Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bayreuth Festival: Deep inside Wagner's 'mystical abyss'

Lining the walls of the tunnel that leads into the beating, pulsating heart of Bayreuth's Festspielhaus are mug shots of all the conductors who have ever conducted there, from Hans Richter in 1876 via Richard Strauss, Siegfried Wagner, Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Carlos Kleiber to more modern-day maestros such as Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Thomas Hengelbrock and Christian Thielemann.

The most recent in the line-up is Philippe Jordan, who made his debut on the Green Hill in 2012 in the final run of Stefan Herheim's Parsifal.

Two nails have been hammered into the white-washed wall where the portraits will hang of this summer's two newcomers -- Kirill Petrenko, who is in charge of the Ring, and Axel Kober, who has stepped in to conduct Tannhäuser.
But somewhere like the Festspielhaus has its many rites and rituals.
[For example, the generations of musicians who have played in the orchestra always sign the back of their individual parts at the end of each season, which must also make for some fascinating reading.]
And, according to a similar tradition, Petrenko's and Kober's photos will be unveiled only once the season is over.

It was under the eyes of some of my greatest musical heroes, then, that I made my way into the very heart of Wagner's Green Hill and the Festspielhaus's fabled orchestra pit for the third and final performance this season of Götterdämmerung.

I sort of knew what to expect.
With more than 100 musicians squeezed into a small and cramped space, this wasn't going to be anywhere for claustrophobics. It could also be deafeningly loud and, depending on the weather outside, stiflingly hot.
And clearly I wasn't going to be able to see anything of the stage or hear the voices.

But it was an unmissable opportunity and a privilege that only a few outsiders ever come to enjoy.

I was collected at the artists' entrance, which is situated just below the Festspielhaus, out of sight and largely unnoticed by many of the audience.

We made our way along the Ahnengalerie of conductors, following the tunnel that sloped upwards slightly until we came to a door which sternly forbids entry to all unauthorized personnel, "before, during and after guided tours, rehearsals and performances."

A second smaller door to the right leads a few steps down to where I was to sit, bang next to the Wagner horns or tenor tubas.

There are six levels to the pit in all, ascending from where I was seated.
Alongside the Wagner horns were the heavy brass -- the trombones and bass tuba, the timpani and percussion.
Next step up sat the French horns and the trumpets.
Then came the lower woodwind, the bassoons and clarinets, followed by the flutes and oboes, then the celli and violas. The violins were at the top, seemingly a long way away. (There must be a difference in elevation from the top of the pit to the bottom of at least five or six metres).
On each side were three harps (six in all, we were, after all, in Götterdämmerung) and the double basses.

A square box entered by a small ladder was suspended immediately above the heads of the bassoons, which I realised was the prompter's box.

The musicians were still arriving when I got there.
They were chatting, reading or playing with their smartphones.

But the space quickly filled up and the decibels rose as the musicians warmed up or went over some of the trickier passages.

Because the Bayreuth pit was conceived by Wagner as being invisible to the audience, there's no dress code and the musicians play in T-shirts, shorts and sandals.

Petrenko was briefly there, too, to shake hands and say hello to the 1st flautist, who I'd been told was stepping in at short notice to cover a colleague fallen ill.

Perched at the very top is the conductor's seat so that he can see what is going on onstage while at the same time having eye contact with every musician in the pit.

Three large lights hang next to him, green, amber and red. Amber signals the start of the tuning, red commands absolute silence as the lights in the auditorium go down. Green is for when the performance is underway.

Petrenko, compact and muscular of frame, is a meticulously neat conductor, endlessly calm and precise, avoiding grand gestures.

When he was happy with the way the orchestra was playing, he frequently smiled and gave them the thumbs up.
Only at one point did he scowl and seem to become impatient with the lower brass, motioning them to speed up and shaking his head vexedly afterwards.

Seated at the very bottom of the pit, you  have no sense of the balance of the sound and the voices onstage are barely -- or only rarely -- audible at all.
Alongside the heavy brass, the din was ear-splitting at times and the beating of the timpani almost visceral.

I frequently had to move aside for the brass players, too, as they sneaked out for some air when there were long stretches of nothing to play.

My two hours in Bayreuth's legendary covered pit raced by and all too soon my contact came to collect me at the end of the act and take me to the canteen for an ice-cream, the light of day and some fresh air.

Many of the musicians have been playing in Bayreuth for years.
Whilst the prospect is a daunting one at first, even for Germany's best orchestral players, once they get used to the cramped space and noise levels, the experience also becomes a drug to the players, just as Wagner's music is for the thousands of opera aficionados who who traipse to Bayreuth every year, one player tells me.

Some of them are in Bayreuth for as long as two months including rehearsal time.
The pay isn't great and they get a fixed fee for the entire season, rather than per performance.
So jumping in for a sick colleague doesn't get them any extra pay.

But they regard it as an honour to be invited and the musicians often get hooked, returning year after year, another player explained.

I understand how they feel.
I can certainly say that my time in the pit in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus must count as one of the most memorable in my entire musical life.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Salzburg Festival, Norma

Haus für Mozart, Salzburg
August 24th, 2013

Cecilia Bartoli - Norma
Rebeca Olvera - Adalgisa
John OsbornPollione
Michele Pertusi - Oroveso
Liliana Nikiteanu - Clotilde
Reinaldo Macias - Flavio
Giovanni Antonini - conductor
Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier - directors
Christian Fenouillat - stage
Agostino Cavalca - costumes
Christophe Forey - lighting
Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera, Lugano
Orchestra La Scintilla

No matter what your views about Cecilia Bartoli are, if ever you had any reservations about her artistic intelligence and integrity or doubts about the range and power of her voice, you should watch this Norma.

The operatic know-alls in their grubby anoraks will, of course, debate endlessly and tiresomely about the vocal casting -- a mezzo in the title role and bright, high soprano in the role of Adalgisa and a  light, lyrical Rossini tenor as Pollione.

Bartoli herself and Riccardo Minasi and Maurizio Biondi, who prepared the new critical edition of the score on which the production is based, all make a convincing case -- in the programme notes and in the CD booklet -- for their controversial artistic decisions and choices.

But even leaving such musicological debates aside, I defy anyone not to be moved by the searing, blistering power of this production, the handsome elegance of the sets and the extraordinary, jaw-droppingly good singing.

Salzburg, like Vienna, must have one of Bartoli's biggest fan bases, but the usual scramble for tickets outside the Haus für Mozart actually threatened to deteriorate into fisticuffs among those who were desparately holding up Ticket-Wanted signs.

The production, an import from Salzburg's Whitsun Festival (which is headed by Bartoli herself), has turned out to be by far the biggest hit of the main summer festival.

And while the other productions -- such as Don Carlo and Meistersinger -- have been broadcast on TV and the web and will, no doubt, be available on DVD at some point, for some mystifying reason, Norma -- with its relatively short run of just five performances -- wasn't and won't be, we are told.
[But perhaps that's merely a canny marketing ploy.]

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier have worked with Bartoli many times in the past.
Their visually rich, witty and hugely entertaining Le Comte Ory, which I caught in Vienna earlier this year, was also built around her, even if she was unfortunately indisposed for the performance I saw and was replaced by Pretty Yende.

Such uproariousness is, of course, ill-befitting for Bellini's rather po-faced and somewhat preposterous little tale of a mistletoe-bearing priestess.

Leiser and Caurier dispense with togas, temples and moon goddesses and update the plot to the 20th century, turning it into a story of resistance fighters and occupiers in the Second World War.

And the concept works surprisingly well if you blend out the surtitles and all their talk about druids and the god Irminsul.

Bartoli said she wanted to make the heroine more human. And she certainly does that.
Torn between vengeful fury and terror at the thought of killing her children, she shook so hard while brandishing a knife in "Dormono entrambi" at the start of Act 2 that I was seriously concerned she might injure herself.

But more than her acting, it was Bartoli's voice that had the audience welded to their seats.
Notwithstanding a stumbled, strangely strangled start to "Casta diva" -- which was also marred by a few intonational impurities in the solo flute -- Bartoli was in blow-torching form.

Her detractors like to say Bartoli's voice is too small.
The Haus für Mozart is the most intimate of the Salzburg Festival's three opera venues, but it's by no means tiny.
And from where I was sitting in the first balcony, I could hear every word, from the most hushed pianissimo to the furious fireballs of her fortissimi.
Bartoli also has a breathing technique like few others and can spin seemingly endless lines on only the shallowest of breaths.

Biondi and Minasi say their edition is complete and uncut and restores some numbers that are traditionally shortened or omitted completely.
Bartoli therefore has much more to sing than is the case in more traditional Normas, but never showed any sign of flagging.

Just as Bartoli embodies the role of Norma, the other singers were every bit her match.
It was easy to understand how the young Mexican soprano Rebeca Olvera with her angelic, childlike soprano could win Pollione's heart.
And US tenor John Osborn sounded even more at ease in Pollione's fiendlishly difficult writing than he does on the CD.

Michele Petrusi was similarly impressive as Oroveso, and Liliana Nikiteanu and Reinaldo Macias rounded off the ensemble admirably in the supporting roles of Clotilde and Flavio.

Zurich Opera's period-instrtument band, La Scintilla, sizzled, raged and wept their way through Bellini's astonishing orchestral writing under Giovanni Antonini.
So much so that I fear I'll be reluctant to hear Norma again on modern instruments from now on.

For me personally, this was the undisputed highlight of this summer's festival season.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Boycotting Castorf's Ring

We all know opera lovers are weird, right?

Whether it's waiting in the freezing cold in the early hours for standing room at the Wiener Staatsoper; staying up all night to try and grab tickets as soon as they go online; or grovelling outside the performance venue brandishing a "Ticket Wanted" signs, night after night.

No price is seemingly too high, no queue too long for a hardcore fan to catch a glimpse of their idol.

But even among opera lovers, Wagnerians seem to be a breed apart, a little bit weirder than most.

I'm not just talking about the 10-year waiting list for a ticket to Bayreuth or the endless vitriol you'd be subjected to if you dare suggest that Wagner might not have been a very nice person.

I'm talking about the vast sums of money that the self-appointed keepers of Wagner's Holy Grail -- you know the ones, the trainspotters of the opera world who insist the only way to stage The Master's works is to abide by his libretto and stage directions to the letter -- are prepared to pay not to see a production that they have decided "desecrates" the composer's memory.

Yes, you read that correctly. The tens of thousands of euros a Wagnerian is willing to pay NOT to see a Wagner opera.

Just such someone, calling themselves Erich Fischer, has bought a small square of space in the high-brow arts section or Feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently to proclaim to the world that "out of reverence and love for Richard Wagner, we will not be taking our seats in Ring II in Bayreuth."

Aus Ehrfurcht und Liebe für Richard Wagner werden wir unsere Ring II Plätze in Bayreuth nicht einnehmen.

I'm not sure the world knows or cares who Erich Fischer is.
But he apparently feels it imperative to inform us that he doesn't like Frank Castorf. And he placed five such adverts in the FAZ over different days to do so.

He could have just quietly returned his tickets, or given or sold them on to someone else.

But no, here was someone who has waited long enough -- or was rich enough -- to have obtained tickets not only to Bayreuth's Festspielhaus, the Holy of Holies in the whacky and wonderful cult that calls itself Wagnerism, but also to the most anticipated and talked about event in the Wagner Bicentenary.
And he feels compelled to tell the world he isn't going to use them. "Out of reverence and love for Richard Wagner."

There is no explanation of his reasons or his motives.

I tried to contact Erich Fischer via the email address provided, but he hasn't responded so far.

A quick web search revealed that a man of the same name is a 75-year-old Munich-based former entrepreneur who has set up the philanthropic Internationale Stiftung zur Förderung von Kultur und Zivilisation (International Foundation for the Promotion of Culture and Civilization).

According to a downloadable pamphlet on the foundation's website, Erich Fischer was the owner and managing director of a micro-chip company. And he set up the foundation in 1995 to "promote art and culture, mainly in the field of music; improve the living conditions of senior citizens; and further develop civilization."

The foundation's achievements so far seem to have been putting on afternoon concerts for senior citizens and financing music lessons for school children and prisoners in an attempt to re-socialise them. 
Another laudable project is to stage neglected works of music from all eras and engage young and up-and-coming musicians to perform them.

There even seems to be a Wagner connection: a special project to present a pocket two-hour, five-singer version of Rienzi in a number of towns in cities in Germany and Switzerland during the Bicentenary Year.

Could this be one and the same man?
If so, how does that all tie in with someone who is willing to shell out €24,000 (that's the estimate of another daily Berliner Zeitung) to inform the unsuspecting world that he won't be making use of his tickets to Bayreuth?
I think it's fair to assume that Erich Fischer hasn't actually seen the offending production, so my question to him would be on what grounds is he boycotting it?

Sadly, I don't honestly expect to receive any answers.
But like I said, Wagnerians are a pretty weird bunch.

Two days after I posted this article, I received an email from Erich Fischer's secretary, confirming that the man who took out the adverts -- five in all, on August 10, 14, 15, 17 and 19 -- was also the same Erich Fischer who set up the Internationale Stiftung zur Förderung von Kultur und Zivilisation.
She promised me that he would get in touch in due course.
He hasn't yet. I'll keep you posted about his reply. But I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Salzburg Festival, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg
August 9, 2013
Eva - Anna Gabler
Magdalene  - Monika Bohinec
Hans Sachs - Michael Volle
Walther von Stolzing - Roberto Saccà
Veit Pogner - Georg Zeppenfeld
Sixtus Beckmesser - Markus Werba
David - Peter Sonn
Kunz Vogelsang - Thomas Ebenstein
Konrad Nachtigall - Guido Jentjens
Fritz Kothner - Oliver Zwarg
Balthasar Zorn - Benedikt Kobel
Ulrich Eißlinger - Franz Supper
Augustin Moser  - Thorsten Scharnke
Hermann Ortel - Karl Huml
Hans Schwarz - Dirk Aleschus
Hans Foltz - Roman Astakhov
A Nightwatchman  - Tobias Kehrer

Conductor - Daniele Gatti
Director - Stefan Herheim
Sets - Heike Scheele
Costumes - Gesine Völlm
Lighting - Olaf Freese

Konzertvereinigung Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic

Once this Wagner Bicentenary Year is over, probably the biggest question we'll all be asking ourselves is why wasn't Stefan Herheim allowed to stage the 200th Birthday Ring?

Sadly, it has become something of a truism that to hear the best Wagner singers and see the best Wagner productions you needn't (shouldn't?) go to Bayreuth.

I really don't believe that Frank Castor's Ring is the unmitigated disaster that everyone says it is.
It has tantalising, albeit isolated, flashes of brilliance.
And that is a great deal more than can be said of the previous production by Tankred Dorst, which was so unremittingly dull and dire that it must rank as one of the worst Rings I've ever seen.

Vocally, too, Bayreuth's Bicentenary Ring was anything but worthy of Wagner's Festspielhaus, in this year of all years.
Just look at the line-up of the concert performances of the cycle at this year's Proms to see that the world's current best Wagner singers were everywhere this year but on the Green Hill.

Yes, Bayreuth still has arguably the world's best Wagner orchestra. And it looks set to remain so in future with Kirill Petrenko taking his place alongside the festival's unofficial GMD Christian Thielemann among the ranks of the festival's great conductors.

But all in all, Bayreuth really should be ashamed of the shambles it has made of the bicentenary celebrations, after a shoddily-prepared Birthday Concert on May 22, the Festspielhaus still clad in scaffolding, Wahnfried reduced to rubble and the Markgräfliche Opernhaus closed to the public.

In artistic terms,  it is Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier who should take the blame for the muddled and directionless management of the world's oldest summer music festival. 

Of the various productions staged under their leadership, only Hans Neuenfels' Lohengrin and Stefan Herheim's Parsifal have really proven up to the mark.

Otherwise, it's a list of could-have-beens: Lars von Trier pulled out of the 2006 Ring to be replaced by Tankred Dorst. And it seemed like groundhog day again when Wim Wenders got cold feet for the Bicentenary Ring, which was then handed to Frank Castorf.

Following Sebastian Baumgarten's (literally) execrable Tannhäuser, future productions aren't looking especially mouth-watering either.
I've never found any of Katharina's productions -- from her Der fliegende Holländer in Würzburg in 2002 to her Meistersinger in Bayreuth in 2007 and Rienzi in Bremen in 2008 -- to be at all convincing.
Yet she has entrusted herself with the new Tristan in 2015. And Jonathan Meese -- a sculptor, painter, installation and performance artist of some notoriety in the German-speaking world -- will make his directing debut with the next Parsifal in 2016.

It is rare, but not impossible, for guest directors in Bayreuth to be asked back.
Among the 23 who have worked there since 1951, only August Everding and Götz Friedrich have ever staged more than one opera in the Festspielhaus.
Everding was responsible for Der fliegende Holländer in 1969 and then Tristan und Isolde in 1974 and Friedrich for Lohengrin in 1979 followed by Parsifal in 1982.

Since then, however, it seems to have become some sort of unspoken rule for directors not to return.

But surely, given the critical and popular success of his astonishing Parsifal, an exception could have been made for Herheim?

His magical and masterful re-interpretation of Meistersinger for this year's Salzburg Festival -- apparently the first staging of Wagner's only comic opera here since 1938 -- certainly gave us ample opportunity to fantasize about what he wonders he could have worked with the four-opera Ring.

Herheim updates the story, set by Wagner in the mid-16th century, to the so-called Biedermeier period in Germany in the first half of the 19th century.
And the action is all a fairy-tale, a dream on the part of Hans Sachs (who is actually Wagner himself) who rushes on stage before the overture in nightshirt and cap to scribble down his nocturnal imaginings.

We could be in a painting by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885).

Sachs is a lonely widower, longing for the love and physical contact of a younger woman (Eva).

In the opening scene, the Nuremberg church where the congregation is singing is Sachs' own writing desk.
It's Märchen-time where the characters, the Mastersingers and Walther enter through a crack in the oversized window, the Singstuhl is the bridge of a violin and the guild members sit on thimbles engraved with their names.

It's sort of Meistersinger-meets-the-Nutcracker, and so crammed full with delightful details that the five-and-a-half hours fairly whizz by.
In fact, it's a Meistersinger you could easily take your children to.
The Festwiese at the end of Act 3 is the life-size close-up of the toy-play that Eva and Walther and David and Magdalene indulge in on the far-side of the stage.

But it precisely therein that lies the rub, a niggling qualm about such a technically perfect production.

It is all so utterly charming and enchanting that we forget that Meistersinger is Wagner's most problematic opera, hijacked and misused by the Nazis as a hymn to the supremacy of German art. And it is for that very reason that it is still treated with distaste today by even the most dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerians.

In his Bayreuth Parsifal, Herheim was not afraid to make the festival's Nazi past one of the central themes of his interpretation.
His use of swastikas and goose-stepping soldiers onstage drew loud boos from audiences every year.
So it is puzzling to say the least that he side-steps the issue so completely in Salzburg's new Meistersinger.

It is a matter of fierce debate whether, for example, Beckmesser is an anti-Semitic caricature.
But no matter what your position, the violence of the riot scene at the end of Act 2 is always deeply disturbing and the prelude to Act 3 all the more desolate for its musical depiction of the trail of devastation and destruction that the riot leaves behind.

In Herheim's reading, the riot is actually rather anodyne -- a few fairy-tale characters such as the Frog Prince and Hansel and Gretel misbehave, nothing more sinister than that.

In Sachs' (in)famous monologue at the end of Act 3, a sudden change in lighting made me sit up, expecting a dramatic new development on stage.
But it was all over in a blink of an eye, and I was left asking myself whether I'd missed something.

Vocally, Michael Volle was the star of the show. His was a superlative Hans Sach, richly nuanced and deeply moving.

And he was near matched by the excellent Markus Werba as Beckmesser.

I found the two female leads much more problematic, with Anna Gabler, to my ears, clearly miscast as Eva. Her voice is much too heavy for the role and her intonation was frequently off.

Monika Bohinec made little impression as Magdalene. Peter Sonn has a pleasant enough voice as David, but only really found his form in Act 3.

Much as I admired Roberto Saccà in Frankfurt's Idomeneo last season, he, too, seemed miscast as Stolzing, his tenor sounding tired and worn, his vibrato too wobbly for my liking.

Among the Meistersinger, Georg Zeppenfeld was excellent as Veit Pogner and Oliver Zwarg was also very impressive as Fritz Kothner.

Tobias Kehrer, on the other hand, was also seriously off-pitch in the small walk-on role of Nightwatchman.

Daniele Gatti, who conducted Herheim's Parsifal in Bayreuth, didn't always seem at ease here and, surprisingly in this score, the Vienna Philharmonic was not at its best.

Gatti, Gabler and Saccà were all loudly booed at the end.

Herheim's staging ia a co-production with the Opéra National de Paris and it seems that the Met in New York wants it, too. So hopefully there will be plenty of opportunity in the coming years to re-visit and relish this intelligent and visually stunning new Meistersinger.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Salzburg Festival, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Curtain calls on August 9th, 2013

Curtain call 

Anna Gabler and Markus Werba

Michael Volle

Markus Werba, Michael Volle and Roberto Sacca

Daniele Gatti

Daniele Gatti

Daniele Gatti and Michael Volle

Friday, August 9, 2013

Salzburg Festival, Gawain

Felsenreitschule, Salzburg
August 8th, 2013

Gawain - Christopher Maltman
The Green Knight/Bertilak de Hautdesert - John Tomlinson
Morgan le Fay - Laura Aikin
Lady de Hautdesert - Jennifer Johnston
King Arthur - Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Guinevere - Gun-Brit Barkmin
Bishop Baldwin - Andrew Watts
A Fool  - Brian Galliforf
Agravain - Ivan Ludlow
Ywain - Alexander Sprague

Conductor - Ingo Metzmacher
Direction and stage - Alvis Hermanis
Costume - Eva Dessecker
Lighting - Gleb Filshtinsky
Video design - Multimedia Design Studio "Raketamedia", Moscow

ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Salzburger Bachchor

Avis Hermanis, in the programme note to his new production of Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain at this year's Salzburg Festival, insists that the opera's eponymous hero "displays many similarities" with Joseph Beuys, "one of the most important visual artists after the Second World War."

And that is the reason, Hermanis argues, that some of the most famous works and happenings of the German sculptor, performance, installation and graphic artist are so meticulously re-created on the stage of the Felsenreitschule.

They include Das Rudel (The Pack), Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt (How to explain pictures to a dead hare) and I like America and America likes me.

But if we're really honest, the connection never appears to be anything more than tenuous.
And it is debatable whether Salzburg's international audience is so au courant with their Beuys as to be able to catch all the visual references anyway, let alone make the connection to Birtwistle's reworking of the 14th century Middle English romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Hermanis' premise, as attractive as it might sound, never really appears anything more than an  artificial intellectual conceit that leaves much of the audience baffled as to what is going on onstage, at least judging by the brief, albeit friendly applause at the end.

The director's idea, on the other hand, to transplant the action from the court of King Arthur to a science fiction in the not-too-distant future where an ecological catastrophe has wiped out most of mankind is infinitely more compelling.

Against the imposing rock-hewn backdrop of the Felsenreitschule, the magnificent stage set creates an apocalyptic, post-Chernobyl, post-Fukushima world where humans are forced to live like animals, to scrounge and scavenge and even eat each other in order to survive.

We could be on a film set from Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris.

Nature is taking hold of the world again, with green moss invading every nook and cranny.  

Indeed, for Hermanis the figure of the Green Knight, who appears in King Arthur's court at Christmas to throw down the challenge to Gawain, is "a kind of nature deity ... who wants to offer a last chance to the survivors after the human experiment has failed."

The opulent visuals are a perfect match for the irresistible, primaeval power of Birtwistle's steam-roller of a score, written at about the same time as Earth Dances, (possibly his best-known work outside of the UK).

The choice of Gawain, with its powerful re-telling of Arthurian legend, is also a particularly apt one in the Wagner Bicentenary year, with distinct parallels -- and obvious differences -- to Parsifal.

Maybe it's because I came fresh from Bayreuth last week, but to my ears the hunting horns of Act 2 also had unmistakable echoes of Tristan or Hunding's horn in Act 1 of Die Walküre.

Musically, Salzburg could not have assembled a better cast.
Thanks perhaps to the fact that all but one of the soloists are native speakers, diction was astonishingly clear, even in the cavernous space of the Felsenreitschule.

With vocal writing as fiendishly difficult and vertiginous as this, it would be unfair to single out any one singer for particular praise.
But how much more mellifluous on the ear were the stupendous Jennifer Johnston and Laura Aikin as Lady de Hautdesert and Morgan le Fay than their counterparts on the Collins Classics recording of the original Royal Opera House Covent Garden production.

It was John Tomlinson who created the dual roles of the Green Knight and Bertilak de Hautdesert in that production and he leaves his undeniable stamp of authority here, too, even if the top of his register has gone.

German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin was stunning as Guinevere.

But perhaps most impressive of all was Christopher Maltman in the title role.
His rich baritone, cultivated but never over-mannered, makes him one of a top crop of British Lied interpreters at present.
But he also has an irresistible stage presence and I was lucky enough to catch him when he popped over to Frankfurt recently -- while he was in Salzburg rehearsing for Gawain in fact --  for a couple of guest appearances as Posa in Don Carlo.

The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra was awe-inspiring in its mastery of Birtwistle's highly complex score. But that was hardly surprising with Ingo Metzmacher at the helm.

One can only hope that the performances  are being captured on CD.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bayreuth Festival, Götterdämmerung

Festpielhaus, Bayreuth
July 31st, 2013

Siegfried - Lance Ryan
Gunther - Alejandro Marco-Buhrmeister
Alberich - Martin Winkler
Hagen - Attila Jun
Brünnhilde - Catherine Foster
Gutrune - Allison Oakes
Waltraute - Claudia Mahnke
1st Norn - Okka von der Damerau
2nd Norn - Claudia Mahnke
3rd Norn - Christiane Kohl
Woglinde - Mirelle Hagen
Wellgunde - Julia Rutigliano
Flosshilde - Okka von der Damerau

Conductor - Kirill Petrenko
Director - Frank Castorf
Sets - Aleksandar Denic
Costumes - Adriana Braga Peretzki
Lighting - Rainer Caspar
Video - Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus

How does a director stage 16 hours of opera and yet have nothing much to say about his main protagonist?

Frank Castorf can certainly spin a good yarn.
His Rheingold and Siegfried are breathlessly told, even if Die Walküre, set in faraway Azerbaijan, is much more static.

The cast of thieves, gangsters, whores and pimps who peopled the first three parts all reappear in Götterdämmerung.
This is a Ring for the cinema generation, for audiences brought up on the films of Quentin Tarantino, with breathtakingly detailed, Oscar-worthy sets by film designer Aleksandar Denic.

Castorf's exposé of the violent underbellies of both capitalism and communism is splattered with blood and sexually explicit, not a reading for the faint-hearted.
But there are plenty of flashes of the surreal, comical and bizarre, too.

There are copulating crocodiles in Act 3 of Siegfried. And earlier, the bear chased by the eponymous hero in Act 1 dons a bridal veil, briefs and high heels.
That same figure subsequently reappears in Götterdämmerung, this time to push a pram full of potatoes down a flight of stairs at Brünnhilde at the bottom.
It seems to be a quotation from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin but there is no dramatic or poetic logic for it being there.

For the finale of Wagner's tetraology, we're back in the now familiar gangster milieu somewhere in East Berlin, where Siegfried is again a small-time criminal with golden lamé jacket and the court of the Gibichungs a fruit and vegetable store and adjoining kebab stand.
Hagen is a punk with Mohican haircut, Gunther a biker with peroxide hair and Gutrune wears a 50s-style flower-print dress.

The idea may not be entirely original, but the characters are drawn effectively enough.
All except for Brünnhilde, that is, who doesn't seem to fit into Castorf's story at all.

It had been the same problem in Siegfried.
The first two acts were grippingly narrated.
But as soon as Brünnhilde comes on the scene, everything unravels, and Castorf suddenly veers off the edge to an absurdist world of Forest Bird-eating crocodiles.

The director's  own disinsterest in the heroine and his inability to connect with her appear to be mirrored in Siegfried's blatant boredom on stage.

In Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde similarly has no discernible function whatsoever. She is no whore, no gangster's moll. In fact, Castorf doesn't seem to have  much idea who she is at all -- or any real interest in finding out.
She remains a dramatic blindspot, an enigma, which is unfortunate, given that she is possibly the single most important character in the entire Ring. Without her, there can be no serious interpretation of Wagner's opus magnum.

In his defence, Castorf had warned people in the run-up to the festival not to expect too much, certainly not a new Ring of the century, arguing he had  had insufficient time.

But to be honest, now that the staging is complete, I have a nagging suspicion that the result wouldn't have been much different even if he had had four years instead of two.

There are many visually striking moments -- for which set designer Denic must take most if not all of the credit. But Castorf's heart never really seemed to be in it. The staging lacks cohesion and a unifying Über-concept.
He'd claimed that his Ring would be about the battle for oil as the modern-day equivalent of Wagner's gold.
But oil appeared only fleetingly, almost tangentially.

His critique of capitalism and communism is not especially biting or trenchant, either.
Gang warfare and petty crime flourish under both systems.
Big deal.

In fact, on closer examination, many of his ideas reveal themselves to be rather facile and seem to have occurred to him on the spur of the moment, rather than being part of a deeper, wider scheme and pre-occupation with Wagner and his oeuvre.

The Norns in the prelude to Götterdämmerung, for example, slaughter chickens in a voodoo ritual.
And more voodoo appears later on in Castorf's ubiquitous use of video projection.
That might sound original.
 But is the fate of the gods and of humanity dependent on nothing more than a bit of witchcraft?

The fall of Valhalla, too, is no Armageddon, but one huge  anti-climax.
Brünnhilde throws the ring onto a burning oil drum. And if Alberich really wanted, he could easily fish it out again. But he just sits there, staring at the paltry flickering flames.
Denic had conjured up an exact replica of the front of the New York Stock Exchange for the final act.
If Castorf had been interested in a critique of capitalism, why not blow it up?

Of course, Castorf had explicitly said in an interview with Der Spiegel -- whether he was being disingenuous only he can  know -- that the whole enterprise shouldn't be taken too seriously.
And when he and his team finally showed themselves at the end of the fourth evening, the director started to insult the booing, whistling and jeering audience by gesturing that they had a screw loose.

He is entitled, naturally, to think what he likes about Bayreuth audiences.
But if he regards opera and Wagner in particular with such disdain, why take on the bicentenary Ring in the first place?

Vocally, too, the last of the four evenings was not particularly festspielwürdig.
Lance Ryan's voice, no Heldentenor, is sounding increasingly frayed and worn at the edges in the role of Siegfried and Attila Jun's Hagen is mostly gruff and gargly.
Both were booed at their curtain calls.

Alejandro Marco-Buhrmeister, on the other hand, was a towering Gunther and Allison Oakes excelled as Gutrune.
The Norns and the Rhinemaidens were all well sung.

Catherine Foster is hugely impressive as Brünnhilde with her beautiful, well-rounded soprano, lyrical with a dramatic edge, but never shrill or forced.

But the real star of the entire cycle -- and surely the Bayreuthers' new darling -- was Kirill Petrenko, whose astonishingly wise, endlessly shaded and tautly-paced conducting really made this a Ring to remember and one which will surely be talked about for a long time to come.

We've had the Chéreau Ring and the Kupfer Ring in Bayreuth.
This new cycle will definitely not go down in musical history as the Castorf Ring.
The Denic Ring? Perhaps. But above all, it will be remembered as the Petrenko Ring.