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Botched beginning

Rick Fulker
July 26, 2014

A premiere not soon to be forgotten: In its fourth and final year, stage director Sebastian Baumgarten's "Tannhäuser" had an unattractive set and a technical glitch, but superb singing and impressive conducting.

Bayreuther Festspiele 2014
Image: DW/R.Fulker

"In the 138-year history of the Bayreuth Festival, this is the first time this has happened," Sven Friedrich told DW. The director of the Wagner Archive at Wahnfried was referring to the interrupted performance at the opening of the 103rd Richard Wagner Festival.

The underworld of Venus, goddess of lust, is depicted on a circular sub-stage that is raised to stage level, partly pushed by a hydraulic mechanism from below, partly pulled by steel ropes from above. The pushing mechanism stopped about twenty minutes into the performance, but the pulling mechanism did not. The resulting tension caused two of the wooden rungs of Venus' circular stage to snap loudly and fall to the floor.

The audience files back into the Festspielhaus after an unscheduled break
Filing back into the Festspielhaus after the unscheduled intermissionImage: DW/R.Fulker

The construction remained at half-height with the actions of the dancers below obscured, as Tannhäuser (Torsten Kerl) and Venus (Michelle Breedt) continued singing bravely. Then, the music stopped, the curtain closed, and a stage technician appeared to ask the audience to step outside for twenty minutes while the technical problem was attended to.

Forty minutes later, the bell signaled that the performance would continue. Continuing roughly where the action had been aborted, the music drama proceeded with partly improvised stage action. No one was injured.

Sign of a bigger problem?

At the Bayreuth Festival, where every minute detail and any hint of an imperfection is duly noted and commented on, the July 25 incident was in a category of its own. Sebastian Baumgarten's production of "Tannhäuser" has onlookers seated onstage, who must have been startled.

"It's all a part of theater; such things can happen," the stage director told DW afterwards. "It may even bring a tension to the performance that sometimes isn't all that bad."

Stage director Sebastian Baumgarten
Sebastian Baumgarten put a spin on itImage: dapd

In Bayreuth, where audiences tend to view things metaphorically, people were quick to see the mishap as indicative of larger problems.

In fact, much is different this year. There was no press conference - instead, just an informal chat with the festival's press spokesman. For the first time in memory, tickets were still available on opening day, online and at the theater's ticket office. And no new production - customary in a year following a new staging of the "Ring" cycle. Even the absence of Chancellor Angela Merkel on opening day seemed a disappointment to many.

There was certain to be a lull after the Wagner extravaganza in the 2013 anniversary year, which marked 200 years since the maestro's birth. But there was a sense this year that a real shift may be underway at the Green Hill.

Bayreuther Festspiele 2014 - Publikum strömt wieder ins Festspielhaus
Still calling the shots: Richard WagnerImage: DW/R.Fulker

Comings and goings

In its fourth and final year, Baumgarten's rendition of "Tannhäuser" has matured. Gone are the most egregious and gratuitous gags, such as the recycling of excrement. With the audience now used to - if still not accepting - the idea of the Wartburg knights inhabiting a biogas plant, eyes and ears are now focused on the protagonists, who sing and perform well.

Among the stars, German baritone Markus Eiche was the most striking, with perfect intonation, great energy and a convincing portrayal of the role of Wolfram von Eschenbach. Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund gave a nuanced and vivid rendition of Elisabeth. Both are products of the era of Eva Wagner-Pasquier, the festival co-director who will depart at the end of the 2015 season.

That departure, too, seemed not to bode well for the future of the Wagner Festival, although that could simply be a reflection of a passing mood on opening day.

Spirits were lifted, however, by the conductor in the pit: Axel Kober, who grew up in Bayreuth and gave his premiere there in 2013, pulled off the feat of keeping the massive forces of chorus, soloists and orchestra together over vast spaces of stage, above and below. What's more: he did so with a fresh and impetuous approach fully fitting a work that revolves around the subject of sensual and artistic passion.

The festival's future

In 2015, Bayreuth's other director and remaining Wagner great-granddaughter, Katharina Wagner, will put her ideas on the line with her own staging of "Tristan and Isolde," conducted by Christian Thielemann.

Textile faux-facade in front of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus
Is it more than the facade that's crumbling?Image: DW/R. Fulker

The following year will open with a new "Parsifal," directed by Jonathan Meese - an artist who has frequently made headlines for a lax use of Nazi symbolism. The conductor will be the widely celebrated Latvian Andris Nelsons. And in 2017, Australian director Barrie Kosky will give his take on "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" with Philippe Jordan in the pit.

After staging many Wagner productions, Kosky - the head of Berlin's award-winning Komische Oper (Comic Opera) - had declared his intention to turn his back on the composer. Ultimately, he relented, saying, "Wagner doesn't let you go."

Many on the Green Hill would surely agree - even after the troubling opening to the 2014 edition.

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