Report from Berlin: Wieland and Wagner Symposium and some Music-drama + opera, November 2017

Wagner Wochenenden, Berlin 2017

By Esteban Insausti

It was with some trepidation that I made my way to the Deutsche Oper on a cold Friday afternoon (10 November). I knew that the symposium would be entirely in German despite its “international” branding. And so it was that over two days, an afternoon and a morning, the symposium offered several papers on the work of Wieland Wagner whose centenary it celebrated. Wieland being one of the major theatre visionaries of the mid 20th century as well as Richard’s grandson. To complement the symposium during the same weekend the Deutsche Oper performed Tannhaeuser, Lohengrin and Der Fliegende Hollander, the whole thing promoted as a “Wagner Wochenenden”.

The symposium was held in the foyer of the Deutsche Oper offered three papers and a film of Wieland from 1967, sandwiching two conversations moderated by Rainer Fineske (President of the Wagner Society Berlin-Brandenburg): one with Anja Silja, Wieland’s muse/collaborator for the last 6 years of his life, the other with Dr Nike Wagner, Wieland’s third child and successful dramaturg/arts organiser. I decided to miss the film at the end of the Friday session as I needed to get back East for Satyagraha at the Komische.

The papers presented were as follows:

  • Ingrid Kapsamer from Vienna presented “Wieland Wagners ‘Kultisches Theater’ am Beispiel seiner Berlin Inszenierungen 1959-1962” (Ritual Theatre in Berlin productions between 1959 and 1962).

  • Josef Lienhart presented “Szene in Licht und Farbe: Wieland Wagner in Bayreuth 1951-1966” (Staging in Light and Colour: Bayreuth 1951-1966).

  • Stephan Moesch from Karlsruhe presented “Symbol und Wirklichkeit – Wieland Wagners Wandlungen in Bayreuth” (Symbol and Reality - Wieland’s transformations in Bayreuth).

What came across all three papers was the breadth of Wieland’s output and the focus of his dramaturgy. As a designer and director he was very collaborative (and very generous I assume). The blocking and movement in most of his productions are owed to his wife, Gertrud Reissinger, a dancer and choreographer. His conception of the two “Rings” at Bayreuth stem from the traditions at Bayreuth that he saw growing up in the Festspielhaus as well as the influences and theories he obviously absorbed around Germany. As an artist he roamed widely and was far more inquisitive than his privileged cloistered upbringing would suggest - the work and theories of Adolphe Appia, the avant-garde Kroll Opera productions, the theories of Jung, the theatre of Brecht, together with more classical fare all fed his imagination. Growing up in Bayreuth he was exposed to a “free” education with the best in the business (at the time). His grandfather’s immersion in Classical Greek theatre also made its way into his dramaturgy. Hence the sense of ritual that imbued his productions in Berlin and later Bayreuth. The use of symbols and primordial totems (seen in the Berlin production of “Aida”, 1961) became fully realised at Bayreuth in productions like “Tristan und Isolde” (1962) with its giant funerary stele, and the second “Ring” (1965). In his second Bayreuth “Ring” the wall/backdrop was a direct reference to the Classical Greek skene (or even the more elaborate Roman theatre scaenae-frons) gnarled by runes and skulls and other primordial symbology, blurring what was a natural material (stone, wood) and what was applied.

For me one of the most interesting aspects of Wieland’s work is the progression of the dramaturgy and scenography of his two “Rings” at Bayreuth (1951-1958 and 1965-1969). Here he synthesises all his talents and influences over the tetralogy. The economy, purity and decluttering of 1951 gave way to the almost Baroque 1965 production. The 1951 “Ring” was both a necessity showing generational and scenographic change but also making a political break with the past. Wieland tweaked and added to the production over the next 7 seasons displaying great flexibility and confidence. The use of colour and spare forms immediately conjure Wieland the painter as well as the successor and realiser of Appia’s thesis. The statue like forms and limited movement of characters suggesting Classical Greek “gods”. The mannered makeup, beards and wigs adding to the sense that we were watching Aeschylus orchestrated by Wagner. And then after a 5 year break we get a completely different but not dissimilar production where the endless vista or edge of the world is replaced by a wall. Wieland is one of the great scenographic innovators of the 20th century and his influence remains to this day.

The conversation between the soprano Anja Silja and Rainer Fineske about her cultural collaboration with Wieland Wagner was lively. The great soprano displaying palpable reticence in revealing matters that are clearly private (often punctuated with a sharp monosyllabic reply) but also  expansive in what it was like to “co-create” a role anew with Wieland. She seemed to me to be as charismatic, intelligent and dynamic now as she would have been in her 20s. The second conversation with Dr Nike Wagner was more in depth and my German did not match what was being said to make it intelligible or satisfactory. There was a poignant moment when both Nike and Anja waved to each other across the foyer at the beginning of the talk (a public acknowledgment that the potential animosity over the favours and love of Wieland and the damage caused all those years ago wasn’t there anymore).

That was the symposium. I enjoyed it despite not being able to understand everything. My rudimentary grasp of the language of Goethe was enough to understand what was going on albeit missing a lot of the detail. Two observations about the symposium. One, it was a shame that there wasn’t a paper analysing Wieland’s Stuttgart productions as I think they are far more experimental than the ones in Berlin. But I assume that because the symposium was being held in Berlin at the Deutsche Oper and hosted by the Berlin Chapter of the Wagner Society it had to be Berlin-centric. The second observation is a practical one: I assume I was not the only non-German speaker there and despite the event being branded an international one, and by the very nature of it subject matter of international interest and importance, it was assumed we were all fluent in German. A translation of the papers or a precis of them in English and French would have added value to the appreciation of the symposium and acknowledged that interest in all things Wagner is not limited to Germany. Now briefly about the productions.

The Tannhaeuser by Kirsten Harms with designs by Bernd Damovsky was somewhat thin, not minimal - as a minimal production can say much with little. So I rather say “thin” because there was not much context, and what there was didn’t add to our understanding of the narrative or the psychology of the piece. Bits of gear came up from the stage (in the most unsexy bacchanal in memory) or descended from the fly (empty armour appropriately). The singing and orchestra sounded great under Michael Boder. Andreas Schager sang the title role, Emma Bell doubled Venus and Elizabeth with Markus Brueck singing Wolfram.

Lohengrin promised much on paper - Klaus Florian Vogt, Petra Lang (Ortrud) and Donald Runnicles in the pit – and it delivered. This was a performance that was just “on” from the first tremolo. I was much impressed by Klaus Florian Vogt’s beautiful tenor, clear, pure and to my ears higher than your normal heldentenor. The production by Kasper Holten with staging by Steffen Aarfing didn’t get in the way of the music. The swan was a projection on the “fog” high above the back of the stage which then assumed physical form as giant wings carried by Lohengrin as he appeared centre stage. Rachel Willis-Sorensen sang Elsa and Simon Neal Telramund.

The “Dutchman” in a production by Christian Spuck with sets by Rufus Didwiszus was all shades of black and grey, very foggy and atmospheric. The production was from the point of view of Eric, not as spurned or jilted lover, but as
a man who understood the sacrifice to be made by Elsa for the Dutchman and could do little to prevent it or alter the outcome. The production could have done with a bit more colour (where were the red sails of the Dutchman? Or the ghost chorus?) but overall I loved it. Conductor John Fiore and orchestra were particularly fine with Alexander Krasnov as the Dutchman and Elisabeth Teige as Senta.

As a personal side programme/commentary to all that Wagner I took advantage of what was on offer in Berlin that week (which was not insubstantial) and saw/heard Pelleas et Melisande and Satyagraha at the Komische Oper. Seeing all these works close together underscores both the influence of Wagner and the challenge he set those that came after him to renew, to challenge and to deliver theatre that is of its time, that adds to the narrative of the art form and questions its relevance. So I got to experience three early Wagnerian music-dramas side by side an early 20th century opera heavily influenced by Wagner and a late 20th century work seemingly denying Wagner but adopting his epic, mystic and sublimative ways. How, who and what will take up the legacy of Wagner in the 21st century?

Debussy drew heavily on Wagner writing his opera although what came out is pure Debussy and very French. The sound and themes so transparent and fragile that the whole thing could pass for a dream, with the same ephemeral qualities of a dream. For me Pelleas et Melisande is a frustrating mix of atmospheric beauty and a promise that never quite delivers. This production by Komische Chief Barry Kosky was tight and set in a stage within a stage, claustrophobic in its dimensions with lighting that highlighted the artifice of the construct. Jordan de Souza conducted, Nadja Mchantaf sang Melisande, Dominik Koeninger sang Pelleas and Guenter Papendell Golaud.

The same could not be said for Philip Glass’ Satyagragh. The second of Glass’ so called biography operas, between Einstein on the Beach and Akhanaten, with which Philip Glass could lay claim to doing a Wagner by challenging/changing the notion of what opera is in the late 20th century. Satyagrahafocuses on the formation of the concept of passive resistance by Gandhi during his time in South Africa. Each act of the opera is overseen by key a figure in the making and practice of the passive resistance movement – Count Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King. The opera has a challenging narrative mixing Indian mythology with historical and anecdotal events, all of it sang in Sanskrit. Whilst the dancing throughout this performance, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (who also directed the production), was perfectly attuned to the music I found it distracting from what is – to me - a static work (in the same sense that “Parsifal” is a static work). Jonathan Stockhammer conducted and Stefan Cifolelli sang the role of Gandhi. Whatever one may think of Glass’ music there is no question that his hypnotic sound and absolute mastery of the theatrical makes for a compelling but challenging evening. And by the end of “Satyagraha” a truly transcendent experience. And so it was at the Komische Oper on a bitterly cold night.