Thursday, May 23, 2013

Richard Wagner 200th Birthday Concert

May 22nd, 2013

Festspielhaus Bayreuth

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra

Eva-Maria Westbroek - soprano
Johan Botha - tenor
Kwangchul Youn - bass
Christian Thielemann - conductor

I'm probably going to be hung, drawn and quartered for saying this.
But the much-hyped Geburtstagskonzert to mark the Wagner bicentenary really wasn't what we could -- and should -- have expected from one of the highlights in a year full to bursting with new books and recordings, commemorative stamps and coins and, naturally, performances of Wagner's operas.

No doubt the logistics of such an event were extremely challenging.
Here we have a theatre which only ever opens its doors for a few weeks in the summer, suddenly expected to be up and running smoothly for a solitary concert on a cold, blustery and wet May evening.
The Festspielhaus itself is clad in scaffolding because Bayreuth's Baupolizei has decided that its crumbling facade is a health and safety hazard.
And no date has been set yet for when the repair work can be completed and the scaffolding taken down again.
The Steigenberger group, which runs the adjoining restaurants -- never really a culinary treat at the best of times -- decided it wasn't worth the trouble to bring in all the necessary staff and infrastructure for just one night.
Instead, a couple of makeshift beer and bratwurst tents were set up next to the Festspielhaus.

In the town itself, the Richard Wagner Museum housed in the composer's former home Wahnfried is a building site, due to intensive and intrusive renovation and rebuilding work which will probably drag on until 2015.
And the baroque jewel of the Markgräfliche Opernhaus, the UNESCO heritage-listed opera house that drew Wagner to Bayreuth in the first place, has also been shut for renovation since last October with no firm date yet set for its reopening.

Now no-one can be blamed for the bad weather, of course.

But surely the festival management and town authorities could have gotten their act together to lend a much less makeshift feel to the celebrations marking Richard's Big Fat Birthday.
It's not as if the Bicentenary was sprung on them by surprise.
It's been a looming for a long time.
And yet no-one thought to get the town ship-shape in time?

At least the musical offering offered some hope of compensation.
On the programme was Act I of Die Walküre, with Johan Botha as Siegmund, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde and Kwangchul Youn as Hunding.
After the interval came the Vorspiel and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, Siegfried's Rheinfahrt and Trauermarsch from Götterdämmerung and the overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

The problems arose here because, for a concert which was to be broadcast live on radio and television, the orchestra and soloists clearly hadn't rehearsed sufficiently.
Youn, in particular, Bayreuth's magnificently voiced Gurnemanz in Stefan Herheim's recent Parsifal, clearly had very different ideas of tempi from Thielemann.
Bayreuth's unofficial GMD -- currently unsurpassed in this repertoire -- was of course alert enough to respond and the orchestra followed him blindly.
But it nevertheless made for some awkard moments.
Botha, no stranger to this role, was in fine form, too, and his effortless, gleaming tenor appears to have darkened to just the right degree since I heard him last. But he strangely fluffed the text a couple of times and made a duff entry.
Westbroek, currently singing Minnie in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West in Frankfurt, gave a blistering performance as Sieglinde, her voice rich with colour and never forced or squally.
But her Liebestod after the interval remained strangely underpowered.
The Dutch soprano is to sing her first complete Isolde at the end of this year in Dresden and she will also be Thielemann's Isolde in Bayreuth in 2015 in the festival's next staging of Tristan by Katharina Wagner.
So this performance really felt like a trial run, when surely, on this date of all dates, it should have been the real thing.

Acoustics were another problem.
The orchestra in the Festspielhaus usually sits in the covered pit, invisible to the audience.
And Wagner built the whole theatre around just that concept -- which explains the miraculous acoustics of the house in staged opera performances.
But for the Birthday Concert, the orchestra was on stage itself and so the sound was very different.

And with just a run-through rehearsal earlier that day (Thielemann had been in Dresden with his Staatskapelle Dresden and Jonas Kaufmann the night before), the tuttis -- experienced Bayreuthers as all the players were -- were sometimes a bit rough around the edges and intonation frayed. And the Meistersinger overture in particular was marred by some scrappy ensemble playing.
Surprising for an orchestra drawn from the best players all across Germany (and occasionally beyond) and which, with this repertoire in Wagner's holy of holies, can sound like no other in the world.

Again, organisational difficulties were no doubt to blame here, not artistic ones.
But this was Big Richie's Birthday we're talking about, not some arbitrary one-off gig in the provinces.
Other engagements and obligations aside, is it too much to expect musicians of this calibre to allot sufficient time to rehearse just a little bit more?

Unlike the summer festival, tickets for the birthday concert were put on sale on a first-come-first-served basis last year and were almost immediately sold out.

Given the upcoming elections in September, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a regular at Bayreuth, had no time to drop by this time.
Her foreign minister Guido Westerwelle had been scheduled to attend but was in the Middle East instead.

That left Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer as the only politician of national standing and he made some bland comments about the universality of Wagner's genius and how proud Bavaria was to have given  the composer asylum.

Britain's Stephen Fry, a Wagner fan and Bayreuth devotee, tweeted blissfully about the music and dining with the Wagners afterwards.

The audience also roared and stamped in tumultuous applause.

As for me, I was left feeling sadly underwhelmed, despite one or two gripping moments in the first half.
Never mind, I'm sure Bayreuth will get its act together for what promises to be a truly exciting summer.