Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Letter From Bavaria

Dear Opera-Buddy

So I said I'd give you a running commentary on what is going on in Bavaria. (I hope this is really what you want. If I had had to sell my golden tickets, I think I would have refused to even think about Wagner for a year – like the athletes who just missed out in being in "team GB" and went off to Las Vegas to pretend the Olympics weren't happening. Did you tape the closing ceremony, by the way? The German Lady in the bar last night said that the Opening Ceremony was so good she could hardly believe that the English had done it... I mentioned Paul McCartney and she said that his song was the best thing about it, so I was probably wrong about that.)

I realise that it is pathetic that I should have reached the age of very nearly 35 and still be as terrified of flying as I still am. Its not the flying bit. I entirely trust that the wings are not going to drop off the planes, but I spend the entire 24 hours worrying about things which are going to go wrong, as, will they refuse to let me on the plane wearing jeans, is my pass port out of date despite saying 2015, how on earth am I going to get to a hotel in a foreign country in the middle of the night. (I have decided to make no attempt to speak German to anyone: much safer to grin and point and, if they turn out to speak English, which lets face it they do, to complain about the awfulness of language teaching in English schools and say that it you understand that it is much improved nowadays.) Travel in fact went without a hitch: Taxi from Munich to airport hotel, shuttle from hotel back to airport, metro from airport to station. Since we were last here, German stations have become much more like English stations, with lots of different kinds of coffee and sandwiches.

(I am writing this in the breakfast buffet on Tuesday morning. It sounds as if Kundry is telling Percival that there is too much peril on the big TV in the front lobby, which is a nice touch.)

Obviously resorting to national stereotypes of any kind is very cruel, so I shall merely say that all the German people I have met are wildly eccentric, drink copious amounts of Guinness and kiss the blarney stone. Oh, and that all the trains run on time.

Any way you don't want to hear about this, you want to hear about the opera. I got to Bayreuth by about 1PM as planned, and by 2PM people in the hotel were wearing tuxes and or dinner jackets (possible even la smokings) eating very small sandwiches at the free buffet, and waiting for the shuttle to take them to the Festspeilhaus. (The shuttle was designed to look like and old fashioned vintage car, but it would have been better if it has been an ordinary minibus but bigger.) Reception set me up with a German lady who wanted to buy the spare ticket. We didn't manage much conversation. "It is beautiful, on top of the hill, yes? Very singular." "Yes, Covent Garden is really not quite the same." (There seemed, in fact, to be very few English people around: quite a large number of spectacularly over dressed Japanese people, though.) I opted for best waistcoat tie and hat rather than tux, although you will be glad to know that as a result of weightwatchers I can get into the smart suit if needs be. Probably for Parsifal. (I bought a pair of cufflinks on the station. That was quite fun: no, I do not want something with union jacks on them, or gold plated, or with diamonds. I want something costing about five pounds to keep my shirt on.)

For future reference, there is a very posh looking restaurant in situ at the festival house, but there are also kiosks selling champagne, coffee, ice cream, pretzels, official Bayreuth bratwurst etc etc etc. Each interval technically lasts an hour, although I think that means "the next act starts exactly 1 hour after the curtain goes down on the previous one". By the time you've applauded and got in and got out again, you don't seem really to have that long. (Better than insane Covent Garden 15 minute breaks half way through Mastersingers, of course. The leisurely pace of Bayreuth makes a real difference to your perception of opera, I think: it feels much more as if you are watching three short opera than that you've enlisted for a five hours of solid music. The end of act 3 in particular felt a lot like the climax of a whole long show.)
Of course, the last time we were here we saw Dutchman / Hollander so we didn't have a chance to get blasé about going in and out of the theatre I guess German fire regulations must be different from ours, or else they don't apply to Wagner. The whole of the main arena ("stalls" is to small a word) is a mass of long rows, without an aisle of gangway in site...everyone has to push past everyone else (efficiently if you are German, politely if you are English). The comfortableness of the seats has been massively exaggerated, especially by me. I almost had enough leg room. The lady in front of me seemed to glare at me because my knees were sticking into the back of her chair, but I explained in perfect English that given my height and Wagner's acoustics, this was probably unavoidable. The man behind be kept sticking is toes into my bottom.

The programme notes say that the question everyone asks about this production, to the exclusion of everything else, is "why are the chorus dressed as rats". I think that if you take a nice romantic fairy tale like Lohengrin and dress the chorus as rats (black rats, mostly, but a few white rats, and some pink rats during the love scenes) that is probably what you can expect audiences to focus on. During some of the exposition scenes, they lowered a big cine screen down from the ceiling and illustrated the action with cartoons of rats running down roads, being cut in half, and having crowns inside their heads. This didn't really help very much. They were, I must admit, very good rats: there was much action of them waving their little hands and a quite funny scene in one of the musical interludes where two of them were chased across the stage by people in green environmental suits, possibly intended to be rat exterminators. This is, apparently supposed to emphasis that Lohengrin is a very human opera about the relationships between two human beings, and not a fairy tale about a man from the land of the Grail and a magic swan at all. I mean, I like crazy productions, I like to be challenged and I don't even mind being annoyed, but I actually didn't understand what this was doing. Act one begins with Lohengrin struggling to open some doors on a blank white wall, possibly (if we agree with the programme) representing Time; but the whole of the rest of the act seemed to be set in some kind of laboratory, with the rat-chorus being poked by the exterminators. About half way through (when Lohengrin arrives and every body cheers up) they take of their rat costumes and spend the rest of the act in bright yellow pimp-suits (the rat masks and tales are suspend above the stage on wires.) This made me think of that scene in the Phylida Lloyd ring when the vassals go from being grey riot police to colourful wedding guests? But it wasn't nearly as well done. Possibly we were supposed to think of them as the Common People be experimented on? Lohengrin himself is done fairly straight, he walks on from the back bathed in light, with a swan in a boat (or possibly a bath) being carried by four of the rats. However, the music – particularly the end of the first act when everyone is singing joyfully about how Lohengrin has exonerated Elsa and is going to lead them into battle against the Hungarians (is it Hungarians? Foreigners, anyway) is quite brilliant: as everyone says the Bayreith chorus is on a different level to anything you've heard anywhere else.

(Getting the impression they'd like to me leave the breakfast room and go somewhere else. Efficiently.)

….Resuming in a coffee shop in Richardwagnerstreet. (Stratford doesn't have William Shakespeare Avenue and Measure for Measure villas, does it. I am not going to start doing that thing that people do in epistolary novels: "I am afraid that my host is...is....I can barely say it.....") But I quite definitely have just ordered dark mocha. I did my usual thing of walking straight out of the hotel and finding myself in the mean back streets of Bayreuth, but eventually worked out where I wanted to be. Since Bayreuth is such a legend for us, its funny to think that for the people who live here, its just a place, with a discount supermarket and a sports centre and a disco describing itself as the Number One Partyspot. I think englishspeakingpeople should sooncopy the Germantalkingmethod of wordstogethersticking.

Coffee arrives slurp slurp.

Act Two of Lohengrin is if anything even more grotesque; we start with the baddies (can't be bothered to check spellings of names) plotting in what appears to be the wreakage of a hearse, complete with dead horse. And rats. The producer really likes that trick of moving scenery around the stage on invisible casters. Elsa spends the first half of act 2 in a room within a room, made of mirrors so she is talking to the reflection of herself, and, unfortunately and unintentionally, I assume, the reflection of the conductor. (It really is very strange and special not to be able to see the orchestra or the conductor: you wonder why, when so much else of Wagner's dramaturgy – good word – was copies and taken for granted, I don't think there's anywhere else that hides the orchestra under the floor. The stage is, I think, narrower – certainly more square – than at Covent Garden – but it seems to go back forever.) But the second half of the second act was so pretty that I couldn't really complain about it, even though still don't really follow it. The rats took their costumes off (again) and this time the men rats were in tuxes and the lady rats were in bring pastal coloured lolly pop dresses (they still had tails, though.) The act finishes with Lohengrin and Elsa walking down the aisle to be married in front of a cross. But two of the men in exterminator costumes come and take the cross apart; but Lohengrin takes the pieces and holds them in the air, so you end with Elsa kneeling in front of a cross which Lohengrin is holding.

I had an official festival Bratwurst in the interval.

The enthusiastic man in the bar tells me that Lohengrin (the singer) has been the cause of a controversial argument in the Germany, because his singing is not macho enough for the classic Wagnerian parts; but that if he is too lyrical for Sigmund he makes up for it by being such a good actor. (I didn't get if he was saying that he had actually done straight acting parts, or just that he acted far better than most opera singers too.) Certainly, he had the great otherworldly voice for the big Lohengrin arias, but was very natural and convincing in the love scenes with Elsa. (Although they both suffered from Sad-actor-disease; throwing each other across the stage and at one point Elsa curls up in a fetal ball in the way real people don't.) The chorus actually got rid of their masks altogether; they were wearing military uniforms with swan insignia.

The big question is : how did they do the scene where the swan transforms into Elas's brother? The answer in this case being, they didn't; or rather, he didn't so much transform as, er, hatch. I think everything had been so mad up to this point that all we could do with the ending was to nod and say "aha". When Lohengrin gives his answer to Elsa' question about who he is, there is a large question mark projected on to the back of the stage, which becomes an exclamation mark when he is finished. Subtle. The boat comes back, this time as a large object with a silk covering hanging on it, and a large swan embroidered on the silk. At the last moment, Lohengrin whips the cover off and underneath is, er, an egg. Lohengrin, with I have to say a completely straight face, turns the egg slowly around, and reveals a large male embryo (I take it that it was supposed to be the star-baby from 2001, but by this stage, who knows). The embryo stands up and cuts its own umbilical chord, by which point everyone else on stage, apart from Lohengrin, has dropped dead. I have absolutely no idea.

They really do milk the applause in Europe, don't they. Principles together, principles separately, chorus master, chorus master and chorus....do the orchestra really perform in casual clothes, just because we can't seem them? I somehow assumed they'd be in full evening dress like BBC radio news readers.

There was definite booing from the front rows as the curtain went down, but a proper standing ovation for Lohengrin himself (a few people first off all, and then a few more people, and eventual, everyone, even the England.) I think that's a fair summary, actually, scattered booing for the production, standing ovation for Lohengrin.

The reception just called to say they have a buyer for Tannhäuser, so provided I can find someone for Tristan, you get your money back. It's worth knowing for another year: planning at trip to stay in Bayreuth and look at Ludwig's castles, but with a very good chance of buying tickets on the day. Although if it is true that the festival has loosened up about "the black market" it may be that this won't be as feasible in the future.

There is an exhibition in the grounds of the festspielhaus about Bayreuth and the Jews. Apparently, Wagner himself was quite anti-semitic, Cosima was very anti-Semitic, and Hitler was really not very nice at all. The exhibition is basically photos and biogs of Jewish singers some of whom performed in the early years but were progressively excluded by Cosima and the next generation. Which makes the point quite interestingly.

There is a large queue outside the bookshop opposite the cafe. I am going to go and see if Lohengrin will sign my programme.




NickPheas said...

There is in fact a Shakespear Street in Stratford


Not, I admit, a William Shakespear Street, but it's not like there are any other Shakespears one might confuse the man with.

These captchas are just getting unreadable...

Louise Brown said...

really like this, looking forward to tomorrow already