by Kyriakos P. Loukakos
Alongside reporting about the abundant flow of prominent guests, including not only seasoned Wagnerite Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, but also Their Majesties King Karl Gustav and Queen Silvia of Sweden, Bavarian Radio (BR-Klassik) introductory feature “Foyer” to the 2017 sequence of direct and deferred EBU relays of Bayreuth Festival performances, did not miss the point of our title either. After longtime intensive dispute, this year’s festivities seemed, for some welcome reason, to have enjoyed a «time out» in public opinion. Was it a sign of exhaustion on the part of those who denounce production “extremities” sanctioned by the meanwhile not so Nouveau Regime of the post Wolfgang Wagner directorial era? Does that mean some consolidation of a carte blanche to producers who represent the contemporary apex of the Verfremdung vogue in Regietheater? Or have there perhaps been also signs of reality assessment by the Festspielleitung that reveal a ripening in artistic and management priorities? As more often happens in human things, truth lies somewhere in between.
Then in Bayreuth, the work-in-progress process rather applies not only to the productions concerned but also to the management practice. Moreover it reflects the German inclination to assess problems with realism and promote practical solutions, rather than remaining inactive and, by so doing, undermining issues or the institutions themselves. So, while improving considerably on the musical content of the Frank Castorf wayward Ring cycle, a somewhat more prudent reality reassessment has dictated a “velvet” abandon of plans to assign Jonathan Meese, another enfant terrible of a director, for the then (2016) new Parsifal. Anyway it proved a wise decision to opt for a concept more considerate of the seasoned Wagnerians than the initially announced one, especially not long after the debatable production of Wagner’s Buehnenweihfestspiel by the late and in the meantime much lamented Christoph Schlingensief.
On the other hand, the more intense involvement of Musical Director Christian Thielemann has already produced well considered vocal and conductor choices. What is essential is that Bayreuth seems now to realize -albeit somewhat belatedly- the fact that nowadays quality Wagner performances are also presented as part of the core repertoire around the entire world and that the indisputable magic of the Festspielhaus and its transcendental effect may not any more suffice to avoid the “bleeding” of top artists renouncing a Green Hill debut or follow up, due to productions aesthetically not acceptable to them. Last but not least in this respect has been the denial of Anna Netrebko to be part of an imminent Bayreuth Lohengrin, so soon after her triumphant debut as Elsa at the Dresden Semperoper in a “sensible” production, flattering to her radiant figure on stage. No sooner though had this announcement been made public, the Festival recurred to the services of Megastar Plácido Domingo who is due to conduct performances of Die Walküre in 2018, thus shunning the maxim of presenting the Ring on the Green Hill exclusively in its entirety!
Although we failed to follow the progress of the Castorf Ring, it is common understanding that its reception has benefited greatly not only from an interim significant rise in quality of the singers distribution, but also from the authoritative baton of Marek Janowski, a conductor whose broad range of experience and repertoire enriches his objectivity of approach with considerable narrative skills, not shying away from Wagner’s personal and occasionally overpowering lyricism either.
Festakt for Wieland Wagner
We had the opportunity to report on the thoughts mentioned above from the studios of Greek Radio 3, during the second interval of the Siegfried GRERT direct EBU transmission (August 1st), and also to inform Greek listeners about the Festakt that preceded by one day (July 24th) the opening of the Festival. It celebrated the 100th birthday of Wieland Wagner, the composer’s first born grandson and the main initiator of the so called Neubayreuth era back in 1951. The celebration took place at the Festspielhaus, with consent and in the presence of his offsprings, and included a special concert drawing on operas he sealed as a really genial director. It was a special occasion since the Festspielorchester presented onstage not only music from a Wagner opera excluded from the Bayreuth canon (Rienzi), but also highlights from Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. High points of this moving occasion were the laudations by Wieland’s niece and colleague, Festspielleiterin Katharina Wagner, his son Wolf-Siegfried and Sir Peter Jonas. Former longtime Intendant of Bavarian State Opera attempted an impartial evaluation of the great man’s achievements without obscuring his by now well known Nazi associations, to be fair rather inevitable for a person of his standing and family name.
What caused however our public reaction, during the aforementioned radio occasion, was a short interview by Sir Peter to the Bavarian Radio colleague Annika Täuschel. In an obvious attempt to provide excuse for certain extreme productions on the Green Hill, Jonas referred to a supposedly Ur – experimental character of the Bayreuth Festival, that is from the origins of its establishment. It is a view we find hard to share, since it overlooks grossly terms and their evolution as dictated by time and social circumstances. Then it would be idle to pretend that serving the visionary and monumental realization of the Ring des Nibelungen, incidentally a fully thought out and meticulously structured, peerless musical and theatrical epos, can be considered in any way as experimental, considering the «alternative» sense this term has acquired in recent years, mainly invoked in our time to signify expiation of a lowering in production standards applying to either simplified or casual and inexpensive revivals of established masterpieces!
A viable Parsifal
For all its debatable political correctness and its rather tame theological pretense, especially from Karfreitagszauber and onwards, the new production of Parsifal, by experienced director Uwe Eric Laufenberg, was an interesting one, as much for the welcome power of the Graal ceremony, conceived as a painful Eucharistic repetition of Christ’s self denial and sacrifice, as also for being agreeable to the eye in its partly exotic scenery. It is good to keep in mind that this exquisite work integrates a deeply personal feeling of its creator towards mankind’s salvation through God’s grace and the equally God – sent intervention of a person, simple and humble yet motivated by love and compassion. One can scarcely be fair to the full range of Parsifal by overlooking its nature as an act of religious confession and personal repentance of the ageing Wagner.
Laufenberg locates the legendary Monsalvat in a bombarded Christian church in a conflict zone in Iraq, furthermore presenting Klingsor’s magical garden as an Arabian palace of man’s relaxation and pleasure, where initially covered women are stripped of their black burka to reveal themselves as luring and semi nude Flower-maidens. In the last scene symbolic objects of religious significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims are being literally buried together with deceased king Titurel, accompanying him in a common coffin. This ritual act, though meant to signify a way of uplifting religious conflicts, besides not entirely avoiding to become offensive to possibly more than one parts, overlooks too conveniently -and crucially to our view- the fact that religious conflict partly survives because of varying levels of religions’ (and their social content) adaptation to an advanced global perception of impartial democracy as well as of an all embracing respect for human rights. Ο νοών νοείτω!
Whoever missed this production’s inauguration season, incidentally televised and already available as dvd and bluray, suffered the inestimable loss of savoring the otherworldly aural impact of Klaus Florian Vogt’s beguilingly steely and angelic voice as the title hero in the acoustic of the Festspielhaus, a sensation not transferable to any other theatre or sound carrier. For 2017 the part of the eponymous reine tor was passed on to the Erik of the most recent Der fliegende Holländer production, Austrian tenor Andreas Schager, an artist well endowed for any respectable theatre but in reality no match for Vogt in the transcendental qualities latter seems to personify so radiantly as the innocent fool of the story, a rather Christ figure of a redemptor. Schager’s piercing voice was exciting but seemed to lack low notes and tended to sound tight and not always pleasant to the ear. His text enunciation also lacked profundity of feeling and expressive colours. His Parsifal remained wooden and stentorian, wanting in transformatory vulnerability that has been the mark of great performers of the past, especially Melchior and Vickers, but also mellifluous Konya, Liebl and more recently Vogt, all divergently yet indelibly memorable to us.
Nevertheless -and Schager included-, it is only fair to admit that the cast retained or introduced performances of considerable stature for the standards of our times, such as Elena Pankratova’s Kundry, an all round impersonation securely voiced throughout the vocal range and movingly enacted. Her diction was admirable, as also was the one of bass Georg Zeppenfeld as a young looking and sturdy sounding Gurnemanz. Far from dull, his lengthy narrations were full of inner life and involvement belying too many anecdotes referring to the devoted knight as a proverbial scenic bore. Derek Welton as the self flogging Klingsor, primeval sinner and eternal repentant in front of amassed Christian crosses in his personal crypt, made much of his brief but crucial role both vocally and histrionically, a name we marked to further watch, as we also did for bass Karl – Heinz Lehner , the performance’s Titurel, for once on stage for his brief vocal appearance. We retain though mixed feelings about the Amfortas of Irish baritone Ryan McKinny. Physically ideal as the suffering Christ figure and with no half hearted vehemence in his singing, he retained a steadily unclear diction which marred his heartrending monologues in both acts 1 and 3. No objections though for an exemplary bunch of Flower-maidens and other supporting roles, as well as the ever magnificent chorus and orchestra of the Festival, wisely and dynamically led by 77-year old Marek Janowski who was called as a last minute replacement for an ailing Hartmut Haenchen, himself having similarly been called in haste a year ago after the sudden departure of Andris Nelsons from the Festival!. To us Janowski’s presence stroke a moving reminiscence of his Parsifal back in the mid 1980s in Cologne, featuring then a sweet voiced Siegfried Jerusalem in the title role and a resplendently youthful mezzo called Waltraud Meier as an unforgettably dramatic and alluring Kundry.
We have reported extensively on the Katharina Wagner production of Tristan und Isolde when it was first presented and we have not much to add after the performance of August 6th regarding the strong conceptual background of it and the disappointing scenery, irrelevant costumes (Stephen Gould pitifully exposed as the vocally ever secure Tristan!) and hideous lighting, or rather lack of it, for the most part of an evening made thus to seem even longer than its real duration. Christian Thielemann’s direction though remains powerful in its soaring yet lean magnificence, producing from the first measures of the preludes playing of rapt intensity and climaxes of a superb dramaturgical coherence. There was also a further deepening in the characterization by mezzo Christa Mayer and baritone Iain Paterson as the confidants Brangäne and Kurwenal, who also acquitted themselves in more secure vocal form as in 2015, former blending magnificently with glowing strings during her nocturnal warning. There were some interesting changes in the cast. Petra Lang presented a vocally strong Isolde, with tonal bloom in the entire range and suitably fearless in exposed top notes. For all her prowess though, she lacked the feminine vulnerability and introversion of the vocally more fallible Evelyn Herlitzius. More disappointing to us was her almost indecipherable enunciation of the text, her diction leaving much to be desired in such territory. It was the opposite with King Marke of bass René Pape, an interpretation of the role as superb as any we may recall, from Alexander Kipnis to Ludwig Weber, from Josef Greindl to Gottlob Frick, from Marti Talvela to Matti Salminen and the recently lamented Kurt Moll. Pape’s generous uncle and husband presented the vocal apex of the performance, splendidly resonant, with crystal clear declamation of the text, ultra sensitive to dynamics, alternating soft singing of the utmost delicacy with bursts of noble and restrained despair, a marvel of contained yet powerfully authoritative artistry.
Shrewd and inspired Meistersinger
What -contrary to any of our expectations- touched us deep in our hearts and minds was the new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by another theatre man of dubious fame, the Australian born Barrie Koskie, since 2012 director of the Komische Oper Berlin. Having inaugurated his first tenure there with an audacious spectacle of more than ten hours, the whole Monteverdi trilogy of operas, sung in German and in direct relay via multinational culture channel 3sat, the man sarcastically self reported as a «Jewish homosexual kangaroo» proved an ingenious choice on the part of the Bayreuthans. After the Castorf Ring that reconciled Bayreuth with the most radical left wing Weltanschauung, it was perhaps high time for a serious attempt to heal the still bleeding wound of the Festival’s much invoked anti-Semitism via a denunciation of it and its horrible consequences on stage of the Festspielhaus itself. Having initially declined an offer that came out of the blue on the part of Katharina Wagner and about a composer and a specific work of his that caused him conflicting reactions, Koskie apparently had second thoughts and accepted the proposition to become the first Jewish director in the history of the Festival, on the condition that the persecuted “Jew” would become the person of reference in his production.
Drawing on the fact that many have seen in Sixtus Beckmesser’s character a mocking caricature of music critics and especially the influential Eduard Hanslick, falsely considered by Wagner to be Jewish, Koskie’s attention was drawn to the conductor of the Parsifal premiere, Hermann Levi, and the appalling effort of Cosima Wagner to avoid him. In his production the action evolves, during the act 1 prelude, from a seemingly light hearted gathering at the Villa Wahnfried, on August 13th of 1875. We encounter the egocentric composer receiving meaningfully a new pair of shoes among other gifts while studying the score with Levi. We meet the dogs and the maids of the household, even Franz Liszt who desperately tries to join Wagner in four hands playing at the piano. Cosima is swallowing pills for her endemic headaches. No St. Catherine’s church in this domestic scenery, but a family prayer with off stage chorus, during which we acquire a foretaste of Levi’s status as a religious outcast, visibly estranged by the others. David, Walther von Stolzing, as a youthful impersonation of Wagner himself, as well as (other) Mastersingers pop out of the piano, latter dressed in fine medieval costumes. As the proceedings go on we realize that Hans Sachs is impersonating an ageing Richard Wagner, Veit Pogner is no other than Franz Liszt pushing his daughter Cosima, alias Eva Pogner, to marry «a Master of her choice» (as it occurred first conductor Hans von Buelow and later Wagner). Beckmesser, Hanslick or not, is no other than the intended Jew Hermann Levi, who gradually acquires all the hideous traits of Nazi anti – Jewish propaganda films, while, after Walther’s failed attempt to join the Mastersingers guild, act 1 ends meaningfully with a depiction of the Nuremberg Court for war crimes!
As act 2 opens this same scenery has prematurely become the Festwiese of act 3, where Richard and Cosima enjoy an outdoor picnic. Richard/Sachs hands himself the lute that Levi/Beckmesser will use later in the act for his catastrophic attempt for a nocturnal serenade to Eva. As for the general turmoil that ends the act, it is no longer just an innocent midsummer night’s debacle. It turns to an absolute lynch act by a dark mob against the Jew who sees his instrument being smashed, is beaten mercilessly and is made to bear an «abominable Jew» mask, while a similar balloon figure is being inflated to cover much space on stage. As the Night watchman assures citizens and audience alike that it is midnight and that all is well, invoking God the Lord (!), the balloon figure gradually deflates, bringing down with it the gigantic Star of David on its hat to face the audience.
In act 3 the recovering Beckmesser appears with a broken arm and several other wounds and is the only one of the Mastersingers denied of a polite applause from the masses who populate a by now fully represented Court Room. His failure to interpret accordingly the song he believes that comes from Sachs’s feather meets with his violent removal from the stage through a side door (where indeed?), leaving all others to deify Wagner/Sachs who conducts chorus and (supposed) on stage orchestra from the dock. Even the curtain calls leave no doubt. The last to be called, as the central figure of the work, is not for once Hans Sachs (Richard Wagner) but the abgeführte Jude Sixtus Beckmesser (Hermann Levi), vindicated by the Court of History, moreover on stage of the Festspielhaus itself. For once there were no boos from the audience, which however was singularly divided among the ones who applauded vociferously and (many) others who remained silent. To our perception this fact provided ample evidence that the production didn’t miss its point, being nothing other than a collective and official confessional admittance of institutional guilt that forms a necessary stage in a collective absolution process so much desired in Bayreuth and so necessary to the state of Israel as well, since it still bans Wagner’s music from its opera houses and concert halls, a huge loss to any civilised nation.
What formed the main artistic element of success in this deeply considered revival was the fact that Koskie worked honestly and with respect both to historical facts and to the best theatrical conventions. For one he didn’t underplay the warm folksy element of the work which he enhanced through a derivatively convincing scenery and costumes alluding as much to the 1870s as also to the medieval times. He thus drew a clear but unobtrusive line between time periods of scenic present and past evocation in the plot. In this way the audience was not deprived of the spectacular element dictated by the large number of soloists and choral forces required. Above all the Australian handled the text as credible, vigorous and intensive theatre for the many characters, even evolving humorous situations and character traits, like the ones of two minor Mastersingers, evidently (?) «gay», who succumb from the beginning to Walther’s allure and follow him with the adulation of «groupies» throughout. Most essential was the fact that Koskie did not dwarf the Meistersinger to suit his own purpose, but made limited use of his brief yet vital directorial interventions. I this way he provided additional options of painful plot alternatives, till now lurching under the anodyne superficiality of heitere Oper recipes and situations that abound in this magnificent operatic canvas.
Regarding the musical part, we must admit that, for this second performance of the season, we didn’t detect any divergence between stage and orchestral pit, such as the one referred to by critics at the Bavarian Radio Roundtable following the premiere. On the contrary, Philip Jordan’s direction was vivid and remained alertly colloquial, even more so during act 3, when Michael Volle (Hans Sachs) was announced as deprived of his voice and had to sing along just marking his part. In the first two acts though he proved an admirable interpreter, with a profound understanding, colouring and declamation of the text. Equally convincing, in the upgraded status of his role, was Johannes Martin Kränzle as the “Jew” Sixtus Beckmesser (Hermann Levi), who acted the part with vivid inflexions, but without unnecessary exaggeration, though leaving many unfulfilled desires regarding the articulation of the text in his almost constant Sprechgesang. To the assets of the cast one has to enumerate the unexpectedly virginal Eva (Cosima Wagner, née Liszt despite being his illegitimate daughter) of the experienced soprano Anne Schwanewilms, who offered constantly clean line and ethereal lightness of utterance, in good company with the clear and euphonious, although perhaps too lean, bass Günther Groißböck as her father Veit Pogner (Franz Liszt). Well known as a Lied interpreter, lyric tenor Daniel Behle impersonated an unexaggerated David, tastefully singing and acting, in love with the amply voiced and strongly characterized, really earthy Magdalene of Wiebke Lehmkuhl, equally our Altsolo in Parsifal.
Finally, last but not least amid a vivaciously interactive bunch of Mastersingers, a newcomer to the club, the resplendent knight Walther von Stolzing once again sung and acted by tenor Klaus Florian Vogt. Some peculiarity in hitting top notes notwithstanding, the ex-horn player remains a marvel of a lean voiced, steely yet sweet sounding wooer, full of lyrical energy and youthful passion, equally believable as a man of the sword and one of art. His singing has to be listened to in this particular venue to be believed. All in all an evening that kept growing in our minds and souls long after its curtain had fallen…
 Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”.
Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique www.critics-point.gr, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address www.criticscorner.gr .
As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory” Society.
 All photos by courtesy of the Bayreuth Festival press office.