Coronavirus may have put the kibosh on the majority of the European summer festivals, but that’s not stopping Bayreuth. The annual Wagner-Fest has teamed up with the German label Deutsche Grammophon to come up with a virtual festival that pretty much replicates its abandoned 2020 program. Running on DG’s brand-new digital platform – DG Stage: The Classical Concert Hall – a whole host of events will be available to stream from now until August 29.

Barrie Kosky’s staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

“This unique event means so much to so many people around the world, which is why we are delighted to be able to collaborate with DG and present our full festival programme online to a global audience this summer,” said Heinz-Dieter Sense, Managing Director of the Bayreuth Festival in the accompanying press release.

Out of a total program of 16 evenings, four of the works scheduled for the 2020 Festival – Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Der Ring des Nibelungen – will be streamed online in recent Bayreuth stagings on the same day and at the same time as it was originally intended to have been performed. Each streaming will be available on demand across a 48-hour period, and several productions will receive repeat screenings.

It’s also a lot cheaper than the usual cost of a Bayreuth ticket. Each opera will set you back a mere 4.9 Euro (that’s as little as $AUD8) and the Festival management has teamed up with the Friends of Bayreuth to set up an emergency fund in support of artists affected by pandemic. That means that a proportion of the income generated from Virtual Festival ticket sales will go to a good cause. To enhance the experience, a special website has been created to supplement the full Festival Program offering useful introductory texts, production trailers and photos of the various productions as well as specially filmed introductions by either the director, the conductor or one of the principal singers.

Tobias Kratzer’s 2019 production of Tannhäuser. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

The Virtual Festival opened on July 25 with Barrie Kosky’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The Australian director’s quirky new production was one of the highlights of the 2017 Festival and will be repeated on August 19. Conducted by Philippe Jordan it stars Michael Volle as Hans Sachs alongside Günther Groissböck as Pogner, Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser, Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther and Anne Schwanewilms as Eva.

It was followed on July 26 by Tobias Kratzer’s radical reimagining of Tannhäuser, a bravura staging that was raved about by many when it premiered at last year’s Festival. Conducted by Valery Gergiev with rising star soprano Lise Davidsen as Elisabeth, it will be repeated on August 20. Limelight was given access to viewing links for both productions (see below for potted reviews) and both can be confidently recommended.

Frank Castorf’s production of the Ring Cycle. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

The other two 2020 scheduled productions will be Yuval Sharon’s 2018 staging of Lohengrin and the once reviled but now rather more accepted Frank Castorf Ring. Conducted by Christian Thielemann the Lohengrin stars Piotr Beczala in the title role with Anja Harteros making her Bayreuth debut as Elsa and Waltraud Meier as an unmissable Ortrud. The Ring Cycle was filmed in 2016 and is conducted by Marek Janowski with Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde, Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and John Lundgren as Wotan.

For those who missed the brouhaha surrounding the 2013 premiere, Castorf’s complex, multi-dimensional vision equates the 19th-century lust for gold with the 20th-century’s obsession with oil. Das Rheingold is set around a gas station on Route 66; Die Walküre takes us to Baku in Azerbaijan, oil-rich territory annexed by the Bolsheviks in 1920; Siegfried is relocated to a version of Mount Rushmore with a Marxist twist before ending up in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz; and Götterdämmerung takes us from East Germany to the New York Stock Exchange.

Patrice Chéreau’s magisterial centenary Ring.

To supplement the program, DG and Bayreuth are filling free days in the Festival calendar by offering bonus productions of Tristan und Isolde (Katherina Wagner’s interpretation with Evelyn Herlitzius as Isolde and Stephen Gould as Tristan) and Parsifal (Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s thoughtful 2016 staging, which transplants the action to a religious conflict zone somewhere in the Middle East). And for those who consider the Castorf Ring a bridge too far, fear not, there will also be a screening of Patrice Chéreau’s centenary production. Recorded in 1980, it boasts a superb cast of singers whose visceral acting makes this perhaps the finest filmed Ring Cycle of all time.

Review: Barrie Kosky’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Bayreuth is likely the only place in the world where a director can assume that his audience will be 100 percent au fait with not just the opera in hand, but also the multi-hued and frequently controversial life story of its composer. Putting Wagner on trial for his art is a stroke of genius, but Kosky never forgets that Meistersinger is a comedy, and here, a frequently riotous one. We open in Wahnfried, 1775, the year before the first Ring Cycle. Cosima is in bed with a migraine, Wagner is just back from a walk with the dogs (a pair of charismatic Newfoundlands!), and Liszt is dropping by to visit. It’s not just clever but wonderfully slyly observed with Wagner’s narcissistic ego front and centre at all times. In Kosky’s retelling, Michael Volle’s warmly realised Hans Sachs is Wagner, and so is anyone with an ounce of artistic nous, hence Walther (a plangent Klaus Florian Vogt) and David (a lively Daniel Behle) are also got up to look like younger versions of the Master. With Anne Schwanewilms’ Cosima doing duty as Eva, Günther Groissböck’s Liszt naturally becomes her father Pogner. Setting up Wagner’s Jewish conducting protégé Herman Levi as Beckmesser (Martin Kränzl acting and singing superbly) is Kosky’s stroke of genius allowing the subsequent acts where Sachs ends up in the dock at Nuremberg to play out on a multitude of levels. Finely conducted by Philippe Jordan and impeccably filmed, the staging may be a little on the frenetic side, but its heart is so firmly in the right place that you quickly forgive Kosky his moments of dramatic excess. Required viewing for Wagnerphiles. Clive Paget

Review: Tobias Kratzer’s Tannhäuser

In Kratzer’s highly conceptualised notion of Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser’s spell at the Venusberg becomes an anarchic road trip in a camper van with Venus at the wheel and a couple of cabaret artistes in tow – the glorious, many-frocked drag-baritone Le Gateau Chocolat and a carnival dwarf played by the magnetic Manni Laudenbach. Our “hero” is done up as a sad-faced, raggedy clown whose spark goes out after they run down a security guard outside a Burger King. Chucked out of the van, he’s taken to Bayreuth where he mingles with the audience at interval before being taken back stage to meet Elisabeth by the rest of the cast of Tannhäuser. If that’s all too existential for you, feel free to stop reading here. However, if you give up now, you’ll miss one of the more intriguing and mostly convincing contemporary re-imaginings of an opera that too often feel a thing of the remote past. It also has moments that are very, very funny, not something you can often say about Tannhäuser. Chorus and orchestra are on stunning form led by Valery Gergiev, here infinitely more compelling than in his recent plodding Flying Dutchman at the Met. Lise Davidsen’s Elisabeth is worth the ticket price alone, while spitfire mezzo Elena Zhidkova is a triumph as Venus, all artificial stimulants and precious little substance. Only Stephen Gould’s worn tenor in the title role takes the top off a generally outstanding vocal cast. With brilliantly realised video elements and eye-catching costumes it all looks a million dollars but will only cost you eight. What’s keeping you?  Clive Paget


The Bayreuth Virtual Festival runs until August 29. More details, a full schedule and tickets are available here.