Thursday, 10 September 2015

Wagner - The Bayreuth Edition (Blu-ray)

Richard Wagner - The Bayreuth Edition

Bayreuther Festspiele, 2008-2014

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, Lohengrin, Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Productions of Richard Wagner's operas at Bayreuth (and elsewhere) will undoubtedly continue to find new areas to explore, remain inventive, generate discussion and stir up controversy for centuries to come. It will be interesting however to see how future audiences will come to look on the rather distinct period that is documented in this Bayreuth Edition of works during the controversial era of the directorship of the composer's great grand-daughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and her half-sister Katharina Wagner.

Germany undoubtedly led the way in the dominance in Europe of what would become known as "Regietheater", where director's own personal and modern interpretations, revisions and re-imaginings of familiar traditional stagings would be considered by many to impose their vision and intentions above those of the original composer. One might have expected a more reverential approach at Bayreuth, particularly since directorship of the annual festival in the theatre custom designed and built by Richard Wagner himself remains in family hands. If anything however Bayreuth's treatment of Wagner's legacy has been taken to even greater extremes.

Wagner's exhortation "Kinder, schafft Neues" ('Children, create something new') has perhaps been over-used and abused to some extent to permit some wild indulgences, but interpretation has always been essential to musical performance and musical drama. It's why opera has continually evolved and not remained confined to theatres with its performers constrained by dusty costumes, armoured breastplates and helmets. The Bayreuth ideology holds to this principle in keeping Wagner, his music, his philosophy, and yes even his flaws and problems, continually revised, updated and explored for the deeper universal meaning within them. It's one way of ensuring that those works remain relevant today and not age as much as bad costumes, cheap painted backdrops and barked delivery.

As some of the greatest works of opera ever written, some of which will surely never be surpassed, Wagner's music dramas are capable of revealing contradictory and complex ideas that work on a multitude of levels. It would be a disservice to treat them as anything less than living, breathing art, and more than just generate controversy, the stewardship of Bayreuth during the period 2008 - 2014 has undoubtedly provoked much discussion and re-evaluation of these great works. Some have been more innovative and successful than others, but unquestionably the works have done much to revitalise an institution that Tom Service described in 2006 as "a byword for conservatism and fossilised values". Most importantly, what they've done is drawn attention back to what Wagner's operas mean and how they are still relevant to the 21st century.

It wouldn't be unfair however to say that the new regime at Bayreuth got off to a shaky start. Taking over directorship of the festival from her father Wolfgang Wagner, Katharina Wagner's first production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (2008) caused something of a stir. As a key Wagner work, since it is about the balance of respecting tradition and 'making anew', the production also proved to be something of a bold statement of intent. As Klaus Florian Vogt's Walther von Stolzing scrawls and spills white paint over every object and person on the stage, the balance would appear to be heavily skewed towards the irreverence for the old ways, almost to the point of anarchically destroying the past in order to make anew. Franz Hawlata's Hans Sachs is good, Michael Volle is a blistering Beckmesser and Michaela Kaune a soaring Eva, but although the musical performance is robust and has moments of beauty and warms up in the final act, overall the production fails to find the richness, warmth, humour and humanity at the heart of the work.

Tankred Dorst's 2006 Ring cycle pre-dated the changeover, but it remained in place through the larger part of the period that the festival was under the directorship of Wagner's great-granddaughters. The only part of the cycle to see a video release was a 2010 performance of Die Walküre. It's not terribly impressive, looking largely traditional in the main but for some odd directing choices and, since the rest of the cycle is not available to make sense of them, some obscure concepts bolted on. Musically, it's forcefully conducted by Christian Thielemann and there are some good singing performances from a gorgeously lyrical Johan Botha as Siegmund, Edith Haller as Sieglinde and Kwangchul Youn as Hunding. Albert Dohmen and Linda Watson however make unconvincing father/daughter relationship as Wotan and Brünnhilde.

Since Tristan und Isolde is a fairly conceptual work in the first place, the main thrust of the work taking place on a philosophical and spiritual plane, there's licence to deviate from the earthly locations in the libretto. Even so, Christoph Marthaler's production recorded at the 2009 festival is extravagantly eccentric in mannerisms and staging. Randomly set on what looks to be a 1930s cruise liner, the three acts are layered one on top of the other on rising tiered sets. It's hard not to be entranced however by the production or moved by the sheer power of the work, which is given a fine account under the baton of Peter Schneider, and there are compelling central performances from Iréne Theorin and Robert Dean Smith.

For pushing the conceptual to extremes in its exploration of the works themes and where they stand today, it's hard to imagine any idea more bizarre than setting Lohengrin as a laboratory experiment using rats. As strange as it might seem there are nonetheless rather more bewildering productions of Wagner out there (and in Bayreuth) and Hans Neuenfel's production, recorded here at the 2011 festival, meaningfully explores some problematic areas of Wagner's historical view of society. Some of the divisions are rather simplistically drawn however, the conclusions are unconvincing and it often looks very silly indeed, but there are good performances from Georg Zeppenfeld, Klaus Florian Vogt and Petra Lang (one of the truly great Ortruds I've seen). There's a fine musical performance conducted by Andris Nelsons, even if it doesn't really complement the stage production.

With a cyborg Dutchman on a data information sea, it's initially difficult to understand the purpose of Jan Philipp Gloger's concept for the 2012 production of Der fliegende Holländer. It soon becomes clear in this 2013 recording of the production that there's clear adherence to the dramatic and mythological strengths of the work and a superb performance of the "joined-up" version of the three-act opera conducted by Christian Thielemann. Broadly speaking it views the work in the context of the incompatibility and conflict between love and business, a subject that plagued Wagner most of his life. Without belittling the importance of Wagner's view of mythology it manages to bring it back to human terms without losing any of the grandeur of the work. Ricarda Merbeth is outstanding as Senta, Franz-Josef Selig a solid Daland and Benjamin Bruns a bright, golden-voiced Steersman. The choral work too - so important to this work - is impressive.

The abstract conceptual clearly dominates in the Bayreuth 2014 Tannhäuser with a stage set constructed out of a number of art installations that were never created with Wagner's opera in mind, but the pieces by Joep van Lieshout do form an interesting if imperfect dialectic with Wagner's work. Director Sebastian Baumgarten follows a similar path to Hans Neuenfels' Lohengrin for Bayreuth, viewing the work as a model of society, taking in Wagner's perspective and extending it to a more modern outlook. Whatever you make of the stage production, musically it's a glorious affair, conductor Alex Kober drawing out the true delicacy and poignancy within the work. There's not a trace of heavy-handedness, yet all the force and dynamic of the work is all there. Camilla Nylund's Elisabeth matches the Romantic delicacy of the work perfectly while Torsten Kerl balances well the more dynamic character of Tannhäuser.

All previously released on Blu-ray, the presentation of each of the six productions in the 8-disc Bayreuth Edition (12 discs on DVD) is simply superb. The quality of the image and the high-definition uncompressed surround mixes of the performances are just incredible. Each of the discs contains a making of feature and interviews that explore the productions, the concepts and all the back-stage preparations. More detail on individual discs can be found by following the above links.