Letter from Bayreuth: Wayne Gooding Walks Back Up the Green Hill for Odd Stagings and a Major Canadian Debut

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There was plenty of buzz and booing at this year's Bayreuth Festival, both feeding off each other for Hans Neuenfels's new, rat-infested production of Lohengrin especially. There is supposed to be a swan in Wagner's early romantic gem (here actually ending up as a sorry plucked chicken), but what the rodents were doing in it was not clear to me even after reading the program-book interview with Neuenfels and his quirky set and costume designer, Reinhard von der Thannen. I wasn't clear on Katharina Wagner's intentions in her staging of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, either, especially when masked icons of German art, including her great-grandfather, were prancing around the stage in full masturbatory tumescence. By comparison, director Tankred Dorst's Der Ring des Nibelungen and Stefan Herheim's Parsifal were models of clarity, though I don't think Wagner's last opera can be wholly parsed, as Herheim does it, as an exploration of Teutonic seduction, guilt and redemption, circa 1870-1990. No matter. Clear or not, the pattern of response to this year's productions was similar to the experience 1 had when I first attended the Bayreuth Festival 20 years ago--howls of outrage hurled at the creative team, followed by cheering and foot-stamping (and a few dissenting voices, to be sure) for the singers, conductors and orchestra.

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This 99th festival on the Green Hill was the first after the death of Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson, and the second under the joint aegis of Katharina and her half-sister, Eva Wagner-Pasquier. The Dorst Ring production, in its final year this summer, is the last production that can be attributed to Wolfgang's artistic regime, which, though much criticized, was notable for a workshop approach that saw productions change over the course of their runs and his willingness to assign stagings to a wide variety of creators, not necessarily German, from the worlds of opera, theatre and film. Wolfgang's Bayreuth did not shy away from controversy or radical interpretations, and that openness is clearly not going to change. In fact, those Lohengrin rats were positively cute and audience-friendly compared to the notorious rotting rabbits in the late Christoph Schlingensief's multi-ethnic and multi-denominational Parsifal of 2004. No matter what you think about Wagner's music, you have to give him the prize for writing operas that stand up to no end of conceptual and theatrical experiment and abuse.

Stimulating though the stagings were--and successful as ever in fuelling dissection and debate among festival attendees around Bayreuth's Weinstuben and Biergarten--there was a particular Canadian interest in this year's festival in the debut of White Rock, B.C.-born tenor Lance Ryan in the role of Siegfried. His inclusion was a relatively late cast change, whereupon he replaced the previously announced Christian Franz (the Canadian Opera Company's Siegfried) in one of the biggest tenor roles in the repertoire. Ryan had already been assigned the role for the new Ring production at Bayreuth in a couple of years, but the word is that conductor Christian Thielemann, mainly known in North America through recordings but regarded in Europe as the master conductor of the Master's music and cheered to the Festspielhaus's ornate ceiling at every curtain call, wanted him on stage this summer. "I had some reservations about taking over the part in a production that didn't get particularly well reviewed when it opened in 2006," Ryan told me between performances. "I had seen it then, and did find it a bit static. But I accepted because Thielemann was conducting, and I figured 1 could learn something from that."

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Ryan arrived in Bayreuth to sing both Siegfrieds fresh from his role debut as Lohengrin in a Birmingham, England, concert performance conducted by Andris Nelsons, who also led the Bayreuth Lohengrin. He had a number of chances to talk to Dorst about the Ring and the Siegfried character before also working through about a month of rehearsals. …