BAYREUTH’S DUTCHMAN TAKES OFF

Seen in Bayreuth August 2016

While listening to the melodramatic and wave tossed overture of
The Flying Dutchman, I realise that this could be the perfect introduction to Wagner for a young person. The main character and his crew are undead, which doesn’t stop the female lead, who is very much alive, from loving him unconditionally. There are rousing choruses and then there is that fight between the Dutchman’s zombie crew and Daland’s sailors. The music is right from the start accessible and quite filmic. Wagner is not associated with arias that are earworms, but listen to the Holländer’s opening monologue ‘Die Frist ist um’and you will be able to hum it straight off.

This production has been revived a number of times since 2012 with many different soloists. The curtain doesn’t rise during the overture and the opera is played without a break, as Wagner originally intended. Excellent decisions by director Jan Philipp Gloger but it does take some time to adjust to the setting. Forget the salty sea dogs, the maritime backdrops and spinning ladies. In this production we move in the turbulent financial world of today, where a bag of money can buy you the daughter of a fan factory owner.

Daland and his Steerman rock the Norwegian boat
Daland and his Steerman rock the Norwegian boat

When we join the action Daland (Peter Rose) and his Steuermann (Benjamin Bruns) are sat in a tiny rowing boat dressed in suits. This particular Daland is bit of a buffoon and Rose is convincing enough as the garrulous sales person who trades his daughter for a treasure. The steersman comes across as the only reasonably normal person, who like many of us, falls asleep on the job. Benjamin Bruns is a patient ‘straight man’ (to Rose’s ‘comedian’) with a pleasant tenor.
But when the Holländer (Thomas J Mayer) appears with his cabin size luggage and dressed for business, the mood changes. He is attended to by a bell boy, a stewardess and a masseuse, but will have none of that. The set indicates that we are in a digital age with flashing numbers crediting or debiting the characters’ fortunes.

Thomas J Mayer is a solemn, no nonsense Dutchman and his bassy baritone reflects that. This a man who has been touched by the financial crisis for the past seven years  and will give away his total fortune for a loyal wife who is not just a trophy. He actually needs a woman’s unconditional love  to  redeem himself and  finish his never-ending journey. Bossy warehouse foreman Mary (Nadine Weissmann) tries, but fails to silence Senta (Ricarda Merbeth) singing her ballad, during working hours, about the man of her dreams, the Flying Holländer. Senta carries a mysterious effigy of the Dutchman made of driftwood(??), but don’t ask me why. Merbeth doesn’t attempt to make Senta  saintly, like Elisabeth in Tannhäuser.  The spinning women have been replaced by ladies in powder blue uniforms packing electric fans in boxes in a warehouse. They still sing the ‘Summ und brumm’ chorus, and while they are packing they take on silly poses that are reminiscent of ‘seductive’ 50s advertising (see picture). Gloger, the director, has opted for a lot of comedy and in general has handled it pretty well.

Thomas J.Mayer only carries cabin sized baggage
Thomas J.Mayer only carries cabin sized baggage

The  huntsman Erik (Andreas Schager), Senta’s admirer,  has been turned into a slightly dorky handyman working in the warehouse . Schager is  a heldentenor that presses all the right buttons in my ears and he probably was a much better Parsifal than Vogt, who he recently replaced at short notice in Bayreuth. Here  it is clear that Senta’s relationship with Erik  was no more than a dalliance, despite some heroic singing by Schager.

The Dutchman is being shown around the electric fan factory by Daland, who seems to own the place. Well, it is love at first sight when the Holländer and Senta meet on the factory floor.  During the love duet ‘Wie aus der Ferne längst vergang’ner Zeiten’ puts on her black wings that she has made  out of cardboard boxes. Oh, don’t ask. It means something, or other. Mayer (Dutchman) is a somewhat dour lover but Merbeth (Senta) is a real spark.

"Senta, wherefore these black wings?"
“Senta, wherefore these black wings?”

In the third act Erik triies to persuade Senta to come back to him  and it produces some of the evening’s most moving singing.  Schager  has the light brilliance in the upper register that very few of today’s dramatic heldentenors possess.

The zombie theme is fortunately not stressed and Senta and the Dutchman of course don’t end up united under the waves as there is not a hint of the sea to be seen in this production. Instead they end up in each other’s arms on top of a heap of cardboard boxes. It is a  bit of an anti-climax. But who cares after such an entertaining evening.

I can’t praise the Festival orchestra enough and conductor Axel Kober whipped them occasionally up to play as loud as I have heard them play in the Festspielhaus, where Wagner made it very difficult to crowd out the singers.

There are plenty of undead in the Flying Dutchman
There are plenty of undead in the Flying Dutchman

PARSiFAL GOES MIDDLE EAST

PRELUDE
I have a confession to make: I don’t quite get Parsifal.
It is not the music that is the problem. Some of it is exceptionally easy on the ear.
But the message remains mysterious and the metaphors can be confusing at times.A basic understanding of Christianity and its symbols certainly helps. Actually, it is absolutely essential that you have some knowledge of Christian rituals to appreciate Parsifal. But then again you expect a good director to make sense of the fairly convoluted plot. It is important to know that in Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus you get no surtitles and the programme books never provide a synopsis of the libretto.
When you come to Bayreuth you need to be prepared.
I thought I knew my stuff. To be honest I expected the director Uwe Eric Laufenberg to present a clear vision of Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel.

Parsifal is the composer’s only opera that was specifically created for Bayreuth. Many composers from Mahler, Sibelius to Alban Berg were deeply moved by the work after seeing it at the Festspielhaus. Debussy, who in general was very critical of Wagner’s works found “Parsifal.. One of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music”.
In my previous blog I interviewed Haenchen and wrote about the sudden switch of conductors for the current production. Hartmut Haenchen took over from Andris Nelsons with less than three weeks to go with stunning results. It is no mean feat to prepare one of the longest and most complicated operas in the repertoire in such a short time. It helped, without a doubt that Haenchen could rely on the best Wagner orchestra in the world.
To cut a long introduction short: I was interested to see how the German theatre director Uwe Eric Laufenberg would resolve the various problems that Parsifal presents.
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ACT I
The curtain rises on a bomb damaged catholic monastery or church that acts as a kind of night refuge. Its immediately clear that the director sets the action somewhere in the Middle East where Christianity is under threat. The Christians are forced to keep to themselves and their own community. Gurnemanz is dressed in a galabiya and skull cap and it makes you wonder if he is a Christian or a Muslim. When Kundry crawls in she is dressed in a hijab. OK, what is going on? This could be interesting.
There were rumours in July that this would be a controversial production.Security around the Festspielhaus was increased dramatically, bur the organisers denied that it had anything to do with the Parsifal production’s Middle Eastern setting. The real reason for the alert was that there had been several deadly attacks in July in Bavaria ( caused by a teenaged terrorist and a mentally disturbed person). The Festspiele are also very popular with politicians, celebrities and captains of industry and they need protection. In this production there are some vague visual references to paramilitairy Muslim fighters, but there is absolutely nothing that could offend anybody from any religion.
Oh, how I wish that Laufenberg would have taken greater risks instead of going for the whole, rather predictable, Christian monk experience in the second scene of Act I.
Amfortas is made to take his health spa bath in a massive bowl at the back of the stage. In the followiing scene the bowl becomes a stage upon which a crucifixion ritual is pérformed with Amfortas as the Redeemer. It is a bit of a yawn, but musically this Ceremony of the Grail sounds magnicent. Haenchen has drilled the forces to a level of perfection that is astounding. Amfortas has a muscular appearance and a dark voice to go with it.
The blood of the crucified Christ was according to tradition collected in a vessel and that is what these monks do to the letter. To Wagner the Grail symbolized a life-giving force, “a spiritual counterpart to the Nibelungen hoard”. The prophesying Gurnemanz has brought Parsifal along to watch this Christ ritual and he sits at the side open-mouthed drinking it all in.
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ACT II
In Act II we meet the dark magician Klingsor, who was not accepted by the Knights of the Grail, conquered the spear that pierced Christ and wounded Amfortas. In this version Klingsor has taken Amfortas hostage and he has bound and gagged him to stop him from singing (because Wagner doesn’t give him a part in this act). Klingsor could be some sort of terrorist overlord or hate priest with a nice display of crucifixes. Kundry is ordered by Klingsor to seduce Parsifal.
The second scene in Klingsor’s magic garden starts off promising. A whole bunch of women wearing veils covering head and chest enter. When this harem spot Parsifal they unveil slinky belly dancing costumes underneath their hijabs and the place turns into an Arabian wellness spa that would please any terrorist martyr pining for 21 virgins.The women’s attempts to ensnare Parsifal fail, but when Kundry re-appears (again dressed as a muslim) things change. Gone is the subservient Kundry who has been condemned to wander the earth in eternity because she mocked Christ on his Via Dolorosa. She has turned into Eve the temptress, the femme fatale who needs to rid Parsifal of his innocence to redeem herself and save her own soul. She reveals much about Parsifal’s past life that he didn’t know himself and when Kundry kisses him, everything changes. The kiss leads to an epiphany and suddenly Parsifal understands Amfortas’ and Christ’s suffering. This is also the moment the German director decides to introduce the ghost of Amfortas in the scene, for no good reason, other than that he gets to mount Kundry.
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Wagner intended Kundry to be the one who embodies reincarnation (in the tradition of Buddhism) but you get none of that in this production.
But Parsifal rejects her and she curses him in return. When Klingsor is about to hurl his holy spear at Parsifal, he simply grabs it and breaks it.
ACT III
We are back in the monastery that we saw in the first act, but many years have passed and the garden is starting to make inroads into the church. Gurnemanz has aged considerably, but luckily his voice is still fine. Kundry looks worse for wear after having crept out of her hide under a scrapheap (that is what it looked like from a distance). Parsifal, dressed in Allied combat gear and armed with his broken holy spear, wanders in after having spent years trying to find Amfortas and the same place he visited in Act I ( clearlyGoogle maps doesn’t work here). Gurnemanz, who has become a hermit in a wheelchair baptizes Parsifal. Kundry’s only words in this act are: “Dienen…dienen” and Parsifal is the one she wants to serve. She washes his feet and in return is baptized by the new redeemer. Amfortas’ wound is healed when Parsifal touches it with his spear and the staging pretty much follows along predictable lines. There is one exception. At one point a bevy of beauties appear completely starkers in the background and have a communal shower in the garden. This is possibly referring to the return of the Garden of Eden, or maybe we just needed some light entertainment after Gurnemanz’s monologues.
Throughout the opera soldiers representing various religions and countries suddenly come rushing through scenes, to indicate that a war is going on, continuously.
In the end I am still none the wiser. Were the muslims the baddies? Surely not. But Kundry was for two acts dressed like a Muslim but ended up as Mary Magdalen.
So, Parsifal was possibly all the time a (clueless) Allied soldier, with a serious case of amnesia. Would that be the right conclusion?

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Elena Pankratova (Kundry) has the voice to threaten, heal, and be subservient, but when it comes to acting the sensuousness that is required in the second act, she is less convincing. The Flower maidens sounded as good as they looked. The American Ryan McKinny (Amfortas) got to show off that he has the physique of a knight as well as a warm bariton. He is also employed as a ghostly figure in act II. Gerd Grochowski (Klingsor) has to battle with a staging that could easily turn him into the pantomime ‘baddie’, but he manages comfortably to avoid the traps.Klaus Florian Vogt (Parsifal) is much loved in this part od the world but to play ‘the nameless youth’ as a wide-eyed naive boy is not particularly revealing. Vogt failed to shine on the second night and vocally he was not on top by the end of the long evening. On the evidence of what was on offer I would definitely have picked Gurnemanz as the new King. Gearg Zeppenfeld’s bariton/bass here seems to embody the wisdom of all spiritual knowledge. I had heard Zeppenfeld the previous night effortlessly tackle the jealousy and forgiveness of King Marke (see review), but in the role of the prophet he even outperforms that effort and becomes the centre point of the production. Having said that, I do think that Hartmut Haenchen deserves the loudest applause that he got from the audience. What he has achieved in a short space of time is nothing less than miraculous. Never, other than in the preludes, was the music dominating the proceedings and Haenchen found an even finer balance to accompany the singers than Thielemann. What a marvelous ‘find’ Haenchen has been for Bayreuth.

HAENCHEN’S NINTH PARSIFAL HITS HOME

All Wagner pilgrimages eventually must  lead to Bayreuth. And If you only see one opera there, let it be Parsifal. After all , Parsifal is the only work that Wagner actually composed specifically with his Festspielhaus in mind. This was his, and it became all his fans’,  temple. Never before had a composer been able to manipulate his own sound so directly. He also controlled the performance rights for Parsifal by granting them exclusively to his own opera house, for 30 years. It worked for 20 years, but then the Metropolitan Opera in New York staged an illegal performance and the Wagners lost control of their ‘Holy Grail’.

The original Holy Grail
The original Holy Grail  is now kept under glass in Wahnfried

In Bayreuth you are bound to overhear conversations, like I did, about how much better productions, singers and/or conductors were 20,  40, years ago. There is no denying that there have been some great singers in the past that have never really been equaled. I would also agree that many voices that are in demand today aren’t as distinct as they used to be. The popularity of  live opera broadcasts in cinemas  is very positive,but the close-ups that are a necessary part of the TV-medium have made the audience focus much more on physical aspects of the singers. Some people now expect them to look like film stars. But it is not all bad and some things have improved enormously.  Today most musicians (including singers)  are technically much better than their colleagues were 30 years ago. That is simply a fact, confirmed to me by the eminent Maestro Hartmut Haenchen (73) who conducts the new production of Parsifal at Bayreuth. And nowadays there are many more musicians  that can make a living out of opera and classical music in general.

This was my first visit to Bayreuth and I was quite aware of a recurring question: are the annual Bayreuther Festspiele still relevant today? I had a chance to ask the American heldentenor Stephen Gould’s view on this. Some of his most successful roles have been Siegmund in Die Walküre, Siegfried in teh Ring Cycle and Tannhäuser. He is currently singing Tristan in Bayreuth (see review in a previous blog). This is his 7th season in the North Bavarian town.

“I have heard so much criticism of the relevance of Bayreuth, especially in the last few years. I can’t over emphasize how singing here is truly the epitome of what is possible in Wagner. He built this house specifically to create the sound that he wanted. The orchestra is not a muted sound. It is an homogenous sound that seems to come from everywhere. You can’t duplicate this in any other opera house. It is for that reason that almost never the orchestra crowds out the singers. When you are standing on stage you sometimes think you are because we get the full Klang (sound) that comes our way. Then you have the tradition here, both positive and negative. It is positive in the sense that when a young singer or even an established singer comes here you really fine tune your style. There is a whole history of it here and Bayreuth still has the best coaches, the best people.”

The German conductor Hartmut Haenchen is surprisingly unknown in his home country. He has conducted at most of the great opera houses in the world and during his tenure at De Nederlandse Opera he was together with Pierre Audi largely responsible for turning it into one of Europe’s most interesting  companies. He is without a doubt one of the lesser known but great Wagner conductors. Haenchen proudly tells me that he has conducted 32 complete Ring cycles and this is his 9th Parsifal! He did receive an invitation to conduct at Bayreuth back in the days when Wolfgang Wagner was in charge, but the East German Stasi (Haenchen is originally from Dresden ) and the cultural commissars deliberately didn’t pass on the invitation.

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Spoiler warning! There is nudity in Parsifal.

Haenchen’s debut in Bayreuth came after Andris Nelsons cancelled his contract and left 3 1/2 weeks before a  brand new production of Parsfal was due to open. Haenchen stepped in with less than 3 weeks to go.

” I had two orchestra rehearsals and some stage rehearsals; two for the first act, one each for acts two and three. Then there was a main rehearsal and a dres rehearsal. But in between  there was time  to day and night  work with the singers, the Flower Maidens and  the chorus. I rehearsed a lot after the General”, Haenchen told me.

There will be more from the Haenchen interview, later……

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