Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Mortals Struggle at Wagner’s Own Valhalla

New York Times
July 31, 2006
Critic's Notebook
Mortals Struggle at Wagner’s Own Valhalla

BAYREUTH, Germany, July 30 — The other day, in my journal from the Wagner Festival here, which has been running on, I wrote of the demand for tickets at this most exclusive of international music festivals. Waits of seven years to purchase a seat are not uncommon.

I immediately heard from a reader, Evelyn Ronell, a former singer and a stalwart member of the New York Wagner Society, who has been waiting 11 years and has all but given up. After applying faithfully for 10 straight years, she solicited the help of a Bayreuth town councilor, who assured her that her next application would be successful. Again, she heard nothing, Ms. Ronell said. She has taken a tour of the opera house here. Still, she wrote, “At this point I may be close to going to my grave without having gotten into Wagner’s holy shrine even once.”

Ms. Ronell may have hit on the problem in calling the Festspielhaus a holy shrine. Over the years Wagner’s operas have been staged and performed in other houses just as well as they have been here, and often much better. Yet Wagner lovers everywhere make it a personal mission to come to Bayreuth at least once.

During an intermission at “Siegfried” on Saturday I spoke with an Englishwoman, a Wagnerite since she was 8, who, she said, had come to feel that she was getting too old to wait seven years to see an opera at Bayreuth. So she contacted an agent in Germany, who sold her a single midprice ticket for the current “Ring” cycle, but at 10 times the ticket price. It cost her $7,500.

Cut through the mystique, and Bayreuth’s reputation as the ultimate place to experience Wagner rests on two legacies. One is the Festspielhaus itself, designed by Wagner to provide an ideal setting for his path-breaking works. The other factor, presented as a selling point, is that the festival is a family-run enterprise. This claim has been hotly debated ever since Wagner’s death in 1883, when control of the festival passed to his overwhelmed widow, Cosima.

But Wagner’s opera house, the Theater on the Green Hill, as it has long been called, is truly one of the glories of the opera world. It seats just 1,900 and seems more intimate than that. There are no aisles, just raked rows of hardwood, armless seats, arranged as in a Greek amphitheater. There is a full view of the stage from every seat. Wagner’s most daring innovation was the partly covered pit, which projects the sound of the orchestra back toward the stage, where it mingles with the voices and then emanates throughout the theater.

The pit is a discombobulating place. The musicians play on six descending rows, like huge stairs, with the brass and percussion on the lowest level and the strings at the top. It is usually stifling down there, the sound level becomes overpowering for the players, and the conductor must ignore what he is hearing and adjust balances according to his sense of how the sound is coming across in the auditorium.

But in the hall the music sounds wondrous. There is no such thing as a blaring Wagnerian orchestra at Bayreuth because blasting a fortissimo would be counterproductive. The sound is naturally radiant, warm and pervasive.

Wagner designed a theater that would allow singers to project easily over the orchestra. When performed there, his operas are revealed as the music dramas he called them.

Take Wotan’s Narrative in Act II of “Die Walküre.” (audio clip) In hushed, slow and anguished phrases this tormented god finally tells his beloved daughter, Brünnhilde, the whole sorry saga of his theft of the Ring and his catastrophic ambition. The narrative can sometimes seem like a 15-minute dead spot in the “Ring” cycle. Not in this house. When Falk Struckmann performed it on Thursday, supported by — you could even say comforted by — the orchestra conducted by Christian Thielemann, you hung on every word.

But what about the other claim to fame, that the festival is protected by the Wagner family? Obviously there can be advantages when an institution is a family concern, a claim you might expect from an employee of this family-run newspaper. Yet such enterprises in all fields succeed only if the inheritors surround themselves with strong figures who will add fresh views and question all policies.

After World War II, Wagner’s grandson Wieland Wagner tried to rescue the festival from its association with his mother, Winifred, Wagner’s daughter-in-law and an unapologetic booster of Hitler, by making the place a hotbed for radical reconceptions of Wagner’s works. Wieland proved a visionary director whose boldly abstract productions influenced international theater.

At his death in 1966 complete control of the festival passed to his brother, Wolfgang Wagner, who turns 87 on Aug. 30 and remains in charge. To his credit, Mr. Wagner long ago realized his limitations as a director. But he has brought many avant-garde directors to Bayreuth.

Though some of his choices have met with stinging criticism, others were inspired: notably, Patrice Chéreau, whose centennial “Ring” production in 1976, conducted by Pierre Boulez, is for me the most gripping production available on DVD.

But more recently the festival has been a hotbed of family infighting. Mr. Wagner wants his daughter from his second marriage, Katharina, born in 1978, to take over. The matter is in the hands of the Wagner Foundation, which is stacked with family members.

The most inexplicable aspect of Mr. Wagner’s tenure has been his often curious casting choices. A “Tannhäuser” production I attended here several years ago had the dynamic Mr. Thielemann in the pit but several subpar singers onstage.

If the Wagner family truly wants to jolt the festival with new perspectives on the master’s works, I have a proposal. How about, now and then, performing works by other composers? It would place Wagner’s astounding achievement in context to hear at the house he built both works that inspired him, like Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” and works that would have been impossible without his example, like Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron.”

And how about, every so often, commissioning a composer to write a music drama with Bayreuth’s acoustics in mind? Sacrilege, I know. But what a way to honor Wagner the status-quo-smashing modernist.

(Excerpt of Wotan's narrative, "Ein andres ist's," is from "Die Walküre," 1955 Bayreuth Festival, with Hans Hotter as Wotan, conducted by Joseph Keilberth, courtesy of Testament.)

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