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Opinion: Turn down the Bayreuth hysteria

A dark sky seems to be settling over Bayreuth's Green Hill, as Wagnerians find plenty of changes - not all of them welcome - at this year's edition of the festival. DW's Rick Fulker seeks to dispel some of the pessimism.

Bayreuth - Villa Wahnfried

Villa Wahnfried is the Bayreuth residence Wagner once occupied

A cascade of boos poured forth from the Bayreuth audience after this week's performance of "Siegfried" - likely an expression of frustration at Frank Castorf's staging of the "Ring" cycle, even though the director himself didn't step in front of the curtain.

It must be said that storms of "boos" are almost a sign of good breeding at Bayreuth. "I have never experienced an audience with so much hatred, anger and vengefulness," said tenor Lance Ryan. "They take everything very personally. It makes you a bit afraid, and it's just terrible."

In the week before this edition of the festival opened, Castorf unloaded complaints to newsmagazine "Der Spiegel," comparing Bayreuth's management to the communists in the former East German government and accusing them of restricting his artistic freedom.

The morality police are hardly out in full force in Bayreuth, though. The "Siegfried" stage has everything from oral sex to copulating crocodiles and a loud shot from a Kalashnikov. Meanwhile, in "Tannhäuser," St. Elizabeth is gassed. Where is the deeper meaning? Is there one?

There are puzzles anywhere one looks at Bayreuth this year, including some firsts: tickets for this year's festival were still available on opening day, and for the first time in the 138-year festival history, a performance had to be interrupted due to a technical malfunction. Richard Wagner's Festspielhaus theater and his one-time residence are both under construction. One of the festival co-heads, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, is stepping down to assume a mere advisory role in the future. And the chancellor skipped the official opening, showing up only five days later - on her personal time - wearing the same two-piece blue suit she had on in 2013.

Angela Merkel in Bayreuth

A guest of honor each season: Chancellor Angela Merkel

Is this the twilight of Bayreuth?

Chasing anarchy

The technical mishap was the result of a software error. But the show must go on, and despite justified concern for the safety of the singers and extras - and a rather ugly stage design - "Tannhäuser" on opening day was a success, at least musically.

As for the tickets: The prices this year were upped by an average of about 18 percent. A seat in row 25 now costs 240 euros ($322), compared with 190 euros previously. More importantly, German federal auditors mandated three years ago that the heavily state-funded event must change how it distributes tickets. Closed performances for union members and preferential treatment for Wagner associations ended, and a portion of the tickets were sold online this time. But some performances are still sold out years in advance.

Then the kicker: after spending time at orchestra rehearsals, "Ring" director Frank Castorf criticized what he felt was a much too pleasant approach to the sound. In all seriousness: should anyone really interfere with a conductor as excellent as Kirill Petrenko to make the music sound less appealing and not distract from the "anarchy" the director hopes to generate on stage? Might Castorf had been satisfied if the technical mishap had occurred during his production?

Sanctuaries under construction

The Festspielhaus, its roof leaking and its exterior crumbling, is now partially hidden behind a cloth façade. Restoration work, beginning in 2015 and ending in 2020, will come at a price of 30 million euros. But considering that Richard Wagner had planned his festival theater as a temporary facility, it seems remarkable that 138 years later, this World Cultural Heritage site has held together so long.

Rick Fulker in Bayreuth

DW's Rick Fulker in Bayreuth

The maestro's former residence, Villa Wahnfried, is now a hollowed out structure. The renovation work is supposed to be finished within 12 months at a cost of 20 million euros, this too largely from public funds. Extensive below-ground spaces have been built for the world's most important Wagner archive, and a new museum is set to examine a topic long brushed aside: Bayreuth's involvement with the Nazis.

Looking ahead

The future sole head of the event, Katharina Wagner, has put forth a detailed plan for the coming years.

The respected Australian director Barrie Kosky will be on board, raising hopes for fewer gratuitous stage tricks. Along with Christian Thielemann, perhaps the world's pre-eminent Wagner conductor, Andris Nelsons and Philippe Jordan - also highly in demand - will offer their renditions of Wagner's score. The soloists will continue to include some of the best in the field: Lance Ryan, Catherine Foster, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Steven Gould - and perhaps even Anna Netrebko. Reason enough to turn down the hysteria surrounding this year's edition of the festival by at least a decibel or two.

Rick Fulker is head of DW's music department and a longstanding Bayreuth Festival attendee.

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