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?