Bayreuth Festival Retrospective, 2011

This year the Bayreuth Festival produced five different operas, opening with a new production of Tannhäuser, followed by four revivals: Meistersinger, Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Tristan, in that order.  I went to the first four, which included Katarina Wagner’s grotesque Meistersinger for which spare tickets were selling at half price, and no wonder. With a weak Walther this year it was even worse than I remembered. Tristan I avoided after the dull production and low quality performance of two years ago, so my sequence ended with Parsifal, which was stunning.

More on that later, but on opening night the Tannhäuser production team was roundly booed. Sebastian Baumgarten portrayed the opera as one vast recycling experiment, yet just behind me in the centre box sat Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Trichet, who represent the main people in control of another huge experiment, namely the Euro. I wonder if they saw the irony. In the Euro experiment, Greece is in the Venusberg, and Elisabeth represents the Euro, but rather than seek redemption in Rome, the Greek government must journey to Berlin and Brussels. In Tannhäuser we know the result. He does not gain absolution for his sins of excess, but there is divine intervention. In the real experiment, Greece has now started its journey, but regardless of what the Euro gods eventually decide, the omnipotent power on high is the bond market. That’s worth remembering because although the higher power absolves Tannhäuser at the end of the opera, there’s a final denouement: both he and Elisabeth die.

What a pity the director of Tannhäuser made no use of this ominous comparison, so that left just two good productions, Lohengrin and Parsifal. In Hans Neuenfels’ Lohengrin production I liked the rats and video projections, which gave a novel insight into a Wagner opera I care for less than others, but the real punch was from Parsifal. Like many people I’m sceptical of unusual productions, but Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s bold conception was remarkable. It gave an overview of German history from before the First World War until after the Second. The wound from the Treaty of Versailles, the sorcery that Nazism did to a weakened nation, the huge loss of prestige, and finally the cure from paralysis with the death of the old Germany in the person of Titurel. It was an experience not to be missed.

Fortunately Parsifal will reappear next year — see it if you can. It will be shown in the company of TristanLohengrinTannhäuser, and a new production of Fliegende Holländer. As for the Ring, a new production will appear in 2013, the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth.

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