Of all the events in the year, I can’t think of anything I anticipate quite as keenly as the Bard Music Festival, which is dedicated to exploring the life and works of major composers in the broad context of the culture in which they lived.
The organizers accomplish this through the most diverse concert programs, as well as a series of symposia and colloquia involving prominent specialists not only in the composer in question, but in whatever tangential subjects are thought to be relevant. The Music Festival, which will celebrate its twentieth anniversary this year, has been part of a larger enterprise, Bard Summerscape, for some years, which brings in dance, theater, film, and cabaret performances, the latter in the Festival’s popular Spiegeltent.
The twentieth anniversary season will revolve around Richard Wagner (1813-1883), a powerfully influential—and controversial—figure even today. Wagner, as to the organizers say, will balance his arch-rival Johannes Brahms, the subject of the inaugural Bard Festival in 1990. Bard also prepared the way to this event in the 2006 Music Festival [Part I / Part II], which was devoted to Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt, a kindred spirit in his own way. Seasoned festival-goers—and a great many return year after year—will know not to expect the Summerscape opera to be Tristan, Tannhaüser, or Rienzi (The Opera Orchestra of New York’s postponed performance, originally scheduled for this March, is sorely missed.). As usual, the opera will have a tangential connection with the composer, as will the theatrical production, a special oratorio, and most of the films. The opera, ironically, will be Les Huguenots by Giacomo Meyerbeer, a French grand opera, a form Wagner particularly detested. Wagner also resented Meyerbeer personally, not least because of the wealth Meyerbeer accumulated from his works, not to mention Wagner’s notorious opinions about Meyerbeer’s racial origins. This aspect of Wagner’s complex personality will also be reflected in a single performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s rarely performed 1836 oratorio St. Paul—also intended as a celebration of the bicentenary of the composer’s birth, as well as a panel discussion, “Wagner and the Jewish Question.” An earlier panel, “Warring Aesthetics,” as well as the ensuing concert, Wagner’s Destructive Obsession: Mendelssohn and Friends will presumably also deal with these relationships, in which principles of art vied with personal and racial animosity. If Wagner produced his music dramas in this atmosphere, the works themselves overcame it, in spite of their misuse under the Third Reich. It remains that Wagner’s two greatest living champions, James Levine and Daniel Barenboim, are both Jews. All that apart, Leon Botstein proved his affection and flair for French grand opera in a rousing program at the Liszt Festival, and Les Huguenots is surely not to be missed. These operas are rarely performed because of the expense and difficulty of producing them, and it will be the most ambitious Bard opera production yet, the work of director Thaddeus Strassberger, winner of the 2005 European Opera Directing Prize, with his team, Eugenio Recuenco and Eric Dover (set designer and associate designer) and Mattie Ullrich (costume designer). It is bracing to see Bard forging ahead with ambitious projects in the present economy.
There is a lot more to consider, however. The theatrical performance will be Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Oresteia, in Ted Hughes’ translation,directed by Gregory Thompson with sets and costumes by Ellen Cairns. Through examples like Goethe’s Iphigenia in Tauris, Kleist’s Penthesilea, and Hölderlin’s Sophocles adaptations, Germans were able to assimilate Greek drama into their own theater much more readily than others, and Wagner saw Greek drama as a Gesamtkunstwerk which should serve as a model for a regenerated German theater, both in comedy, as in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and in tragedy, as in Der Ring des Nibelungen, in which Wagner deliberately emulated Aeschylean trilogy—as an artist, not as a scholar, of course. For this reason Hellenists flock to Ring productions with special avidity, and Wagnerians take a more than average interest in productions of classical theater—which are hardly an everyday event in the Anglo-Saxon world. The Greek may be translatable, but not the dramaturgical morphology and syntax—unless one happens to be a genius. Wagner’s Ring may be the closest moderns have come to a living, breathing tragic trilogy—leaving debates about post-Chéreau production values aside. In any case there will be three opportunities to see the Oresteia in one day, as intended, over the two-week run, and two to see the plays in order on different days—and at a substantial discount: two shows for the price of three. One of my fondest memories is of seeing Peter Stein’s production in the theater at Ostia Antica, beginning at dusk and ending at dawn. The superbly acted production mixed elements of modern dress with more timeless details, and large jugs of local red were on hand to honor the deity.
New Yorkers will have an opportunity to get a different look at the Oresteia in March, when the Classic Stage Company presents An Oresteia, a two-part presentation pieced together from excerpts of Anne Carson’s translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’ Electra, and Eurpidies’ Orestes. Wagner’s great trilogy will also be playing at the Metropolitan Opera this spring, under James Levine. There will be three cycles, the first spaced out over a month (March 28 – April 25). The last two are confined within a week, Monday through Saturday: April 27 – May 2 and May 4 – May 9. There couldn’t be a better preparation for the Bard Festival than one of the cycles, especially since it will be the final presentation of Otto Schenck’s production, for some time the last more-or-less traditional production in a major opera house. Wagnerian conservatives from Germany have been flocking to these for years, and there is doubtless much gnashing of teeth over the prospect of Robert Lepage’s projected successor to Schenk’s production. The Ring will also be on at the Seattle Opera in August, and it is actually possible to attend both. The Bard Festival concludes on August 23 and the final Seattle cycle starts on August 25. Why not bookend your Bard Festival with Rings this year? For that matter, if you’re fond of air travel, you could take off for Vienna just after the Second Met Cycle and hear Franz Welser-Möst conduct it at the Staatsoper—that is, if it were not sold out. (For my part, I’d be very interested to hear what Welser-Möst does with it. I’ve liked most of his work that I’ve heard. It is important to keep an open mind.)
But back to the Bard Festival. The first weekend (August 14-16), The Fruits of Ambition, begins with Wagner’s notably unimpressive beginnings. As the Bard announcement states, it “explores the transformation of a highly ambitious but obscure young man into a world-famous revolutionary artist. Wagner’s earliest compositional efforts are placed in the context of musical cultural life in German-speaking Europe before 1848 and the Paris of the 1830s and 1840s, Europe’s literary and operatic capital. By the mid-1840s, productions of Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, and Tannhäuser had taken place. But the years between 1848 and 1850 were decisive in Wagner’s life and career. After struggling with a host of unfinished projects, he published (albeit anonymously) his most polemical essay, “Judaism in Music”; saw Lohengrin produced for the first time; and began working on the text of the Ring. From obscurity, Wagner emerged as the apostle of a new music for a new age and public. He placed himself in opposition to the fashions of the day as the true heir of Beethoven, championing a new aesthetics and politics of music.”
The first concert, Genius Unanticipated, will progress from his Symphony in C Major of 1832, excerpts from his early operas, Die Feen (1832), Das Liebesverbot (1836), the Overture to Rienzi (1838-40), to Tristan (1859) and Parsifal (1882). In the second concert, In the Shadow of Beethoven, early chamber and solo works by Wagner will be presented in the context of Spohr’s Nonet, excerpts from Weber’s Der Freischütz and Oberon, Czerny’s Variations brillantes, and songs by Loewe, Marschner, Flotow, and Hiller. The third, Wagner and the Choral Tradition, will juxtapose choral works of Wagner with Palestrina, Brahms, Bruckner, and Liszt. Program Four, The Triumphant Revolutionary, will combine rare arias Wagner wrote to flesh out the operas of other composers, including Bellini’s Norma, with excerpts from Der Fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin. Program Five is the aforementioned Wagner’s Destructive Obsession: Mendelssohn and Friends, which will justapose Wagner’s French setting of the famous Heine poem, Die beiden Grenadiere, chamber and piano works by Mendelssohn, including a piano duet arrangement of the “Hebrides” Overture and his Trio No. 2 in C minor, Schumann’s better-known version of the Heine poem and Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat major, which was one of his most popular works in his lifetime. Program Six, Wagner in Paris, offers more French songs by Wagner, a Cherubini string quarter, songs by Auber and Meyerbeer, chamber arrangments of works by Hérold, Halévy, Berlioz, including Liszt’s Réminiscences des Huguenots, and Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, Op 23.
The second weekend (August 21-23), Engineering the Triumph of Wagnerism, deals with the establishment of Wagner as an artistic leader and the debate about his music dramas and his artistic principles. As the Bard announcement states, “By the early 1870s, Wagner’s music, poetry, and prose had sparked an open conflict about the nature and future of music that would influence the discussion of art and culture until the outbreak of World War I. During the last three decades of his life, Wagner not only completed the Ring, Tristan, Meistersinger, and Parsifal, but he also engineered the first modern marketing scheme on behalf of an artist and his work (the selling of the Bayreuth festival). By the time of his death, Wagner, his music, and his aesthetics became a near obsession for philosophers, painters, poets, politicians, and, above all, musicians in Europe and America, making him the most famous artist of his time. This weekend looks at the many controversies surrounding Wagner, including his relationship to Nietzsche; the opposition to his innovations, centered around the figure of Brahms; the creation of Bayreuth; the impact of his music on composers from Bruckner to Granados, Wolf, and Debussy; and the connection between the Wagnerian and late 19th-century racism and nationalism.”
Program Seven, Wagner Pro and Contra, will begin with Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Liszt’s Die Lorelei (a high point of the Liszt Festival, then sung by Nicole Cabell, who is now making her mark at the Met in Die Zauberflöte and L’Elisir d’amore) now to be sung by mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz,along with a piano trio arrangement by Saint-Saëns of Liszt’s Orpheus, as well as vocal duets by Brahms and his Sonata for Two Pianos in F minor and Joachim’s Overture to Hamlet arranged for piano by Brahms. There follows Program Eight, Bearable Lightness: The Comic Alternative, including Chabrier, Debussy, Offenbach, and Johann Strauss Jr. Program Nine, Competing Romanticisms, will be a chamber program with Goldmark, Brahms, Bruch, Dvorák, Goetz and von Herzogenberg. Program Ten, The Selling of the Ring, is more ambitious, with excerpts from all four of the music dramas. I understand that much research is being done to recreate the excerpts made by Wagner himself, which are quite different from the selections that became familiar in the twentieth century. Program Eleven, Wagnerians, will begin with the Siegfried Idyll and continue on with Granados, Chausson, Debussy, Griffes, and Hugo Wolf, with songs by Richard Stauss, Humperdinck, and Ritter. The final summer program, Music and German National Identity, will consist of Wagner’s Kaisermarsch, excerpts from Die Meistersinger, Bruckner’s Germanenzug, and Brahms’ Triumphlied.
For now, it is best to leave the matter there. We can be sure that the Bard Festival will as enlightening as always, if not even more so. With Wagner, more than any other figure of the 19th century, it is salutary to have one’s assumptions challenged. There will be much more to say about Richard Wagner and his works as the Bard Festival approaches, not to mention the various Ring Cycles. As so often over the past 150 years, Wagner will arouse intense, even violent feelings among his admirers and his detractors, although I doubt the Red Hook police will be laying in riot gear for the occasion. In fact, although our attitudes towards Wagner may change as a result of the Festival, some things are unlikely to be altered. Some people will continue to flock to performances of the Ring and all the others, and—possibly closing their eyes—immerse themselves in a Wagnerian parallel reality for the sixteen or so requisite hours. Others will stay away through hostility, and yet others—the vast majority—through indifference or even ignorance.
Summerscape will begin with an important dance program: Dance, a work Lucinda Childs created in 1979 for her own company, to music by Philip Glass that is the soundtrack of a film by Sol LeWitt. According to Bard, “The New York Times has stated that ‘Ms. Childs is revered across Europe as a grande dame of American dance. In the United States, though, her work is so rarely seen that she has assumed almost mythical status.’ Bard is presenting an overdue heroine’s welcome for Childs this summer.” This should be wonderful, but of course it has a little to do with Wagner—except through Glass—as tragedy has with Dionysus. The Spiegeltent program will be as rich as ever, with many of the old favorites and some new ones. That, at least, will have something to do with Dionysus, given the pleasant vintages from local vineyards which will be flowing there.