| go to lobby page | more reviews | go to other departments |



Wagner Rides Again in Bayreuth

By Glenn Loney, September 16, 2001

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
[01] Bayreuth Festival: 125 & 50
[02] Which Wagner Will Be Next?
[03] Gottfried: Enchanted Swan or Prodigal Son
[04] Brechtian Scenario for Bayreuth?
[05] Year Two of Millennium RING
[06] Way Down in the Rhine
[07] Wotan as Valhalla CEO
[08] Titanic Echoes
[09] Ring Visions & Re-Visions
[10] Miming Wotan/Not Singing
[11] Raising the Dragon
[12] Lohengrin/Siegfried Synergies
[13] Twilight of Mimic Gods
[14] Darkness & Light on Stage
[15]Interpreting Wagner at the Source
[16] New "Tannhäuser" Coming Soon!

You can use your browser's "find" function to skip to articles on any of these topics instead of scrolling down. Click the "FIND" button or drop down the "EDIT" menu and choose "FIND."

How to contact Glenn Loney: Please email invitations and personal correspondences to Mr. Loney via Editor, New York Theatre Wire. Do not send faxes regarding such matters to The Everett Collection, which is only responsible for making Loney's INFOTOGRAPHY photo-images available for commercial and editorial uses.

How to purchase rights to photos by Glenn Loney: For editorial and commercial uses of the Glenn Loney INFOTOGRAPHY/ArtsArchive of international photo-images, contact THE EVERETT COLLECTION, 104 West 27th Street, NYC 10010. Phone: 212-255-8610/FAX: 212-255-8612.

THE MASTER-BUILDER--Tinted photo of Richard Wagner circa 1880.

125 Years of the Bayreuth Wagner Festival—
50 Years of Wieland & Wolfgang's New Bayreuth!

By the summer of 2001, there had indeed been fifty years of the New Bayreuth, rising from the ashes of Germany's defeat in World War II. Almost literally, for Wagner's beloved Haus Wahnfried had been smashed by Allied bombing raids.

Richard Wagner's grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang, revived the historic festival in 1951. The world-famous Wagner Festspielhaus had been spared the bombs. But not—as their de-Nazified mother, Winifred Wagner, insisted—so that US Army personnel could perform American musical-comedies in this Holiest of Opera Shrines.

Although 2001 was also designated as the 125th anniversary year of the festival, that doesn't mean it has been in action for all of those years. Shortly after the premiere season in 1876, Wagner found himself and his festival deeply in debt.

So there was no 1877 Wagner Festival. In fact, even when his resourceful widow, Cosima Liszt Wagner, determined to keep the festival going, performances were usually offered only every two years.

There was a World War I hiatus, not least because French, English, and American Wagnerites could not—would not—come to Bayreuth. In the aftermath of the Great War, Germany was in economic chaos, so there was no immediate resumption of the festival.

Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929—and the ensuing world-wide Depression—the festival was again threatened. Doubly so, for in the summer of 1930, the Matriarch Cosima died, followed in just a month by her son, Siegfried Wagner.

But, just as the indomitable Cosima had done, Siegfried's strong-willed widow, Winifred, took over the reins. Despite the international recession, however, she was able to fund the festival, thanks to the generosity of a very powerful admirer of Wagner's operas.

Just as King Ludwig II of Bavaria had been Richard Wagner's patron, so also did Germany's Reichs-Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, become the festival's patron and protector. Even during World War II, he helped Winifred Wagner keep it in operation by sending soldiers, nurses, and deserving workers to the performances.

To those unfamiliar with the Wagner Family Saga, this might seem a Faustian Pact with the Devil—possibly made in the higher interests of Art & Music. Unfortunately for such a view, Winifred Wagner was one of Hitler's earliest admirers and supporters—long before he was in any position to aid the festival financially.

In the Festival Centenary Summer of 1976, she told me she would still rush to greet and embrace him, should the Führer walk through the door we were facing! She also said this to Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's motion-picture camera in a five-hour documentary—in which the lens was focused on her the entire time.

So, with the resumption of the annual festival in 1951—although festival visitors might glimpse her magisterial figure as she proceeded to the Wagner Family Loge—her sons were determined to keep her away from anything having to do with festival management.

Eventually, she was even banned from the Festspielhaus. Or so she told me. And on the occasions when I would come to the Siegfried-Haus where she lived, to interview her about memories of the past, she would forbid the use of a tape-recorder: "Wolfgang won't allow it!"

And, at the Centenary Press Conference—in response to some journalist queries about what she had said in Syberberg's film—he responded: "You know I cannot put a muzzle on my mother."

Nor could he or his late brother, Wieland, put a muzzle on their strong-minded sister, Friedelind Wagner. When she left Nazi Germany, she told me, Winifred pursued her, with some Gestapo men in tow, to Switzerland. She was ordered to come back to Germany—and threatened with forcible abduction, if she did not willingly return.

With the aid of conductor Arturo Toscanini, however, she escaped to the United States. And she added her own ponderous stones to the Festival Monument with a family memento variously titled: Night Over Bayreuth or The Royal Family of Bayreuth.

None of this was highlighted at this summer's festival. But the potential Wagner Family Succession in managing the festival was very much in everyone's minds.

Fortunately, such issues did not intrude on the celebratory Sonderkonzert saluting the 125th Anniversary.

This featured a powerful performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony on the open stage of the Festspielhaus. The festival orchestra, soloists, and chorus were arrayed in front of the great global projection-screen for Wolfgang Wagner's production of Die Meistersinger.

The dynamic young conductor, Christian Thielemann, was thrilling to watch. Thielemann—who is responsible for Die Meistersinger—conducts rather like the late Herbert von Karajan. Every muscle seems tensed to elicit the best from every section of the orchestra. His concentration is intense and his energy amazing. [He also has a very good tailor & hair-stylist.]

He even stretches and leaps at times, in the enthusuiastic manner of the late Leonard Bernstein. And he clearly knows his scores by heart. He often seems to be trying to pull more sound and passion from his orchestra than they are able to give him.

Nonetheless, they played magnificently. Because the festival has the pick of the best opera-orchestra musicians in Europe—during their summer vacations—it is always an outstanding ensemble.

Especially when it is in Richard Wagner's famous sunken/covered orchestra-pit, which deflects the sound toward the stage, to mingle with the singer's voices.

But it did seem unfair of some Wagnerites to complain that—while it was necessary for the chorus and soloists to be visible on stage—the orchestra should have remained in the pit. Ridiculous!

Unseen during every opera-performance, they never get a curtain-call. This was their only opportunity to face their largely adoring public and receive the kudos they deserve.

The Bayreuth Festival Chorus is also justly famed, for it is also the pick of choristers from major opera-houses. It was already outstanding under its longtime director, Wilhelm Pitz. It became even more responsive as an instrument under Norbert Balatsch.

When he recently retired, the question was whether his successor would be in the same league as these two great chorus-masters.

If anything, Eberhard Friedrich is even better with the chorus. They never sounded so good! He seems a genius, especially as he has such a short rehearsal-period to bring so many singers together to work as a unit.

The chorus was superb and powerful in the final chorus of the Ninth: Schiller's Ode to Joy.

The four soloists were from the Meistersinger cast: Emily Magee and Michelle Breedt were admirable. But their male counterparts were an odd contrast.

Robert Holl's odd heavings—as he effortfully sang his appointed lines—seemed very strange. He bobbed around as if he were in a role in costume. A colleague suggested—not to be credited!—that he might have had rather too much to drink before the concert…

Robert Dean Smith, on the other hand, was almost impassive. How could he sing such glorious music—and such exalted sentiments—and yet seem almost totally unmoved in body and face?

He also may be too good looking to be a really serious Siegmund? What they used to call "Movie-Actor Handsome." But that works wonderfully well for him as Walther von Stolzing in Meistersinger!

DAUGHTER OF DESTINY--Arno Brekker bust of Cosima Liszt Wagner in Haus Wahnfried.
Photo: ©Glenn Loney 2001.

Wagner's Operas & The Grüner Hügel

The Dragon/Giant's Golden Horde:
Who Will Get the Ring & Tarnhelm?

The Bavarian State Wants a Successor to Wolfgang Wagner—
Preferably a Member of This Historic & Operatic Family

Almost a Bigger Drama Than the Actual Operas:
Who will finally be chosen as Festival Intendant?

Several recent dates have been set—and superceded—for the announcement of a worthy Wagner Family successor to the current Intendancy of Wolfgang Wagner, now in his 80s.

This past summer, however, he seemed even more energetic and animated than in previous years. He doesn't look or act like a man in his 80s. He's certainly not yet ready for cane, wheelchair, and quiet retirement on the Bodensee—where his sister Verena lives.

The Bayreuth Festival is obviously his life. And he's not going to "go gently into that good night," as Dylan Thomas phrased it.

When he was already in his 70s—at a time when many a man would have been happy to put up his feet and collect his pension—Wolfgang Wagner was given a contract to remain Artistic Director/Business Manager of the Bayreuth Festival for the rest of his life!

When this was officially announced, there was no patronising sense that this was some kind of Valedictory Honor, made in hopes that he would soon "get the message" and retire.

When the Bavarian State bought from the Wagner Family the historic Festspielhaus, Wagner's Haus Wahnfried—which was restored at great cost as a museum, and those Wagner manuscripts which still remained in the Family Archives, a committee was set up to oversee these treasures and guarantee continuity for the famous festival.

The understanding was that, as far as possible in the future, a Wagner Descendant would be selected to run the festival. Although the option was left open for a non-Wagner Artistic Director/Intendant.

Initially, Wolfgang Wagner seemed agreeable to selection of a successor, coyly withholding the name of his favored candidate. Who just happens to be his wife, Gudrun Wagner.

But other Wagners put in their bids as well.

Wieland's daughter Nike Wagner—who has written a scathing account of Uncle Wolfgang's stewardship of the festival—proposed a very provocative agenda of change.

Eva Wagner-Pasquier—Wolfgang's own daughter by his first marriage to Ellen Drexel—presented her candidacy.

Wieland Lafferantz—Verena's son and Wolfgang's nephew—also came forward. He is currently the very able Director of Salzburg's famed Mozarteum.

The Gremium, or committee, includes the members of the Wagner Family—one vote for each heir. But there apparently has been a strong general urge to oust Wolfgang from artistic control,

Oddly enough, the same Culture Ministry which gave Wolfgang a contract for life, in recent months tried to pressure him to step down by threatening to cut state subsidies.

These are desperately needed, for box-office income cannot support such a major opera festival. This power-play is shocking, especially in a Post-Nazi Germany—in which politicians are not supposed to manipulate the Arts.

But it has been clear that the committee also intended deny his wife Gudrun and daughter Katherina Wagner any future role in the conduct of the festival.

In fact, in late spring, when the committee revealed that it had finally chosen Eva Wagner to be the new Intendant, some arts-journalists breathed a sigh of relief. Opera News even confidently announced her appointment as definitive.

At that point, Wolfgang Wagner invoked the lifetime clause in his contract, indicating he had no intention of stepping down—or aside.

A painful and embarrassing Artistic & Managerial stalemate was only avoided at the last minute. Eva Wagner—though she has been estranged from her father since his 1976 marriage to Gudrun Wagner—graciously withdrew her candidacy.

This may be mere policy—a Waiting-in-the-Wings—but it might smooth the way to an eminently satisfactory solution, in which more than one family-member might be involved in the operation of the festival.

Unfortunately for that hope, however, committees seldom have been able to act-as-one, which is what is needed in Artistic Direction. Even Business Management works better with one person finally responsible for raising the money and paying the bills.

What has been especially remarkable about Wolfgang Wagner's Bayreuth Stewardship over the long decades—fifty of them, in fact!—is that he has put the festival on a sound financial basis. And he has been a most effective and innovative Arts Manager.

What some of his most vocal/verbal critics—and obviously some committee-members—cannot forgive is his passion for directing & designing his grandfather's operas.

Even after his brother Wieland's death, he has found himself still standing in the long artistic shadow of that genius. Some of his designs & stagings have been attacked as retrograde, unimaginative, derivative.

But the corollary charges that all Bayreuth productions are dated, fusty, old-fashioned, unadventurous is simpy not true.

Even though Wolfgang has been reluctant to give up directorial challenges, he has certainly had his eyes and ears open to bring the best young musical and artistic talents to work at the Bayreuth "Workshop."

The impressive Centenary Ring of Patrice Chereau is often used as a metaphoric stick to beat Wolfgang: Why aren't his stagings as imaginative and adventurous as Chereau's?

Yet it was Wolfgang Wagner—not the Bavarian Minister of Culture—who invited Pierre Boulez and Chereau to create a Post-Modernist Ring!

And he has also brought such outstanding and innovative talents as Erich Wonder, Heiner Müller, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Dieter Dorn, Jürgen Flimm, Rosalie, & Harry Kupfer to design & direct on the Green Hill! Even Sir Peter Hall—which proved a disaster…

Some of Nike Wagner's suggestions are intriguing—even worth trying out. But she is essentially a theorist-critic.

She has never actually run an opera-house, where the "Vision Thing" goes far beyond choosing the right operas, the best singers—if they will sing for Bayreuth fees, competent conductors, and innovative directors & designers.

Eva Wagner, it is true, has made artistic decisions both at Covent Garden and Paris' Opéra Bastille. It is interesting in the extreme, however, that these contracts were not renewed—nor followed by similar responsibilities at other major opera-houses.

I observed her Intendancy in London, and it was not distinguished. There were even more difficulties in Paris, but then Paris is famous for creating difficulties…

I said this last season—and even the season before—so I will say it again: Frau Gudrun Wagner has been at Wolfgang Wagner's side since 1976—and even before—so she knows the festival in all its aspects.

Wolfgang Wagner wouldn't be able to function as effectively as he now does were it not for her constant collaboration. And apparently they have both helped daughter Katharina become thoroughly acquainted with the details of festival-operation.

Why the committee is apparently to opposed to this succession is something of a mystery, but it may well be an animus toward Frau Wagner.

Nonetheless, it would be continuing a Wagner Tradition were Gudrun Wagner to succeed her husband as Festival Intendant.

Cosima Liszt Von Bülow Wagner succeeded Richard. Winifred Williams Wagner succeeded Siegfried. Good Things often occur in threes.

THE SECOND WAGNER MATRIARCH--Winifred Williams Wagner on her terrace at <i>Siegfried-Haus</i> in 1978.
Photo: ©Glenn Loney 2001.

Gottfried: The Enchanted Swan!

Can the Prodigal Son Return?

In Wagner's mythic-mystical opera, Lohengrin, the vanished boy-heir to the ducal crown of Brabant, young Gottfried, has been turned into a swan by the wicked witch Ortrud.

But the noisy locals don't know that. Blaming his disappearance and presumed death on his innocent sister Elsa, the troops have been called out to see Justice done.

Fortunately, in the nick of time, the mysterious Swan-Knight, Lohengrin, appears. He arrives in a boat drawn by a swan.

He doesn't stay longer than his wedding-night, for the over-curious Elsa asks him the One Forbidden Question.

But his departure releases his "Lieber Schwann," Gottfried, from the evil enchantment of the Pagan Ortrud. Brabant/Cleves has its ruler restored!

In history, Godfrey de Bouillion grew up and led a bloody Crusade to the Holy Land.

Another, later Gottfried—Wolfgang Wagner's son—has also been spending time in the Holy Land. Or Israel, as it is better known today.

Although playing Wagner's music is taboo there, Gottfried Wagner's lectures about Wagnerian Anti-Semitism—including his charges that the New Bayreuth has never really faced its anti-semitic past—play very well in Israel.

In fact, there is a Bayreuth Festival memorial to two Jewish sopranos, murdered by the SS in 1943. But it is mounted by steps below Festspielhaus, and not very prominently.

So he has some cause for thinking the Festival is still In Denial about the years 1933-1945. Gottfried has made something of a career out of Bayreuth Bashing.

This seems to date from that fateful Centenary Year of 1976, when his father left his mother for a new wife.

That was also the year that he helped Hans-Jürgen Syberberg gain access to his grandmother Winifred to make a film ostensibly about the history of the festival. But more immediately about Winifred Wagner, Adolf Hitler, and Bayreuth.

Gottfried even posed the questions—off-camera—to his grandmother, who rejoiced in her memories of Hitler without batting an eye.

Gottfried's father was understandably furious with all three of them: Gottfried, Syberberg, and his mother.

After that, Gottfried was persona non grata on the Green Hill.

But Gottfried, the Swan, is transformed into the young Duke & Heir of Brabant/Cleves at the close of Lohengrin.

Could father Wolfgang take this as a hint—from beyond his grandfather's grave—to welcome home the Prodigal Son? Could he now see not an Ugly Duckling, but a Swan transformed?

Could Gottfried Wagner become the Pro-Semitic dramaturg in a Wagner Family Gremium?


BETWEEN THE ACTS--Festival Intendant Wolfgang Wagner in 1979. Photo: ©Glenn Loney 2001.

Brechtian Scenario for Bayreuth?

Bertolt Brecht's Berliner Ensemble might offer a parallel scenario for the Wagners & the Bavarian State.

After the Fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, generous DDR State Arts Subsidies were curtailed to most of the 25 state/city theatres in the former East Berlin.

Barbara Brecht and her actor-husband, Ekkehard Schall, demanded more governmental support for the Berliner Ensemble. But they were now talking to a West Berlin lawyer who had become Berlin's Kultur-Senator.

He offered to sell the theatre and its contents to them. And let them find their own financing.

As he explained it to me afterward: "They had always run the Berliner Ensemble as a Family Business. But at Public Expense…"

Should the Bavarian State—as was once proposed to the Brecht Heirs—sell the Bayreuth Festival back to be run as a Small Family Business?

In fact, something similar may already be operational. Wolfgang Wagner leases the Festspielhaus from the authorities. And he has long worked wonders in raising funding from industries and private patrons.

The Funding/Management Wave of the Festival Future is the formation of corporate entities—GmbH—free of governmental interference, but responsible for balancing costs with income. The latter coming from ticket-sales, sponsorship of productions, promotions, patron-contributions, and licensing.

The Bregenz Festival is leading the way in this. Salzburg should not be far behind.

The fundamental problem is that major festivals must continue to offer productions of a very high standard, not compromised by a need to balance the budget. If standards—and innovation—slump, then the box-office will soon suffer as well.

Year Two of The Flimm/Wonder Ring

OPERA INNOVATOR--Wieland Wagner, co-creator of the New Bayreuth. Photo: Loney Wagner Archive.
The Millennial Summer of 2000 was made something special with the Bayreuth premiere of a new Wagner Ring Cycle. Because the Bayreuth Festival is also something very special, each new Ring production is awaited with anticipation—and occasional foreboding.

The Patrice Chereau Centenial Ring, in 1976, made Chereau's reputation as an opera stage-director. A certification he has not much used since then, preferring to work in dramatic theatre.

Chereau's avant-garde conception of Wagner's Musik-Theater version of old Nordic folklore—and its all-too-human Germanic Gods—also alienated some influential Wagnerites, Bayreuth Festival regulars, whose own vision of The Ring was firmly rooted in 19th century Romanticism.

Much of what offended visually in the first season of that Ring was eliminated—or brilliantly re-thought, re-designed, and re-staged. The videos of the Chereau Ring, as a result, give few visual or performance clues about what enraged older critics and Wagner traditionalists in the initial season.

Successive Ring Cycles—which customarily run in repertory for five summers—have had similar initial negative receptions. By the second or third season, however, most of the objections have faded away.

This is not only a result of annual festival visitors getting used to the new concepts and new visualizations. But it is also a direct result of Wolfgang Wagner's insistence that Bayreuth is a kind of "Opera-Workshop," where nothing is carved in stone, and any production can change from season to season.

Because Wolfgang Wagner has been often criticized of late for what some critics regard as uninspired, even predictable productions, he has been making a concerted effort to invite new directorial and design talents to work at Bayreuth. And notably on new Ring Cycle stagings.

When he announced, in 1999, that the avant-garde drama-director, Jürgen Flimm, would be staging the Millennial Ring, some influential critics had distinct reservations. They questioned Flimm's ability to adapt his drama-oriented talents to interpreting poetic texts and complicated scores for four mythic operas, with a total running-time of some 16 hours.

Indeed, Flimm has himself said that this is an almost impossible task. No other opera-house in the world would today attempt to premiere four major opera stagings in the same week. At least not if they are all to be directed and designed by the same team.

As a result, in the first season of the Wonder/Flimm Ring—which had been most unusually visualized by the avant-garde scenic-designer Erich Wonder—some scenes and major moments did not work.

Some of these misfires were simply wrong choices. Others were valid, but there had not been enough rehearsal-time to work them through.

Last fall, I discussed this production in this venue. But I also wrote a more detailed description of the design and technical problems involved for Entertainment Design, formerly Theatre Crafts.

Because much of that material is still valid, I will review some of those reports here, adding only new impressions of the production and comments on apparent changes—some for the better, some not.

Way Down by the River!

THE "BLACK SHEEP" OF BAYREUTH--Friedelind Wagner, who fled Nazi Germany for America. Photo: ©Glenn Loney 2001.
For the initial scene—with the three Rhine-maidens frolicking at the bottom of the River Rhine—Wonder has devised three ancient ship-wrecks for their antics. They wear smart raincoats over their snug bathing-suits.

At the end of the Cycle, when the golden Ring is finally returned to them, a projection shows the Rhine-bed laden with sunken World War II battle-ships!

The evil dwarf, Alberich—no Political Correctness in Wagner—is mocked when he tries to get laid by the seductive guardians of the golden treasure. So he rejects Love for Power—as does Wotan—and carries off the magic gold in a trendy tote-bag.

Throughout the Cycle, Flimm and his designers make a strong visual point of the pairings of contrasting characters like Wotan and Alberich, Siegmund and Hunding, and Siegfried and Hagen.

For such a short opera, Rheingold contains several important locations and a lot of action. Wotan and his family of gods are discovered on the construction-site of skyscraper Valhalla. Tables with architects' plans stand before a scrim showing the incomplete high-rise.

[In its shadowy outlines, it looks disturbingly like the late World Trade Center in Manhattan. But who could have known—in the summer of 2000 AD—that New Yorkers, like Wotan and the Nordic Gods, would have their own Götterdämmerung?]

Entrances made behind the image of this ghostly construction-project, down scaffolding-steps, are visible, suggesting the insubstantiality of Wotan's plans and schemes.

The invention of the elevator made skyscrapers feasible, a fact not lost on Erich Wonder. Even in the depths of the Rhine, there is an elevator-cabin on a cog-rack reaching up into the flies. This is one of the design elements which recur in this Ring.

As in Wagner's libretto, there is a serious financial crisis for Wotan & Co. Cost-overruns mean Wotan cannot pay the builders, the giants Fasolt and Fafner.

Wotan has to let them take his wife Fricka's sister, Freia, as a hostage against final payment. Without her mythical golden apples, the gods promptly age, verging rapidly on decrepitude.

Loge, the trickster God of Fire, urges Wotan to go deep into the earth to take the Rheingold from his opposite, Alberich. Loge's costume is the epitome of an Edwardian sporting gent. Flames run down his arms, and smoke streams out of his briefcase, like a plume of exhaust. He cavorts like a Music Hall comedian.

Taking the elevator down to Nibelheim, Wotan and Loge find Alberich—in a three-piece suit—at his roll-top desk in an office set up in a cargo-container. On either side, dwarfs—in what look like radiation-safe uniforms—feverishly sort pieces of raw gold at individual work-tables.

When Alberich has been tricked and tied up by his devious visitors, he's forced to give up his horde of gold, plus the newly forged Ring and the helmet—here only a cloth—of invisibility, the Tarnhelm.

To deliver the treasure to the surface, Wonder has provided an opening of a mine-shaft, complete with a tracks and small flat-bed freight-wagons to transport the sacks of gold. This trackage even has a turntable, so Fafner can scoot his loot offstage, after murdering his brother giant.

The ruins of this rail-system turn up again in Siegfried, as Wotan returns to earth as the Wanderer to see how his grandson is developing.

To emphasize the parallels between Wotan and Alberich—whose son Hagen will later murder Siegfried and blast all of Wotan's hopes of power, even of survival—Flimm has added a young prep-school Hagen to the cast, something Wagner neglected to do. Of course, he is mute, but costumer Florence von Gerkan has outfitted him with regulation blue blazer and chinos.

Apparently, while Siegfried has been learning to forge swords in the cave of the evil dwarf, Mime, young Hagen has been coming back home to Alberich's Underworld Lair on weekends for help with his math.

Wotan as CEO/Valkyries on Bungee-Cords!

HAUS WAHNFRIED IN RUINS--All that remained of Richard Wagner's original home after Allied bombing—and just before historical reconstruction began. Photo: ©Glenn Loney 2001.
In the second opera, Die Walküre, Wotan's earthly twin children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, discover each other in Hunding's Hut. She is married to the warrior Hunding, and her previously unknown brother is on the run.

Wonder's interior is anything but a hut, but it does have an immense tree growing in it—as specified in the Nibelung Saga. The tree, now bent and crooked, turns up again in Mime's cave. In the final opera, it is only some shards of burnt roots.

For a simple hunter-gatherer, Hunding seems to live in a very elegant white conservatory, with tall, jalousied-windows. Martha Stewart could have been his design-consultant. The white furniture could have come from IKEA.

As could Wotan's Post-Modernist office-furniture in Valhalla.

Curiously, in addition to the large tree—with the magic sword Nothung stuck in it—clumps of river-reeds are also growing inside along the wall. This must emphasize the close connection with Nature of these primitive mythical characters.

When the incestuous twins declare their love, the back wall of the room flies up out of sight. Wagner specified "Spring" in the background, a visual metaphor for their new-found love. Wonder's painted background drape is dark and murky, more like Night on Bald Mountain.

Meanwhile, back in Wotan's Oval Office in Valhalla—complete with document-shredder, computer-monitor, mobile-phones, and water-cooler—an angry but business-like Fricka confronts Wotan with a dossier about the twins and his extra-marital infidelities.

These violations of his own divine laws—and of the sanctity of The Family—have got to stop. Or the gods are finished! She could be a female Trent Lott, harassing Bill Clinton! Or a Republican Fundamentalist, giving George W. Bush a piece of her mind.

Fricka is smartly but sensibly attired, and Wotan is the model of a top CEO. Wotan subsequently shreds her dossier.

Later, this space—defined by a curving wall upstage and a matching elliptical curve-track downstage—is converted to the Valkyries' rocky lair. The wall is pierced by six vertical apertures. although there are eight flying female warriors. So two have to double-up to sing from the heights.

Obviously, Wonder wouldn't give them old-fashioned Wagnerian winged horses to fly through the heavens. Or repeat his Munich rocket-scooters.

Instead, they rappel down from the flies, like Furies on bungee-cords. Although Wagner specified only eight of them—plus sister Brünnhilde—Flimm and his designers have outfitted a small platoon of apprentice Valkyries.

There are no ballets in the Ring, but Flimm has the women do close-order military drills to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."

The dead heroes they bring to Valhalla look like a long, dazed line of the dead from Saving Private Ryan, dressed in World War II GI uniforms. Wonder may not completely have gotten over Spielberg yet.

The women take helmets and weapons from them, piling them in a heap upstage. Wotan later takes a helmet and breastplate from this pile to protect the sleeping Brünnhilde.

The Valkyries all seem to have perpetual Bad Hair Days, with immense tangles of wild hair. Their outfits appear a mixture of mountain-climber, space-cadet, and army surplus garb.

Unfortunately, Brünnhilde's outfit makes her look fat, inflated, almost like the Michelin Tire Man. When she sheds it, she seems in great shape!

Designer Florence von Gerkan is, in fact, a resourceful user of "found" costume elements. Siegfried's rough trousers are actually a Swedish motor-biker's pants she found in a New York flea-market.

Sporting a buzz-cut, Siegfried looks rather like a stocky Peter Sellars, the opera-director. This may be an inside joke, but his costume, appearance, and boorish behavior angered some spectators, who mistakenly believe Siegfried is an Ideal Hero. He is anything but.

The American Southwest may have had some influence on a drape—covering the curved wall upstage—that Wonder designed for the desperate flight of Siegmund and Sieglinde, pursued by Hunding.

With low mountains in the distance, it has long rows of fence-posts with a central vanishing-point. A later, similar drape is a sunset montage of rows of posts stretching into infinity..

When Wotan puts Brünnhilde to sleep on a mountain-top, supposedly surrounded by the Magic Fire, Wonder only suggests this by having two hinged sides of a giant curved golden screen close, resembling somewhat the ship-funnel form of Valhalla's exterior.

Echoes of the Titanic/
Foreshadowings of the World Trade Center!

Photo: ©Glenn Loney 2001
In fact, in the final moments of this new Ring Cycle, some critics were struck with the similarity of the ovoid tower and the forward smokestack of the Titanic—another construction headed for disaster.

After the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on 11 September, it will be only a matter of time before some trendy German opera-house production features the Burning of Valhalla as a massive Meltdown & Collapse in Lower Manhattan. Possibly with Wotan as CEO of Morgan-Stanley?

At the beginning of Götterdämmerung, elements of Hunding's interior decoration are still in place, including the white chairs and the swamp reeds.

The Three Norns, in long gowns and white turbans, measure out the red thread of Human Life. But they also have very long-handled ladles—not for eating soup with the Devil, but for dipping water out of a rectangular spring—which later becomes a hearth.

When Siegfried ends his Rhine Journey at the Hall of the Gibichungs, he has clearly arrived in Silicon Valley. The hall is a great Post-Modernist glass-house of three floors, thronged with smartly dressed office-workers and Middle Management.

Hagen organizes a hunting party in Siegfried's honor. The company executives—in their tan, brown, and gray three-piece suits—are equipped with automatic pistols and folding stools, useful when Siegfried stops to sing of his heroic deeds.

After Hagen has killed Siegfried, secretaries come forward with funeral bouquets. When the sorrowing and suicidal Brünnhilde returns the Ring to the Rhine-Maidens, it's all over. The world that was is in ruins. Valhalla and the gods are no more.

One hopes Erich Wonder will not decide to turn his Rheingold Valhalla construction-project into the lamented Twin Towers next summer.

Second-Season Ring Visions & Revisions—

HUNDING'S HUMBLE HÜTTE--RING Designer Erich Wonder takes a tip from Martha Stewart & IKEA! Photo: ©Bayreuth Festival/Jochen Quast/2001.
Seeing Flimm & Wonder's Das Rheingold in the second season, I was even more impressed with Flimm's brilliance as a stage-director. And not only in developing distinctive and powerful individual characterizations for roles which are in many productions all-too-often nothing more than singing/posing in colorful costumes.

Some have complained that Flimm has reduced the Nordic Gods to the level of arrogant, vain, selfish, petty people, though not quite Working Class. But that is already apparent in the libretto. And in the music as well.

Wotan, Fricka, Donner, & Loge—as the Greek Gods were for the Greeks and Romans—are very much like the ancient Germanic Peoples who worshipped them. Only of a much higher station—with more Mythic Baggage to carry around.

It is the very Humanity in the portrayal of Flimm's Gods, Giants, Dwarfs, and Men—though they are often blind to their faults and even downright stupid—that makes them so resonant for modern audiences.

Universals are involved, and Wagner obviously thought it more effective to cloak them in myth, rather than reduce them to the often banal level of the plots of Romantic Italian Opera.

Flimm is also very good at having his actor-singer-characters interact, even when they have no text to sing or specific musical cues to action.

That doesn't mean Rheingold is constantly awash in turbulent motion. But when someone makes a decisive move toward another, this always makes a believable, even forceful point.

The scene in Nibelheim, where Wotan and Loge trick the boasting Alberich and take him prisoner, and that at the mine-head, where Wotan, having wrested the gold from Alberich, now has to give it all over to the giants—including the actual Ring—are packed with powerful and arresting physical action.

These scenes are notable as great visual and emotional Action-Theatre, better than in any Ring production I have seen.

In fact, Wieland Wagner's most celebrated staging of the Ring—but not his only attempt to master this Masterwork—was more in the nature of a slow-motion pageant. He, however, was working in an earlier time, when many singers simply hadn't a clue about stage-acting.

The most interesting change in Flimm's Rheingold designs is the much improved vision of the Rainbow Bridge into Valhalla. Last season, it was too faint, too amorphous to register. This summer, it is a kind of Art Deco Futurist Abstraction, using colorful up-lighting and geometric forms to achieve its effect.

Graham Clark, also last season's Loge, is even more athletic and comic than before. But this summer he did not have flames streaming from his coat and smoke coming out of his briefcase, to indicate that he's the God of Fire.

Flimm has also used Loge to foster intrigues and provoke actions which are thus even more comprehensible than in Wagner's libretto. He makes all those around him look like fools—except to themselves.

In Rheingold, Wagner was effectively finished with Alberich's mistreated brother, Mime, at the conclusion of the Nibelheim scene. He wasn't asked to help Alberich surrender the Golden Horde to Wotan. Although he does return as a major character in Siegfried.

The composer-librettist didn't feel it necessary to show how Mime got from the subterreanean caverns of Nibelheim to a cave—his natural element—in a dense forest.

So Flimm & Wonder make up for that omission. They show the audience his escape. Realizing he has to get away from Alberich, Mime [Michael Howard] climbs on top of the elevator which brought Wotan & Loge down to Nibelheim.

Hovering near the mine-head—with suitcase and bed-roll over his shoulder—Mime witnesses his brother's humiliation, the transfer of the gold to Wotan and then to the Giants, Alberich's curse on the Ring, and the murder of Fasolt by Fafner.

So, when Siegfried begins, both he and we know a lot about the powers and dangers of the Ring and the Rhein-gold.

Miming Wotan/Not Singing!

SILICON VALLEY ON THE RHINE--Twilight of the Gods—and of the RING's Heroes & Villains as well. Photo: ©Bayreuth Festival/Arve Dinda/2001.
When I told American Wagnerite friends last fall how impressed I was both vocally and dramatically with Alan Titus as Wotan, most stared at me in disbelief: "Alan Titus as Wotan? You've got to be joking!"

Titus is growing in the role, and he was initially even more powerful this season.

Unfortunately, in the third act of Siegfried, he'd lost his voice and had to mime the role, while his cover sang from the side at a music stand. It was, however, still a powerful acting performance.

I was told this also happened at the Generalprobe. One hopes he doesn't develop the Siegfried Jerusalem Syndrome: starting strong and waning away…

Birgit Remmert and Ricarda Merbeth are both persuasive and moving as Fricka and Freia. Fricka's desperate ransacking a packing-carton, looking for something of value to pay off the Giants is immensely apt and human.

Flimm & Wonder's Rheingold—just by itself, without the other three operas in the Ring Cycle—has more action, excitement, and mythic mystery than almost any Hollywood SciFi or Tomb-Raider film.

Of course the music—conducted by Adam Fischer—helps, but even without the score, this would still be potent dramatic theatre. Fisher replaces Giuseppi Sinopoli, who premiered this Ring in 2000. Only weeks before the season's opening, Sinopoli collapsed conducting Aida at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in third act. He was only 54.

Both Waltraud Meier & Placido Domingo were no longer available to sing Siegmund & Sieglinde. Rehearsal scheduling problems had been cited as the reason. But there was more to it than that, as an Austrian newspaper interview with Domingo made clear.

But then he is over-committed anyway, now having to oversee both the Los Angeles Opera and that of Washington, DC!

But not use crying over spilt-milk—or singers who have split! Violeta Urmana is a heart-breaking Sieglinde. And Robert Dean Smith is an almost too handsome—but certainly heroic Siegmund.

As Siegfried, Christian Franz was much better than Wolfgang Schmidt was last year in the third of the Ring's operas. But Schmidt did get to sing Siegfried in Götterdämmerung.

Both these Siegfrieds seemed to have a less grotesque brushy haircut this season.

As Siegfried I, Franz had a lot of rowdy rough-and-tumble with Mime, which seemed in a spirit of loutish good fun, at least on Siegfried's side. That is, until Mime tried to poison his physically—if not mentally—precocious ward…

Unlike Chereau's Ring—in which Wotan & Alberich had to climb trees—Flimm also had them meet and interact with some rough courtesy as old acquaintances, though their deadly rivalry was not muted.

Although Wagner did not pen Alberich's son, Hagen, into Siegfried's scenario, Flimm brough him back again for the second season. But this time, Alberich covered him with heavy blanket.

We saw him in a teen-ager's school-uniform only when he packed up his briefcase to leave. Flimm made it clear that Alberich wants him to see & understand what is at stake with the Ring.

An oddity: Siegfried can't read or write, but he can read music. To get a Leitmotiv right for answering the Waldvogel, he took out a sheet of paper with the music written on it.

Flimm's Visible Waldvogel is almost a first, but Ruth Berghaus did in in Frankfurt almost a decade ago.

In red, this wise young bird [Britta Stallmeister] slipped out of the prompter's box and disappeared again that way. She wore a petite backpack with small wings on it!

She joted notes on a paper: things to tell Siegfried. She even stroked him—he'd been sadly caressing his mother's veil. She opened the sandwich Mime had made for Siegfried and ate it. Luckily, it wasn't poisoned.

She even drew Siegfried a map of showing the location of Fafner's cave.

Even in the second year of the Flimm/Wonder Ring, there is still No Magic Fire to pass through.

In fact, Wotan lays Brünnhilde down to sleep on a mountain-top covered with snow. This is visually a very cold scene, and its look & lighting lend it a chill and sterility it should not have.

Luana DeVol a very big woman. As Brünnhilde, she is postively matronly. In a fair match, she could wrestle both Wotan and Siegried to the ground. But she has a big strong voice, clear and thrilling.

Raising the Dragon from His Lair!

ELSA ON THE SQUARE--Bayreuth 1999 Lohengrin production, designed by Stefanos Lazaridis.
Photo: ©Bayreuth Festival/2001.
Last season's disastrous Drachen-Schlacht has been completely rethought. Or almost. Last year it was virtually impossible to see what the dragon-structure was—or was meant to be.

This summer, there was a full moon on misty landscape. Initially, the painted back-cloth looked like a Steinbruch, or quarry. But as it became lighter, it proved to be another lonely road into the desert with fence posts.

This is a recurring image in Wonder's vision of the Ring. This one looked like the backcloth from Siegmund & Sieglinde's wanderings in Die Walküre.

Instead of an amorphous Dragon-structure, this time there was a mine-shaft entrance, recalling that leading down to Nibelheim in Rheingold.

It was marked off with those yellow striped tapes & police stanchions, used to warn the public away from dangerous sites. Fitted with two glowing orange grates, it was Fafner's lair.

Wotan removed a grate and shouted down to Fafner who of course answered: Lasst mich schlafen!

Summoned, the Dragon came billowing out of an upstage trap. Fafner was now a huge black silky inflated airbag with ribs.

This surged up and down like a malignant magical worm/snake/dragon. The bag also billowed out at its sides. Very effective!

Fafner's own Giant-head was framed by a silver funnel-collar, reflecting his face. He seemed to glide about the stage in the air-balloon, but he was actually in a wheelchair.

Fafner slain, the Dragon-bag slithered into a downstage trap. But his dead Giant body remained slumped in the wheelchair.

Later, when Siegfried had killed Mime, he threw him on top of the corpse, ironically placing Fafner's arms around Mime. Then Siegfried dumped both of them into the upstage trap.

For me, the Big Ring Question has always been: What became of the Golden Horde in the Dragon's Cave? Is it still there, waiting for someone to find it?

In most productions, all Siegfried takes from the cave is the Ring and the Tarnhelm. Apparently, he's not only primitive and somewhat stupid, but he has no idea that a gold brick or two might come in handy.

In Flimm's re-staging, Siegfried actually hefts up a couple of gold ingots out of the trap-cave. But he doesn't take them away with him.

He'll just have to climb the Valkyrie's Magic Mountain and make the Rhine Journey on credit-cards. Don't leave the Cave without them!

Are Lohengrin & Siegfried in some mysterious way similar?

MASSED MASTERSINGERS & FELLOW NUREM-BURGHERS--Wolfgang Wagner's 1996 Die Meistersinger production, still in the repertory. Photo: ©Bayreuth Festival/Anne Kirchbach/2001.
In Lohengrin, the Swan-Knight's symbols are Sword, Horn & Ring. And these are still the legendary symbols of the House of Cleves, supposedly inherited from Lohengrin.

Like Lohengrin, Siegfried's most significant possessions are also a horn, a ring, and a sword. And both these Heroes rescue their fated loves. But they both also abandon them—but for different reasons…

Lohengrin may not be as simple-minded as Siegfried and Parsifal, but he should have known that Elsa would ask The Forbidden Question. It's curious that most of Wagner's Heroes wouldn't win an IQ contest. Talk about The Weakest Link

·Speaking of Character-Props—Rings & Things: Mime made gold crown for himself, in preparation for seizing the Ring from Siegfried. He must have believed he'd actually become Ruler of the World? After he was slain, Alberich found the crown and put it on his own head.

When Siegfried set out to vanquish the Dragon, he made sure he had his battered old suitcase, containing his unknown mother's veil. He also had a trendy backpack.

Mime thoughtfully laid on a case of beer. In Bayreuth, it should have been Maisel's, but I couldn't make out the label. Could it have been Beck's? Here's a dynamic new area for festival-subsidy: Product Placement!

Mime set up a collapsible picnic table with checked cloth for Siegfried's lunch after the dragon-killing.

Graham Clark was once again wonderful as Loge, but even more terrific as Mime. He has a great comedy sense. And he's incredibly spry for a singer in mid-lifespan.

His mixing the poison for Siegfried's drink was hilarious, almost delicious! It upstaged Siegfried's grunting travails in forging the invincible sword, Nothung—which didn't look very convincing anyway.

Mime's Cave was again Hunding's jalousied house recycled, with the tree fallen down. Mime may not have been the best of foster-parents, but he did install in the cave a Body-Building machine! Very good for the stalwart young Siegfried to develop his biceps!

But this is a very cunning dwarf: he was really getting himself in shape to become Master of the Universe.

When Siegfried actually killed the airbag-dragon, Hagen, Alberich, Mime, and Wotan were all on stage to witness it. At close of the dragon-slaying scene—after Siegfried had gone off on his adventures—Hagen & Alberich stared fixedly into the upstage trap.

After Siegfried broke Wotan's spear, he got a grandfatherly hug.

The Norn's Red Rope of Fate was later used to tie up Brünnhilde after her tarnhelmed rape.

Twilight of Mimed Gods!

As previously noted, Wotan lost his voice before his last encounter with Erda, so his lines had to be sung by his cover, standing at a music-stand at the left side of the stage. Waltraute also had vocal problems, but, as did Wotan, mimed her visit to Brünnhilde. One of the Norns, in a black formal, sang for her from a music-stand in the reeds.

The steel-&-glass Post-Modernist Hall of the Gibchungs Corporate HQ—on its second appearance, in the second season of Götterdämmerung—had been divided into two sections, instead of remaining one long transparent structure

These sections were joined by a top-floor bridge. This was very effective for some confrontations.

At the close, a slim section of the Corporate HQ sank into a narrow trap—with a row of flames coming out its cornice. This must have been symbolic of Siegfried's Funeral Pyre.

As apparent Office-Workers & Middle Management of the Gibichungs, well-tailored suits for the men and sensible women's office-wear was the rule. But, at the close, the chorus was dressed in contemporary casual clothes.

Next season, there will surely be even more subtle changes and re-thinking in the Flimm & Wunder Ring!

Night & Fog/Nacht und Nebel on Stage:

Mythos & Darkness in Lohengrin & Parsifal,
With Some Blinding Light in Meistersinger!

It's perhaps most appropriate that Wagner's only Comic Opera, Die Meistersinger, should shimmer in summer light—except for the riots of Midsummer Night: Johannistag.

Despite the quibbles of his critics, Wolfgang Wagner's glowing evocation of Medieval Nuremberg seems to delight audiences even more each year it returns.

That is not entirely the case with his much older—and somewhat shopworn—production of Parsifal, seemingly inspired by Mayan Pyramids in Tikal.

Most would have welcomed a new vision of Parsifal some seasons ago. But new productions cost ever more money to build. so this museum-piece has remained in the repertory .

The Meistersinger will probably be the last Wolfgang Wagner production to be shown at Bayreuth. One of the ways in which he has tried to defuse criticism of his continued stewardship of the festival is to promise he won't seek to direct or design any new productions.

But Wagner's luminous Meistersinger is a wonderful way to remember all that he has given to the festival and how he has served his grandfather's memory and art.

His Parsifal is just too dark and murky, not really mysterious. But the Lohengrin—which was directed by David Warner and designed by Stefanos Lazaridis—is dark and mysterious with a purpose.

Lazaridis told me he regards it as the only Wagner opera in which, at the close, no one has any hope: All is lost. And his basic set-image is of T. S. Eliot's i>Wasteland.

Interpreting Wagner at The Source:

This past summer, Peter Seiffert took a bow as Lohengrin and he was superb! Melanie Diener was passive-agressive as Elsa, but Linda Watson, as the evil Ortrud, was Hell on Wheels! Very exciting—and obviously an unequal match for the dithering Elsa.

Stephen West seemed a rather feeble King Heinrich, hardly the ruler to bring order to Brabant. This was not just a vocal problem, but one of acting authority. Oskar Hillebrandt's Telramund was stronger, but not the threat he might have been.

Roman Trekel, as the Herald, seemed more in command of the scene than any of the other men. Even Lohengrin eyed him warily. His is a powerful voice and presence, but his dominance was rather too large for his office and his role in these proceedings. But he was never boring.

In the hallowed Grail-Opera, Poul Elming remains a stalwart Parsifal, with Violeta Urmana a devasting Kundry. Hartmut Welker, as Klingsor, did not send many chills down spines. Andreas Schmidt and Mattias Hölle were able interpreters of Amfortas and Gurnemanz.

As noted, Robert Dean Smith is an ideal Walther von Stolzing. He looks the part and he can sing with power and confidence. Emily Magee, as Eva, is a handsome partner, visually and vocally.

As Hans Sachs, however, Robert Holl, had some strained moments. But he certainly played a stalwart Meistersinger.

COMING SOON: Tannhäuser!

Next summer, a new Tannhäuser production will debut at Bayreuth. Those who accuse Wolfgang Wagner of dated, outworn scenic & directorial excerises on the Festpielhaus stage should be holding their breaths for the astonishments in store.

The production will be staged by Philippe Arlaud. Not since the days of the late and multi-talented Jean-Pierre Ponnelle has there been an innovative director who is also a brilliant designer of sets, costumes, and lighting.

He has already won plaudits for his productions at the Bregenz Festival. I was amazed at his evocation of Montemezzi's L'Amour des trois rois. He has also staged Astor Piazzola's Maria de Buenos Aires and G. F. Haas' Nacht for Bregenz.

New Conductor for Lohengrin!

Sir Colin Davis will conduct all performances of Bayreuth's Lohengrin next season. He replaces the original conductor of this striking production, Antonio Pappano.

Maestro Pappano has become Music Director of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, which will prevent him coming to Bayreuth for the time being. [Loney]

Return to top of page.

Copyright © Glenn Loney 2001. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

| home | reviews | cue-to-cue | welcome |
| museums | recordings | coupons | publications | classified |