Richard Wagner would be delighted to know that more than 125 years after his death, his signature Festspielhaus in Bayreuth still plays to sold-out audiences, with 10-year waiting lists to buy tickets. Thanks to the generosity of the Dallas Wagner Society, its President Roger Carroll, and its Treasurer Greg McConeghy, I was privileged to attend all five operas in this year’s festival – its 100th.
This year’s productions included Die Meistersinger, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde.
As is common today in many German opera companies, the stage directors and set and costume designers of most of the five productions departed considerably from a conventional interpretation of the libretto. Tannhäuser, for example, was brought forward from 13th century Wartburg to modern day, and set in an elaborate recycling facility with multi-colored tanks, vacuum kettles and flexible hoses. Tristan had the most conventional staging of the five operas, but even then the stage descended through three levels over the course of the evening, from ship deck to building lobby to hospital, with each level persisting as the subsequent one was added. Most effective for me was a highly innovative Lohengrin directed by Hans Neuenfels with sets and costumes by Reinhard von der Thannen. In this production, the large chorus was dressed in sequentially numbered, full size rat costumes, complete with rat paws, tails and feet, and masks adorned with blinking red eyes. While I was skeptical of the approach at first, I was quickly won over by the dramatic concept and supporting video by Björn Verloh. The clean lines of the set made a very positive impression on me, and the stage action was clear and easy to follow. Klaus Florian Vogt was a highly compelling Lohengrin, and the orchestra sounded glorious under the baton of Andris Nelsons.
Speaking of the orchestra, what a delight! As any Bayreuth veteran knows, Wagner personally designed the orchestra pit to minimize visual distraction of the audience and optimize both balance and blend of the orchestra, although there have been subsequent modifications since. Much of the orchestra – especially the brass – sits at least partially under the stage, which means that even when the brass is playing full volume, the balance between strings and the rest of the orchestra is excellent. In addition, there is a low wall at the front of the pit, which prevents the audience from seeing the orchestra (as Wagner intended), but this pit design also deflects the sound back and towards the singers. By the time the sound reaches the audience, it has blended together in a unique way.
The chorus, too, sounded wonderful. Drawn from all over Germany, it has a size, power and vocal quality that is the envy of many opera houses all over the world. During Walter’s prize song in Meistersinger, the chorus mirrored the paying audience, and sat on a set of terraced seats that rose up through the stage. They numbered 10 rows of 18 singers each, all elegantly attired in black tie and gowns. Few American opera houses could present a chorus of this size and quality. The chorus master, Eberhard Friedrich, richly deserved the rapturous applause that he received each night.
We are greatly looking forward to our 2012 production of Tristan und Isolde, and I hope that Wagner fans in the metroplex will join us on February 16th, 19th, 22nd and 25th. Conducted by our Music Director, Graeme Jenkins, directed by Christian Räth, and with projections by Elaine McCarthy – who designed the projections for the world premiere of Moby-Dick – it will be a striking new take on one of my personal favorite operas. Heading up the cast will be Clifton Forbis as Tristan, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Isolde, and Kristinn Sigmundsson as King Marke. And, Jukka Rasilainen will reprise his outstanding performance as Kurwenal from Bayreuth in TDO’s production. Please join us!