Illuminating return to the Green Hill and its enduring Wagner shrine

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by Dr. Kyriakos Loukakos, music critic of the Athens daily journal AVGI (Sunday edition) and www.criticscorner.gr e-magazine – Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Union (est. 1928)

        As these lines fill the blank space of our pc we learn the sad news of Stephen Gould’s untimely demise, a universally well-loved tenor, one of the few exponents of the heavier Wagnerian Fach, especially appreciated by Bayreuth Festival devotees. We therefore extend our most sincere and deeply felt condolences to all his beloved ones and to the large public of his admirers.

Catherine Foster and Clay Hilley in Roland Schwab’s production of Tristan und Isolde. Photo Enrico Nawrath-Bayreuther Festspiele 2023

During our almost 5-year absence from Bayreuth and its emblematic Richard Wagner Opera Festival due to reasons of family and public health, we were exposed to a cumulative negative publicity regarding this difficult but invaluable institution. TV communication of its often-aleatory productions was not as convincing as one would expect from such a venerable venue, the problem with the use of spectacles for the most recent “Parsifal” revival deterred us from its in loco attendance, while, days only before our coming to the Holy Land of Wagner adulation, a two-part 3sat documentary bearing the alarming title “Wagnerdämmerung” (Wagner Twilight) barely encouraged our expectations. In view of all these negative presuppositions we have to report our relief from attending two productions that, though not traditional, abstained mercifully from the alienating element that many contemporary others pursue to the detriment of the visitor’s involvement with the Wagner «κόσμος» and its indisputable magic.

     

der-fliegende-hollaender-bayreuth-2023 Muzek, Teige, Weissmann-photo Enrico Nawrath

Having been repeatedly exposed to unpleasant “Tristan und Isolde” revivals, at first to the literal Christoph Marthaler one of 2005, which incidentally led to Eiji Oue’s hasty walkout and deterred Nina Stemme from returning to the Festspielhaus, we were delighted by the new one by Roland Schwab, spatial and airy, futuristic as well as naturalist, with daily sky blue or grey clouds alternating with the moonless night’s galactic firmament, a production that for once allowed a necessary atmosphere to pervade this idealistically romantic love plot. More than any other Wagner masterwork, “Tristan und Isolde” benefits from a communicative, ecstatic atmosphere, absolutely vital for the empathy of the audience with the mostly esoteric lengthy proceedings of this three-act “Handlung”.  In this respect the use of computer technology to signify mental and soul states of the eponymous hero and heroine, as, for example, the whirlpool of mutual passion in the extensive love duet, only enhances the credit to the scenery of Piero Vinciguerra and the lighting by Nicol Hungsberg, with a question mark for the intensive movement imposed to the protagonists in act 1 by Christian Schroeder’s dramaturgy, conforming to the pace of the music but difficult to follow by the two singers.

    

Fl. Hollaender act 1 – Michael Volle – Bayreuth Festival 2023 – photo Enrico Nawrath

And what singers! We firmly believe that Isolde represents a special pinnacle in the long and prestigious career of Catherine Foster. Her voice sits magnificently to the role, with luminous, full tone in mid and lower range coupled by fearless attacks to the stratosphere of her act 1 Narrative and Curse.  Standing by her side was Clay Hilley, a young American revelation who replaced, almost au pied levé, his meanwhile late compatriot Stephen Gould, fresh from his triumphant Siegfried in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production of the “Ring” for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin under the baton of Christian Thielemann. His voice was ringing and true, with impeccable diction, a pleasant Heft in declamatory passages as well as euphonious warmth in the many lyrical ones. While an exemplary singer, Georg Zeppenfeld lacked the extra bass fundament that enhances paternal and regal authority of wronged King Mark’s role. Christa Mayer is probably the all-round contemporary reference as Brangäne, magically engulfed in the Festspielhaus acoustics by the select Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, as much in her Warning interference as also in act 2 opening scene with Isolde. A solid Kurwenal by Markus Eiche, a strong but unevenly voiced Melot by Icelandic baritone Ólafur Sigurdarson and vignettes by three tenors, South African Siyabonga Macungo as a fresh-voiced Young Sailor, Spaniard Jorge RodríguezNorton as the Shepherd and Raimund Nolte, a German at last, as the Helmsman, rounded up a cast almost universally applauded by the public of the August 13th performance.  Markus Poschner, a newcomer to Bayreuth who made his Festival debut last year in this same production, offered a well-judged orchestral narrative and pace, with special regard to softer dynamics in the score, provided safety and space for sensitive phrasing to his singers and brought the work to a suitably elevated culmination of soul-searching ecstasy.

    

Fl. Hollaender act 2 – Michael Volle, Nadine Weismann, Georg Zeppenfeld, Elisabeth Teige – Bayreuth Festival 2023 – photo Enrico Nawrath

Bayreuth Festival chorus has little and off stage to do in “Tristan und Isolde”, but is a protagonist second to none in “Der Fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”, Fr. “Le Vaisseau Fantôme”). Its level of scenic and vocal perfection under its long-term master Eberhard Friedrich has to be savored in the exceptional Festspielhaus acoustics in order to be amply believed. This seemingly overstated formulation was vociferously vindicated on August 14th by a delirious audience in the end of this uninterrupted early version of the score (graced though by the additional later concluding expiation music in the overture and finale), with more curtain calls than for any member of yet another truly exceptional cast, well-nigh ideal for this tempestuous drama.  

      Irrespective of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s complex and -to many- inconclusive update of the plot, the production, with costumes by Elena Zaytseva and lighting by Gleb Filshtinsky, was redeemed by high rehearsal standards (dramaturgy by Tatiana Werestchagina) providing an intense theatrical experience. It benefits from Tcherniakov’s minutely realistic scenery, which reproduces in captivating detail every aspect of a village, its petite bourgeoisie and its latent péchés, sadly inadequately transferred to the film of the production as shown on Tv on its first airing at the Green Hill. The cast included such valiant interpreters as Croatian tenor ‘s Tomislav Mužek intensely acted and sung Erik, the ever reliable but vocally lightish bass of Georg Zeppenfeld as Daland, veteran mezzo’s Nadine Weissmann vignette of Frau Mary, who interestingly becomes the on-stage executioner of the eponymous Dutchman, and an excellently sung Steuermann by German tenor of Turkish descent Tansel Akzeybek.

Even in this frame of excellence though, the performance raised to an all-round exalted level thanks as much to the dynamic yet transparent and flexible conducting of young rising Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv, repeating the work of her 2017 Barcelona stage debut, as also to the exceptional embodiments of Senta and the Dutchman by hugely beneficial newcomers to the production.

 Combining striking northern looks with resplendent tonal opulence and accuracy in all vocal regions, the 42-years-old Norwegian soprano, fresh after a well-deserved 2020 Kirsten Flagstad Prize, was a Senta to reckon with, more often than enough reminiscent of young Leonie Rysanek assumptions of the role, in Bayreuth and elsewhere. Interacting and intersinging (if we may permit ourselves the solecism) with her was the experienced Michael Volle, at last a Dutchman of what should be a Bayreuth level. It was not only that Volle possessed an impressive physique du rôle for this tormented, well built, sea wolf macho captain, but also his equally impressive psychological identification with the deeper understanding of this colossal part. His stage histrionics remained measured and properly judged, never testing the firmness of tone and the vocal line oh his expressive singing as intended by the composer. All in all, a tremendous performance that should be documented in sound and picture, in order to improve on the former filming of the production and, even more important, to complement the Bayreuth legacy with interpretations reminiscent of old-time references…