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of the composer, had to announce only a month ago that Willy Decker, director, and Wolfgang Gussmann, designer, have withdrawn from the new Lohengrin scheduled for 1999.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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on