Ritual is everywhere in Wagner’s operas and music dramas. He even has his way of transforming crucial events in his stories into quasi-rituals through symbolism. Ritual is even more pervasive in his final work, his Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal, which is in itself a ritual. The highly ritualized routines of the Grail knights connect their lives and the events of the drama with the continuum of the Grail’s history, back to the Last Supper. Their actions are highly deliberate, replete with the significance of faith and tradition. This creates a quasi-monastic environment in which life unfolds slowly, largely ceremonially, on the structure of a time-honored schedule, in which history and precedent are always present. The narrative unfolds with notable simplicity in terms of what occurs on stage, while beneath it, the backstory related in monologues seethes with incident, conflict, and misfortune. In addition to this dramatic foreground purified of trivialities, there is the pure transparency of Wagner’s score, consisting of simple thematic material set with surpassing clarity, delicacy, and harmonic subtlety. In this way Parsifal lives up to what we have been conditioned to expect from the late work of a great artist, and this is what we see and hear on the stage, if Wagner’s stage directions are observed.
I was no less fascinated than any writer by the troops of rats Hans Neuenfels mustered for his production of Lohengrin, which premiered last year (2010). It isn’t fair or even intelligent to focus on the most obvious twist in his Neuenfels’ vision of Wagner’s first grail opera, but Neuenfels turned the rodents loose on us as bait, and in the world of theater, it is only right to jump on it with all the alacrity of one of the rats, when he or she sniffs some appetizingly ripe garbage—or bacon, as Herr Neuenfels has said. And I don’t mention this to demean the rats, Neuenfels clearly did not intend them as red herrings, but as an intellectually nutritious and tasty Vorspeise.
I have long deemed Munich’s Alte Pinakothek one of the most underrated museums in Europe. Thanks to aristocratic connoisseurs like William IV, Maximilian I, and Ludwig I, the city now boasts an outstanding collection of Renaissance, Dutch, and Flemish masterpieces. The museum is well complimented by Alexander Freiherr von Branca’s Neue Pinakothek and Stephan Braunfels’s Pinakothek der Moderne since 2002. In fact, these robust institutions have allowed Munich’s Kunstareal to rise above the current economic crisis as promising young talent finds a slow but steady stream of patrons.
I had originally planned this commentary simply to let you, our readers, know about the changes in our usual coverage for the remainder of the summer: Larry Wallach, Seth Lachterman, and Keith Kibler will bravely continue their coverage of summer festivals in the Berkshires and Hudson Valley, while I visit Bayreuth, to review the entire 2010 season: Tankred Dorst’s production of the Ring, along with the controversial productions of Parsifal (Stefan Herheim, 2008), Die Meistersinger (Katharina Wagner, 2007), and Lohengrin (Hans Neuenfels, 2010). I left my rat-catching gear at home, not wishing to incur overweight charges and thinking it might be cheaper simply to purchase the necessaries here, but all the ratting supply stores in Bayreuth are sold out of equipment, and I realize that I simply have to remain unrattled, while the rodents run free.
Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux (1837) is quite a rarity, and many who are new to it might be tempted to assume that this is rather well justified. It could be said that the librettist Cammerano concocted a travesty of the story of Elizabeth and Essex, with singularly unappealing characters tied up in a knot of bad faith and vengefulness (one might equally say that of Wagner’s Ring, of course), and that Donizetti glossed over it with course after course of conventional emotivity bathed in meretricious bel canto sauces. However, after seeing and hearing this at first seemingly rather strange and off-putting but passionately committed production, only the most rigidly prejudiced will refuse to admit that they have been fascinated and moved. Conductor Friederich Haider, above all, conveyed his belief in Roberto Devereux’s quality and power through his deep understanding of bel canto as a psychological and dramatic idiom. In fact his contribution was equalled by the magnificent performances of Edita Gruberova and Paolo Gavanelli. Christof Loy’s production, which sets the action in modern Britain, may seem perverse at first and Herbert Murauer’s set and costumes singularly depressing, but eventually the distracting contemporary details vanish, as one abandons oneself to Donizetti’s spell.
Many of my most memorable early operatic experiences came from the Bayerische Staatsoper, either from when I was a student or a somewhat underoccupied summer intern in public relations. It’s been all too long since my last visit, not to mention my last look at the Aigina pediments or the great Dürers in the Alte Pinakothek. In operatic terms the work of the Staatsoper is very much on this level. Hence, I’ll not soon forget this three-day orgy, which began with a fine Nozze di Figaro, continued with Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux with none other than Edita Gruberova as Elisabetta, and concluded with an important premiere, Peter Eötvös’ and Albert Ostermaier’s Die Tragödie des Teufels, an impeccable performance in a spectacular staging.