth’s depression and suicide. The director was able to express the sadness and desperation of the situation, but the extra/outsider characters remained pretty much outside. Tannhäuser himself seemed secondary in the context. All in all, this was more than worth the detour: Mr Kratzer uses scenic elements with skill, knows how to direct actors and offered visually seductive imagery throughout.

I saw Lise Davidsen and Stephen Gould sing Elisabeth and Tannhäuser some months ago in Zurich, and both offered superior performances today. Ms. Davidsen made a point of lightening her tone to human proportions and phrased almost exclusively in demi-tintes, relying on the sheer size of her voice to sing with disarming directness. Her acting was also unaffected and convincing. Mr. Gould was in very good voice and, if he does not have anymore the vocal insolence of his better years, his singing has gained even more in sensitivity and musical finesse. The sincerity of his acting and the way he embraced the directorial choices showed me new dimensions in his scenic abilities. Elena Zhidkova, live and on video, showed admirable acting skills too, but her voice has developed an instability that tampers with intonation. I had seen her as Venus in Tokyo some years ago (in the Paris version) and had a very different impression back then. Markus Eiche’s voice too has lost a bit of juice and now sounds merely efficient in the role of Wolfram. Stephen Milling was unfortunately not in very good shapes, his bass sounding a bit rusty and his breath a bit short. Last but not least, Katharina Konradi was an ideal shepherd, one of the best in my experience both live and in recordings.

I had read that Valery Gergiev was having trouble with the peculiarities of the orchestral pit in the Festspielhaus, but after seeing a triumphant Simon Boccanegra with him in Salzburg, I did not expect something as unsatisfactory as I’ve heard today. The recessed orchestral sound, the imprecise beat, the sagging tempi, the really messy ensembles, singers left to fend for themselves, all that made an impression of sloppiness hard to believe. I would have not believed if I had not heard it myself.

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It is very easy to dismiss Katharina Wagner. After all, she owes her career to her family name and therefore she would not “deserve” it. Well, as always, the story is not that simple. First, Ms. Wagner is not the worst stage director in the world of opera. She is not the best either. I would not say that she is even a good one, but that does not mean that she has nothing to say about Richard Wagner. I actually believe that she has a lot to say about her great-grandfather’s work. Now that I have seen both her Meistersinger and Tristan, I could affirm that her knowledge of both Wagner’s music and text is above the level of the average opera director. However, staging a work goes beyond knowing it. As a matter of fact, it goes beyond having valid insights about it too. Ms. Wagner is an insightful Wagnerian, who sees these works from a very unusual perspective. The problem is the fact that she is not extraordinarily gifted as a stage director full stop. And I have the impression that she does not see it this way, the booing and bad reviews probably meaning to her a confirmation of the prejudice against her family connections.

Anyway, I like her angle to Tristan und Isolde. Romanticism usually involves the shock of real world and the characters’ Weltanschauung, and the reader or the audience is supposed to take the hero or the heroine’s point of view. But what if we took an objective point of view about those individuals, the “police report” account of the plot? So Tristan already knew Isolde before he suggests her as a bride to his uncle. More than that, they already had something going on back in Ireland (platonic, of course, and yet still something pretty intense), but, considering he had killed Morold, the king’s champion and Isolde’s fiancé, a relationship between them would be impossible. In Ireland. And that is the moment when we have the whole situation of her engagement to King Marke, under the suggestion of none other than Tristan himself, his nephew. Nobody explains convincingly Tristan’s intentions, the King himself says that he would have blessed their union if it had been mentioned to him in the first place. Yes, there are impediments – although they are aware of their own feelings, the young man benefited from her help while concealing from her that he was the assassin of her fiancé. Even if she herself yielded to her own feelings against her duties, her honor would be irrevocably lost if she tried to explain the whole affair to her parents (and everyone else in Ireland, I guess). So, this is a relationship that could only happen hidden from daylight, in secret. Exactly as in Romeo and Juliet. In Shakespeare, there is no magic potion – the whole thing is just a gimmick (that goes awfully awry, of course). And that is when Katharina Wagner’s staging starts.

In Ms. Wagner’s first act, there is no ship, but a labyrinth of staircases the only purpose of which seems to be keeping Tristan and Isolde apart. Both Kurwenal and Brangäne know exactly what is going on there and they are on their wits’ ends to make a safe delivery of the bride to her husband-to-be. This is not the first staging of Tristan in which the love potion is just an excuse, but here both lovers know it from the start. Their whole discussion about making amends and what is proper in their situation is only a teasing game. Now, in the ship, they are neither in Ireland nor in Cornwall and being in no man’s land is what makes their encounter possible. It is only possible in this transitory situation. As soon as they set foot somewhere, then it is the beginning of the end. But it had already started. And that takes us to act 2.

As the saying goes, the husband (or the wife) is the last one to know, but the assumption that the king did not notice anything seems dangerously close to wishful thinking. Brangäne herself says that, in the event of their arrival, all looked in wonder to the very suspicious situation. In the libretto, the royal hunt is just an excuse to surprise the lovers. In a certain way, letting them believe that they were safe only made them suffer more. One could argue that there was an element of psychological torture there. Well, in Ms. Wagner’s second act, the torture is two levels above “psychological”. The scene has place in what can be described as a torture chamber – both Tristan and Isolde know this. They even use the “equipment” to inflict injures  on themselves. And they know that the end has already begun. There has been more ending than beginning with them.

Act 3 is the end kurz und gut. Of course, Tristan was fatally stabbed and, in his dying moments, he sees Isolde everywhere. He is back to the transitory situation where he can love freely. In his dying, he can be entirely hers without any restriction. It is like a “second chance” for them. Isolde remains, however, in the real world. She tries to have a Liebestod – but that only happens in books. Here she is dragged from the presence of Tristan’s corpse by her increasingly abusive husband.

That is an approach to the story that, curiously, almost makes it even more Romantic, even if brutally so – and I would have enjoyed to see that staging. The way Ms. Wagner does it, however, the insight is rather a starting point than a realization. Even if the sets of act 1 are ugly in a inexplainable industrial way, the concept could have worked, if the Personenregie had informed the attitudes of the actors on stage more sharply. Realism does not mean prosaicness. And here everything was quite matter of fact, stage mechanism being almost the main source of interest. I understand that Ms. Wagner’s decision for act 2 is a bold one –  having the characters restrained in a dungeon makes it very difficult to provide scenic interest for a whole hour. But the way she decided to fill in the blanks proved to be the low point of this production. I don’t know if the humor was intentional, but it was there and it basically ruined the atmosphere. No one in the extreme situation those characters find themselves in would look for a comic relief. If done seriously and honestly, this could have been an extremely depressing second act, the very hopelessness of it all would have haunted the audiences for a while. As it is, it was just awkward. Act 3, surprisingly, is an example of how everything could be if Ms. Wagner showed more concentration. The images in the mind of the dying Tristan were done effectively in their unicity. When it comes to symbology, less is more. And that is an advice that would have benefited the whole production.

To make things a little bit worse, the singers in the title roles did not help much both in terms of theatre and music. In different levels, truth be said. After having seen Petra Lang as Isolde in the Bayerische Staatsoper, I dreaded the perspective of having to hear her again as the Irish princess. To be honest, she was in good voice today, but that does not mean that she sang well. In her adaptation to become a dramatic soprano, Ms. Lang’s voice was crafted to produce acuti, what she does forcefully, even if they are sometimes sharp. Her middle voice, however, has very little color and projects poorly. Intonation is also hazardous. In order to help her being heard in the auditorium during more conversational passages (i.e., 70% of her part), the conductor had to refrain his luxuriant orchestra, something particularly harmful to the lyric section of the Liebesnacht. She is not a cypher in terms of acting, but her acting involves striking poses and showing tautological facial expressions that make everything look very insincere. I don’t know if a more rigorous director could have integrated her to the concept, but that would have been worth the try. Stefan Vinke too hardly has an expressive stage presence and seemed ill at ease with Ms. Wagner’s really sombre take on the story. He fulfilled his acting tasks quite bureaucratically. I wish I could say that his singing offered the expression missing in his acting. Mr. Vinke’s main quality is his endurance – the man is tireless and got to the end of the opera untouched by the famous difficulties of the part, a feat in itself, but phrasing itself was rough-edged and emphatic and tonal variety was not included in the package. His act 3 monologues lacked spiritual quality and pathos. His tenor is not appealing per se – the powerful high notes a bit tight (yet rock-solid) and low notes pronouncedly nasal.

Fortunately, the remaining members of the cast only added strength to the performance. Christa Mayer offered an ideal Brangäne, who sang creamily throughout and floated her mezza voce in act 2 to the manner born. Greer Grimsley has more than a splash of wooliness in his bas-baritone but the voice is big enough to allow the conductor to give free rein to his orchestra. To make things better, Georg Zeppenfeld sang richly and could even find the right nasty touch to this bad-guy version of King Marke.

This is my first live Tristan conducted by Christian Thielemann and, even faced with a problematic Isolde, he proved his absolute mastery of this score. The prelude itself was worth the price of the tickets – here the ideal balance between clarity, depth, richness and flexibility has been achieved. During the first act, the orchestral playing was a paragon of transparency and fullness. In the second act, Mr. Thielemann wisely turned down orchestral volume to let the audience hear the words and notes written by Richard Wagner, but that only increased the demand of expression on soloists whose singing was rather concerned with the mechanics. It would be unfair not to acknowledge that both soprano and tenor have extremely clear diction, though. Act 3 proved to be more challenging. The conductor opted for an extremely subtle prelude that ultimately gave an impression of detachment. The softer touch made Tristan’s predicament sound a bit cold and the Liebestod was hardly a culmination. The intention of building an extremely gradual crescendo meant a beginning with very light orchestral playing around flawed solo singing and the climax finally exploded out of nowhere, with no sense of resolution out of absence of building tension.

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The current production of Parsifal from the Bayreuther Festspiele is not new to me and I have written about it two years ago. Even if I see tiny adjustments to make it (marginally) more coherent, my opinion about it remains the same and I’ll refrain from adding any comments in what regards the staging.
The musical aspect of the performance, however, has novelties. First, we have a new conductor, Semyon Bychkov, who offered pretty much the opposite Hartmut Haenchen proposed last time. Now we are dealing with some sort of Klangkultur approach, in which rich, warm and transparent sonorities ooze in the auditorium. For a while, after an absence of two years in the green hill, this seemed a viable option for this score, but around the end of the act, one couldn’t help noticing the lack of pulse that would ruin the second act. Phrasing was so slack, accents were so flaccid that all notes seemed to be dragged into a black hole of pointlessness. I cannot really say if act 3 was indeed a bit better of if by then we had already abandoned all hope. Not everything was lost. There was a good cast and fabulous choral singing (as always in the festival).
Last time, I wrote that I would need to see Elena Pankratova as Kundry to say anything. Well, I can see she was not in good voice two years ago. Today, she sounded in good shape, provided some big acuti and her low register is warm and appealing. And yet I remain hesitant to join the high praise bestowed on her. First, although her Kundry is very properly sung, I don’t see true meaning behind her delivery of the text, but rather pencil markings on her score under the advice of a coach or a conductor. And this is not a role that works if the expression does not come from within. Second, I find her middle register in this role rather colorless, what is explainable by the fact that she is a not a mezzo soprano, but this takes me to “third”. Third, for a soprano, her dealing with the big high notes in the end of the second act is rather underwhelming. I have seen mezzos offer something more solid and with more impact there. I know, it is cruel to add a third item because of five minutes of music, but I was spoiled by Gwyneth Jones in Pierre Boulez’s recording. If there is a soprano, I want extra panache there. Even Marianne Schech – a quite bored-sounding Marschallin in Karl Böhm’s recording of Der Rosenkavalier – generates some thrill there. So I guess it’s reasonable to expect something similar of someone who sings Elektra.
Andreas Schager’s Parsifal is not a complex psychological impersonation, but if you believe that the keywords are “reiner Tor” than he is particularly convincing in his fresh-eyed and rather blunt take on the role. And he also emits some excitingly loud Spitzentöne whenever he feels like it. If I find Ryan McKinny’s Amfortas grainier and throatier than last time, Derek Welton’s Klingsor is perfectly consistent with what he offered two years ago. And there is Günther Groissböck’s Gurnemanz. Mr. Groissböck has been announced as Bayreuth’s next Wotan – and one could hear that in his voice today. I was always afraid that, in the next moment, he would call Loge to help him steal back the holy spear from Alberi… I mean, from Klingsor. I don’t mean that this very talented Austrian bass is not capable of singing Gurnemanz – he has the voice and the intelligence for it, but he has not found the spiritual disposition for the part yet. His heart and his mind are on Wotan – as he should. That role is closer to his personality and attitude and it is great that he will be able to try it in his prime. I can’t wait to hear it!

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Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is probably the least funny comedy you’ll ever see. The dialogues are overwrought, the scenes are long, the whole affair around the mastersingers is obscure, the leading man is not very friendly and there is more than a splash of xenophobia in its agenda. It also has some glorious music and that is the reason why we sit there for hours of joyless theatre. As I am a half-full-glass person, I tend to expect that one day a director will be able to dig out the humor in it and put some of the nasty stuff in perspective at the same time. I mean, at this point, everybody knows that Richard Wagner was not a nice guy – and his personal credo is not what we want to celebrate here, as much as we don’t want to listen to Rousseau’s Le Devin du Village because he wrote the Discourse on Inequality. In other words, the discussion on Wagner’s deplorable political thinking won’t be less important if directors finally overcome the guilt complex of making this comedy entertaining, while proposing (rather than superimposing) some kind of discussion.

Barry Kosky, for instance, clearly feels that comedy shouldn’t be about laughing at the expense of someone. And he is right – Beckmesser is here bullied, ridiculed and outcast by an unforgiven society of which he believed to be a part of. I don’t believe I am going to say something positive about Katharina Wagner’s production for the festival, but here it goes. Instead of focusing on Beckmesser as the victim of exclusion, she tackled the conservative forces that operate exclusion under the banner of protection of culture and national values. Mr. Kosky, instead, is a victimologist and offers a case study of how Wagner’s antisemitism pervades Meistersinger, although the libretto itself doesn’t make any direct statement of the kind. As far as the story as told goes, Beckmesser is a master singer in Nuremberg just like Pogner and Sachs. But not in this production.

Act 1 is staged in Villa Wahnfried. Eva is Cosima, Pogner is Liszt, Beckmesser is Hermann Levi (Parsifal’s original conductor, who was abused by Wagner for being Jewish) and both Sachs and Walther (and even David) are Richard Wagner. The idea is illuminating, but the staging was very difficult to understand with all those Wagners (dressed with the same costume) running to and fro. Also, the episodes with Eva and Walther seemed completely nonsensical in those circumstances. Act 2 is set in Courtroom 600 in the Palace of Justice (where the Nuremberg Trials took place) covered in green grass, a representation of a Germanic paradise for Germans only. Gradually all characters appear with their proper costumes (but for Cosima), until Beckmesser is finally shown as a caricature Jew. The concept here had the upper hand: Eva and Walther’s romance against the background of Beckmesser’s serenade frustrated by Sachs leading to the confusion with David and the apprentices is here something almost entirely reduced to the lynching of Beckmesser. Act 3 too is staged in Courtroom 600, but only Wagner is judged here. The good people of Nuremberg get a pass: they are after all portrayed here as innocent puppets. I don’t have to say that this overambitious program impacts the romantic plot, comedy timing and the portrayal of these characters. Everything became secondary to Mr. Kosky’s construction, which added very little insight about the characters. His discussion about the composer is no novelty in itself. In any case, there were clever and beautiful stage solutions, the sets and costumes were creative and extremely well built.

Conductor Philippe Jordan’s search for the late-Karajan ideal of rich orchestral conveyed through the turbo version of legato, allied to a clear sense of forward movement, made this a very pleasing performance, with the exception of an extremely messy act 2. I am not sure if I find this the best approach to this opera, the complex score of which can always benefit of clear articulation and well-defined rhythms, but it seems that these performances are not about giving Meistersinger what it needs. In any case, they would have benefited from a cast more vocally impressive than this one.

Anne Schwanewilms, to start with, offered an unacceptable performance. It was barely hearable and, whenever she had to sing out, it was raspy, wiry and her breath wouldn’t last for more than three notes in a row. This is not Brünnhilde, and Germany has plenty of good lyric sopranos able to sing the role of Eva. Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther), on the other hand, sang very smoothly. Too smoothly, I would say. His high a’s needed a little bit more support to ring freely as they should, but, in the context of this evening, this was elegant and spontaneous. Daniel Behle was a musicianly and sensitive David who lacked projection in his high notes and relied too much on falsetto. Michael Volle’s baritone is two sizes smaller than the part of Sachs, but made the best of what he had with his intelligent delivery of the text and his stage charisma. Unfortunately, he was evidently tired in act 3 and had to cheat a bit to get to the end. His scene with Beckmesser was a bit bothersome, for both singers abused off-pitch effects, making it testing to the audience. Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser) proved to be capable of some smooth singing. Yet too often preferred “acting with the voice”. Wiebke Lehmkuhl was a light, fruity Magdalene and Günther Groissböck an exemplary Pogner.

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Siegfried is the toughest cookie in Frank Castorf’s Ring. I have just read what I wrote in 2014 and realize that I haven’t made my mind about it yet. I have less sense of humor than the director and would more often than not look at just the part of the stage where the original plot was taking place to avoid being distracted by the funny/cute parallel actions. In any case, as much as in 2014, I could have fun with this Siegfried many options of which I don’t endorse. It is well directed and executed – and it isn’t short of ideas.

The musical performance is a very different story. After a bumpy start with problems of synchrony, the proceedings were gaining in strength, especially after an unfocused Mime/Wanderer scene. Whenever the conductor had a large-voiced soloist, one could feel that the performance came to life not only in volume and intensity, but also in purpose and precision. When that happened, this was a very satisfying Siegfried, large-scaled but not brutal. Fortunately, the cast featured many voices sizable enough to let Maestro Janowski unleash his orchestra. The pride of place goes to Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde). In 2014, one could see that she has a beautiful voice of Wagnerian proportions, but now her singing has acquired almost Frida Leider-ish freshness, poise and radiance. She sang with unforced clarity either in lyric passages, where she offered mezza voce, legato and trills worthy of a Verdian soprano, or in exposed acuti that darted across the auditorium. Stefan Vinke’s task is far more difficult, what makes his endurance even more praiseworthy. He showed signs of fatigue towards the end of act 2 and in his scene with the Wanderer, but seemed to count with reserves of energy for his final scene, when he even managed to soften his tone now and then. Mr. Vinke’s singing is not to everyone’s taste – its middle register is nasal, his phrasing is extremelly cupo and he is not always in the centre of pitch, but he is a marathon runner and seems to be happier when flashing huge Spitzentöne in the hall. I would say that he sang better than last time I heard him in this role in the Deutsche Oper Berlin: his high notes are less constricted and therefore richer in overtones. He is also a very likable Siegfried, his boyish manners quite apt for this role. He was extremely well partnered by Andreas Conrad (Mime), a Charaktertenor with a forceful high register and a crisp and intelligent delivery of the role, not to mention that he is a stage animal. Although Albert Dohmen seemed a bit too detached as Alberich in Rheingold, here he was particularly efficient in that role, his voluminous bass baritone riding over a Wagnerian orchestra to chilling effects.

Thomas Johannes Mayer, unfortunately, was not in good voice. It lacked color and projection and his singing came across as effortful and rough. He has been pushing and forcing his tone for a wile and I am afraid that this is starting to take its toll. It is also a pity that Nadine Weissmann too was not in good shape, sounding ill at ease and greyish as Erda. Finally, Ana Durlovsky was an intelligent and crystalline Woodbird, producing some truly birdlike effects in her singing.

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My review of the Frank Castorf’s Walküre back in 2014 shows my attempt to make sense of the various and not smoothly integrated elements in his Dramaturgie. Watching it again knowing what comes next is an entirely different experience: many of the gaps left open by a messy concept are now filled by the geopolitic frame offered by the Berlin setting of both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The representation of the Rhinegold as oil (we have already seen it pictured as atomic energy in Harry Kupfer’s staging on the Green Hill) is revelatory in its associations between Gods, Nibelungs etc and the various alliances built around the oil business to these days. The way it is dealt with in the various installments of the Ring is irregular (especially in Götterdämmerung), but it makes particular sense in Die Walküre, even if the Sieglide/Siegmund affair seems a bit lost in it. Here too, it seems that the staging has been refined to achieve more coherence, even if it remains a bit all over the place.

Marek Janowski took a while to find his way in this evening’s performance. Act I alternated moments of great clarity with surprisingly messy passages. The final did not build up in continuous intensity, in spite of beautiful isolated passages, such as a light-footed Winterstürme aided by a well-chosen soloist. The second act showed the orchestra in greater form and, after a bumpy Fricka/Wotan scene, things settled in rich sonoroties and some urgence, something that would reach a peak in the last act, in which Wotan’s entrance was the highlight of the whole evening, a truly exciting moment of great power and amazing playing of the string section, in perfect balance with the bass.

Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde has greatly developed since 2014. With the exception of her first scene in act III, when she sounded a bit tired and quite wayward with intonation in her high notes, she sang with naturalness and youthfulness of tone, praiseworthy lyricism, variety and elegance. Camilla Nylund’s Sieglinde was intelligently conceived and smoothly sung, but the lack of cutting edge in her soprano had her consistently on 100% and therefore rather monochrome. Nonetheless, she still found it difficult to pierce through, leaving the conductor two options: reining in the orchestra to adjust or drowning her. In her climactic act III solo, the second solution was chosen, a sensible if still a bit disappointing choice. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s mezzo is on the light side for the Walküre Fricka. She sounded out of sorts and was not very precise with her notes either. Christopher Ventris was a lyric, fresh-toned Siegmund, without any hint of baritonal quality in his singing. John Lundgren’s basic tonal quality is apt for the role of Wotan, even if the sound could be overly nasal and both ends of his range could sound short of overtones and a bit forced. Fortunately, he could gather his resources for the closing scene. Although the mezza voce was unfocused, he did not refrain from trying to soften his tone and reached the end of the opera in healthy voice. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Hunding was really more convincing here compared to his performance in Salzburg, where he sounded a bit well-behaved and not truly menacing. As for the Valkyries, there was some problem of intonation in an otherwise forceful and characterful group of singers.

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Having seen Frank Castorf’s staging of the Ring for the Bayreuth Festival in its second season , I cannot help comparing the experience of watching it again in its final run with my impressions from 2014. “Puzzling” is a word I could use to describe the whole affair back then: the staging seemed incoherent and the musical performance was extremely disappointing, especially in what regarded Kyrill Petrenko’s conducting. Today, when my neighbor asked me why on Earth Marek Janowski was being booed (by a small group of people, truth be said), I answered him “These people definitely weren’t here in 2014”.

Today’s was hardly unforgettable, but was quite satisfying. At least today there was a sonorous orchestra on duty. It has not started very well, though. The prelude was a bit imprecise and the opening scene was rather messy, but it would gradually gain purpose. It was very occasionally exciting and it would invariably offer more satisfaction when lyricism was called for. This would steadily develop into a noble sounding, well-balanced and clear closing scene, when one could hear the hallmark full-toned yet not aggressive echter Bayreuther Klang. This was actually my first Rheingold with Maestro Janowski. Although I had seen all the non-Ring operas (but for the Holländer) in his cycle at the Philharmonie with the Berlin RSO, the only installment of the Ring under his baton I could see was the Walküre at the Tokyo Harusai , a performance where forward-movement and clarity seemed to be the priority (qualities that could be used to describe his studio recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden). I cannot say that today’s Rhinegold is consistent with these words, but I am curious to hear the Walküre tomorrow before I say anything else.

Now that I know what is going to happen next in Mr. Castorf’s production, I confess that I have just watched his Rhinegold without any intent of finding meaning in it, but let myself follow it and ultimately find it more satisfying (even if still incoherent and eventually pointless). It is very well directed in terms of Personenregie and the Fassbinder-ian atmosphere adds some dimension (not a truly Wagnerian one, but anyway…) to these characters. Also, three years later, blocking looks sharper, many ineffective details have been deleted and there is more a sense of ensemble. I would only say that the episodes involving Alberich are marginally less satisfying, but that involves the choice of a veteran singer in this key role.

Although Albert Dohmen (whom I saw as Wotan in Bayreuth in Tankred Dorst’s production) is still in resonant and firm voice, his stage persona just lack the drive and the intensity necessary for this force-of-nature role. In 2014, Oleg Bryjak sounded far less polished, but the rawness and the drive were there. This evening’s Wotan, however, offered something more focused than Wolfgang Koch three years ago. Iain Paterson’s bass baritone is less incisive than Koch’s, but nobler in tone and richer in its middle register. While Koch’s Wotan was vulgar-and-loving-it, Paterson was cynical and self-involved and even funnier in Castorf’s dark screwball approach. I am not so enthusiastic about this year’s tenors, however. Daniel Behle was ill-at-ease as Froh, unsure about his lines and constricted of tone, and Roberto Saccà’s squally and grainy Loge lacked variety and projection. Among male singers, none was as exciting as the basses cast as the giants – a powerful, intense Günther Groissböck (Fasolt) and a firm-, dark-toned Karl-Heinz Lehner as Fafner.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was a light, fruity Fricka, a bit upstaged by Nadine Weissmann, whose Erda developed a lot since 2014. It is now deeper in tone, smoother in legato and even more expressive.

 

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At some point during the Ring performances conducted by Kirill Petrenko this week, I’ve started to wonder if my recollection of the orchestral sound in the Festspielhaus when I first saw the Ring with Christian Thielemann there in 2010 was some sort of “affective memory”, a collage of the actual experience of listening to the Ring in Bayreuth and the excitement of doing that in the Festival for the first time. Well, it was not not – Christian Thielemann himself showed me today that my memory did not betray me. It took him 10 seconds to do that: rich, full sonorities flooded from the pit and filled the whole auditorium. Some may say that the conductor’s approach was too Tristanesque and that everything sounded too loud, too powerful and too intense, but the fact is that he could sell his approach out, even to those who would prefer it the Weberian way: the musical effects were powerful, the orchestral sound was perfectly blended and yet absolutely transparent, even at full powers, strings tackled fast passagework cleanly. Even before anyone started to sing, you knew that this performance would be a complete success: you could hear the wind, the sea, the despair and the passion. This experience redeemed this year’s dubious musical standards in the Grüner Hügel.

One could have wished for a cast as compelling as the conductor, but this was fine enough. Ricarda Merbeth’s soprano lacks color (especially in its lower reaches), variety and subtlety, but she has stamina and dealt with the more testing heroic passages adeptly. If Tomislav Muzek (Erik) took some time to warm, once he did that, he sang with a bright, pleasant tone and a good sense of line. Benjamin Bruns (Steuermann) offered a spirited performance, sung in a spontaneous, dulcet tenor. Simon Youn’s baritone is on the light side for the Holländer and yet it is forceful enough and very well focused. His phrasing could have a bit more nuance and affection, though. Kwangchul Youn proved to be in excellent form and left nothing to be desired as Daland. To make things better, the Festival chorus sang famously, with admirable homogeneity and animation.

Jan Philipp Gloger’s production, as seen on DVD, turns around beautiful and elegant sets and the idea that Senta wants more than a glorious death: she wans to leave the world she lives in, but not THE world. As we see it, the Holländer is a man who has sold his freedom and happiness to a corporate world and wanders from airport to airport having lost faith in life, until he meets Senta, the daughter of the CEO of a company that produces ventilators, the “values” of which involve its employees having a tv advertisement “perfect” lifestyle. They burn dollar bills together and, when he doubts her intent of leaving all that behind, she symbolically kills herself, although the wound appears in his chest rather than hers: he is again a man of flesh and blood, they are free, but the establishment can still make money on them: Daland’s company now sells action figures of Holländer kissing Senta. It is not silly as it sound, although it could be a little bit less aestheticized and more meaningful in its conclusion. Beyond any shadow of doubt, it is very well directed – the choristers are made to act most efficiently.

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I know Christoph Marthaler’s Tristan und Isolde from DVD and was not really excited about seeing it live. Maybe low expectations have done the trick for me. I still dislike the production – it is so minimalistic than it is even difficult to hate it. If the director could have stripped the staging from every superfluous detail and concentrated on powerful symbols, maybe the emptiness could have meant something. As it is, we have a DDR-style building that goes one floor lower for each act. All effects are restricted to fluorescent lamps (actually neon lamps) that are turned on and off or twinkle or whatever a regular lamp can do, which is not much. Costumes end on having a very important role – other than chairs and then a quite fancy hospital bed, there is nothing on stage. In act I, Tristan, Isolde and Brangäne are dressed like old people; in act II, they are dressed like middle-age people in the style of the 60’s; and in act III, they have younger people’s clothes in a quite contemporary taste. Kurwenal’s only “costume” involves a kilt and the King Marke has a suit and an overcoat. Why? It must be important, but I don’t feel like investigating. What I was curious to know is why the stage action is so awkward and why the director felt it important to have his cast often act in a way that evidently does not fit their personalities. With her attitude and voice, Irene Theorin looks often unintentionally funny in her coy manners, while Robert Dean Smith is not naturally heroic either in voice or in attitude.

In any case, veteran Peter Schneider proved that experience counts when you are conducting in Bayreuth. I won’t make a suspense – this was certainly one of the best performances I have listened to on the Green Hill and one of the best in my experience with this opera. Schneider is rather a Kapellmeister than a “creative” conductor, but today he has proved that faithfulness, if allied to virtuoso quality, does pay off. This evening Tristan sounded exactly as it should: the orchestral sound generously filled the hall without any loss in transparency and an extra serving of depth and beauty, truly deluxe sound; Schneider’s beat proved to be extremely flexible, taking its time when gravitas was required and flashing along where excitement was the keyword; and, to make things better, transitions were naturally and consequently handled. Although he did not spare his singers, Schneider knew the best way to balance stage and pit without ever damaging the building of climax. This was truly honest, efficient and truthful music-making.

Irene Theorin is evidently not a vulnerable Isolde, but rather ranks along Birgit Nilsson among the imperious Irish princesses who are more comfortable giving vent to their fury than mellowing in tenderness. Unlike Nilsson’s, her middle range might be a bit grainy and tremulous, but is always ready to shift into mezza voce. Predictably, act I was her strongest, in spite of a lapse or two during her Narration. Act II showed her first quite unfocused, but then she sang her Liebesnacht entirely in demi-tintes and blending perfectly to her Tristan. Unfortunately, act III was not a development from that. I suspect this was not one of her good-voice days, but still lots of very impressive moments. Michelle Breedt is a light Brangäne with firm, bright top notes and tonal variety. Robert Dean Smith is a sui generis Tristan – rather jugendlich dramatisch than dramatic, 100% musicianly, subtly phrasing in pleasant legato in an almost bel canto manner. Although the role takes him to his limits, he never indulges in forcing his tone, but rather lets his voice spin and acquire momentum in the trickiest passages. Naturally, act III exposes his lightness, but one must never forget: he sang it to the end without ever showing fatigue or any ugliness. He won’t probably ever sing the role in a theatre like the Met, but he is certainly worth the detour if you want to hear a fresh-sounding tenor as Tristan. Jukka Rasilainen was a most solid Kurwenal, but Robert Holl – in spite of a beautiful voice and sensitive phrasing – had his rusty moments as King Marke. I must mention Arnold Bezuyen’s Shepherd too, truly beautifully sung.

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I have to confess: Stefan Herheim’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal was one of the toughest cookies I had to deal with. Although, on a purely aesthetic level, he had won me over with his exquisite and complex visual concept, he set my brain to work throughout the opera and for some hours after that. Then I have noticed that his take on the crucial historical/cultural/philosophical problem of institutionalization, in the sense of how a vision is transformed into social reality and how this process eventually taints it to the point where it needs to be restored by a daring plunge into the principle in its purest form, is something that links the plot of Parsifal, the story of Wagner’s work made concrete by the foundation of a Festival later to become a symbol of a perverse regime and of Germany itself, the land of poets and thinkers that, once transformed in a country, inexorably marched to this very regime. To understand this process is to understand Parsifal, Wagner and Germany; on intertwining these parallel stories, Herheim was faithful to the idea of the Festival: making Germany look at and think about itself in a constructive environment. Watching it for the second time proved to be a more powerful experience: once you understand what lies behind the sophisticated imagery, you feel freer to let yourself be drawn to it and find many layers of meaning that go even beyond Germany and reach the status of universality. It is indeed very sad that the Festival did not find it important to tape this most powerful of its recent productions.

It is also sad that a more suitable conductor than Daniele Gatti had not been found. If I have to say something positive about it, it would be the full-toned quality of the orchestral sound, more in keeping with the reputation of Bayreuth than what I’ve previously seen here this year. But that would be it. The performance is ponderous, spineless and lacking purpose. Reading what I wrote about his conducting last year, the results are unfortunately quite consistent. It is also sad that the whole cast is in poorer shape in comparison to 2010. Susan Maclean is still a most impressive Kundry, both in her understanding of the role and in her flashing dramatic mezzo soprano, but her voice sometimes lacked finish and the closing of act II tested her sorely this evening. The role of Amfortas has always been a stretch for Detlef Roth, but today he sounded rough and strained from moment one, while Thomas Jesatko’s Klingsor was more forceful last year. Alas, Kwangchul Youn too was not in his best voice this evening and couldn’t sound as varied and ductile as in 2010. Finally, Simon O’Neill has a nasal basic tonal quality and an unbecoming physique against him (especially in comparison to a vulnerable and convincing Christopher Ventris last time), but he was never less than engaged and could produce some very loud and secure top notes in his confrontation with Kundry in act II.

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