Monday, 1 June 2020

Adventures on the Green Hill: with no Bayreuth Festival this year, Tony Cooper looks back at previous festivals

The Festspielhaus at Bayreuth in 1900
The Festspielhaus at Bayreuth in 1900
With no Bayreuth Festival this year because of the Coronavirus outbreak - which has also put Valentin Schwarz’ new Ring cycle on hold to 2022 - Tony Cooper reflects on past adventures walking up the famous Grüner Hügel (Green Hill) in search of Wagner


The last leg of my journey to Bayreuth from the medieval city of Nürnberg, birthplace of the famed printmaker, Albrecht Dürer, is always by train, an idyllic 90-minute journey snaking through miles and miles of lovely and inviting Bavarian countryside. When you alight at Bayreuth, it’s then that you can catch your first glimpse of the famed Bayreuth Festspielhaus bursting through a densely-wooded area as if hovering in the clouds. With vivid imagination - and Wagner is quoted as saying that ‘imagination creates reality’ - the vision of Valhalla swirls in my mind!


My innermost thoughts, however, turn to previous visits to the Bayreuth Festival and the leisurely stroll that one has to take up the steeply-inclined Siegfried Wagner Allee - commonly known as the Grüner Hügel (Green Hill) - to reach Wagner’s ‘dream’ theatre, the grand and imposing Festspielhaus, personally designed by the composer just for the presentation of his Teutonic operas especially that momentous four-work cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen and other works such as Parsifal, his final and ‘farewell’ work to the world completed on 26th July 1882.

Wagner described Parsifal not as an opera but as ‘Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’ (A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage) and the work is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s13th-century epic poem, Parzival, surrounding the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail.

In composing Parsifal, Wagner took advantage of the particular acoustics of the Festspielhaus and conceived the work in April 1857 but, surprisingly, didn’t finish it until 25 years later. It was first performed at the second Bayreuth Festival conducted by the German-Jewish conductor, Hermann Levi.

However, Wagner worked on the Ring’s libretto and score practically over the same period of time from 1848 to 1874. He completed Das Rheingold in 1854 and Die Walküre two years later but, overall, found writing the cycle a bit hard-going and during the course of working on Siegfried decided to take a long break - seven years, in fact - to give himself a breather.

Wagner's Das Rheingold at Bayreuth in 1876
Wagner's Das Rheingold at Bayreuth in 1876
During this time he wrote Tristan und Isolde (completed in 1859 but not performed until 10th June 1865 in Munich) with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg following. What a breather! Completed in 1867 Meistersinger received its first performance the following year on 2nd November 1862, also in Munich. Wagner then dutifully returned to Siegfried completing the cycle with Götterdämmerung in 1874.

Modelled on Greek dramas that were presented as three tragedies and one satyr play, the works of the Ring are loosely based on characters from Norse sagas such as the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga as well as the German epic poem, The Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs) an anonymous poem written in Middle High German circa 1200 probably coming from the region of Passau.
Wagner termed the cycle a ‘Bühnenfestspiel’ (Stage Festival Play) structured in three days preceded by a ‘Vorabend’ (Preliminary Evening). Therefore, the Ring proper begins with Die Walküre and ends with Götterdämmerung with Das Rheingold acting as a prelude while Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were subtitled First Day, Second Day and Third Day respectively.

Showing his typical stubbornness, Wagner adapted the design of the Festspielhaus from an unrealised project drawn up by Dresden opera-house designer, Gottfried Semper, for an opera-house in Munich, but without his permission. It was in Munich, though, where the first two operas of the Ring were originally staged: Das Rheingold in 1869 and Die Walküre in 1870. However, as Semper was a fellow revolutionary with Wagner in the Dresden Uprising of 1849 this may have softened the blow of the composer’s overriding action.

Wagner supervised its construction in every minute detail and the opera-house was actually realised by the funding of his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The foundation stone (laid on 22nd May 1872) coincided very conveniently with Wagner’s birthday and the building was first opened for the première of the complete Ring cycle in August 1876. Wagner was stage director; Hans Richter (a great admirer of Sir Edward Elgar) conducted. It would take another 20 years before the cycle got to the Bayreuth stage again.

The great and the good attending the opening of the Bayreuth Festival included the likes of such distinguished composers as Bruckner, Grieg and Tchaikovsky while Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt (who, incidentally, undertook a major tour of the British Isles in 1804 and played at the Georgian-built Assembly House in my home city of Norwich) also witnessed this grand occasion.

Other high-profile figures who managed a ticket included the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Dom Pedro II of Brazil and, of course, King Ludwig II - Wagner’s wild and eccentric patron - as well as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who helped Wagner no end in establishing the festival.

Overall, the Festspielhaus is quite an impressive building but only the façade exhibits typical late 19th-century ornamentation while the rest of the exterior is relatively modest in comparison showing mostly undecorated brickwork. The building material for the interior - which, incidentally, boasts a lovely decorated wooden-plastered ceiling - while the theatre’s imposing neo-classical Corinthian-fluted columns are symmetrically placed either side of the vast auditorium and, dare I say it, wouldn’t look out of place at such a venue as Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas!

However, unlike most opera-houses, the 1,925-seat auditorium is not fitted out with plush velvety-upholstered seats enclosed within the traditional horseshoe-shaped format but designed in the style of a Graeco-Roman amphitheatre similar to the National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium. Important, though, every seat has an uninterrupted view of the stage.

Bayreuth’s a dressy affair with black tie de rigueur just like it is at Glyndebourne but the lighter the suit the better as the Festspielhaus is not air-conditioned and the weather in Bayreuth in August can be stiflingly hot. On top of all this the seats have bare wooden backs and little padding for your bottom. Thankfully, cushions can be collected from the cloakroom free of charge to aid one’s comfort!

The design of the orchestra pit is different to any other opera-house in the world, too, as it’s recessed under the stage and covered by a hood so that the conductor and orchestra are completely out of site to members of the audience. Wagner was obsessed with the pit being designed in this way to enable the audience to concentrate solely on the drama on stage rather than be distracted by the goings-on in the pit.

Another stylised architectural point is the double-proscenium arch which gives the illusion that the stage is farther away than it really is. This design point - along with the recessed orchestra pit - creates a ‘mystic gulf’ (Wagner’s terminology) between the audience and the stage thus giving a dreamlike character to performances while providing a physical reinforcement of the mythical content of most of the operas staged there.

Dreamlike or not one thing you have to be is on the ball and get to the theatre on time. Latecomers don’t get a look in. You get a timely musical reminder 15 minutes prior to curtain when a brass ensemble arrives on the theatre’s balcony overlooking Richard Wagner Platz announcing the time by playing the opening bars of the first act of the opera to be performed.

It’s a treat in itself and so many members of the audience linger in the square to hear the clarion call. Five minutes later, the musicians repeat it twice and after another five, it’s played three times. Therefore, no one has any excuse for missing the curtain, which rises promptly on the dot. Furthermore, there’s no initial recognition of the conductor when he arrives in the pit, the audience just knows and, spontaneously, quietens down. And just before the start of the performance you find yourself shrouded in complete darkness for a few magical seconds.

And in that moment of mysterious darkness it creates a void in your mind preparing you for the performance and in the case of the Ring it’s the start of an amazing and fantastic adventure which begins with the orchestra softly playing those haunting lower-register chords of the opening bars of Das Rheingold while introducing the famed trio of Rhinemaidens, the true guardians of the hoard of gold that the Rhine harbours.

However, one Ring cycle that I greatly admired was the realisation by the eminent German theatre director/playwright/filmmaker, Tankred Dorst, embarking, surprisingly, on his first opera. A baptism of fire! Overtly contemporary, many of the scenes took place in scrubby rundown premises: a high-rise block, for instance, a discarded quarry, an empty school and a cut-down forest with a partially-built autobahn. All very new but for some, I’m afraid, too sensitive for their eyes! Herr Dorst was booed to bits at curtain-call but that’s often par for the course at Bayreuth.

Wagner: Siegfried  (Act 1) directed by Frank Castorf - Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Andreas Conrad (Mime) - Bayreuth Festival 2017 (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Siegfried  (Act 1) directed by Frank Castorf - Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Andreas Conrad (Mime) - Bayreuth Festival 2017 (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
But his Ring was not such a mind-blowing one as that conjured up by Berlin-based, avant-garde, theatre director, Frank Castorf, former Intendant of Berlin’s famed Volksbühne which I equally enjoyed. Staged in celebration of Wagner’s bicentenary in 2013, he delivered a Ring that proved so controversial that it made Dorst’s production look pretty tame in comparison. Committing sacrilege, he ditched the opera’s traditional romantic Rhineland setting for the rough-and-tumble world of oil prospecting thus ‘black gold’ became the treasured Nibelung hoard. The Bayreuth booing mafia had a field day! [See Tony's review of the 2017 performances of Frank Castorf's producion of the Ring]

Overall, Castorf’s Ring focused on a Gangland B-movie-type scenario with gangsters and their molls replacing Nordic Gods and so forth. Aleksandar Denić’s amazing set for Das Rheingold comprised a faded and rundown 1950s motel located on Route 66 aptly-named ‘Golden’. Here the seductively-dressed Rhinemaidens were seen sipping cocktails on sun-loungers by the side of an aquamarine peanut-shaped swimming-pool representing the Rhine and cruising the highway in a flashy Mercedes-Benz, chrome-trimmed, black convertible. The Nibelheim dwarf, Alberich, however, was happy as Larry swilling back an ice-cold lager biding his time. Get the picture!

Die Walküre, on the other hand, transported itself to the oil-prospecting city of Baku on the Caspian Sea in pre-Revolutionary Russia and Siegfried shared a revolving stage with Berlin’s Alexanderplatz (a monument to socialist dreams!) and the sculpted carved heads of Communist chiefs Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao were seen in a Mount Rushmore-style setting while Götterdämmerung was dominated in the final scene by the façade of the New York Stock Exchange (a monument to capitalist dreams!)

Delivering a heavy punch, Castorf certainly knocked Bayreuth traditionalists off their perch but the cycle gladly found its feet and favour with the more enlightened and forward-thinking members of the audience over its five-year run. I think that it will be nostalgically remembered for all sorts of reasons not least by the copulating crocs that occupied centre stage in the last act of Siegfried interrupting the ecstatic love duet between the Burning Hero Siegfried and Fiery Brünnhilde to great dismay.

If Tankred Dorst and Frank Castorf’s cycles were seen as too contemporary and out of kilter with the majority of the Bayreuth audience, then put theclock back to the days of Wieland Wagner and you could say that he controversially ushered in a new dawn on the Green Hill by ditching the elaborate naturalistic sets and grand productions common in his grandfather’s day by replacing them by minimalist settings and, in doing so, came up against some forceful opposition.

Wagner: Parsifal, directed by Wieland Wagner - Bayreuth Festival 1951
Wagner: Parsifal, directed by Wieland Wagner - Bayreuth Festival 1951
For instance, his Brechtian-influenced Parsifal in 1951 (the first Bayreuth Festival to be held after the Second World War) was booed to bits and so, too, was his 1956 production of Meistersinger inasmuch as it was stripped of its pageantry which Bayreuth audiences saw as an outrage and the breaking up of a most ‘sacred German Wagner tradition’. And Patrice Chéreau’s politically-motivated centenary Ring in 1976 didn’t quite tick with the faithful either but today, surprisingly, it’s now hailed as masterpiece. C’est la vie! or if you like So ist das Leben!

And Katharina Wagner’s 2010 production of Meistersinger - her first production at Bayreuth on becoming co-director of the festival in 2008 with her half-sister, Eva Pasquier-Wagner, following in their father’s footsteps - proved a challenging production and caused a flutter among the dovecotes, too. She infamously ditched the well-loved singing competition for a painting competition while setting the action in the freewheeling and glorious Sixties. The production didn’t score a hit with everyone but I found it to my liking and enjoyed seeing it again.

The protests continue! Will they ever stop, I wonder? But change, I feel, is necessary at Bayreuth to ensure a healthy future for the festival and, indeed, to attract new audiences. Bayreuth, it seems, is fulfilling this crucial need by attracting directors coming up with refreshingly brand-new ideas offering productions that click with the likes of a more imaginative and progressive audience by encompassing, for example, video technology which Castorf used to good advantage.

Incidentally, Wolfgang Wagner, in tandem with his elder brother Wieland (children of Siegfried and Winifred Wagner) directed Bayreuth from 1951 thereby notching up a colossal 57-year reign while he took total control of the festival upon Wieland’s untimely death in 1966 aged 49. Wolfgang retired in 2008 one day ahead of his 90th birthday while Eva Pasquier-Wagner retired only after seven years on the Green Hill in 2015.

However, what was significant about Castorf’s Ring was to the fact that Catherine Ann Foster (who hails from Nottinghamshire) became the first English-born soprano to sing this role at Bayreuth. She stuck with it over its five-year run thus becoming the third British soprano to have sung Brünnhilde at Bayreuth. She keeps good company with the likes of Welsh-born singers, Dame Anne Evans and Dame Gwyneth Jones. Now that’s what you call a select club. Catherine, the Grande Dame of the Ring and the girl from Nottingham, please take a bow! [See Tony's 2017 interview with Catherine Foster]

Wagner: Götterdämmerung, directed by Frank Castor - Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde) - Bayreuth Festival 2017(©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Götterdämmerung, directed by Frank Castor - Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde)
Bayreuth Festival 2017 (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Ms Foster returned to the Green Hill in 2019 for just a trio of performances of Die Walküre in the production which formed part of Castorf’s Ring with Plácido Domingo conducting his first full-length Wagner opera. This is what she had to say about the role: ‘I see Brünnhilde as a woman of the world, highly emotional but very self-confident who develops into an extremely strong person as the story of the Ring unfolds before reaching its destiny in Götterdämmerung where she sees that lust, greed and corruption that encapsulates the curse is inextricably tied to the ring.

‘Therefore, to cleanse mankind Brünnhilde has to cleanse the ring by burning not only the ring itself but the last living holder of it (which is, of course, Brünnhilde) as possession of it demands a sacrifice. The Nibelheim dwarf, Alberich, lives on as he sacrificed his humanity which leaves Brünnhilde sacrificing herself to ensure mankind can be reborn to start again. To this end, she orders the waters of the Rhine to sweep over the fire to wash away the vestiges of the curse and this is the beginning and end of the Gods and their beloved Valhalla.’

Every Ring cycle stays in the repertoire at Bayreuth for a five-year period followed by a two-year break so there’s always great excitement on the Green Hill when a new Ring is due. This year, a new Ring should have unveiled itself directed by the Austrian-born director, Valentin Schwarz. Sadly, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s not to be. One will now have to wait until 2022 to see what he comes up with. Exciting times lay ahead!

Keep on top of the news from Bayreuth by visiting www.bayreuther-festspiele.de. However, if you’re thirsting for a new Ring this year (and I certainly am) there’s a couple of cycles of Calixto Bieito’s Ring coming up at Opéra Bastille Paris under the baton of Philippe Jordan in late November/December (www.operadeparis.fr) while looking farther ahead, Deutsche Oper Berlin’s new Ring, directed by Stefan Herheim, conducted by Donald Runnicles, gets an outing next year in November 2021 (www.deutscheoperberlin.de). Sir David Pountney’s new Ring cycle for Lyric Opera of Chicago (www.lyricopera.org), conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and scheduled for this year, has been put on hold for a future season but it will not be next year. And sometime next year, Anna Kelo’s new cycle for Finnish National Opera will see Esa-Pekka Salonen take to the pit for his first Ring cycle in Helsinki. (www.oopperabaletti.fi)
Tony Cooper
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