woensdag 8 september 2010

A Week in Bayreuth :
The Ring Cycle (8-13 August 2010)

Van onze leden Annemarie & Stephen Langley-Wanderer ontving ik volgende enthousiaste reportage naar aanleiding van hun eerste bezoek aan de Groene Heuvel.

My wife, Annemarie, successfully participated in the Wagner society tickets quiz last year and we have just returned to Brussels following a memorable week in Bavaria where we attended all four parts of the Ring Cycle. Here's our report. In addition to giving our view on the performances we thought it might be useful to provide some practical tips on attending the Festspiele .


Already in January (7 months in advance), and despite initial lack of success in booking accommodation in the "Fränkische Schweiz" north west of Bayreuth, we ended up renting a self-catering apartment in Fleckl just outside Warmensteinach some 20 kilometres east of Bayreuth. This turned out to be an excellent choice – the Ochsenkopf mountain was right next door providing multiple opportunities for walking and enjoying the local scenery. The accommodation was clean, spacious and remarkably good value for money. Shops and eating places were located around 3 km away in Fichtelberg. The owners confirmed that their properties in Fleckl are always fully booked for the duration of the Festspiele. Advice therefore: if you have tickets, avoid disappointment and book accommodation as quickly as you can.

Trips by car into Bayreuth from the east proved uncomplicated – taking around 30 minutes on almost empty roads.

Bayreuth itself is a very interesting town with a number of museums, a ducal palace and any number of taverns and eating places including the Weihenstephan – intriguingly sub-titled the "Oldest Brewery in the World." We visited the magnificent Markgräfliche Opernhaus (the oldest baroque opera house in Germany) and the Wagner residence "Wahnfried". Both places are fascinating and full of historical/musical interest. For enthusiasts Wahnfried is not to be missed and probably merits a day on its own. Concerts are frequently held in the salon where the piano, donated to Wagner by Steinway, still stands.

Prospective visitors to the town should note that both buildings will be closed for large-scale renovation work from the end of August 2010. Both are scheduled to re-open in time for the Wagner bi-centenary celebrations in 2013.

On-street parking within 300 metres of the Festspielhaus (FSH) was easy on each of our four visits. Neighbouring streets are named exclusively after Wagnerian heroes – ours was Wotanstrasse and ideally positioned for a quick get-away after performances. Parking within the immediate vicinity of the FSH is no problem either.

In terms of dress, I opted for a black dinner jacket and felt that this was the right choice. One of the joys of the festival is the opportunity it provides to watch a fashion parade free of charge at close quarters. The vast majority of the audience clearly seized the opportunity to dress smartly and there were any number of stunning dresses on show. White dinner jackets looked surprisingly out of place.

Solid and liquid refreshment is readily to hand with few queues – prices (decent local beer at €4, green tea at €3.70) compared very favourably with the Glyndebourne festival (UK) which we visited in May. These drinking holes provide plenty of opportunity to chat with one's fellow festival-goers; we picked up many opinions on such topics asthe quality of singing, the Dorst production and the style of the new management team of Eva Pasquier and Katherina Wagner. Intervals last one hour thus providing plenty of time for recharging one's batteries and (if you insist) expensive retail therapy

The FSH is surrounded by beautiful greensward and gardens where, weather permitting, it was extremely pleasant to take a seat during intervals and munch a sandwich, watch the sun going down, take photographs, etc. The weather during our week in Bayreuth was pretty disastrous with an umbrella required on two out of four days.

Thank you very much, Wagner Society, because Our FSH seats were superb – Category 2, 9th row, centre left – affording a terrific view of the stage (neither orchestra or conductor are visible thanks to Wagner's inspired design) and 96% of the action. Contrary to what you might read in the press, the seats were not particularly uncomfortable. My neighbour confirmed that they had been refurbished with velvet-covering some years ago – a welcome upgrade from the unyielding wooden tip-up seats which Annemarie and I had encountered during our "behind the scenes FSH" tour in 2001.
Punctuality is essential. Performances started on the dot and no late-comers are allowed into the auditorium. If you're late for Rheingold you miss the whole opera.


Rheingold (8 August)

Critics have been quite severe on Tankred Dorst's production but we find it quite fascinating. The first scene takes place in the watery, stony and slippery depths of the Rhein – it's difficult for Alberich to secure his footing or get his lecherous hands on the Maidens. The second scene, featuring the initial appearance of the Gods, is set in an untidy, ostensibly urban, landscape complete with graffiti on walls and local youth strolling around the stage.

The singing is of excellent standard with particularly fine performances from Alberich (Andrew Shore) and Loge (Arnold Bezuyen). Simone Schröder is not particularly convincing as Flosshilde and, this evening at least, Wotan (Albert Dohmen) is not performing at full throttle. These are minor vocal shortcomings and are easily compensated by strong acting and characterisation. This is where Dorst's theatre background impacts so positively on the performance as a whole. There can be no doubting the venality of Alberich, the voluptuousness of the Rhine Maidens or the rising tension between Fricka and Wotan.

The orchestra is magnificent. The gorgeous acoustics of the house enhance the all-round excellence and subtlety of its playing. Christian Thielemann is clearly adored in Bayreuth.

Rapturous applause greets the performers at the end of a great evening. There are other factors that make the evening thoroughly enjoyable such as the discipline of the audience (no noisy sweet wrappers or disruptive applause), the atmosphere and acoustics in the auditorium and the seamless organisation inside and outside the house.

Valkyrie (9 August)

Johan Botha, the great South African tenor, sings Siegmund this evening and is in superb form (he had disappointed in his role as Walter in Meistersinger in Vienna last year). This time there is no letting us down – his diction is clear and his singing sublime.

The set in the first act is particularly striking with a telegraph pole smashed through the left-hand side of the set (modelled, we think, on the entrance hall of the FSH itself). It looks like a scene from wartime and helps explain the atmosphere of tension and menace that pervades the whole of Act 1. Dorst extracts a great deal from the Hunding role – he's violent, malevolent and a wife-beater and excellently played – and sung – by Kwangschul Youn .

Even for Wagner fanatics like us, we realise that the second act is tough going in terms of length and content. Despite this, with Botha singing wonderfully and Wotan stepping up the gas compared with yesterday, we are able to maintain concentration. Brunnhilde (Linda Watson) makes her first entry; with hair dyed red, she looks more punk than Valkyrie. It sounds as though she's having some problems with her voice this evening.

The third act, which includes the Ride of the Valkyries, is set in a quarry littered with corpses and junk of various sorts. It is this sort of barren and desolate scenery that has generated so much criticism of Dorst's production. Whatever reservations one may have about the set, the final scenes (including Wotan's Abschied) are deeply moving. These people can act as well as sing.

Although Watson certainly isn't on form this evening, other performances (including that of the orchestra – brilliant as usual) are top quality.

Siegfried (11 August)

The performance is preceded by a huge portion of Schweinschäufele (slow roast shoulder of pig with crackling) at "Zum Oberen Tor" - located on the same street as Wahnfried. I manage to eat around 80% of this intimidating slab and the waitress congratulates me on this performance. I recommend this place – it's not particularly classy but the food is hearty and the beer extremely good.

We're not surprised that Linda Watson is out of action this evening. She is replaced at the last minute by Sabine Hogrefe who does well in the circumstances. The unattractive punk wig from Valkyrie is gone by the way.

Of all the Ring operas, this is the one that we feel best acquainted with. A couple of recent visits to Cologne (one with the Wagner society) are still relatively fresh in our memory. It seems to us that Dorst may have been inspired by some of Robert Carsen's ideas as there are some similarities here – Siegfried with teddy bear and Mime with chemistry set complete with overflowing test tubes (both in Act 1) and the forest setting in Act 2. A great contrast is to be found, however, in the portrayal of Siegfried - he appears to be suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder because he's moving or leaping around and behaving in generally (or potentially) destructive manner - smashing schoolroom furniture in the first Act, practicing sword thrusts in the second and third Acts. In his nature, of course, he is totally oblivious to warnings or threats. It is Lance Ryan's performance that captures the audience. In our opinion he clearly emerges as the audience "favourite of the week." After a slightly tentative start not only does he sing wonderfully but he also looks the part: a shock of red hair on a freckled face, a lean body and overloaded with reckless youthful energy.

Wolfgang Schmidt also does well as Mime – the school classroom providing an ideal location for those chemistry skills. Andrew Shore is outstanding again as the malevolent Alberich. I'm not sure about their costumes though – they look more like "Michelin Men" with their inflated tyre apparel.

Apart from occasional nervousness and understandable lapses in tempi on the part of Hogrefe, there are virtually no weaknesses in this performance. The audience response is thunderous. This has been another richly satisfying evening.

Götterdämmerung (13 August)

The week has flown by. Friday the 13th is another day of mediocre weather but the gloom has been relieved by the fantastically high quality performances inside FSH.

The final part of the cycle is wonderful in so many ways –Linda Watson's Brunnhilde is back with us this evening and is in much more convincing form. Hagen is a brooding, virulent force – Eric Halfvarson excellent – and unsmiling - throughout. Siegfried, singing beautifully, retains his boyish enthusiasm and naïveté till the end. Once again we enjoy the staging although the downfall of the gods is largely invisible thanks to stage hands overdoing the production of smoke.

The courtiers and hangers-on play an important supporting role in this production. They are largely guileless on-lookers as the tragedy unfolds; bit-players in a corrupt and dissolute court. They're making love behind closets, breakfasting in various forms of undress (an interesting take on Déjeuner sur l'Herbe in Act 3), sipping champagne, sniffing coke, pointlessly (and repeatedly) adjusting sunglasses. We count at least thirty pairs of shoes on the stage –presaging the downfall of the inconsequential Gunther and Gutrune perhaps ? This attractive but essentially frivolous pair is doomed from the start; they realise far too late that they're just pawns in Hagan's plotting Appropriately, Gunther's crown in Act 1 makes him look more fool than ruler. Game, set and match to Hagen.

Once again what makes this production so richly satisfying is the combination of vocal skill and great acting. Dorst winds up the tension in Act 2 and opens the sluice gates in Act 3. The death of Siegfried is preceded by charming singing from the Rhine Maidens. Lance Ryan captures the audience one last time before he is speared in the back. Brunnhilde's self-immolation gives way to the gorgeous orchestral finale – the smoke filled stage prevents us from witnessing the demise of Hagen or the end of Valhalla but we're so swept away by the magnificent orchestration that it hardly matters. 20 minutes of curtain calls with rapturous applause from an entranced audience. We leave the FSH very reluctantly and wonder when we'll be back………………


Our week in Bayreuth was unforgettable. Attending the Ring was the pinnacle of our music-going career so far and exceeded our (already high) expectations. It's not only the music in Bayreuth but the vibe you get from knowing that, in unique and historic surroundings, you're getting some of the best singers and orchestral players in the world at the top of their game.

In addition to this, the organisation of the event is first class. The service and attention to detail is both superb and discreet.

The knowledgeable audience is a real asset – we know that Bayreuth audiences have a reputation for (sometimes) being unkind – Lohengrin this year received a mixed reception. All we can say is that there appeared to be terrific enthusiasm for this production, the orchestra and conductor.

Bayreuth will be undergoing a face-lift over the next three years in advance of the Wagner bi-centenary and there will be no Ring in either 2011 or 2012. Whatever the inevitable controversies that will envelop the new Ring production in 2013, we consider ourselves fortunate and privileged to have attended the Dorst production. To have attended an opera in the FSH is to want to go again………….

We would like to express our sincere thanks to the Wagner Society for making this wonderful week possible.

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