Review: 'Wahnfried', the opera, May 2018

Wahnfried, the opera

By Terry and Julie Clarke
It has frequently been observed that the machinations of Wagner and his descendants would themselves supply plentiful material for an opera. An example of such a piece was premiered in 2017 and revived during the Ring in Karlsruhe this year. Entitled Wahnfried it is a modern opera written by Lutz Hϋbner and Sarah Nemitz, composed by the Israeli Avner Dorman with the assistance of the musical director at Karlsruhe, Justin Brown and directed by Keith Warner. As with all modern opera the music and singing were largely atonal but there were occasional flashes of Wagner motifs, jazz, waltzes and klezmer.

The story was based, not on Wagner himself, but on the dysfunctional family circle in the years after his death. The central figure was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose views and writings on Aryan supremacy and anti-Semitism were keenly espoused by the family at Wahnfried and were to have wider circulation and influence throughout Germany. In the opera he was seen initially as a timid Englishman, who, enchanted by Wagner’s music, entered the household at Wahnfried, discarded his first wife and married Richard’s daughter, Eva.

Some knowledge of the history of the family as well as the English surtitles helped to make sense of many of the allusions in the multiple colourful scenes. Herman Levi, the first  conductor of Parsifal struggled as a Jew between his respect for Wagner’s music and the racial prejudice of the family. Cosima was the malignant black widow, Siegfried was sung by a countertenor. Wagner ghost was represented as a circus clown. There was even a genuine fire-breathing dragon better by far than any we normally see in Siegfried. In the end we saw Chamberlain’s descent into madness and, of course, the arrival of Hitler and his acceptance into the Wahnfried fold.

This was a huge work with a large cast and chorus drawn from the ensemble at Karlsruhe, a significant effort for a one-night performance in the middle of a Ring Cycle. We found it extremely sensitive and confronting and it made for a comprehensible and enjoyable evening of opera interposed within an increasingly bizarre Ring.