Friday, September 11, 2015

Whither Bayreuth?

Attending the Bayreuth Festival raised a few questions in my mind about the Festival's repertory. Here we've got possibly the greatest opera house in the world, used for perhaps three months a year for rehearsals and performances of an extremely limited repertory.

The cult of Richard Wagner is the primary reason for this. Whatever the composer might have envisioned for the future of his house, his family has spent the 130 years since his death carefully cultivating the religion. Cosima froze the Festival's production style in the 1880s for decades. The Festival can't even perform Wagner's first three operas there, because Wagner himself forbade it.

Well, Wagner's been gone a long time. Perhaps the moment has come, or will come some day, to rethink the repertory performed. Would continued family control and such limited repertory be tolerated for any other composer?

I do realize that there might be a practical limitation on how much the theater can be used. It's 140 years old, it's wood, and I have no idea how fragile it is or how much use it can tolerate. But let's run the Bayreuth repertory thought experiment anyway.

1. Put Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi into the rotating repertory. There, we've had a nearly 30% increase in what can be performed! More importantly, these operas shouldn't be ignored, however much Wagner might have wanted to disown them. He wrote them and they are part of where he came from. We can understand his mature operas better if we hear them more often. Are they really worse than any number of other operas that hold the operatic stage for one reason for another? Faust? Elisir?

2. Perform early German Romantic operas, especially Weber's Oberon and Freischütz. Schubert wrote a few operas, reputed to be weak. There's Schumann's Genoveva. How about Marschner's Der Vampyr? There've got to be others worth hearing.

3. Perform the works of the French Wagnerians. Wouldn't you love to hear Reyer's Sigurd, and works by Chabrier, D'Indy, and others?

4. Perform works by Wagner's German and Austrian successors, especially those who are underperformed. We don't really need more Strauss performances, but James Conlon might have a few ideas. Recovered Voices at Bayreuth!


Patrick J. Vaz said...

How about a "Make it new, children!" festival featuring contemporary works?

Anonymous said...

Doesn't the Festival, at least in some years, begin with a performance of Beethoven's Ninth, because Wagner conducted it there himself? I know that Wagner considered the Ninth the culmination of the symphony and the starting point for his own music theater, so perhaps an orchestral concert program could be built on that principle, leading up to the Ninth.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I do not know the answer to that question, but it is a good one.

Chanterelle said...

Love the Recovered Voices idea! Take that garden full of thumbnail bios of silenced Jewish Bayreuth artists a few steps further.

And just imagine the drama those discussions would generate...

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you!

Henry Holland said...

One advantage to doing bigger scale non-Wagner pieces in that theater is that you could get singers with the right voice but who can't project over a 110-piece orchestra in a 3,000 seat auditorium.

Eva is 70, Katharina is 37, I suspect we're going to see a Wagner in charge for quite a while. As long as that happens, I don't see anything changing, even something like adding the three exiled operas. I'd love to see a production of a judiciously trimmed Rienzi (i.e. the ballet music), the other two not so much.

One bit of repertoire they should consider is Richard's son Siegfried's operas. I've heard a handful of them, and while they're obviously not on the level of Richard's best works, I enjoyed them, especially Der Heidenkönig and Sonnenflammen. The invaluable CPO label has recordings of 5 of the 18 he wrote, sound samples are at the links to each opera:


Lisa Hirsch said...

That's an idea. I've got a CPO CD of overtures or tone poems by Siegfried W. I remember them as okay, not great, but it has been a long time.

Anonymous said...

During the LA Opera's Ring performances in 2010, the USC opera workshop put on a short run of Das Liebesverbot, and did a very creditable job of it. Even though the cast and orchestra were students, and the opera was apparently somewhat trimmed, I can report that it's a fine piece, both musically and dramatically. It doesn't sound much like Wagner, except for the occasional phrase that anticipates things like the Ode to the Evening Star or the Wedding March. On the other hand, you can certainly hear influences of Beethoven and Weber, and the lead soprano needs the kind of voice suitable for Abscheulicher or Ocean Thou Mighty Monster.

It's at least as good as many operas that get done all the time, and if it weren't for Wagner's Liebesverbot-Verbot I think we'd see a lot of it.

One thing struck me: the opera alters the moral of Shakespeare's play. Wagner moves the action from Vienna to Palermo during Carnival, and changes Shakespeare's attack on sexual and religious hypocrisy to a full-throated defense of libertinism and what used to be called free love. His very un-Victorian and basically self-serving sexual morality, treated as metaphor in his later operas, is plain as day here. If this opera had circulated at all when it was new, it would have generated quite a scandal.

So if you can't have your festival of Trojan War operas, how about a festival of operas taking place in Palermo? Add to this Les Vêpres Siciliennes and Krol Roger, and I'd certainly attend.