By Alexander Neef, General Director
Firstly, my apologies that these posts are a little behind, but while I was in Europe I managed to see 12 operas over 13 days in five cities and, in the end, there’s so much to write about that I will have to recount my trip over the course of a few posts.
My summer tour began with a production of Nabucco at Opera di Roma, conducted by a Verdi master, Riccardo Muti. His performance was absolutely incredible with every detail of Verdi’s score lovingly explored. It’s amazing how a great conductor can make even pieces you’ve heard many, many times sound fresh and exciting.
Bayreuth was next.
Wagner is everywhere!
Going to Bayreuth is kind of like making a pilgrimage. Wagner chose this provincial town to build his theatre and premiere his works in a place where, although lovely, there isn’t much else to do beyond seeing opera! Then, he built the Festspielhaus on top of a hill on the edge of town, forcing a walk up to the theatre. Although the town has never been convenient to get to (irregular train service, no nearby airports), going to Bayreuth is a commitment that people, even after 130 years, continue to make today.
One of the reasons I wanted to go to Bayreuth this year was to see Eva Wagner Pasquier. Eva is the great-granddaughter of the composer, and was the artistic administrator at the festival in Aix when I was working at the Paris Opera, and since she took the job in Bayreuth I’ve been promising that I would come to visit. She’s a good friend, and she’s always been a huge font of information on new, young singers. She’s now a specialist in new Wagnerian talent, so she’s also a great resource for us in this capacity too.
I was privileged to be able to attend a few dress rehearsals during my four-day visit which, given the huge demand for tickets, was an honour. As it turns out, dress rehearsal week is a special one because it also happens to be the time when so many previous and current generations of Wagner singers come to visit too. In fact, the very first person I saw as I was sitting outside my hotel was Hanna Schwarz, our amazing Herodias in Salome. Hanna was the Erda and Fricka in the original Patrice Chereau Ring Cycle, performed from 1976 – 1980, and she comes every year for dress rehearsal week.
And it’s not just singers. Two mornings in a row I had coffee with Bernd Loebe, Johannes’s old boss at Frankfurt. Another old acquaintance I met on the hill was Dominique Meyer who I know from my Paris days when he was the director of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. He’s now the director of Vienna State Opera and, because it’s such a huge company with so many singers, conductors and directors going through it each season, he is, like Eva Wagner, an invaluable resource and a great colleague.
My first evening, I saw Die fliegender Holländer conducted by the great Christian Thielemann. He hardly performs in North America anymore, so it was a rare chance to see him live. Thielemann brings so much understanding to the piece and created so much excitement with it, really capturing the romanticism of the music, even to the point of making it sound almost like Weber. It was a real pleasure to see Franz-Josef Selig (as Daland) again after his extraordinary performances with us last winter in Tristan und Isolde.
I was glad that I finally got to see Hans Neuenfels’s production of Lohengrin for myself. Now in its fourth year, it is both famous and infamous for many reasons, not the least of which are the rat costumes the chorus wears for the entire opera. Having said that, the bridal chamber scene is one of the most intense stagings of an operatic scene I have seen in a while. Conductor Andris Nelsons is an up-and-coming conductor with a great reputation, but I hadn’t seen him before and I was really impressed at how wonderfully the orchestra worked with him.
I couldn't resist!
By designing his Festspielhaus in the now-popular one-level fan shape, Wagner essentially made the first innovation to theatres since the Italian multi-leveled, horseshoe-shaped houses of the 17th century. But it’s in his brilliantly conceived, covered orchestra pit that Wagner’s architectural genius really bears fruit. The beginning of Das Rheingold in the Festspielhaus never fails to impress, with the sound seeming to emerge out of nowhere from the invisible orchestra. Magic.
This year’s new Ring Cycle is directed by Frank Castorf, who sets Rheingold in a motel on Route 66 with the gods waiting at the motel for Valhalla to be finished. The set is quite efficient and there is live video to allow the public to follow scenes that don’t happen in direct view of the auditorium. The dress rehearsal for Die Walküre was closed to the public, but I was very grateful that Eva Wagner gave me the opportunity to watch Act I and II on the house TV in their donor lounge.
Much has been made of the critical reception of this Ring, so it will be interesting to return to it in a year or two to see how things have evolved. Many Ring Cycles, including Chereau’s now-classic production, received venomous reviews in their first season.
Photos: (top) Alexander Neef; (middle) Little Wagners at Bayreuth; (bottom) Alexander Neef meets a Wagner statue. Photo credits: (top) bohuang.ca; (middle, bottom) Alexander Neef.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001