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A lifelong Wagnerian quits Bayreuth in despair

John Manger, former manager of two London orchestras, is a Wagner addict. Try as he might, he cannot resist the lure of a Ring. Living in Australia, he craved a regular supply of immolation scenes. Back in Britain, he has been feeding his habit wherever he can. And where better than Bayreuth? We asked John to send some impressions of this summer’s operas. They are not for the faint-hearted. Read on:

We left at the end of Walkure Act 2, and didn’t go back.  Cost me an arm and a leg, of course, because the Ring is sold as just one ticket, so if you try and return it to the box office, for further sale to other suckers, you get no money back, even though Festspielhaus will make money out of the resale.

I am only too well aware that almost every new Ring production gets howled down: Wieland Wagner, Götz Friedrich, Chereau, Ponnelle, Hall, Kupfer, etc etc, all had the treatment – which, history tells us usually only lasts for one season, after which productions can quickly achieve ‘classic’ status, it would seem.  Well, not this time, I am certain!  Castorf is a jerk.  He has no interest in the music, the drama, or the actors, it would seem.  Thank goodness the music was good – note, the music and not necessarily the singers.  Castorf suffuses every scene, every dramatic moment, with distracting puerile video clips projected onto various surfaces of the sets, portraying either off-stage action, with a strange voyeuristic obsession with Rhinemaidens, Erda, Fricka, and other women in the plot, or footage of the heroic working classes doing their thing in the oil fields.  There are other features such as humping crocodiles, Rheingold set in a motel on 1950s Route 66, Wotan transmogrifying, in Walküre Act 2, from what looked like a rabbi into the low-life motel owner of Rheingold – for no obvious reason.  And Castorf is clearly a woman-hater of the worst kind: every female role is cast as a blowsy slut, without exception.  And that was just a small part of the Ring!!

And so it went, and got worse, but we weren’t there to see it.  With the exception of Petra Lang, Johan Botha, Klaus Florian Vogt (a bit wet!), the singing never went beyond beta plus.

We came away profoundly relieved to not be there, which I never thought could happen to me.  No production thrilled, moved or, let’s be honest, did anything except annoy/irritate/alienate.  The orchestra was uniformly fine, with Nelsons the pick of the crop, to my ears, with his voluptuous Lohengrin.  Petrenko was good, but not really as great as some of the reviews implied: I think many were just relieved that the orchestra was not as bad in the Ring as what was going on on stage!  Thielemann, Böhm, and Barenboim, to name but three, have been much finer.

In Lohengrin and Tannhauser, the omnipresent undercurrent in both was the dehumanising of the ‘masses’ as portrayed by the various choruses.  For example, all wore numbers on their clothing, even the rats in Lohengrin; all were subjected to ruthless control by ‘hauptmen’ of one sort or another; all were rendered featureless and characterless, and, in the case of the pilgrims in Tannhauser, had all their gold and precious possessions taken rudely from them prior to whatever journey one felt they might be going on.  Now, I wonder where all that comes from?  In a festival that is attempting to cleanse itself of its murky past, why the adherence to barely concealed anti-semitism, holocaust allusions and so on?  This was not a cleansing but, to my mind, a clear demonstration that this place and the directors it employs, are holding on firmly to precisely what they are claiming to abhor: they are anti-Semites and just can’t stop themselves. It is in the character of the place, it is their obsession, they need it to be otherwise it might as well become Salzburg or Aix, or any other festival.  

And the sad truth is that none of this nonsense is in the music!  Wagner treats his choruses with dignity and grandeur, but the current Bayreuth arts management does the opposite.  Wagner eschewed well-worn musical, dramatic and philosophical juggernauts: Bayreuth currently embraces them.  Wagner’s staging illuminated the music and the drama: Bayreuth ignores them.  The Tannhäuser set was a constant throughout, must have been hugely expensive, and contributed absolutely nothing to the action or the drama, nothing.



Stagecraft was appalling in that, for example, tedious projections of German bon mots were unreadable for most of the audience because of stage clutter: Wolfram murders Elizabeth by pushing her into a gasification tank and then sings ‘O du mein holde…’  to a pregnant Venus; Tannhüuser is just a slob, in the Gazza mode; fatuous staged goings-on through the intervals are supposed to illuminate the action, such as a mass held on stage between Acts 2 and 3 to tell us, in case we didn’t know, that Rome is a Catholic place; when the pilgrims return from Rome, cleansed, we assume, they all carry Jaycloths and start polishing everything in sight to cleanse that too. We, the audience, are treated as morons.  Thanks.

Which begs the question of what exactly the point of Bayreuth has become.  Horrifyingly, I think it is heading towards a situation whereby it can only define itself by its own vile history, from which it will choose not to escape…. Whichever way one looks at it, that era of Winifred etc, is needed by the modern Bayreuth to give it purpose.  It clearly is not the artistic tour de force that it has been, nor should it be given the funds that are poured into it.  And, from current evidence, it does not have the artistic leadership to drag it away from the rather silly rut it has driven itself into.  That Katharina Wagner is, I think, embarking on a new production of Tristan does not feel me with any kind of hope – only further despair.

Will I apply to go again?  Yes,  just in case a good production with a good cast does miraculously appear.  So, yes, I am trapped.  Pathetic, isn’t it?

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  1. Offer your ticket to me! Let me go back a half-century and consider the first Wagner I saw in Bayreuth where there was a grim “holy shrine” omnipresence that was frankly shocking to me. The opera was the Wieland Wagner “abstracted” Tannhauser and the Venusburg music had to a ballet corps simulating sex in flesh colored body stockings. Those who missed their helmets and horns were grumbling loudly. “How dare they!” Apostasy is not a new concept in Bayreuth.
    Castorf could be having a bit of fun with the absurd, pompous and endless “drama” of the Ring. Why not? No sensitive person would maintain that Wagner, as a dramatist, is equal to Shiller or Goethe. Only “true believers” (a breed approaching extinction these days) find importance or significance in the writing. You should have heard the Barenboim “Ring” at the Proms and avoided all those palpitations. Helmets and horns have gone forever.

    • Sure Frank. And people here wonder why classical music is dead.

    • I am as familiar as it is possible to be with Ring productions, in Bayreuth and elsewhere, going back fifty years or so. I do not crave helmets, strangely, Frank. Castorf ‘having fun’, at the huge expense to those of us who were lucky enough to have tickets, was neither funny, nor clever. He is neither witty, smart, talented nor interesting. What we got was a dreary worn-out Marxist diatribe – you should see the programme notes! – which was pure bollocks. My worry is that the powers that be at Bayreuth don’t seem to see that they are being taken for a ride by all this gibberish, clearly, instead, believing it to be some kind of intellectual leap forward! Gawsh! Producers like Kupfer, both in Bayreuth and subsequently in Berlin, can offer something which contributes to the experience rather than gratuitously distracts from it . My previous low, and it was not even the ROH/Haitink Ring, was a Dresden production for which the stage sets for each part of the cycle, were rows of cheap dining chairs facing away from the audience. Go figure. Castorf was worse: he was trying to be ‘important’!

  2. I can hear – bring back ENO, all is forgiven :)

  3. I went to Bayreuth as a guest for the final dress rehearsal of Gotterdammerung in 2009. Having gone all that way to see friends and then to go to Bayreuth as an unpaid treat, I came away having witnessed our own Andrew Shore, with whom I sang in Kent Opera days, sing the rest of the cast off the stage on that occasion, whatever about the production.

  4. David Boxwell says:

    Join a very long queue, Mr. Manger.

    (Seattle’s current cycle is just about the only option for those craving a reasonably satisfying staging that recpgnizably respects Wagner’s conception of his own epic).

  5. James Brinton says:

    This is rather more to the point–and sharply pointed–than most of the published reviews. Hear, hear.
    This is what happens when great art falls into the hands of Philistines.

  6. Richard Barker says:

    German productions all look exactly the same whatever the music may be.
    My advice is not to set foot in the country.

    • The ignorance of such a statement, Richard Barker, beggars belief.
      Luckily, there are few who will heed your advice.

      • Bassolirico says:

        After having lived in the German-speaking Europe since a couple of years and having worked in the theatre establishment there I agree with Mr. Baker 100%. This area is sick, constantly in need of psychoanalysis, ridiculing and declassifying everything beautiful and old into “kitsch” category.

    • I’m with you.

  7. Simon Morgan says:

    I must say, I find it distinctly questionable for people who haven’t actually seen a production — or who left halfway through — to pretend to be able to pass judgement on it.
    There was a great deal wrong with Castorf’s Ring from my own point of view and I agree with many things that John Manger objected to in the parts that he saw.

    I don’t know whether Mr Manger has met Frank Castorf in person, but I don’t think calling him a “jerk” makes a constructive contribution to the debate.
    How many other directors/artists/singers/composers are or were “jerks”, but still produced great things?
    How many weren’t and still produced dross?

    Interestingly, in Germany this week, someone who had obtained tickets to the Bayreuth Ring took out ads in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung — at considerable expense — to announce that he would not be making use of them.
    And he hadn’t even seen the production for himself.

    I blogged about it here:

    • Yes, well ‘jerk’ is a bit subjective, but so is it all?!

      I was very, and I mean very, reliably informed – by one of the cast – that leaving when we did had enabled us to see the very best of the production: it was downhill from the end of Walkure onwards. The experience meant that I can still not hate Bayreuth, nor the great music there; I just feel disappointed, again, by what was on offer. It wasn’t just the Ring, by the way. Just a very poor season as a whole.

      • Simon Morgan says:

        Yes. The Ring was a huge disappointment. I’m not trying to defend it or Bayreuth in anyway.
        But when the dust settles, I think people will admit that, in the relatve scheme of things, there’s been worse., a lot worse, such as the previous Ring by Tankred Dorst.

        • Yes, well, probably. The Dorst Ring was irritating, I agree, but never set out to be as portentous as Castorf. But, in the end, it comes down to taste and one can only react with honesty to what one sees and feels.

          • Did Castorf set out to be portentous, though?
            In the run-up to the premiere, Castorf expressly warned people about expecting too much, especially given the short time he’d had to stage it following the botched negotiations with Wim Wenders.
            Of course, Castorf might have been being disingenuous in making such a remark.
            But given it was the Bicentenary Ring, ANY director would have been up against an almost impossible level of expectations.
            Following the debacle with Lars von Trier over the 2006 Ring and then the shambles of the negotiations with Wim Wenders for the 2013 Ring, there was no way that anyone could have come up with a comptetely satisfying production in such a short space of time.

          • Yes, I think he did. The programme notes indicate just that. Excusing himself beforehand the way he did brings only adds to the disgrace, I’m afraid. But, in that context, how incompetent were the senior people at Bayreuth to make such a mess of getting the right people in to do the bicentenary Ring?

  8. Simon Morgan says:

    Sorry, the link should read:

  9. Well, no, I am not trapped. Having been attending Bayreuth since 1966 I reached the end of the road with the
    recent Parsifal and Lohengrin and was bored rigid by the Tristan (all in 2011). Reading about this year’s RING was a great shock. I am sick of the CONzepts of these theatrical hooligans.

    The issue is exactly as John Manger says : should all this be allowed to happen – and the public grossly insulted – when millions of Euros of public money is involved ?

    No, I will not go again. There are far better things to do and other opera houses to visit.

  10. That ‘Tristan’ was a shocker, I quite agree!

  11. Sam McElroy says:

    However unappealing to your particular sensitivities, and it does sound like and alarmingly mindless production as you report it, I can not imagine voluntarily being elsewhere on this planet when I could be listening to “Leb Wohl…!” at Bayreuth, and to all of that unsurpassably beautiful orchestral writing in Act 3. I’m sure I would have found respite for my eyes by simply closing them.

    • I closed my eyes often! Apparently, at that great moment you mention, videos of oil wells grinding into action were played out on the stage. Problem with closing your eyes is that you have to see what you are closing your eyes to! And there’s the rub: you are distracted, the flow destroyed, the moment gone.

  12. Gurnemanz says:

    Winifred Wagner could not disenchant people with Bayreuth, but Katharina and Eva can, and they are doing an excellent job at it.

  13. People still waste their time and money in German opera houses? Really? This is masochism.

    • There are still some great orchestras, though!

    • Indeed they do. And it’ll come as a surprise to people like yourself that attendance is up and still rising in many houses around the country.
      Opera is alive and well in Germany, where there are more opera houses and concert halls than anywhere else in the world.
      Your comment, as those of the other German-bashers on this thread, simply reveal your own cultural ignorance.

      • Agreed”

      • It’s not what I’m told by friends in Germany. Attendance is low and houses are closing or fusing with each other. Regietheater is a cancer that is killing opera in Europe. The quality of singing is lower with each new generation of singers and performances are merely bureaucratic. Face facts and enjoy what people with your mentality are helping to destroy.

        • It’s always a sign of intellectual bankruptcy when you resort to insults.
          I suggest your friends check their facts and do their research.

          • Bassolirico says:

            Then tell me please why Germans rush to Verona to enjoy some real Italian stuff produced with good old-time taste without force-fed porno, washing machines, vulgarity, ugly and inconsistent settings? No insults here, only the crude reality from the stages where I perform too.

          • “Germans” do, do they? And which “Germans” would they be?
            All 82 million of them?
            Oh, I forgot. You’ve lived in Germany “a couple of years”, so that makes you the World’s Number One Expert on Everything German.
            You know Germany better than the “Germans” do themselves.
            And they’re SO grateful that they have you as their self-appointed spokesman.

            Funny that, as a German myself and one who works in the opera and classical music industry, I don’t think I know anyone who “rushes to Verona to enjoy some real Italian stuff. etc. etc. ”
            And a great deal of my colleagues, musicians, singers, conductors et al find Germany to be the most exciting place to be in opera because of the breadth and depth of its opera and music theatre, from Regietheater to more traditional productions.

            But there again, who am I to say such things when YOU are such an expert.

          • I would also like to point out that if bassolirico were correct about Germans fleeing their country’s opera houses for Verona, how come all the statistics show that attendance is up and rising in a great many German houses?
            If his statement had any truth to it, then Germany’s opera companies would be playing to empty houses.

            Frankfurt Opera had capacity utilisation of 90% in the 2012-2013 season, the Bavarian State Opera could boast 98.66% for this year’s summer festival. Hamburg achieved capacity utlisation of 87% last season, Cologne 90%.

            You can’t compare an open-air venue like Verona with an ordinary opera house anyway.
            It’s a completely different sort of event that attracts a completely different sort of audience, who are there for the spectacle. Music, singing and staging is certainly not top of their priorities.

            But if you’re going to compare a similar open event in the German-speaking world, then you should take Bregenz, where productions are anything but traditional. And their preliminary estimate for this summer’s festival was capacity utilisation of 100%.
            In other words it was completely sold out.

            Not much signs of anyone fleeing there.
            Sorry, Bassolirico, you couldn’t be more wrong.

  14. Well, I’m off to see Parsifal at the Proms this week with our own Manchester Halle and Mark Elder the backbone of the opera. No production, no one hanging off the ceiling trying to sing or sitting in a fridge. Promises to be musically excellent, given the line-up of singers. Not trying to brag but just say that something a bit more modest and less money can sometimes come off the best – I paid £32 to sit in the Stalls. When I went to the Barenboim Ring there in July, there were agents trying to sell tickets for Bayreuth at some outlandish price for what sounds like a total disaster. I too have contacts in Bayreuth, both singers like myself, and they dislike it so much.

    I hope I am now not going to be insulted and accused of intellectual bankruptcy, just because I give my views. You all seem to be experts at each other’s throats. Sadly I’m not an expert, just a singer.

    • Enjoy Parsifal. Elder knows what he is doing. Not everything in this country is good, and not everything in Germany is bad. We all have a great deal to be thankful,for, let’s face it!

  15. May I add another comment, rather more beautifully expressed than I could ever achieve? It comes from Roger Scruton in the latest ‘Spectator’ and he writes, of the Ring: ‘Why is it that we are now condemned to experience this work produced by one of the greatest imaginations that has ever existed, through the shrivelled imagination of producers who know how to sneer at our ideals but have never understood why we need them?’

    Mr Castorf: please note.

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