Bayreuth: How very Wagnerian

For the purist, it is the Wagner venue. But this year, Bayreuth has been beset by controversy and feuding.

Every July on the first night of the Richard Wagner festival at Bayreuth, the townspeople of this small Bavarian city line the pavements of the Green Hill that leads to the Festspielhaus, the theatre that Wagner designed down to the last detail. The crowds are there to gawp at some of the outlandish frocks worn by the ladies and, last Saturday, at the cavalcade of first-nighters.

It is the ambition of all Wagner-lovers to hear his operas performed at Bayreuth, in the auditorium with the acoustical properties the composer wanted. Tickets are almost impossible to get, although, at an average price of pounds 85, they are not expensive by international opera standards. You either have to put your name on a waiting list for a few years, or short-circuit the process by joining one of the Wagner societies affiliated to the Friends of Bayreuth. Apparently an annual contribution of 5,000DM will get your name to the top of the list.

So devoted are the Wagnerites that they will not only wait years for tickets, but also sit in seats without arms, in a hot, badly ventilated auditorium, in rows without aisles and with no means of escape once the performance has started. And note that, with intervals, Gotterdammerung lasts nearly seven hours.

But despite the 20-minute ovation for this season's opening-night revival of The Flying Dutchman, there's turmoil and worry about survival beneath the surface.

This year is the 87th festival. For the past two years there have been no new productions and Wolfgang Wagner, the 78-year-old director of the festival and grandson of the composer, had to announce only a month ago that Willy Decker, director, and Wolfgang Gussmann, designer, have withdrawn from the new Lohengrin scheduled for 1999. This means that Mr Wagner now has to find an entirely new production team for an opera that is already cast.

The singers are exciting: John Tomlinson as King Henry; Roland Wagenfuhrer, who has just made his Bayreuth debut as Erik in the Dutchman, will sing the title role; Melanie Diener sings Elsa; Jean-Philippe Lafont Telramund and Gabriele Schnaut, who is preparing to sing Brunnhilde here in 2000, will return as Ortrud. Only a year remains until the premiere. When it was suggested that Mr Wagner might undertake the direction himself, fortunately for the future of the festival he said he was too busy with other things.

His chief concern is the succession. At present he runs the show, with the help of his younger wife, Gudrun, who is odds-on favourite to hold on to the reins.

Power is vested in a foundation formed in 1973, with representatives of the federal, state and local governments, as well as of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth, and the "entitled members of the Wagner family" - Mr Wagner's sisters and his brother's children. Excluding, you can't help but notice, his own son, Gottfried, who this year lobbed a bombshell into the Bayreuth fastness, his preposterous, polemical apologia called He Who Does not Howl with the Wolf (Sanctuary Music Library). "Uncle Wolf" was the Wagner family's pet name for Hitler. Gottfried, who was born in 1947, believes that the family, especially his grandmother Winifred, has never sufficiently acknowledged the link between Wagner's work, its celebration and anti-Semitism.

The younger Mr Wagner spoils his own case because it is clear that his special pleading has much to do with his father's rejection of him and his lack of standing in the festival. He is conspicuously absent, too, from the list of speakers for a conference taking place at Bayreuth from 6 to 11 August on the subject "Wagner and the Jews".

Convened by academics from the universities of Bayreuth, Tel Aviv and Heidelberg, it will feature talks such as Professor Saul Freidlander on "Bayreuth and Redemptive Anti-Semitism", Professor Peter Gay on "Wagner from a Psychoanalytic Perspective", Joseph Horowitz speaking on "Wagner and the American Jew - A Personal Reflection", Dina Porat on "The Impact of Wagner's Concepts on the Nazi Movement" and Na'ama Sheffi on "Wagner in Israel: from the Ban to the Creation of a Symbol, 1938-1997".

A power gap is beginning to manifest itself. There will be no Ring in 1999, only the new Lohengrin, if it gets off the ground, plus revivals of the Dutchman, Heiner Muller's fine Tristan and Mr Wagner's own, unremarkable productions of the Meistersingers and Parsifal. A new Ring is scheduled for 2000, to be directed by Jurgen Flimm, the director of the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, with Erich Wonder as designer and Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting.

The present Ring cycle is under-directed by Alfred Kirchner and hideously designed and costumed by Rosalie, though the Rheingold I saw again this week seemed a little less silly than at its first night in 1994. If Bayreuth does not have the world's best Ring, what's the place for it?

Mr Wagner's credo, as expressed in his foreword to this year's programme, in its rejection of most of what happens on today's progressive opera stages, rules out real reform.

"The culture represented by the festival has nothing in common with the now widespread, insatiable craving for sensational but ultimately ephemeral events; they are, indeed, diametrical opposites," he writes. "Anyone merely seeking `sensations' of this sort should steer clear of Bayreuth.

"Unwilling, as ever, to conform to the trend for modish, commercialised superficiality, or to resort to the display of glitter and tinsel as practised by certain other international festivals, our festival has come in for repeated criticism from the media, but nonetheless it continues to enjoy enormous and undiminished support from an international audience. It is surely obvious enough whom we perform for and why."

That part of the ghost of Mr Wagner's grandfather who supported the revolution of 1848 is doubtless whirling in his grave at these words. But he may have found something to praise in the director Dieter Dorn's and designer Jurgen Rose's Flying Dutchman.

Under the conductor Peter Schneider the Bayreuth orchestra sounds its stormy, steamy best, yet with real sweetness for Senta's and the Dutchman's tender moments. Cheryl Studer sings a mighty but gentle Senta, with a marvellous timbre that it is easy to believe is the voice of a very young woman. The title role was a triumphant debut for another American singer, Alan Titus, who is taking over the role of Wotan from John Tomlinson in 2000.

But the real meat of this production is Jurgen Rose's sets. Surely inspired by Chagall, in the second act Mr Rose has built a bright yellow room with a pitched ceiling from which dangles a single light bulb. The spinning chorus takes place here, but when the lovers, transported by their own emotions, step out of the room, it takes off and revolves through 360 degrees, with the light bulb magically still at a right angle to the floor, and the Dutchman's hat remaining on the seat of the chair, even when upside down.

Mr Wagner's own production of Meistersingers has a similar white room in Act 3. But all it does is make you realise what a rag-bag of styles, scenery and costumes he has resorted to for this staging. There is simply no unity of style or concept. Daniel Barenboim conducted with his usual force and elegance - which made the scattered booing at his curtain-call impossible to understand.

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