Sometimes opera, and performance in general, occasions far more than what we see, hear and feel – an ineffable quality that provides sustenance to the soul and connection to our fellow people. Germany’s annual Bayreuth Festival, where Wagner’s monument to his work has captured followers since 1876, brings that experience home overwhelmingly so. And first-timer or not – be it for forking out hundreds of euros for the privilege and exclusivity – the collective spirit of voluntarily giving oneself completely to Wagner and his theatre of “total artwork”, the “Gesamtkunstwerk”, is palpable.

Opening on July 25, on the gently rising green hill where the Festspielhaus stands, and running until August 29, the 2018 Bayreuth Festival is host to six of Wagner’s sprawling works in 32 performances – Der fliegende Holländer, LohengrinTristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die Walküre and Parsifal. Of themonly Lohengrin arrived in a new production.

The themes are meaty and so too are the now accustomed radical concepts a director can be vociferously booed for. For the fans, passions climb high inside Wagner’s purpose-built theatre where he accomplished many of his goals for presenting his works – including an acoustic of incomparable bloom – and so too does the temperature.

It’s a hot season, my first, and an experience you sweat through – what the performers and musicians of the house endure for Wagner is unimaginable – but what happens onstage is mesmerising enough to shift one’s focus easily. That pleasure came for four of the festival’s six opening nights.

LOHENGRIN

★★★★½

The red carpet was out, Angela Merkel was there – as was a who’s who of Germany’s political and cultural circle – and police and TV cameras were out in abundance. For all that, most in attendance at the festival’s opening of Lohengrin would have been well aware of Roberto Alagna’s withdrawal. It would be wasteful speculating how Alagna might have fared in the title role, but the knight in shining armour arrived in the form of Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, here to save the unjustly accused Elsa of Brabant of her brother’s murder.

Piotr Beczala as Lohengrin. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

Primed with experience in the role, Beczala’s handsome warm tones depicted Lohengrin with the valour and charisma one would expect and with it, impeccable smoothness of line and commanding use of text. But Beczala’s fabulous performance and dashing outer appearance hid an unsavoury flavour to come.

When the curtain went up after the orchestral prelude – a superbly played and contemplative music – it was unsurprising that Lohengrin didn’t sail in on a swan. In American director Yuval Sharon’s Bayreuth debut, this 10th century tale concerning the conflict between Norse paganism and Christianity is effectively a power struggle and it comes in the form of a fractured fairy tale of sorts fed by the power of an electric current.

So why not up the voltage and set it in a faulty electrical power station in the early years of electrification, one that needs a reboot by a saviour who can quell troubles and bring light again? This rather eccentric analogy comes heavily populated with costumes in Delft blue and complimentary tones incorporating the long white pointed collars that hark from the Northern European Renaissance and a painted scenic sky that looms heavy. According to artistic designers Neo Rauch (sets) and Rosa Loy (costumes), blue was the mood the prelude set forth, only later learning that Nietzsche had stated that “this music is blue, of opiatic, narcotic effect”.

It forms a deep-set picture, cannily evocative of the realism and fantasy that soak the story in which, here, Lohengrin arrives dressed in worker’s uniform and a spark of electricity that gives light to the picture, bringing in elements of the fairy tale – Reinhard Traub’s apt lighting adds much to the concept.

Those with influence have wings. Lohengrin’s sword is stylised lightning and his head-to-head battle with Telramund to determine Elsa’s fate is carried out in aerial combat with doubles – though rather clumsily resolved. And Elsa, elegantly sung by much-loved German soprano Anja Harteros, exudes the look of a fairy princess before undergoing a transformation that has her emerged strengthened and more mature. Harteros shaped a richly characterised portrayal of a woman who shows momentary hesitation in accepting the victorious Lohengrin in marriage and who suffers the consequence of asking, what anyone would expect, to know their spouse’s name.

Love comes with conditions and there is no guarantee of love without doubt. After a splendidly envisioned and musically majestic Wedding March, Elsa suffers the indignity of being tied by electrical cord around a solenoid for demanding to know her husband’s name. But Harteros, building her performance in ever-increasing dramatically charged voice, gave her the stature of a heroine. In fact, Lohengrin and Elsa’s relationship never seems cemented by love and Sharon seems to be saying that, as well as demonstrating a male dominant world, theirs is a union of convenience.

The cast of Lohengrin. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

On the dark side, dressed in black like sorcerer and sorceress, Polish bass Tomasz Konieczny and German soprano Waltraud Meier were a formidable couple as Telramund and Ortrud. Konieczny made expert use of ferociously delivered declamatory outbursts and sung with threatening malevolence. Meier was outstanding, every move and note calculated with precision, capable of electrifying her large range with determination and a thrilling top that came with daggers.

With Harteros, the trio made Act II’s first scene a highlight percolating with the ominous. Ortud plants a kiss of supremacy on Telramund before showing her cunning in her exchange with Elsa, Ortrud lurking in a gloomy mist, Elsa appearing in the distance as a thumbnail portrait through a window as if in captivity.

German Georg Zeppenfeld was excellent as King Henry, his earthy and strident bass conveying precariously balanced authority, while Egils Silins was muscularly voiced as his Herald. The vocal splendours continued with more than 100 chorus members in beautifully harmonised voice, showcasing Wagner’s choral riches and both enlivening and completing Sharon’s many tableaux without overload.

The crowning glory emanated from below, from the unseen orchestra in the pit. At the helm and a long familiar presence at Bayreuth, conductor Christian Thielemann can be lauded for the finely threaded and texturally lucent qualities that were lifted from the score. Never was the singing overpowered – testament to experience and rehearsal – and apart from early mild trepidation in the strings, the music-making was full of refinement.

Still with much to ponder for devotees, Sharon and his creative team’s great achievement is making Lohengrin an approachable and captivating interpretation that newcomers to Wagner and his sacred home can unequivocally revel in.

PARSIFAL

★★★½☆

For the festival’s second evening, the many TV cameras were gone but black-tie dress and exquisite long gowns nonetheless dominated the crowd for the opening performance of Parsifal. Police presence was noticeably down from the previous night but still high in number, the norm now at the Festspielhaus as interpreting Wagner can open up deep sensitivities.

Andreas Schager as Parsifal and Elena Pankratova as Kundry. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath

When German director Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s Parsifal opened in 2016, Germany was dealing with the aftermath of a series of attacks by individuals claiming links to radical Islamic groups. Would Laufenberg’s Middle Eastern, contemporary-set work show any hint of disrespect to Muslims that might cause issue? On one level, it’s hard to bail him out without some kind of criticism.

Wagner’s final work Parsifal, which he described as “Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel” (“A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage”), champions humility, compassion and enlightenment. Laufenberg begins and ends with a noble and somewhat idealistic account of the work’s story concerning the simpleton destined to become the saviour of the Grail Knights. Reflecting this transformation, Act I opens in a war-torn, domed cruciform church – a form adopted by many denominations – run by a community of monks who provide shelter and religious service for their small community, protected by US soldiers who keep their faith safe and in which an unassuming Parsifal enters. In Act III, after Parsifal’s own enlightenment – having wandered lost and experienced remorse and suffering –  a congregation of Christians, Jews and Muslims come together as Parsifal enters to absolve the holy but shamed Amfortas of sin. Towards the end of the swelling mass of choral glory that accompanies the finale, the audience too is bathed in the rays of light. Laufenberg seems to suggest that man can transcend religious differences and coexist in a virtuous realm.

From start to finish, there are more than four hours of music and drama to contend with. At times the drama is heavily laden by its contemporary associations and unaligned with the text and the overall sense of the work going “beyond religion”, as Laufenberg states in the program notes, feels lost on the overt use of religious symbolism. On top of that, religious identity is marked by a Klingsor depicted as an evil Muslim and Christians as a picture of piety. In the end, despite the beauty of the production (sets by Gisbert Jäkel, costumes by Jessica Karge and lighting by Reinhard Traub), it comes across as blindly overthought.

Derek Welton as Klingsor. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath

Vocally, there was excellence aplenty to relish. In the title role, Austrian tenor Andreas Schager was in strong command, making the transformation from unbounded spirited youth to spiritual-like leader – notably via a member of the US forces – with a robust and golden voice that communicated the text with ample nuance. Though taking the stentorian might of his instrument to a precipitous edge early in the performance, Schager gave a final, unblemished act.

His compatriot, the bass Günther Groissböck, was astonishing in the role of Wagner’s veteran Knight of the Grail and Laufenberg’s towering monk, Gurnemanz. Groissböck’s was a truly impressive performance that displayed infinite reserves of grit with cavernous lows and tremendous highs, marking out the sympathy and industry of his character.

Appearing in Acts I and III as the ruler of the Grail monks, German Thomas J. Mayer brought compelling burnished and bronzed baritone depth with soul-searching dignity to a figure who deems himself unworthy and agonises through a powerfully ritualised Christ-like ‘crucifixion’.

Expelled from the order for impure desires, Klingsor’s domain is an Islamic hall where he keeps a secret stash of crosses above, perhaps trophies for every knight Kundry has seduced. At the very least, it’s a room of penitential flagellation and a treat to see robust Australian bass Derek Welton (more often seen at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper) in a brilliant Bayreuth debut, mining the villainy of his character in acting and voice while projecting the text with meaning and expression.

With such religious delineation, so it was that the temptress Kundry was robed in a black burqa before making an outfit change in Act II’s attempt to seduce Parsifal. Amongst similarly dressed maidens who de-robed to reveal skimpy jewelled Arabic threads, it is here that the extremity of the change comes across with insensitivity. As Kundry, Russian Elena Pankratova used her rich and velvety dark mezzo-soprano well, though without the meatiness and full-throttle power and seductive freedom that a Kundry can wield.

Again, the chorus were in exceptional form, particularly the balance achieved through onstage resonance and divinely shaped backstage projection. In his Bayreuth debut, Semyon Bychkov conducted a reading that showed breadth of colour and intelligent restraint at moments when the voices led the drama. Act I’s Transformation Music and each of the orchestral Vorspiel were particularly rich and demonstrated wonderfully the refined musicianship in the pit. In the end, it was in music and voice, not the production, that were the redeemers.

TRISTAN UND ISOLDE

★★★★☆

Booing rang out thunderously at the curtain call when director Katharina Wagner and her creative team took the stage on opening night of Tristan und Isolde, the third evening of the festival. It seemed entirely unfair because Ms Wagner – great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner and Bayreuth Festival Director – has conceived a thoughtful, fresh and searching study of the work.

Stephen Gould as Tristan and Petra Lang as Isolde. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath

In stark contrast, the plain timber floors of the house vibrated with the stamping of feet and enthusiastic roars for conductor Christian Thielemann who received similar approval at the opening night of Lohengrin. Deservedly so, for the music was painted with a vividness that marvellously caressed, agitated and punctured the air. Thielemann delivered four hours of music that passed quickly, that gripped the text, and which was played by faultless individual music-making.

Based on a medieval romance concerning adulterous love between the Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Isolde, the blurring of rationality and reason, of psychological exploration and of unattainable love are part and parcel of the work. In her liberal and intrepid approach, Ms Wagner departs from the typical presentation of Isolde’s death and has her handed over to her betrothed, King Marke. In this way, the harsh sense that unattainable love is juxtaposed with the tension between love, death and a living doom – Tristan having already succumbed – is made gratingly apparent.

Clever stage design assists. In Act I’s MC Escher-like setting, an imposing and elaborate network of stairs that can collapse and interconnected platforms that can rise and fall create pathways for communication and blockage. A black-walled, hull-like chamber imprisons the lovers in a forbiddingly dark Act II. Here, Tristan and Isolde seem to view torture as a means to an end. This is followed by a sparse but gripping Act III in which Isolde appears as an illusion in triangular planes and prisms of light in Tristan’s hallucinations.

Furthermore, from the beginning, Tristan and Isolde are in love – the background story allows it to be so. They desire love in earthly ways and have no need for a fatal potion.

René Pape as King Marke. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath

Here was a less radiant and pure, more haughty and fiery, red-headed Isolde, portrayed by German mezzo-turned-soprano Petra Lang. Plush in voice with well-placed penetrating top notes, what was absent was a sense of warmth and glow. The heavier and darker tones often gave Isolde a more matronly effect than is usual, but Lang pushed her character’s trajectory to a startling, powerful and sensitively drawn Act III Liebestod at Tristan’s side.

The best from both leads, in fact, came in Act III. Reprising his role from the production’s premiere in 2015 as a firm and appealing Tristan, American heldentenor Stephen Gould sang a splendid “Die alte Weise – was weckt sie mich?”, followed by a fluid and achingly felt “Wo ich erwacht’ weilt ich nicht”. Gould’s middle range is intoxicatingly rich and thankfully the intensity of his top became more rounded after an overpowered start in the first act. Together with Lang, strength and conviction reigned but the lovers’ long blending lines in Act II entwined somewhat untidily.

The surrounding principals were superbly cast. As the only other woman in a retinue of strong male characters, the rich and full-bodied German mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer impressed throughout, bringing urgency to a highly expressive Brangäne. As an uncharacteristically unsympathetic King Marke, depicted as a mysterious gangster-like figure under brimmed hat and long coat, German bass René Pape established a cold authority through his compelling vocal style and resonance. Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson was convincing in highlighting tensions as Tristan’s servant Kurwenal, as was Raimund Nolte’s fine Melot.

Despite the titular leads not holding onto the vocal rails to the standard hoped for, the drama remained strong and in tandem with the energy of Thielemann’s conducting, keeping the potency of this imaginative tampering of the tale alive.

DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG 

★★★★★

It was the festival’s fourth evening and the one I had secretly been looking forward to the most – to see how acclaimed Artistic Director of Berlin’s Komische Oper and Australian Barrie Kosky would add his idiosyncratic touch to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner’s only comedy among his mature operas.

Michael Volle as Hans Sachs. Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath

Premiering at last year’s festival, Kosky’s Bayreuth debut will, in all probability, result in further invitations judging by the explosive applause he received at curtain call. During its more than four-and-a-half hours of music drama, tingling with absorbing detail and riveting life, with production standards of the highest calibre, Kosky gave audiences something both provocative and celebratory to chew over.

Centring on Wagner’s own original story about a singing competition in which the winner takes a bride, the judging that takes place in Kosky’s version is squarely on Wagner.

Act I opens not in Nuremberg’s church of St Catherine’s in the mid-16th century, but Wahnfried in the 1870s, Wagner’s home. It’s an effervescent evening with friends and entertainment in which Kosky puts Wagner on stage as the protagonist of the story, cobbler and mastersinger Hans Sachs. Kosky then fuses the picture with the mastersingers as a bunch of long-haired goonish fellows who enter from under the piano lid dressed in sumptuous Renaissance costumes.

Cosima his wife is there too as Eva, so Cosima’s actual father makes a good cause for introducing Franz Liszt as Eva’s father, Veit Pogner. The young knight Walter is a younger Wagner, juxtaposing well the love Eva has for him and the respect she bears Sachs. It’s mind-boggling to think how Kosky came up with the concept but it’s surprisingly comprehendible even without knowing the ins and outs of Wagner’s circle, and Kosky so enlivens the stage acting that each long act flies by.

Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath

The prickly part is in the town clerk Beckmesser’s depiction of the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi, who conducted the premiere of Parsifal and is rudely treated by Wagner/Sachs. For an opera that was purportedly Hitler’s favourite, the questions surrounding Wagner’s anti-Semitism become more like exclamations in Kosky’s hands.

The first act is wild and witty and then becomes a pill to swallow. Wahnfried rolls rearward at the end of Act I to reveal a hall with Wagner at a stand, military guards at the side and the Soviet, British, American, and French flags on display, a hint of Act III’s setting to come. Act II unfolds around a pile of props from Wahnfried as a sign of trouble, ending with Beckmesser’s pitiful beating and the shock of a giant air-filled head of a sinister-looking Jew. Act III opens with Wagner/Sachs alone in what is the only reference to Nuremberg – and a place famous for its trials of those involved with the Third Reich – before a bursting courtroom of period-blended mayhem ensues. If Kosky has shown Wagner in a guilty light, he does a remarkable service to the composer in the finale to come.

A fine and long list of voices were assembled, including many of those who sang in last year’s premiere. German baritone Michael Volle was one such singer, showing impressive command of the stage as Wagner/Sachs. Broad and deeply ripe of voice, Volle nourished the text with heft for listening pleasure and had the stamina to last the marathon sing through to the third two-hour act that almost seems to unfold as his alone.

German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt too reprised his role as a dashing young Wagner/Walther, giving warm, shiny tone and mellow line as the inexperienced winner of the competition that secures his love Eva, the elegant and perfectly matched soprano Emily Magee. Possessing a tremendous bass like carved weathered timbers, Günther Groissböck (Parsifal’s towering Gurnemanz), is an upstanding Veit Pogner and all the ridicule endured turned to loud applause from the audience with German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle’s fabulously caricatured and sinewy Beckmesser. Smaller roles were appropriately filled, notably Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s sparkling Magdalene and the massive cheery chorus, who time and again show how well they unify and texturise their parts. Kosky gives them lots of quirky movements to do and they carried them off with precision.

The orchestra were no less impressive as they had been from the start, hidden out of sight creating music of untiring buoyancy under the baton of conductor Philippe Jordan. But then this, one of the highlights of the four evenings to take away forever. In a final grand spectacle, the courtroom walls open up and a full orchestra rolls in as Wagner conducts the evening to a close – celebrated, accused or both? Politics and ideology can’t be dismissed but art is always open for interpretation and, like Wagner, Kosky acts as one of the great sorcerers of its expression.

And so ended four nights with Wagner and his legacy, with the people who flock to Bayreuth in order to be thrilled by his spellbinding and complexly drawn art, and the heat that isn’t worth complaining about at all.


Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine