"The Wagner Identity"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Aug. 15, 2011
My last dispatch from the eternal artistic battleground of Bayreuth, Germany, the site of the Richard Wagner festival, was filed in 2004, the year of the rotting bunny. The late Berlin director Christoph Schlingensief roiled Bayreuth that summer by ending his production of “Parsifal” with footage of decomposing rabbits. I thought that it was the most pointlessly chaotic opera staging I’d ever seen; others acclaimed it as genius. Wagner being Wagner, the truth undoubtedly lies everywhere in between.
Much has happened in the meantime. Wolfgang Wagner, the composer’s younger grandson, who directed or co-directed the Bayreuth Festival from 1951 until 2008, died last year, at the age of ninety. The reins are now held by Wolfgang’s daughters, from different marriages: Eva Wagner-Pasquier, a sixty-six-year-old veteran of the international opera business; and Katharina Wagner, thirty-three years younger, a director with avant-garde tendencies. Bayreuth is promising to change its secretive ways—to achieve “total transparency,” in Katharina’s phrase. Performances are now regularly broadcast; special events are held for children and the masses; exhibitions will shed new light on the Wagner family’s not exactly obscure Nazi past. (During opening week this year, the Israel Chamber Orchestra played Wagner’s “Siegfried-Idyll” at Bayreuth City Hall, suspending the unofficial Israeli ban on performing Wagner; Katharina sat in the front row.) The Schlingensief uproar was no fluke; almost every year, boos resound through Wagner’s theatre when a new production is introduced. This summer, which saw “Tannhäuser” staged in a dystopian waste-recycling facility, was no exception.
Gratifyingly, Bayreuth’s idiosyncratic rituals remain: the red-carpet procession of politicians and celebrities on opening day (Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is an avid Wagnerian); the intense aesthetic combat of the curtain calls, with conservatives booing and progressives bravoing; the provocations of Nike Wagner, the apostate daughter of Wolfgang’s genius brother, Wieland (“I’m surprised that Angela Merkel has let herself become so closely mixed up in the politically risky undertaking that is the Bayreuth complex,” Nike told Der Spiegel, in advance of this year’s festival); and the agreeable boredom of the town itself, which forces you to pay heed to the work at hand. In short, Wagner’s idea for Bayreuth—a city overrun by art—is intact. Every beer-soaked summer rock festival is merely a pale imitation.
The new "Tannhäuser" is the work of the forty-two-year-old Berlin director Sebastian Baumgarten, with sets by the Dutch installation artist Joep van Lieshout. Dominating the stage is a van Lieshout creation known as “The Technocrat,” first exhibited in 2003 and 2004; it presents, in the artist’s words, a “closed circuit of food, alcohol, excrement, and energy.” Large tanks for the distillation of alcohol and the production of bio-gas are surrounded by a three-level structure through which dozens of workers, dressed in tank tops and bright-colored pants, circulate. This is meant to represent the orderly, idealistic world of the Wartburg, the fortress at the center of Wagner’s plot. The contrasting realm of the goddess Venus, whose orgiastic house parties waylay the troubadour Tannhäuser, takes the form of a circular cage inhabited by furry, Neanderthal-like figures and several giant tadpoles. Projected all around is an array of supplementary texts, ranging from fragments of Schiller’s “On the Aesthetic Education of Man” to citations of the German heavy-metal band Rammstein.
No, I didn’t understand it, either. Even veterans of the relentlessly experimental German-opera scene had trouble making sense of the affair. Some members of the audience had trouble seeing it at all; one crucial turn of events, in which the pure-hearted maiden Elisabeth sacrifices herself by throwing herself into the bio-gas tank, was invisible from some seats on the right-hand side of the auditorium. Such are the perils of staging an opera inside a preëxisting art installation. Still, the production proved more pleasantly befuddling than aggressively confounding. Baumgarten is an imaginative director, as I know from having seen his haunting version of Massenet’s “Werther” in Berlin (Christmas Eve in a laundromat), and he injected moments of human drama into van Lieshout’s creepy environment: Tannhäuser’s desperate narrative of his plea for salvation in Rome was played almost straight, with distraught gestures. Other choices seemed random, such as having several dozen audience members sit on either side of the stage; they simply looked uncomfortable, and a few appeared to be edging their chairs backward as the evening went on.
The performance fell below the Bayreuth standard. Lars Cleveman, the Tannhäuser, sang valiantly but showed signs of strain a few minutes into his first scene; mercifully, the second verse of his Hymn to Venus had been cut. Stephanie Friede, the Venus, struggled to control an edgy, errant soprano. Camilla Nylund, as Elisabeth, had spells of quiet, quivering intensity, but tended flat. The vocal standouts were Michael Nagy, a mellifluous Wolfram, and Günther Groissböck, a timber-voiced Landgraf. The conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, known for his work in early music, drew lucid, propulsive playing from the orchestra.
The following night, Katharina Wagner revived her 2007 production of “Die Meistersinger,” which aroused enormous controversy at its début and still angers much of the audience. It is a remarkable act of filial—not to mention great-grand-filial—rebellion. Wolfgang’s stagings of “Meistersinger” strove to minimize the opera’s nationalist elements, its thunderous salutations to “holy German art.” Katharina, by contrast, brings the ominousness to the surface, completely upending Wagner’s moral scheme. In the final scene, Hans Sachs, the wisest and most soulful of the Mastersingers of Nuremberg, is transformed into an absolute villain, a Fascist conjurer out of Thomas Mann’s “Mario and the Magician.” Sixtus Beckmesser, the pedantic villain of the piece, emerges as an outcast hipster hero, his mangled contribution to the climactic song contest refashioned as defiant performance art. At the end, he cowers in terror, and then flees.
Katharina possesses an arresting dramatic imagination, and manages to lighten her design with flashes of wit: a celebrity-conductor figure keeps caressing his hair; a man in a giant Wagner mask walks around, shaking his head. The disgust of Bayreuth conservatives is amusingly anticipated when a gala audience attacks Beckmesser and swoons over the traditional stylings of Sachs’s protégé, Walther von Stolzing. At the heart of the concept is the potent implication that rebels can turn into reactionaries at a moment’s notice.
All the same, this staging, like Baumgarten’s “Tannhäuser,” adheres to an insular, involuted theatrical philosophy that undermines the stated aim of opening the festival to the outside world. (The news that Frank Castorf, yet another Berlin deconstructionist, is in negotiations to direct the next “Ring” at Bayreuth, in 2013, suggests that the new regime is not really inclined to change course.) Most problematic, Wagner’s music becomes an ironic soundtrack rather than the source of the drama. Casting for this “Meistersinger” seemed almost an afterthought: Burkhard Fritz, as Walther, and James Rutherford, as Sachs, had the measure of their parts, but neither fully overcame the bustle of the orchestra, which Sebastian Weigle led in erratic fashion. Perhaps by design, Adrian Eröd, a live-wire Beckmesser, walked away with the performance.
Just when I was beginning to think that Bayreuth had lost its way—each visit to the festival seems to bring such a Valley Forge moment—an unlikely savior arrived in the form of Hans Neuenfels, a director with a long history of scandal. (His most notorious feat was a Salzburg “Fledermaus” featuring cocaine-snorting Nazis.) Last year, Neuenfels came to Bayreuth with a “Lohengrin” that placed the action in a laboratory setting, with the chorus costumed as rats. Boos inevitably erupted. Yet the Neuenfels “Lohengrin,” which was revived on the third day of the festival, turns out to be an austere, elegant, darkly enchanting piece of theatre. The interpolation of the rats—fantastically colored creatures, prancing in front of antiseptic walls—strips the opera of kitsch and turns it into a surreal fable midway between the Brothers Grimm and Kafka. At the same time, it preserves the romance of the story, so that Klaus Florian Vogt and Annette Dasch—portraying, respectively, the mystery knight Lohengrin and his fatally questioning bride, Elsa—could assume fairy-tale poses with fresh conviction.
In contrast to the visual barrage of the preceding nights, this production trained attention on the singers, who made the most of the opportunity. Vogt, a forty-one-year-old native of Schleswig-Holstein who had a career as a horn player before belatedly discovering his vocal gift, gave a dreamlike performance, harking back to the unforced power of early-twentieth-century Wagner tenors. He sang with untiring strength of tone, uncommonly crisp diction, and a gleaming, youthful timbre. Dasch lacked Vogt’s ease in the upper register, but her embodiment of Elsa was sweetly impassioned throughout. Petra Lang was a properly searing Ortrud, Tómas Tómasson a bit weaker as Telramund. The trenchant young bass Georg Zeppenfeld extracted an unlikely psychodrama from the largely expository role of King Heinrich; he was similarly robust as Pogner in “Meistersinger,” and has a major career in front of him. The Bayreuth chorus, under the leadership of Eberhard Friedrich, lived up to its exalted reputation, as it did in “Tannhäuser” and “Meistersinger.”
Andris Nelsons, the rapidly ascendant Latvian maestro, conducted “Lohengrin” with blazing intensity. He often favored kinetic tempos—Act III opened with a precisely controlled explosion—yet he knew when to apply the brakes and savor the grandeur of the Wagnerian landscape. In Act II, after Elsa sings “Es gibt ein Glück, das ohne Reu’” (“There is a happiness without regret”), Nelsons lingered lovingly over the wistful postlude, as if trying to stop the music from sinking into the gloom that ensues. (“Thus evil enters this house,” Telramund soon intones.) Great Wagner performances such as this give the sensation of looking down at the world from a sadly omniscient height, like an empathetic scientist observing rats in a cage.