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In a Wagnerian Whirlwind, One Conductor Breaks Through
Twelve days. Nine sprawling performances. Two cities. One Kirill Petrenko, whose conducting is “molten, combustible, an eruption of color.”
By David Allen
Aug. 7, 2018
BAYREUTH, Germany — The word we still use is “pilgrimage,” for, as Mark Twain put it back in 1891, “a pilgrimage is what it is.” Each summer, tens of thousands of true believers shuffle their way up a small green hill to the north of this German town, toward the shrine that Richard Wagner built to his dramas and dreams. Some are seasoned followers; some, like me this year, are practicing their devotions for the first time.
We snap selfies in front of the Festival Theater; we take videos of the brass players who summon the crowd inside from a balcony. We suffer through the heat of a barely ventilated house. We curse our memory, which is given no aid by supertitles.
But as an afternoon’s first notes sound from that fabled covered orchestra pit, which leaks a golden glow into the darkened amphitheater, we renew our faith. The Bayreuth Festival still retains its mystical air, even if it is more open under the direction of the composer’s great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner, with cinema screenings, commissioning of new operas and increasingly accessible tickets.
Bayreuth, however, is currently not the pre-eminent place to worship Wagner’s music, not by a long shot. For that, one must head to the festival’s perennial rival, Munich and its Bavarian State Opera.
That was my conclusion after spending the last two weeks of July taking in the offerings of both theaters: nine evenings of Wagner in 12 days, by turns exhilarating and enervating. Sated by a sausage-prone diet and a professional volume of the local brew, I heard the “Ring” and “Parsifal” during a Munich Opera Festival that seemed deliberately timed to offer a challenge to its Franconian neighbor to the north, and “Lohengrin,” “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” “Der Fliegende Holländer” and “Parsifal,” again, at Bayreuth.
It’s testament to the power and allure of these dramas that I was still listening to them even on the way home. Despite dismay at some stagings, and concern with a paucity of vocal quality even in this Wagnerian heartland, I came back enthused, electrified — evangelical, one might say.
Why? I beheld the miracle of Kirill Petrenko.
Mr. Petrenko, the diminutive, Omsk-born general music director of the Bavarian State Opera, and the future chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, is spoken of with quiet awe in these parts. There is an aura around him, stoked rather than relieved by his modesty and industry. Interview requests are inevitably turned down — not because of any past incidents, but because he would rather work. While glamorous portraits of major artists hang in the corridors of Munich’s National Theater, Mr. Petrenko is represented by a simple video, surreptitiously taken from a camera pointing vertically down at a score he is conducting. You can only see his hands.
Mr. Petrenko’s Wagner is not quite like any I have heard before. He doesn’t have the architectonic obsessions of Daniel Barenboim, and doesn’t seem to be concerned with any kind of tradition at all, unlike Christian Thielemann. He’s not in love with his own sound, like Andris Nelsons. Nor is he preternaturally deliberate, as with Mark Elder.
The word that kept coming back to me was flow. Nothing in Mr. Petrenko’s Wagner feels set in stone. It’s molten, combustible, an eruption of color. Other Wagnerians make structure sound like something that’s inevitable, but with him this composer’s scores sound as if they are perpetually being created, discovered, revealed in transition. The last act of “Parsifal,” for instance, usually comes as a pious unfolding of the liturgy, but here it was volatile, unstable, dark. You were barely aware that the drama was being pulled along at all, until you arrived at redemption music that sounded less a benediction than a relief.
All this depends on an immense amount of preparation, a process which Mr. Petrenko relishes — so much so that he makes a habit of rehearsing during intermissions, when others rest. Time, however, is in short supply during Munich’s summer festival, which became all too apparent in a rather sketchy “Siegfried,” and a “Götterdämmerung” that took until the final hour to get going. On occasion, Mr. Petrenko resorted simply to beating time, picking out the odd detail. But on more secure nights, like the agile “Rheingold” or the titanic, devastating “Die Walküre,” his gestures were expansive, molding attack and shape simultaneously. This wasn’t for show — his movements were completely, visibly at one with the sound they produced.
One can’t see the conductor at Bayreuth, of course, but there wasn’t much to hear, either. Christian Thielemann is in command as music director there, but he doesn’t appear to be putting a coherent stamp on the peers he is inviting to join him. His own “Lohengrin” was estimable, though hardly inspired. Philippe Jordan was unobtrusive in “Meistersinger,” while Axel Kober led “Holländer” with drab lightness. Semyon Bychkov was more enlightening in “Parsifal,” bringing tension, depth and pace, but the overall impression was forgettable. Valery Gergiev is in line to conduct next year’s new production of “Tannhäuser” — make of that what you will.
Munich provided stronger singing, offering a number of ideal performances, including Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka, Ain Anger’s Fafner and Hunding, and Christian Gerhaher’s Amfortas, a deranged portrayal that involved some of the ugliest sounds this cultivated artist has ever deliberately uttered.
Yet even the dream casts that only Munich can turn out produced some patchy, prompter-dependent singing. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde was less imperious than usual, and her Kundry was hardly seductive. Jonas Kaufmann’s Siegmund was effective, opposite the particularly fine Sieglinde of Anja Kampe, but his Parsifal remains blank. Compared to the Alberich of John Lundgren, the Wotan, Wolfgang Koch, was altogether too light, and nearly lost his voice under the pressure of “Die Walküre.” And even this house cannot find a more than adequate Siegfried, although Stefan Vinke was at least that.
As it happened, the only current heldentenor who usually approaches the greats of yore, Andreas Schager, was in Bayreuth to sing Parsifal, if waywardly. And beyond the starry “Lohengrin,” with Anja Harteros, Piotr Beczala and Waltraud Meier, there was not much on offer on the Green Hill for devotees of the voice, with the exception of Eberhard Friedrich’s frighteningly powerful chorus. The “Meistersinger” had Michael Volle in muffled, angry form as its Sachs, and Klaus Florian Vogt made a fine Walther if one could stomach his uniquely ethereal tenor. The “Holländer” was shockingly weak.
And then there were the stagings. Yuval Sharon’s new “Lohengrin” in Bayreuth, for all its flaws, turned out to be by far the most enchanting, involving and thoughtful staging either of these houses could muster. Munich’s directors had next to nothing to say about the dramas under their trust. Andreas Kriegenburg’s “Ring,” which dates to 2012, barely fleshes out its concepts, though it gently equates Wotan and Alberich, and blames both for their capitalistic exploitation of the environment and women. Pierre Audi’s “Parsifal” is barely a staging at all, existing merely as the frontispiece for dull, dark sets commissioned from the artist Georg Baselitz, their monochrome only brightening the colorful torrent flooding from the pit.
At least the productions in Munich left room for the music to shine. Bayreuth was worse. Its “Holländer,” by Jan Philipp Gloger, casts the story as the inevitable triumph of capitalism over romance, as images of the failed love of the Dutchman and Senta become a commodity to be sold. Trite intellectually, it was insipid drama, too.
More provocative was Barrie Kosky’s “Meistersinger.” Partially revised after its premiere last year, it forces a reckoning with the old, false choice between Wagner’s music and his nationalistic, anti-Semitic bile. Subtler than its setting — largely in the courtroom of the Nuremberg Trials — would imply, its decision to make the major characters alter egos of Wagner and his wife, Cosima, nonetheless too simplistically suggested the composer’s complicity in Nazi horrors, while also sapping the underlying story of interest.
Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s “Parsifal” was much debated on its debut two years ago, and it’s easy to see why. Shamefully Islamophobic in its portrayal of Flower Maidens who strip their niqabs to reveal belly-dancing outfits — not to mention in how Parsifal, a Western soldier, wanders into the third act with combat gear over the top of his own head scarf — it is hostile to all forms of belief. Faith here is nothing more than a disingenuous mask that veils viciousness and backward delusion. Redemption is the triumph of secular capitalism over all organized religion, forced by the barrels of Western guns.
And yet Wagner abides; there I was, going through old Bayreuth recordings of “Tristan” and “Tannhäuser,” the two mature dramas I did not see, on the plane home. Perhaps that’s all the evidence one needs for the continuing relevance of his art. But even more was offered by a performance I dropped in on, Bayreuth’s “Ring” for children. Boiled down to its absolute essentials, in a mixture of spoken word and musical chunks, the story and the music captivated for its two — as opposed to 15 — hours.
The kids seemed rapt. Their pilgrimages had begun.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/07/arts ... ic-reviews
Fascinating review, Len, thank-you! So Kaufmann is now singing Siegmund (and well!). I imagine that he'll take some more time before doing Siegfried (in a smaller European house for sure), but I'll wager that he'll eventually be seduced by the challenge of the role. What a great talent! Good to see Harteros mentioned as well.
This has been normal at Bayreuth at least since the War and, at times, well before that. Hans Knappertsbusch, the slowest conductor in those years, alternated with Joseph Keilberth, who moved things along, taking turns conducting the Ring in the same summer. The coherence, during the lifetimes of Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, was in the character of the productions - Wolfgang shamelessly imitated Wieland in those days - and in the casts, except for the alternating Brunnhildes of Astrid Varnay and Martha Modl (three Ring cycles in five weeks was usually too much for any soprano, even Birgit Nilsson).David Allen wrote:Christian Thielemann is in command as music director there, but he doesn’t appear to be putting a coherent stamp on the peers he is inviting to join him.
The Munich Festival was intended from the beginning to rival the Bayreuth Festival. They took place on the same dates, and while Munich varied the diet (much Strauss), the competitive intent was unmistakable. It diluted the talent available to both; when Keilberth became general music director in Munich he could no longer conduct at Bayreuth. And the Salzburg Festival coincides with both, though they have rarely done Wagner except when a star conductor wished it (Toscanini, Karajan), and until well into the '60s their casts were more Viennese than German.
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