The more I see of Tobias Kratzer’s work the more impressed I get. Here we look at his 2019 production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Bayreuth. It’s the kind of production that traditionalists get off on hating and there were boos at curtain call though they were absolutely drowned out by a storm of applause and stomping. Personally, I found it insightful, at times very funny, and deeply, deeply moving.
It’s July 29th 1951; the opening night of the first Bayreuth Festival since the end of the war. Noted anti-Nazi Wilhelm Furtwängler will conduct the Festival Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from the Festspielhaus. It will be broadcast live by Süddeutsche Rundfunk(*) and will be relayed by stations in Germany, Austria, France and Sweden. You are sitting in front of your valve radio because commercial transistor models are not yet on the market. You can’t record it to listen to little because tape reorders are almost as rare in 1951 as transistor radios.
Wagner’s Parsifal has been served rather well on Blu-ray and DVD in the last few years. The 2016 Bayreuth recording is another interesting addition to the list. Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production is not exactly traditional but it’s not “in your face” conceptual either. The setting is contemporary and various visual clues locate it where Europe meets Asia; perhaps the Southern Caucasus. The grail temple is run down. There are soldiers and refugees and tourists, as well as the Grail knights. There’s plenty of Christian symbolism around. The “swan scene” is played straight. The “communion scene” uses Amfortas as the source of the communion blood; an idea which seems common enough. Here he’s wearing a crown of thorns (and not much else) and there’s lots of blood.
Katharina Wagner’s take on Tristan und Isolde recorded at Bayreuth in 2015 is hard to unpack. There are some hints in a short essay in the booklet accompanying the disk and a few more in the interview with conductor Christian Thielemann included as an extra but it still leaves the viewer with a lot to do. It’s essentially unromantic and quite abstract. A lot of stuff that happens in a traditional interpretation just doesn’t happen but there’s not really anything much to replace it. What’s left is the story of two people who fall in love in a situation where that is bound to end badly and where, despite the best efforts of pretty much everyone else, it does. It’s actually quite nihilistic. Tristan, and maybe Isolde, seek a kind of transcendence in love/death but there is none. At the end Isolde doesn’t die but something in her does. It had me thinking of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (but then so much in life does).
There may be better video recordings of Tristan und Isolde than Daniel Barenboim and Heiner Müller’s 1995 Bayreuth collaboration but I haven’t seen one. It combines a deeply satisfying production, outstanding conducting and brilliant performances from the principals; Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier. The only downside, and it’s not serious, is that, as a 1995 recording, it’s a bit short of the latest and greatest in audio and video quality.
And so, at last to Götterdämmerung. The scene with the Norns is dark, very dark. There’s a rope and not much goes on (at least that is visible) but the singing is good. The “dawn” scene comes off more effectively here than the final scene of Siegfried but it’s still not great. I think the problem is a combination of Manfred Jung’s dry, rather nasal tone and Boulez rather fast tempu. It seems rushed rather than ecstatic and the Rhine Journey doesn’t thrill. I was concerned at this point that I was being unfair to a renowned production so I put on the same scene from Kupfer/Barenboim. It’s much better. Siegfried Jerusalem sounds truly heroic, Anne Evans richer tone blends better than Gwyneth Jones’ (though this could be an artefact of the recording) and, crucially, Barenboim gives the singers room to sing before markedly speeding up for the orchestral music. At least there is no naff attempt to depict a literal Grane in Chéreau’s version. At the conclusion of this scene Brian Large pulls off the first of his artsy effects. During the Rhine music he holds a close up of Brünnhilde for a rather long time before pulling out to a full stage shot which he then shrinks until there is just a tiny square of picture in the middle of a black screen which, when he slowly expands it, has transformed to the Gibichung hall. He does the same thing a couple more times. It seems odd to introduce that kind of thing at such a late stage in the cycle.
Chéreau’s Siegfried is even less obviously “industrial” than his Die Walküre. There’s a forge of course but there rather has to be. Other than that we get workshop, forest and lair pretty much as one might imagine until, of course, we end up back at the ruin where Brünnhilde waits. Brian Large injects lots of smoke at every opportunity.
The second instalment of Patrice Chéreau’s 1980 Bayreuth Ring cycle is set, like Das Rheingold, in a sort of industrial bourgeois late 19th century. One would almost say steampunk if that were not an anachronism. Actually the “industrial” side is much less evident than in the earlier work. There’s a sort of astrolabe/pendulum thing in Valhalla but that’s about it. Setting aside, the story telling is very straightforward; so much so that it takes a real effort of the imagination to get into a mindset where this production could ever have been considered controversial. It’s quite literal; Brünnhilde has a helmet and breast and back plates (worn over a rather severe grey dress), Wotan has a spear, Siegmund has a sword. There’s not an assault rifle or light sabre to be seen. It is though dramatically effective.
So much has been written about Patrice Chéreau’s centenary production of the Ring cycle at Bayreuth that I approached reviewing it with some trepidation. I have decided to write about it “as is”; i.e. to write about what I see on the DVD and leave the undoubted historical significance, perhaps even revolutionary impact of the production, to others. Also, it’s apparent that what’s on the DVD, filmed in an empty house as was contemporary Bayreuth practice, must differ from what was seen on the Green Hill in certain key ways. This is a review of what;s seen and heard on the DVD.
Christoph Marthaler’s 2009 Bayreuth production of Tristan und Isolde is set in a sort of Stalinist brutalist aesthetic populated with stock figures from the 1950s. Passion is at a minimum and the characters all seem to be trying as hard as possible to be conventional representatives of their roles. The only one who shows any real human engagement is Kurwenal who comes across almost as a commentator on the action, or even a director. There’s also some fairly stylized gesturing in a sort of pseudo-Sellars manner. It’s epitomised by the costumes in Act 2 where Isolde and Brangäne look like dolls dressed as Hausfraus and Tristan wears a hideous blue blazer. This is all rather reinforced by Michael Beyer’s video direction which uses a lot of close ups but also has a curious stillness about it that seems to amplify the emotional void; if indeed one can amplify a void. Oddly though, in places this approach really works in that the distance, coupled with very precise blocking, gives space for the music’s essential intensity to come through. Act 2 Scene 2, perhaps the emotional crux of the piece, is very moving and the So stürben wir, um ungetrennt is quite impressive.