Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Bayreuth Drama Worthy of, Well, Wagner

July 31, 2007
A Bayreuth Drama Worthy of, Well, Wagner

PARIS, July 30 — Devotees of Richard Wagner’s operas have no trouble sitting through long hours of intense music and convoluted plots, but even they may be tiring of the extended family power struggle over control of the Wagner Festival held in Bayreuth, Germany, every summer.

This year’s festival, which began on July 25, has brought new twists to the plot, suggesting that a final curtain may be nigh — or at least coming closer.

Founded in 1876 by Wagner himself, the Bayreuth Festival has had a colorful and at times unsavory history, not least when it was embraced by Hitler. But despite this, Bayreuth remains a kind of shrine for Wagner lovers, and they care passionately about its future.

At the heart of the current drama is who will succeed the composer’s 87-year-old grandson, Wolfgang Wagner. He took over the festival with his brother, Wieland, in 1951 and has run it as a personal fief since Wieland’s death, in 1966. But his management has come under growing criticism in recent years.

Tradition has it that the festival is always run by a Wagner, and this time round, the main candidates are again all in the family: Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 62, Wolfgang Wagner’s daughter from his first marriage; Katharina Wagner, 29, Wolfgang’s daughter from his second marriage; and Nike Wagner, 62, Wolfgang’s niece and Wieland’s daughter.

At first glance, the choice appears to be between youth and experience. Katharina Wagner has only recently begun directing opera, while Ms. Wagner-Pasquier is artistic adviser to the Aix-en-Provence opera festival in southern France, and Nike Wagner, a musicologist by training, is director of the Weimar Festival in Germany.

But there is a bitter twist: Wolfgang Wagner is so determined to impose Katharina as his successor that he now refuses to speak to Ms. Wagner-Pasquier or to Nike Wagner.

The outcome is in the hands of the Richard Wagner Foundation, which owns the festival’s theater, the Festspielhaus, and subsidizes the event. But while Wolfgang has only one vote on a 24-member board dominated by German, Bavarian and Upper Franconian officials, he has so far had his way with the foundation.

Now, with his health failing and demands for a clear succession mounting in the German press, the question is whether the foundation will take up the issue this fall, and, more specifically, whether it will dare to flout the will of the festival’s ruling patriarch.

The last time it tried to do so, it was simply ignored.

In 2001, after Wolfgang indicated a willingness to step down, the foundation chose Ms. Wagner-Pasquier over Nike Wagner and Wolfgang’s second wife, Gudrun, as the festival’s new director. When his wife was rejected for the job, Mr. Wagner responded by announcing that the position was his for life. He further indicated that if necessary, Gudrun would succeed him until Katharina, then just 23, was ready to take over.

Now, to prove she is ready, Wolfgang has allowed Katharina to direct her first opera at Bayreuth. Her new production of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” opened the monthlong festival last week before an audience packed with Wagner experts and German V.I.P.’s, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Although Katharina has previously directed Wagner and Puccini operas in other cities, her maiden show at Bayreuth was widely viewed as a kind of public audition for her father’s job. The intense booing that met her when she appeared onstage at the final curtain suggested that it had become more of a trial by fire.

Certainly, “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” was a daring assignment for the youngest director in the festival’s history. Not only is it Wagner’s only comedy, but it is also a paean to what it calls “Holy German Art” and, as such, became Hitler’s favorite opera and the only work performed in Bayreuth in 1943 and 1944.

Ms. Wagner tackled the opera’s dark association with German nationalism by satirizing luminaries of German culture like Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller and even Wagner himself. But European critics said much of the audience turned against her in the last act, when she resorted to topless dancers, full male nudity, plastic phalluses and a bizarre auto-da-fé.

Some critics noted that cheers could be heard among the boos, but their reviews were generally negative. Andrew Clark in The Financial Times of London called it “an intermittently titillating but ultimately depressing show,” and Der Spiegel’s critic was reminded of “a flat Wagner pizza — a thick topping on a thin base.”

Still, it is unclear how the public and critical response will affect Ms. Wagner’s bid to run the festival. In the past, some new productions at Bayreuth have been booed before later being acclaimed. At the same time, Katharina, a statuesque blonde nicknamed Bayreuth Barbie by her traditionalist foes, can probably still count on the support of those who believe that Bayreuth needs a youthful shake-up.

Certainly, during rehearsals, she displayed no insecurity, inviting reporters to watch her work, releasing glamorous studio photographs of herself and telling a news briefing, “I don’t think I’m too young anymore.” After last Wednesday’s opening night, she added, “Being booed belongs to the job description of a director.”

Meanwhile, her two competitors are again preparing to make their cases to the Wagner Foundation. Ms. Wagner-Pasquier has always avoided public mud-slinging, but her cousin Nike has spoken dismissively of Katharina, saying she has a “ready-made nest” and describing her opera productions as “old wine in a new wineskin.”

For the moment, the Wagner Foundation has given no hint that it is ready to name a new festival director, although there is widespread speculation in the German press that its board will meet for this purpose after the current festival ends on Aug. 28.

One fresh sign that change is in the air came last week at the annual meeting of the Friends of the Bayreuth Festival, which has two seats on the Wagner Foundation’s board. For the first time Wolfgang Wagner did not attend the meeting, and for the first time the Friends openly criticized his management style.

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