Bland opening to a rocky Bayreuth Festival | Music | DW | 26.07.2012
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Bland opening to a rocky Bayreuth Festival

Bayreuth works through disturbing parts of its past but also announces an extraordinary anniversary program for 2013. It's almost enough to make one forget about the lackluster premiere of "The Flying Dutchman."

Bombastic and loud - that's not all Wagner can do. Softer, gentler moments emerge in this year's production of "The Flying Dutchman." Conductor Christian Thielemann lets the orchestra tell the story to an extent. He varies the tempo, exposes hidden layers in the music and gives in to some spontaneous impulses.

For Wagner fans, those are refreshing aspects of the show - even if they can also lead to some drawbacks. The choir and orchestra occasionally diverge too much. Even Thielemann, who has conducted over 100 performances at the Bayreuth Festival, falls victim to the idiosyncrasies of Richard Wagner's festival house and its buried orchestra pit.

Changes underway

Thielemann's colleague Jan Philipp Gloger, who staged the production, has less experience. He is just 30 years old and presented the third opera of his career in Bayreuth. The working conditions weren't entirely unproblematic, he told DW.

"This festival is shifting from a rather particular way of operating toward being a more standard opera house with labor contracts for the employees and fixed working hours," explained Gloger. "And when you do something like that, you have to pull back somewhere. My costume designer wasn't available for things because she had to try on 150 costumes. Those are little hang-ups that exist in certain areas, where you can see that the structural changes here are definitely not quite finished."

But the production has a strong ensemble of soloists. Of particular note: in the title role was Korean Samuel Youn, who quite literally had to jump in at the last minute; Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Senta; and German tenor Michael König as Erik.

Singer Samuel Youn

A star at the last minute: singer Samuel Youn

A digital sea

"The Flying Dutchman" is based on old Norwegian folklore. In the story, a ship captain is damned to spend eternity sailing around the world in his ghost ship - unless a loving and loyal woman releases him from his curse. Gloger interprets the tale in a modern setting. The ocean transforms into an industrial site with constant sparks, flashes and numbers rolling across digital displays.

Senta is deeply moved by the Dutchman's story and is in a position to free him. In Gloger's contemporary production, her spinning room becomes an electric fan factory - a boxy structure that takes up the whole stage.

As for the Dutchman, he's grown tired of the commercialization of every part of life and the power of money. Though Senta and the Dutchman have yet to meet, Senta appropriates some materials in the factory and longingly builds a little ship and a figure resembling the Dutchman. The suggestion is that she also wants to break away from the world of profit margins and commerce.

A scene featuring Senta in the factory

Senta's spinning room is transformed into a sterile, modern factory

Loyal to the end?

It's almost like love at first sight when the ghost ship's captain and Senta finally encounter one another. Both characters see in the other a long-sought escape from their plights. Their relationship is a desperate attempt at finding happiness, but it is doomed right from the start. After a lovesick Senta ultimately throws herself to her death from a cliff, it remains an open question whether the Dutchman ever believes she was really loyal to him.

The factory where Senta worked begins to manufacture a plastic image of the former couple embracing - maybe as a wedding cake topping or a little nightlight? It's not important to puzzle over which it is. Indeed, it seems moot to look for a deeper meaning in the symbolism and staging generally. Gloger's production strikes one as dull and brash. The concept grows repetitive, and the dramaturgy idle. The lackluster production is matched by the monotonousness of Christof Hetzer's stage design.

The shadow of the past

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband Joachim Sauer

High-profile guests at the premiere: Angela Merkel and her husband

In fact, the "Dutchman" premiere was even outshone by a press conference held earlier in the afternoon. Thus far, press coverage of the festival has been dominated by an episode involving Evgeny Nikitin. The Russian singer was slated to sing the title role in "The Flying Dutchman," but he abruptly left Bayreuth after reports that he had a tattoo on his chest several years ago that looked like a swastika.

After the storm of media attention, relief was almost palpable at the press conference when festival co-head Eva Wagner-Pasquier rounded out the probing questions by saying, "He spoke with his agent again and again. We gave him time. We didn't have a translator with us; instead, we spoke with him alone. He asked if he could withdraw from the role, and we accepted the decision."

Eva Wagner-Pasquier co-heads the festival with her half-sister Katharina Wagner. As the tattoo scandal flared up, so, too, did discussion about Bayreuth's historical ties to Nazism and anti-Semitism. Katharina Wagner spoke about the state of affairs on Bayreuth's archives, which include old documents concerning the Third Reich.

In response to speculation that the festival directors had withheld some such documents, she responded, "For our part, we have already forwarded everything in our personal possession - including documents belonging to our father - to historians, who are processing it all. Certain things are definitely in the possession of the four clans. That means that my sister and I have no control over whether access can be granted to them."

The "four clans" refer to the four children of Wagner's son Siegfried and his wife Winifred. Certain relevant documents have not been made public by the generations that followed.

Looking ahead

Artist Jonathan Meese

Jonathan Meese will stage "Parsifal" in 2016

The festival's past wasn't the only thing that came into focus at the press conference. The programs and even parts of the cast for the productions running through 2020 have already been selected. Drawing particular attention was the announcement that scandal-riddled performance artist Jonathan Meese will stage "Parsifal" in 2016.

The 2013 festival will celebrate Richard Wagner's 200th birthday and includes master courses in voice, a film contest and the event Wagner Goes Rap, in which school pupils will pack Wagner's words into rap rhythms. A new production of "The Ring of the Nibelung" will be presented on the festival stage, along with a special birthday concert and three of Wagner's early operas in a municipal hall.

For the first time in 2013, the opening performance of the festival, Gloger's "The Flying Dutchman," will be broadcast live on television and in movie theaters.

Author: Rick Fulker / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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