My absolute favorite Wagner site on the Internet is The Wagnerian. I admire it beyond praise, and one day would seek to emulate it. But the author’s dedication, erudition and, one must conclude, available hours exceed my own by such a degree that I simply include the blog in my daily subscriptions on Google Reader and lap it all up.
Recently “The Wagnerian” weighed in on the tiff between Bayreuth and the worldwide Wagner Societies and, cautioning that he himself is not a member of a Society, went further and asked who cared about Bayreuth anyway. An extended quote:
While I understand why the societies might be a bit “miffed” at the poor way this has been handled – and indeed the poor reasoning behind it – I have no idea why people are so “keen” to get tickets to recent productions. Yes, the Festival is without doubt of some historical interest to anyone interested in Wagner and yes it does have acoustic properties that benefit the Ring to some degree, but most specifically Parsifal (although anyone familiar with the history of Wagner will know how many conductors dislike conducting there). However, long gone seem to be the days when the festival attracted the worlds greatest Wagner performers on, and under, its stage (often for greatly reduced fees). Indeed, there is, to paraphrase poorly Wagner’s favorite author, something wrong in the state of Bayreuth when the finest cast and conductor in a production of Tristan und Isolde is to be found not in Bayreuth but elsewhere this year.
Equally gone – at least looking at present productions – are the days of Wieland’s innovative, if texturally sensitive productions or indeed Wolfgang’s “regressive” yet interesting productions. Now, it might be argued, we have something of the worse of “Regietheater”: with a Meistersinger containing representations of Wagner with a giant penis (even if he would have been enamoured himself which such a devise or representation) and a tasteless Tannhäuser that is not only textually illogical and “untrue” but concludes with players being dragged off to “gas chambers” – productions often critically derided. (And this is from someone who finds Regietheatre less problematic then many). And the future is not looking much brighter as Gudrun Stegen of Deutsche Welle pointed out recently with a 2013 Ring Cycle being directed by, “Frank Castorf, the controversial director of the Berliner Volksbühne theater. Critics bemoan his complete lack of opera experience”.
Yes, Bayreuth is important, but the large number of Wagner productions in Germany alone, never mind elsewhere – often with casts that consist of some of the finest Wagner artists in the world and with which Bayreuth seems unable to compete – may perhaps make the Festival far less important than the present “furore” would suggest.
Now, this (to me) is good stuff. Very good stuff indeed. It was posted more than a week ago and it has been brooding in my mind ever since. One instinctively wants to dismiss it, yet it is too well observed, and too steeped in the truth, to ignore.
I do have two points of reply, however, that I would offer to invite comment.
First, the building is Wagner’s understanding of his art. What he was after in writing the Ring he had to build that building to attain: A civic as well as artistic experience that resembled (if it resembled anything) the Dionysian festivals of Athens. There, the population would drop its work, walk up the hill, and for each of three successive days partake in stories about themselves, their myths, and their relationship to the gods. Walking into the auditorium at Bayreuth teaches you — nay, permits you uniquely to experience — a fundamental aspect of Wagner’s artistic aim. So does taking off work, taking a train from the airport to the town, putting on your facy duds, and walking up the hill in the middle of the day. The physical event of attending Bayreuth is as much Wagner as listening to the first note of Parsifal. Thus, to me, Bayreuth is needed to the same extent that the autograph copy of one of his scores is needed: It is something that he touched and designed, that palpably incorporates his central vision of art.
The second point is that, at least post-World War II, Bayreuth is that rare artistic endeavor, the laboratory. Though Cosima thought of it as a museum, for sixty years it has in fact been a research lab. The works are mounted after substantial preparation — years’ long in the case of the core artistic staff — and the dictate seems to be to “do it differently,” as the Meister himself implored us. Once mounted, the production is brought back into rehearsal for five successive seasons, subjected to change and rediscovery, and then purposely discarded in favor of a new approach by a new team.
Sometimes this means that wonderful productions die (or, in the case of Harry Kupfer’s astounding Ring, get carted off to another house for yet more refinement). Sometimes it means that crappy productions subsist. (I thought I would never be allowed out of the theatre when I watched the third act of Tristan in which the shepard sat on a junked-up car seat in a huge dust-bin stage, while light shafts traced the proscenium at a coma-inducing pace and, at the end, Isolde sang in gold lamé.)
But the point is not to produce popular productions, or to produce definitive interpretations. It is to question, and question, and probe, and seek, and interpret. If the works at issue were Don Carlos, Boheme or Peter Grimes, I suspect we might begin to seek the bottom of the intellectual pool after a few decades. But the works at issue in Bayreuth are the Ring, Tristan, Lohengrin, Meistersinger — works that continue to challenge musical and theatrical interpretation, that seem to have been written in order to invite audiences to consider (and reconsider) themes of redemption, divinity, purgative love, and resignation to fate. And if we see something onstage that we have not seen before, I ask you: Are you surprised? Did you come to Richard Wagner’s theatre in order to see something familiar, something that would make you comfortable, and would remind you of good times in the past?
If so, you got on the wrong plane. The Met is this way; Bayreuth is over here.