Report from Bayreuth, August 2017

Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth 2017


Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth 20 August 2017
Parsifal - Bayreuth, 22 August 2017
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Bayreuth, 27 August 2017


By Jenny Ferns


Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth, 20 August 2017
Conductor: Christian Thielemann; Director: Katharina Wagner; Tristan: Stephen Gould; König Marke: Rene Pape; Isolde: Petra Lang; Kurwenal: Iain Paterson; Melot: Raimund Nolte; Brangäne: Christa Mayer; Ein Hirt: Tansel Akzeybek; Ein Steuermann: Kay Stiefermann; Junger Seemann: Tansel Akzeybek.

Being a Middle Ages “capture” story, Act 1 begins with an explanation of the back-story of the conflict between Cornwall and Ireland—a war to do with taxation. King Marke, a childless widower, bids his nephew Tristan (an orphan) to capture Irish Isolde, to become his future wife. Isolde, who was betrothed to Morold, who has been killed by Tristan. Tristan was injured in this event and, as “Tantris”, was brought back to heath by Isolde’s special medicines and healing powers. Isolde has a definite grudge against Tristan in view of the expectation that she is being brought to Cornwall to become the wife of King Marke.

The setting for Act 1 is a labyrinth of kinetic staircases and railings representing the deck of the ship en route to Cornwall. Isolde and Brangäne discuss the back-story. Isolde plans to meet with Tristan and in a friendly manner offer him a peace potion (which she clandestinely intends to switch into a death potion). Brangäne overhears this plan. Unbeknownst to Isolde, Brangäne swaps it for a “love” potion. During the long interchange between Tristan and Isolde, the audience is kept in suspense as to how this outcome will be achieved. Ultimately with much discussion and many exchanges of a large phial of pink (dishwashing?) liquid, neither drinks the fluid, as they are clearly in love. They pour out the pink liquid, while admitting their already dominating infatuation. Nothing changes. Brangäne plays a much more active and supportive role than I’ve seen formerly.

Act 2 is the factory/prison hold of the ship with Tristan, Isolde, Brangäne, and Tristan’s offsider Kurwenal, all under spotlights controlled by wardens, thereby eliminating any possibility of privacy. King Marke, and his offsider Melot are dressed in oversized yellow clothing. In the case of King Marke (Rene Pape new in this 2017 production) wearing an enormous yellow overcoat, topped by a yellow wide-brimmed hat, obscuring any vision of his face, is shown as an aggressor. The duet of Tristan and Isolde is performed mainly under the spotlights, with any suggestion of privacy being achieved by Isolde erecting a flimsy grey cloth screen illuminated from within by solar energy stars, to accompany their ecstatic moments. At the end of the act, Kurwenal performed his usual contorted distracting role with occasional references
to loyalty to Tristan. Melot is clearly opposed to Tristan’s disloyalty towards King Marke.

Act 3 commences with a cor-anglais solo that accompanies companions of Kurwenal and Tristan as they bring white lilies (a symbol of death in German custom and literature) predicting Tristan’s Tod. The lighting during this scene plays an important role with symbolic illuminated triangles projected at various angles and directions around and above the stage. The central image in these spaces are celestial representations of the red-headed Isolde, constantly being summoned by the ailing Tristan. Petra Lang in appearance and acting portrays the quintessential impetuous Irish maiden more accurately than any other. Brangäne, the ever-loyal companion for Isolde, supports her mistress with dramatic and vocal accuracy with which she solidly describes their relationship. During this scene the orchestra’s luscious.

presence below the stage, projects into the auditorium, confirming the presence of many, unseen, performers of untold ability under the management of their mentor, Thielemann. Meanwhile the developing action on stage has Tristan, absurdly, blindfolded under the control of the wardens of this prison. He is therefore unable to defend himself, thereby incurring Melot’s wrath as he lunges again at the non-combatant Tristan, resulting in Tristan’s life ending wound.

Both Tristan and Isoldes’ final soliloquies were conveyed in climactic thrilling singing. King Marke’s solo was less expressive than expected (perhaps due to the overwhelming imposition of the enormous yellow hat). This production, as with many current modern productions, has the characters not really relating to each other effectively.

All performers were richly applauded, with Christian Thielemann, in his traditional blue suit with the Chinese collar, taking the bows on behalf of the well-deserving subterranean orchestra.

Parsifal, Bayreuth, 22 August 2017
Conductor: Hartmut Haenchen; Production: Uwe Eric Laufenberg; Choir Director: Eberhard Friedrich; Amfortas: Ryan McKinny; Titurel: Karl-Heinz Lehner; Gurnemanz: Georg Zeppenfeld; Parsifal: Andreas Schager; Klingsor: Derek Welton (Australian); Kundry: Elena Pankratova.

This production brings together many references to other oriental stories, non-Christian religious references and, of-course, Christianity. During the playing of the overture the scene is set in the derelict ruins of a bombed-out former Christian church in Mosul on the Tigris River in Iraq during this current period. Many tired pilgrims (refugees) sleep, on colourful mats, foam mattresses, stretchers encased in assorted blankets and sleeping-bags. Under the watchful eye of an anonymous moribund vigilante perched on the roof of the church, the events of Parsifal’s self-discovery and transformation occur. His killing of the swan and his subsequent viewing of a communion service under the tutelage of Gurnemanz makes it clear that he is ignorant of the ways of the community and he has transgressed their rules. He realises he needs to learn from experience with the assistance of Kundry and Gurnemanz.

In the current production in Bayreuth, by Uwe Eric Laufenberg and conducted by Hartmut Haenchen, other transformations also occur. A widely relevant interpretation, inclusive of current political developments helps to break- down barriers, which maybe not of Richard Wagner’s intention. This all was conveyed by beautiful solo, as well as ensemble singing from all of the main singers, together with the huge chorus, both on and off stage, prepared by Eberhard Friedrich. The orchestra, conducted by
Hartmut Haenchen delivered the usual wonderful standard of individual and collective performances. There was outstanding singing by Georg Zeppenfeld as Gurnemanz and Andreas Schager as Parsifal, as well as Aussie, Derek Welton as Klingsor. Soprano Elena Pankratova presented fearless  and multi-talented acting and singing performance. Stage presentation and lighting in particular, kept the dramatic topical relevance at the forefront.

The action on stage reminded us of the sensitivity of the local individual events, past and present, giving the feeling of involvement with these experiences as they happened. Environmental issues, as well as clever scene changes, kept it topical. At various times, where appropriate, crowds of “pilgrims”, here disguised as refugees (? Muslims) find succour in the partially destroyed church. Kundry rescues and comforts a small child (reminiscent of the dead child washed up on the Greek coastline recently), emblematic of her constant wish to “serve”. One fascinating change of scene involved Google world, with an image extending from the church to outer space, presented as digital images on the stage-front scrim surface. The return journey back to Earth and specifically to the Iraq destination brought us back to the subject at hand.

Kundry showed diverse talents, incorporating many personas in the one character. Despite her constant need for sleep, the range of stage-craft requires enormous and diverse skills. Not a slightly-built person, in Act II, Elena Pankratova was shown as an aged participant suffering the effects of early Parkinson’s Disease with a quivering hand. Her attention also turned to domestic duties, including the cleaning out of the small bar-fridge and the disposal of undesired objects into the nearby bin located in an almost destroyed annex of the Mosul church. The lengthy amorous scene with Parsifal, clothed as a militant intruder, culminating in the “kiss” scene requires singing superbly in a supine position—and enormous skill and concentration. She also washes Parsifal’s feet, using her hair as a towel, (in reference to Mary Magdalene) in order to show her loyalty in service of the Grail monks. Parsifal begins to learn from her, and Gurnemanz, about worldly matters and wishes to take responsibility for his actions.

Amfortas, here a relatively youthful, slightly-built individual, was more mobile than most of his languishing counterparts in other productions. Nevertheless, in Act I, his wounds were not healed by the exotic tincture brought by Kundry, nor the bathing, nor the wilful aggravation of the wound and stigmata by his brethren, in order to create sufficient blood-flow to provide enough blood for the Grail monks’ communion. (At this point a member of the audience, sitting in the middle of the stalls, fainted and had to be extracted from the auditorium.)

The crown-of-thorns provided Amfortas with the symbolic relationship with Christ and the Grail monks’ commitment to their Christian religion. Klingsor, here depicted as a Muslim, with his prayer-mat confusion and weird collection of Christian crucifix memorabilia, may have been intended to suggest Wagner’s concern/criticism of religion being a curse for all mankind. Klingsor was most preoccupied with his collection of crucifixes, one of which in particular had an unusually phallic design. His flower-maidens, all providing excellent choral skills, were transformed from chador-wearing anonymous street citizens to lusciously under- dressed belly-dancers. A curiously humorous introduction to this production occurred, at an early point in his scene, when Klingsor, though apparently also a long-term resident of Mosul, had difficulty determining the direction of Mecca. When placing his prayer-mat at the relevant time, he discovered, with the use of a compass, that he had been offering his prayers in the wrong direction. (This may have been to recognize some unfamiliarity with his current location, of the Australian singer, Derek Welton, having come from the wrong hemisphere.)

Act III is set in the overgrown ruins of the church, showing the dominance of nature. The “Good Friday Music” accompanies a scene depicting final overthrow of all religious dogma and universal mutual respect pervades all participants as well as the audience in an effort to break down human-created barriers. At the conclusion of the opera the diverse remaining residents and neighbours, including rejoicing (naked) maidens taking a shower in

a spontaneous waterfall, on the advice of the very aged Titurel (Karl Heinz Lehner), all relinquished allegiances to their various deities and joined a new wave of friendship between the members of Parsifal’s congregation, including the Monks of Amfortas’s brethren, together with various sects and passing pilgrims of various denominations. The concluding orchestral procession included the conscious awareness of the passive observing audience by means of the use of spotlights and house lights, uniting all participants, members of the cast, including Parsifal, creating a microcosm of an idealized future of goodwill and togetherness. The observing vigilante remained unmoved by the whole process.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth, 27 August 2017
Conductor: Philippe Jordan; Director: Barrie Kosky; Choir Master: Eberhard Friedrich; Hans Sachs: Michael Volle; Veit Pogner: Gunther Groissbock; Kunz Vogelgesang: Tansel Akzeybek; Konrad Nachtigal: Armin Kolarczyk; Fritz Kothner: Daniel Schmutzhard; Balthasar Zorn: Paul Kaufmann; Ulrich Eisslinger: Christopher Kaplan; Augustin Moser: Stefan Heibach; Hermann Ortel: Raimund Nolte; Hans Schwarz: Andreas Horl; Hans Foltz: Timo Riihonen; Walther von Stolzing: Klaus Florian Vogt; David: Daniel Behle; Eva Pogner: Anne Schwanewilms; Magdalene: Wiebke Lehmkuhl; Ein Nachtwachter: Karl-Heinz Lehner; Helga Beckmesser harpist: Barbara Mayr.

Wagner’s only “comedy” Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was first performed in Munich in 1868. It is the 12th production of Meistersinger at Bayreuth since its inception. It describes a post Reformation (Protestant) Nuremburg of the 16thcentury where society managed itself with a town council of tradesmen (guild) members. One important member of this group was the Town Clerk, in this case Sixtus Beckmesser.

This production is the first time a Jewish director has been appointed for any opera at the Bayreuth Festspiele. 

Despite the presence of a forlorn swallow circling the auditorium for all of the first Act, the minor distraction did little to reduce the impact of the extraordinary re-creation of a fictional living/lounge-room in Villa “Wahnfried”. (*literal translation: freedom from delusion, folly, madness,): (the home in Bayreuth of the Wagner family) in the 1870s. Date- and time-specific information, as extracted from Cosima Wagner’s diary, was shown, in German, on a scrim in front of the open curtain during the overture. A great deal of activity of the household presented family and various visitors enjoying an afternoon-tea party. The hypothetical extended Wagner family, including two Newfoundland dogs (returning from a walk in the adjacent Hofgarten with Richard), introduced various look-alikes of Richard Wagner, covering several generations. Serving maids and callers-by created an ever-increasing sense of activity in the enormous sitting-room. A grand piano mutely accompanied the overture whilst being “played” 4-handed, by “Richard Wagner” and “Franz Liszt”. The Wagner character transmogrified into Hans Sachs as did the Liszt into Veit Pogner, (father of Eva), both members of the guild of Meistersingers of Nuremburg. Hermann Levi, Wagner’s then current resident conductor (impersonated by Beckmesser) participated in the afternoon-tea
but provided his own sandwich wrapped in brown-paper, together with a glass of milk as his appropriate beverage. An obvious reference to his Jewish kosher food requirement. (He is an assimilated citizen but still an “outsider”.)

The remaining Meister (craftsmen, not necessarily singers) entered the living room through the elevated lid of the grand piano. Other people used various doorways to gain access. A succession of parcels, letters and deliveries of luxury items addressed to Richard Wagner arrived. The mail, including the accounts for the newly arrived items, were forwarded to Cosima. (Items delivered to Richard Wagner included some new shoes, some elegantly woven silk fabric and a box of variously coloured perfumes, which were duly smelled and passed amongst surrounding guests.)

In an effort at authenticity in this production, teapots and coffee pots and cups and saucers of real porcelain were used, accompanied by a large box of “Nuremburger Lebkuchen” (traditional local biscuits), which were circulated and consumed by younger members of the family, guild members and their friends. Cosima/Eva acted as hostess to Richard Wagner/Hans Sachs. Identifying who was who took a while to unravel, but lots of humorous diversions made this Act really memorable.

Lots of energetic activity of the opening scene (usually set in the outskirts of a Nuremburg church), eventually settled into the thanks-giving hymn session, where the obviously Jewish associate of Wagner (Hermann Levi)/Beckmesser found it difficult to participate in the Christian kneeling and crossing for prayer at the appropriate times. Sixtus Beckmesser, played and sung by Johannes Martin Kranzle, had acquired all the Jewish affectation which could have type-cast him for life, 

however his singing, and dancing, in extremes occasionally, showed his extra skill, the lute playing with the suspect accompaniment to his songs, requires a sense of the absurd.

Michael Volle as Hans Sachs had an extended vocal presence as the central character. Most suitable support came from the delightful assistant shoe-maker, David. Daniel Behle (who also sang Froh in Das Rheingold) is a rising star to keep an eye on.

Act II commences in a dually functional place. A room set out as a court-room, but with a floor of a green meadow where picnics can be held and people can place themselves in positions to overhear others’ conversations. Sachs is at work making/repairing shoes. Eva is pleased about Walther’s interest in entering the forthcoming competition. Walther learns quickly what is expected of him, and inspired by a dream, and with the assistance of Hans Sachs, composes a song that complies with the structure both poetical and musical of what the rules require. Sachs acts as the scribe for Walther’s ideas. He leaves the text lying around; it is found by Beckmesser who adapts it for his own purposes. He becomes the object of humour (and anti-Semitic ridicule) at various times whilst practising his singing, accompanying himself on a lute. Some of his singing has a particularly Sephardic cantorial nuance. He persists with his rehearsal of his song while also trying to impress a young lady sitting at a nearby window, thinking that she may be Eva. During Beckmesser’s practice singing and dancing, Hans Sachs hammers out his criticism using a judicial gavel as a substitute for his usual shoe-hammer. The volume and persistent banging, together with the mood of the crowd also attending this bucolic scene inside the “courtroom” (welcoming the festival of Johannestag the following day) creates great confusion. A Night-watchman is heard, and his call restores the area to its usual peacefulness. In the disturbance Beckmesser is injured requiring him to have his hands bandaged and rendering him unable to accompany himself on his lute when competing for the Prize Song.

The scene-change during Act II, behind an open curtain, is achieved by six or eight large hooks being lowered from above and being attached to the green carpet (meadow) and raised out of sight. The room reverts to a courtroom (reminiscent of that in which the Nuremburg Trials were held in the 1950s decorated with the national flags of Britain, USA, France and USSR), a suitable venue for a competition to take place. The final scene of Act II presents a most confronting image to confirm the message being conveyed by the suggested anti- Semitic portrayal of the persona of Beckmesser. A huge inflated balloon arises at front stage in the shape of a stereotypical Jewish man’s head [as used in the Nazi propaganda tool: Der Stürmer—Ed.]. It occupies the whole of the open area of the proscenium. As the scene concludes it deflates and in doing so, leans forward, exposing the top of his head, capped by a yarmulke on which a large Star of David is embroidered. As the curtain closes there is no doubt about the dichotomy of ideas which are being exposed in this production.

For Act III the scene remains the formal “court” room. Sachs is interrupted from his shoe-making by various visitors. Walther inspired by another dream finds a concluding section for his song. A side story confirms Eva’s interest in Walther’s success but also acknowledges her respect of, and affection, for Sachs. David and Magdalena are also present and a beautiful quintet results. Sachs sings a long private soliloquy where he acknowledges the crazy state of the world.

The second part of Act III involves the whole community celebrating St Johannes Day. Wonderful Renaissance costumes (Klaus Bruns), including wigs and headwear, set the production in Bruegel-like accuracy. The celebration still takes place in the courtroom setting but additional flags and banners give it greater festivity. One brown-clad [US], armed military official remains in position to manage decorum of the situation. Hans Sachs sings a very patriotic song, praising German “Art” and nationalism.

Because of his inability through his earlier injury, Beckmesser enlists the help of a harpist to assist him to play his lute accompaniment. He makes a thorough mess of the song and then he and the harpist disappear. The final scene with the removal of the crowds, which Kosky had so well manipulated arriving on stage, and leaving, transforms to reveal the singular character of Wagner/Sachs. He stands in the witness box/ podium conducting an ersatz orchestra, revealed by a rising curtain and sitting on an approaching platform, to imply the dominance of music being the art form to convey culture appreciation universally over the negative aspects of history.

Postscript: The idea of Barrie Kosky being chosen to direct Meistersinger was a great opportunity for him to show Meistersinger in a different light. Normally, small reference is made to the “individuality” of Beckmesser. He is often shown as a “different” character in the Nuremburg society. Most productions continue as bright picturesque entertainments with a few humorous touches. Little emphasis is given to the serious discussion of the role of “German Art” as described by Wagner, in the more recent light of German history. Here, there is a clear suggestion that Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism was a fact of life. In the gardens adjacent to the Festspielhaus an extensive permanent display recognises the sacrifices of many former participants/performers at the Bayreuth Festival during the National Socialist times. Current management wants to acknowledge the historic wrongs imposed on those people in the early 20th century who had any kind of Jewish heritage.

Barrie Kosky bravely joined with the performers in taking a bow at the end of the opera. His appearance
was initially met with mixed feelings, though quickly the applause dominated any negative original impulse. There is much positive to take away from this production, much humour and with further thought, much more to appreciate. I understand a HD video will be filmed during the performances in Bayreuth in the Summer of 2018. A simulcast was shown across the whole of Europe during one of the performances in August 2017.