Bayreuth Festival 2008

By Leipsic, Jeffrey | Musical Opinion, November/December 2008 | Go to article overview

Bayreuth Festival 2008


Leipsic, Jeffrey, Musical Opinion


In 1951, the Bayreuth Festival, under the artistic direction of Wagner grandsons Wie- land and Wolfgang, reopened. After the ravages of war and the misuse of the Festival as a Nazi shrine, the future was by no means secure and the Wagner brothers had no easy task. It would be unfair to credit Wieland Wagner alone with the artistic renewal of the Festival but it was largely his genius which breathed new life into Wagner production, moving it away from conservatism and into post war modern age. After Wieland's untimely death in 1966, Wolfgang took over the reins by himself and has held the destiny of Bayreuth in his hands for the past 42 years - 57 years if one counts the time he divided responsibility with his brother. That makes him the longest reigning Intendant in history and it is his unparalleled vision which successfully brought Bayreuth into the 21st century. The Bayreuth Festival is now governed by the Richard Wagner Foundation, the Advisory Board of which consists of representatives of country, state, city, Wagner family and the Society of the Friends of Bayreuth. The Foundation actually owns the Festspielhaus, leasing it to the Bayreuther Festspiele, Inc. At the time that Bayreuth was incorporated, Wolfgang Wagner received a contract from the Foundation to run the Festival for life. His determination not to relinquish power until his own chosen succ- essor was in place has caused problems for more than a decade. After his second marriage, he estranged himself from his own children. He also fought acrimoniously to keep his brother's children out of the Festival pict- ure. No successor could be chosen until Wolfgang either announced his retirement or died - and he showed no signs of doing either, possession in this case being 100% of the law. When his suggestion of his second wife as a successor was rejected, he thwarted the comm- ittee through passive resist- ance. Adding the couple's only child, 30-year old Katharina, an up and coming stage director and an integral part of the Festival from youth on, to the mixture, only served to muddy the waters.

Several factors brought this ongoing soap opera to a conclusion. Gudrun, Wagner's second wife, died unexpectedly this past year. Reconciliation with his eldest daughter, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, a woman with vast experience in theatre administration, made a tandem of Eva and Katharina a viable possibility. On 28 August, after the final performance of this years Festival and one day short of his 89th birthday, Wolfgang Wagner "retired". On 1 September, the team of Eva and Katharina were officially contracted to run the Festival, the contract however no longer for "life" . The decision seems to be a very good one and should guarantee both respect for tradition as well as need for change and improvement. The only negative is that aspirant Nike Wagner, Wieland's highly competent daughter, was left out in the cold once again. One can only hope that an olive branch will be extended to her, allowing her into active Festival administration. This may have to wait until her uncle's death. A triumvirate would have been the ideal solution but knowing the history of the Wagner family, replete with jealousy and political infighting, it was probably not to be expected.

This season's only new production was of Parsifal, the sixth new staging of the work in Bayreuth since 1951. The choice of young Norwegian stage director Stefan Her- heim proved to be a genial one. Herheim's concept was complicated; he tackled the work on three levels. We are confronted with German history from the end of the nineteenth century until the present; we are immersed in a psychological, almost Freud- ian character study of the title character, beginning with the death of his mother; we are brought face to face with the history of the Wagner family in Bayreuth and in Wahnfried. We are, in effect, dealing with a yearning for redemption - that of a misguided Germany, that of Wagner himself and that of Parsifal and the Knights of the Grail. …

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