Letter from Bayreuth: This Year, Wayne Gooding Discovers the Festival Interpreting Wagner's Music Dramas through the Lens of Local and National History, as It Continues to Thoughtfully Examine Its Tortured Past

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Letter from Bayreuth: This Year, Wayne Gooding Discovers the Festival Interpreting Wagner's Music Dramas through the Lens of Local and National History, as It Continues to Thoughtfully Examine Its Tortured Past


This was a big summer in Bayreuth, one of the comparatively rare seasons when all the later Wagner operas were performed together. The 106th Festival started on July 25th with a new staging of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg by Barrie Kosky, the Australian-born Intendant of Berlin's Komische Operand closed August 28th with the end of the five-year run of Berlin director Frank Castorfs exuberantly iconoclastic Der Ring des Nibelungen. In between, there were further outings for Bayreuth boss Katharina Wagner's darkly bleak Tristan und Isolde and the Parsifal of actor/director Uwe Eric Laufenberg, which is set in today's troubled Middle East. I doubt there has been a more eclectic mix of productions of these music dramas in the dozen years they have played side by side in Bayreuth. Ironically the Tristan, which ends unconventionally with King Mark exercising his seigneurial rights, dragging the very-much-alive Isolde away from Tristan's corpse after her "Liebestod," is the most straightforward of the lot.

This was Katharina's second year as sole director of the festival, following a seven-year stint as co-director with her half-sister, Eva Wagner-Pasquier. Katharina has faced most of the charges that Bayreuth has tailed under the weight of directorial excess over the past decade or so--Castorfs Ring ranked by many as the most egregiously wrong-headed example. It's arguable, however, that there really hasn't been any fundamental change of artistic policy since the festival was run by the sisters' father, Wolfgang Wagner. He positioned Bayreuth as a workshop for ideas and interpretations around his grandfather's music dramas, and hired a succession of leading theatre practitioners from around Europe to realize the vision.

The idea of Bayreuth as an innovative workshop, as this year's major exhibition at the Richard Wagner Museum at Haus Wahnfried illustrated, has been a guiding principle since brothers Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner restarted the festival after Germany's catastrophic embrace of National Socialism. This year marked the centenary of Wieland's birth (on January 5, 1917), celebrated in Bayreuth by a special commemorative concert in the Festspielhaus the day before the festival opened; and the installation oi Nothing is Eternal: Wieland Wagner--Tradition and Revolution, a major retrospective of his life and work, opened at the museum. The city also mounted its own tribute at the public library down the street from Wahnfried in an exhibition of his earliest stage designs from the 1930s and 40s, when he worked on then-popular operas by his father, Siegfried, and got his first taste mounting those by grandfather Richard. A would-be artist and painter, Wieland served as stage designer for all but one of the 88 productions credited to him over his 30-year career (he died suddenly in 1966), also serving as stage director for each one after 1943.

The Wagner museum exhibit was laid out so visitors first had to thread their way through constricted passages, some with maze-like dead ends, enclosed by giant photographs of Wieland's family, friends and formative influences. They arrived in a large circular space surrounded by screens, showing archival video of his Bayreuth productions and grainy historical interviews with singers, colleagues and Wieland himself. The exhibition's layout was intended as a metaphor for Wieland's own progression--from the restrictive expectations placed on him as heir-apparent to his family's theatrical legacy--to the ground-breaking approaches to staging in the immediate postwar decades, that provoked and enraged audiences in their day as much as the perceived excesses of Regietheater do in ours.

You can hear Wieland describing Bayreuth as a workshop in those video clips, and about his revolt against family tradition after the so-called 'New Bayreuth' opened in 1951. In practice, the approach evolved to favour abstract, geometrical settings and a detailed focus on human interactions that deliberately avoided any representation of the historical, the national or the local. …

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Letter from Bayreuth: This Year, Wayne Gooding Discovers the Festival Interpreting Wagner's Music Dramas through the Lens of Local and National History, as It Continues to Thoughtfully Examine Its Tortured Past
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