BAYREUTH 2019 – Always good for surprises

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by Dr. Kyriakos P. Loukakos, music critic Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics’ Union (established 1928)

Trivialized Tannhäuser of considerable interest

   

Tannhauser in Bayreuth 2019, act 2, inside and outside of the Festspielhaus (picture alliance-Enrico Nawrath-Festspiele Bayreuth-dpa)

 

There is a major reason against transposition and/or trivialization of opera plots and this regards mainly newcomers to the genre or the specific work and its innate tolerance to this treatment. It is with an involuntary smile that I recall a little chat with among others the deputy director of the Greek National Opera during its tenure by the late Stefanos Lazaridis. Talk was about the then running production of «Il Prigioniero» by Luigi Dallapiccola having drawn the public eye for the rather scandalous instance of the total and constant nudity of the young at the time Lauri Vasar in the baritone role of the anonymous prisoner. His mother was presented as cleaning stuff of the prison, with the consequence, commented upon in our circle, that for inexperienced visitors of the performance the plot of what they saw on stage was summarized  as the story of a cleaning woman and her son in some prison.

     Such a huge misunderstanding is scarcely to occur for pilgrims of the Bayreuth Festival, and, in this respect, the introduction of  non existing characters to an otherwise widely known masterpiece does not necessarily imply major misunderstandings of these proportions.  However any interventions of this kind primarily concern the temporal and ideological upstage of the issues handled by Wagner in any of his works, the extent of a morally viable alienation from his ideas on the subject (whether one likes them or not) and also, crucially, the quality of the interventions themselves, that is their degree of necessity, their economy and subtlety of presentation.

«Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg» (Dresden version, 1845, incidentally the one chosen for this production) has been one of Wagner’s most difficult works to present with a certain dramatic credibility, due to its outmoded and therefore uncomfortable distinction between spiritual and sensual love. But as much as sexual (r)evolutions of the 20th century have tended to caricaturize the pure love of (Saint) Elisabeth for her carnally attracted knight, the fact is that some similar distinction still exists in society, between simple, deep love inspired by the personal qualities of the persons involved, that of course does not exclude its sexual part, and the promiscuous greed for sexual pleasure, most emblematically -but far from exclusively- recognizable in the gay milieu context.

Bearing the experience of 4 Wagner opera productions, director Tobias Kratzer was right in his decision to modernize the ethical dilemma of the opera, but his choice to present the fugitive from conformity as a clown (!) belied his own purpose. Having to deal with a contest of singers as the central frame of Wagner’s work, one wonders why he did not choose the totally realistic rock atmosphere of wandering bards, whose big summer reunion was taking place nearly simultaneously in the nearby, emblematically Wagnerian, city of Nuremberg! Furthermore, having witnessed the premiere performance of this year’s Festival via its 3sat channel deferred relay of July 27, we have to state that the extensive implementation of video wall techniques does not transfer well to the TV screen and we are happy to report that, beside considerable improvement in standards of singing and conducting, the in house performance we attended the following day (July 28th ) marked a great improvement to our perception of the theatrical event and its moving appeal. To the benefits of the Kratzer production we enumerate his insistence to juxtapose the two separate worlds of platonic love and «sinful» lust. And he managed to introduce this element to great effect in act 2, with the band of Venus breaking in the Festspielhaus and taking part to the contest proceedings. The interpolated mute action drawing the attention from the musical escalation, which on TV was enervating, proved much more coherent and viable on stage, with the eye managing to follow the added elements without losing focus on the other characters’ response, the magnificent musical development and its dramatic impact. 

The premiere was undoubtedly afflicted by the record high temperatures of the time, causing an unwanted tension between podium and stage, audible in the relay, among others in certain uncertain or nervous rhythmic choices of the conductor as well as in the slackness of certain passages. Things improved greatly for Bayreuth debutant Valery Gergiev and his second performance, under much more viable weather conditions,  was up to his high operatic standards. His conducting was alternately dynamic and when required mellifluous, giving space to his singers in the more intimate passages, especially in Elisabeth’s contributions in act 2 and in the prayer of act 3. In the rapidly rising soprano Lise Davidsen Gergiev possessed a really exceptional singer of fearless stamina, a powerful and clear attack and a steely yet burnished tone, greatly reminiscent of her predecessor Birgit Nilsson. She was equally capable of upstaging the chorus in the extensive act 2 finale and of soft singing and muscled piani of great beauty for her last act prayer. 

Her partner, as the eponymous knight Heinrich Tannhäuser,  was American tenor Stephen Gould. Although short of varying his vocal coloring, Gould indisputably remains one of the few stalwarts of contemporary Wagnerian singing and he amply proved this status of his in performance we attended, not anymore suffering in terms of a rather annoying vibrato nor of certain tonal uncertainties at his initial strophes to Venus that marred the premiere. The third extraordinary and promising presence of the cast was Elena Zhidkova covering for the ailing Ekaterina Semenchuk. She combined youthful dramatic bloom that retained a certain lyrical ardour akin to the character of Venus, yet some forced high notes should dictate to her the prudence that will enable a long and fruitful career. Markus Eiche presented a well sung Wolfram, missing nevertheless the telling mezza voce and the colors for really memorable interventions in both of his songs. The same lack of  greatness applies also to bass Stephen Milling. Beyond the welcome smoothness of tone, he lacked the deeper bass fundament of his regal authority, so well documented in his predecessors at the Green Hill. With the exception of a dry voiced Biterolf (Kai Stiefermann), the performance was well served by its minstrels (Daniel Behle, Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Jorge RodriguezNorton), as well as Frau Holda herself instead of the Shepherd Boy, delicately and crisply sung by Katharina Konradi.

The whole cast, including Lilliputian actor Oskar  and   an over the top «drag queen»  in Le Gateau Chocolat, the unexceptionally exceptional 170-member Bayreuth Festival Chorus ideally guided by its long standing master Eberhard Friedrich and the painstakingly select  Bayreuth Festival Orchestra enjoyed torrents of well deserved applause at the end of a sincerely moving performance, irrespective any faux pas of the production.      

Lohengrin with further cast changes

Last year’s production of «Lohengrin» was largely dominated by Roberto Alagna’s  withdrawal from the cast in three weeks time before the premiere and by Piotr Beczala’s magnanimous acceptance to substitute him in a role he had been initially overlooked in favor of his French colleague, a then, but hence no more, prospective newcomer to the role. This year it was Elsa’s turn to become the focus of cast changes. While Anna Netrebko was promised for a thrifty sum of  two performances in a total of seven, the initially announced interpreter of the remaining five ones, the Vienna State Opera diva, Österreichische Kammersängerin Krassimira Stoyanova was forced -«unhappy to death» according to Christian Thielemann–  to renounce her participation for health reasons. Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund consented to undertake the run of Stoyanova’s performances, fresh from her resounding success at the Vienna State Opera as the Empress in Richard Strauss’s «Die Frau ohne Schatten», that brought to her the distinction of an «Österreichische Kammersängerin». This performance of hers was enjoyed by thousands of her admirers via its EBU broadcast and her contribution to the Bavarian Radio one of the «Lohengrin» premiere was equally cherished. It was her turn nevertheless to succumb to vocal indisposition for the second performance (July 29), the one we attended, so soon after her Eva Pogner of July 27 in «Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg» and with imminent alternate performances of both of these demanding works as well. So, head of press Ofice Peter Emmerich’s relief and gratitude, as expressed at his stage announcement of Nylund’s last minute replacement by as seasoned an interpreter of Elsa as Annette Dasch was well deserved, although our grief remains inconsolable for what we believe would be one the most all round complete impersonations of Elsa in recent years at the Green Hill.

Lohengrin Foto © Enrico Nawrath [Bayreuther Festspiele 2019]

 

Nevertheless and in all fairness, after an understandably nervous act 1, Mme. Dasch, an immensely popular German soprano, rose well to the demands of her big act 2 confrontation with Ortrud and the nuptial act 3 duet. She proved also to be an Elsa of some character, conforming to Yuval Sharon’s ideal of the heroine as a strong willed persona, central to the action alongside Ortrud. As the latter, Elena Pankratova proved a dark princess of insolent power and enviable vocal health, never forcing her tone even at the most demanding scale leaps and high notes of this insidious part. She thus proved a worthy successor to Waltraud Meier’s last year farewell run of performances. As with every great Ortrud, her «Entweihte Götter» would be a show stopper at any other venue less formal than Bayreuth. Otherwise, the relation of the two female opponents was more clearly pronounced than last year in Sharon’s still evolving Personenregie, building up to an unexpected togetherness in view of Lohengrin’s departure.

With Beczala returning for performances in August, Klaus Florian Vogt preceded him in July in assuming one of his major roles in Bayreuth and elsewhere as Monsalvat’s crown prince. His remains a highly debatable performance dictated by his plaintive, colorless tone and personal way of phrasing the role, which are not everybody’s cup of tea. BUT, all these reservations notwithstanding, what he does bares a remarkable degree of individuality and, yes, of greatness. The bright, bland, almost asexual tone acquires an almost otherworldly, ecstatic quality in the Festspielhaus’s admirable acoustic, that is further enhanced by his admirably clear declamation of the text upgrading the character to its heroic status. Summing up, Vogt illustrates the common trademark of memorable artists, in elevating personal traits and/or imperfections to expressionist assets of an unforgettable portrayal. We had expressed reservations about Tomasz Konieczny’s rather too gruff Friedrich, Count of Telramund, as we savored it during the 2018 run of performances and we have to report a considerable improvement since last year, regarding mainly a reduction of his snarling exaggerations, clearer articulation of the text and an overall nobler approach to a sinister but patrician role. The cast was fitfully rounded by Georg Zeppenfeld’s nobly phrased King and Egils Siliņš as a sonorous Royal Herald. In the discreet frame of the of the non-interventionist scenery and costumes by Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy, the performance was graced (we will never tire of repeating it) by the robust contribution of the Bayreuth Opera Chorus led by the experienced Eberhard Friedrich and the phenomenally luminous playing of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra conducted with sure hand by an ever inquisitive Christian Thielemann, justly having already acquired a legendary status in connection with his unique Bayreuth love affair!