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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. All the trappings of German myth, legend and history were out, replaced by a kind of 'everyman' approach to Wagner's storylines. Looking at the production videos in the museum over half a century later, it's hard to appreciate just how revolutionary Wieland's Bayreuth workshop was in his day, or fathom the vehemence of the outcry against him. Even seemingly trivial changes--leaving Brunnhilde asleep in an open circular space without a fir tree in sight at the end of Die Walkure, for example--riled his audiences.

To an important degree, of course, the 'New Bayreuth' artistic program ofWieland and Wolfgang was politically driven. They needed an approach to staging Wagner that distanced the festival and the composer from any association with Hitler and National Socialism. As an avid Wagnerite the Fuhrer had been a welcome guest, and Wagners works and writings had lent themselves readily to Nazi ideology and appropriation in propaganda. In the early years of the New Bayreuth workshop, the main job was to make Wagner, the family and the festival respectable again. This year's retrospective exhibition at the Wagner museum presents Wieland and his stripped-down aesthetic, short on naturism and long on symbolism, as ground zero for the rehabilitation.

The exhibition at the Wagner museum proved an interesting frame for the style of the productions at this year's festival. While the workshop approach may be a continuing thread, Katharina Wagner's Bayreuth seems to have embraced again the historical, the local and the national that Wieland so studiously avoided. Laufenberg's Parsifal is set in modern-day Iraq, with refugees on the move and a title character seen in military fatigues in one act and anonymous terrorist black in another. Castorfs Ring has a distinct historical arc, albeit fragmentary and willfully disjointed, that limns the capitalist versus socialist dynamic running from the late 19th century to German reunification. Castorfs perspective on things is very much framed by his own history living in postwar East Germany; even the brash and vulgar Route 66 motel setting of Das Rheingold was a kind of imaginary America, as it was fantasized or propagandized behind the Iron Curtain.

Kosky s production of Meistersinger is even more local, set in Bayreuth and Nuremburg to address the fraught issues around Wagner's own anti-Semitism and the Wagner-Bayreuth-Nazi axis head on. Staging an overture is always a risky business, but Kosky wittily sets up the production by showing a slice of daily life in the living room of Haus Wahnfried on what we are told is Aug. 13,1875. We see Wagner fussing around, completely self-centred, with references to his love of fine silks, perfumes and Newfoundland dogs. Franz Liszt is visiting, and so is Hermann Levi, the Jewish conductor who would later lead the premiere of Parsifal. To one side, a high-maintenance Cosima Wagner is suffering from a migraine. As the overture proceeds, Wagner goes to the piano and plays along, making room for a four-handed turn with Liszt; as they play, younger versions of Wagner climb out of the instrument, as well as the Meistersingers of the title. As the opera gets under way, the older Wagner of this scenario becomes Hans Sachs; a younger Wagner morphs into Walther, Hermann Levi becomes Beckmesser, and Cosima becomes Eva.

This all sets up a thoughtful and provocative examination that not only puts Wagner in the dock--literally, since much of the subsequent action plays out in the courtroom of the postwar Nuremburg trials--but also his music and works, which are uniquely burdened by such a dark history. The street brawl at the end of Act II is especially confrontational. Levi/Beckmesser not only gets roughed up, he's brutally and deliberately attacked by the mob while a somewhat ambivalent Sachs/Wagner looks on--he didn't participate in the violence, but he's complicit. Grotesquely masked as the hook-nosed Jew of Nazi caricature, the beaten Beckmesser ends up cowering under a gigantic balloon with the same face; as the act closes, the balloon deflates to leave a skull cap with the Star of David lying across the stage. Sachs's Act III monologue, "Wahn! Wahn! Uberall Wahn!" ("Madness! Madness! Everywhere Madness!"), takes on a very particular historical tint in this production.

This isn't the first time in Katharinas Bayreuth that Wagner and Haus Wahnfried have been on the Festspielhaus stage. Stefan Herheim's Parsifal, which saw the return of the Nazi swastika to the Festspielhaus, examined guilt and redemption by parsing German history in settings that started in Wahnfried in the 1870s and ended in the German parliament in the 1990s. Katharinas own 2010 Bayreuth debut with Meistersinger, a perplexing reflection on artistic responsibility and societal change, had her great-grandfather and other creative icons prancing around in their underwear, at the end seemingly willing to let their legacy go up in flames. Kosky's conclusion is more positive, letting art itself make the final argument that it rises above and beyond the historical circumstances and baggage of its creation. For the final scene, all the scenery recedes and disappears to leave Sachs/Wagner alone on a bare stage. He sings his final plea to honour the German masters directly to the audience, then turns to conduct a modern dress orchestra and chorus that has rolled on behind him.

"Every production is an act of fresh creation," Wieland Wagner insisted. "Living theater knows only one style, that of its current era." If the austere formalism of his own style was right for an era when Wagner and Wagnerism needed to be untangled from their own histories, the direct confrontation of history and historical legacies that has been a hallmark of recent Bayreuth productions is a more appropriate style for our own era's search for truth and reconciliation. The past decade of leadership by the Wagner sisters has brought a greater openness to unearth and face uncomfortable facts--and not just on the Festspielhaus stage. When the Wagner Museum opened in 2015, it included the renovated Siegfried Wagner house on the other side of Wahnfried. The upstairs houses the Bayreuth archives, but the rooms downstairs, which once welcomed Hitler as a guest, are open to view. They now include permanent video installations that in part examine Wagner's anti-Semitism and document the family's collusion with the National Socialists. In the 2013 centenary year, a Bayreuth-focused version of Verstummte Stimmen (Silenced Voices), was mounted in the city, with elements also placed around the Arno Breker bust of Wagner in the Festspielhaus gardens. The comprehensive German travelling exhibition documents the forcible exclusion of Jewish artists from operatic life between 1933 and 1945. Those elements have remained standing ever since, like gravestones that festivalgoers stroll around during intermissions. Each marker has the photo and brief biography of a Jewish artist who had worked in Bayreuth, but was subsequently banned. The lucky ones escaped into exile; so many others did not survive transportation and the concentration camps.

Ironically, the bust of Wagner--like the busts of Cosima and Liszt--are by sculptor Arno Breker, who was much favored by Hitler and the regime for his heroic, Neo-Classical representations. In the vetting of Germans in the aftermath of World War II, Breker, like Wieland Wagner, was judged a 'fellow traveler' of the Nazis. Both were punished with a fine before being allowed to get on with their creative lives. The "Nothing is Eternal" in the title of the exhibition commemorating Wieland is taken from his writing. One had to wonder, strolling around those markers during the intermissions, whether Wagner and Bayreuth can ever escape judgement as sympathizers.

Caption: Johannes Martin Kranzle as Beckmesser in the Bayreuth Festival's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

Caption: Arno Breker's bust of Richard Wagner as part of the Silenced Voices exhibition
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Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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