Richard Wagner's Festspielhaus theater is freshly restored, but the myth and mystique of his festival seems tarnished as it wraps up the season. Little seems to excite the public other than rumors in the pipeline.
The 105th Bayreuth Festival ended on August 28 as it began, with a performance of "Parsifal." Reviews on the interpretation of Richard Wagner's last - and most enigmatic - opus by stage director Uwe Eric Laufenberg ranged from "triumphant" (Daily Telegraph) and "sublime and provocative … a bold vision" (New York Times) to "a catastrophic, naïve, decorative non-engagement with the delicate subject matter at this most authentic location … a scandal." (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung).
Laufenberg, who had used much religious imagery in his scenes and pointed to a transcendence of the world's major religions in his interpretation, engaged the critics in mid-August in an article on the online portal Nachtkritik.de. He noted the open-mindedness of foreign critics, while condemning the Germans for their inside-the-box thinking.
The audience sees it differently
After the premiere on July 25, the audience applauded warmly, however, for a full 10 minutes - apparently accepting the stage direction while recognizing a strong cast and a fresh musical rendition by conductor Hartmut Haenchen, who had stepped in on short notice.
That audience had submitted to cordoned-off areas and a bottleneck of bag and ticket checks before being admitted to the epicenter of Wagnerian art, the composer's self-designed Festspielhaus. Its façade looked refreshed this year after renovation, but the red-carpet reception on opening day had been cancelled for the first time in memory - in acknowledgment of the victims of four terror attacks in one week in Germany.
In effect, the enhanced security was tolerated if not appreciated by most - and was relaxed somewhat after the second day. It will last, however, beyond the current season, according to the Bayreuth Festival's managing director Holger von Berg, who told the local press that "there will continue to be a fence, and the entrances will be closed."
Von Berg also had to explain the once-unthinkable: Not all the tickets available this year were sold; over the course of the five-week festival and its 30 performances, some 40 seats remained empty.
The festival was thus effectively sold out, yet gone are the days when people would camp out all night in front of the ticket office in hopes of garnering admission to the notoriously exclusive and overbooked event. Over the course of the year, the Bayreuth Festival website has, in fact, repeatedly shown ticket availability. For their part, festival sources explain that since the advent of online ticket sales a few years ago, the audience has grown more internationally mixed.
From nudism to burqas, military-look and religious symbolism, Laufenberg's 'Parsifal' is rich in multicultural imagery
Wagner overkill, mystique passé?
Artistic director Katharina Wagner, a great-granddaughter of the composer and once a regular media presence, was rarely seen in public this year, focusing instead on her role as producer of live transmissions of the operas.
Media dissemination of the Wagner Festival has, in fact, never been more extensive, with all seven performances from the first week of premieres - "Parsifal," "Tristan and Isolde," "The Flying Dutchman" and the four operas of the cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung" - transmitted live to roughly 100 movie theaters in Germany and neighboring states and broadcast on television in Germany, England and Japan.
Whether the easier access to the event once shrouded in myth and mystique has reduced its appeal remains to be proven.
Little remains on the program that truly engages and excites, say many long-year observers. In its fourth season, the production of the "Ring" cycle by director Frank Castorf continued to stand out for impressive scenes but boring action. The conductor, however, was hailed by most: 77-year-old Marek Janowski gave his Bayreuth debut.
At season's end, the festival announced some casting particulars: In 2017, Hartmut Haenchen will return to conduct "Parsifal," and there will be a two-day symposium on "Wagner in the Era of National Socialism." In 2018, the new production of "Lohengrin," staged by Alvis Hermanis, will have a set designed by the well-known German artist Neo Rauch. The following year will see a new production of "Tannhäuser" by stage director Tobias Kratzer.
Otherwise, speculation is rife on next year's new production of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" by Australian director Barrie Kosky - and on two unanswered questions. Firstly, will she or won't she? She, of course, is Russian diva Anna Netrebko and it's been speculated she'll join the cast of "Lohengrin" in 2018. And, secondly, she won't, but who will? That refers to the unannounced stage director of the next "Ring" in 2020, as Katharina Wagner has ruled out doing the job herself.